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Dyeing with onion skins

It’s March Meet The Maker over on Instagram and today’s prompt is How It’s Made. I’m making a gorgeous crochet sweater with some Bluefaced Leicester wool which I’ve dyed with onion skins, so I thought I’d explain how to dye your own wool with onion skins.

The first step is to collect your onion skins. I use the onions with the golden skins rather than the ones with the red or white skins. It’s difficult to say how many you will need but I generally find, when it comes to plant material for dyeing, more is more!

When you have an ample amount of onion skins, pop them in some cold water and slowly heat. Don’t be tempted to give it lots of heat to try to speed up the process. You’ll end up with brown. I test how hot the water is getting by holding my hand against the side of the pan. If it’s too hot to do that, you need to turn off the heat. After gently heating for an hour or two, I turn off the heat, wrap the pan in towels to keep in the heat and leave it for 24 hours.

The next day, I assess the colour I’ve extracted. If I think there is more colour in the skins I repeat the slow heating process and leave the dye pan for another day. Once I think the colour is ready, I pour the mixture through a nylon sieve to remove the soggy onion skins. Leave the skins to drain over the dye pan for a few minutes to catch every last precious drop of colour.

In the meantime, soak your wool in some water for at least a couple of hours. I have slightly acidic water so add a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda to the water to make it slightly alkaline. I also add the bicarbonate of soda to the dye water.

Then I mordant the yarn. This is a step you could skip at home as onion skins produce tanin which acts as a natural mordant. However, as I’m dyeing to sell, rather than my own use, and I want to make sure the colour really lasts, I use alum at around 7-8%. This means 7-8 grams of mordant to 100g of yarn.

Once your yarn is thoroughly wetted, add it to the dye mixture in the dye pan and gently heat again and leave to absorb for 24 hours. If you are using a non super wash yarn, be very careful about moving the yarn about in the warm water as it might felt. You can be more confident once the water has cooled again. You might need to repeat this process a few times to get a good colour. Bear in mind a goodly amount of the colour might run out when you rinse.

Once you are happy with the colour on the yarn, rinse in cool water and leave to dry out of direct sunlight. Then enjoy your natural colour!

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Unravel 2019

A week from today, I will be showing my yarn, for the first time, at Unravel, at The Maltings in Farnham.

I can’t tell you how excited I am. For the last few months, I have been naturally dyeing up a storm in my cottage kitchen, trying new to me colours, new to me techniques, endlessly experimenting and learning. I have just one indigo vat to go and I’m ready.

I have also designed three hats to compliment the special qualities of my Saucy Dorset Horn DK yarn (300m/100g) and these patterns will be launched at the show. All three patterns are inspired by my west Cornish ancestry and our family visits to Sennen Cove, a small fishing village about a mile up the coast from Land’s End.

The first of the hats is Gommon, which takes name and its inspiration from the seaweed, thrown up onto the sandy beach, by the wild seas of winter. My children just love the curious, other worldly, shapes of the seaweed. The stitch used in the hat is a super stretchy mix of knit and purl, and an initially nerve wracking, but quickly satisfying, yarn over and drop stitch repeating pattern, ideally suited to the grippy quality of Dorset Horn wool.

The second of the hats is named Hasen (the Cornish word for seed) and is named for the myriad dried seed heads found, in late summer, in the sand dunes above the beach by the tiny hamlet of Vellandreath, about a mile along the sandy bay from Sennen Cove. My ancestors and wider family, lived in three of the seven small cottages at Vellandreath for generations. My mother, when she was alive, told me vivid stories of visiting her great grandparents there, so it’s a very special place for me. It’s wonderful to linger in the dunes, toes in the soft sand, looking for snail shells and listening to the sounds of busy insects and the gentle breeze rustling the dried seed heads. Hasen is a super stretchy rib hat, with an easily memorised twist, and a pretty bobble brim.

Finally, on the cliff path from Sennen Cove to Land’s End, where the land meets the sea, magnificent cliffs of granite endure against the wind and salt spray of the pounding Atlantic waves. These cliffs, and the submerged rocks nearby, have claimed many ships, and are the inspiration for Kleger, the last hat in this short series, which combines simple knit and purl stitches to create a super stretchy, cosy hug of a hat.

If you are visiting the show, I’d be thrilled if you came to say hello. I will be upstairs, in the Barley room. I look forward to meeting you.

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Woah for woad

Last week, a friend of mine asked me what woad was. I tend to wander about thinking that everyone has the same information stored in their heads as I do, so am surprised when they don’t.

The short answer is, historically, it is the European source of the blue dye called indigo.

History in Britain

It has a long history of human cultivation and has been grown in Europe since the Stone Age.

Boudicca and the Iceni tribe in East Anglia used woad to colour their faces and, some accounts say, their bodies, before going into battle and in the north, the Picts painted their bodies with woad. Interestingly, it was the Romans who coined the name “Picts” as the word means “painted” in the Celtic language.

As anyone who has ever inadvertently put an ungloved hand in a woad or indigo vat knows only too well, that colour just loves skin. It’s not something your hand will let you forget in a hurry and, for several days, it will leave people who don’t know you well, wondering if you are a smurf in training, or auditioning for a part in an Avatar sequel. So, I’m guessing, this persistent characteristic is one of the reasons why the ancient Britains used it.

Another reason may be that woad can be used as an antiseptic and it may have been used to help to heal the more minor wounds of battle.

Cultivation and Processing

I have been doing quite a lot of reading around how to grow and cultivate woad as I have some seeds to plant next spring.

Woad is grown as an annual, so it is planted and harvested in one year. The leaves give the colour and are chopped up into a paste and shaped into balls. These balls are dried out, and then crushed into a powder. The powder is wetted and allowed to ferment. Once it has dried out again, the fermented powder is added to a vat of urine (or potash). And fermentation continues for another 3 days. Then, the vat is ready to dye your wool, fabric, hands, faces and any other body part.

The process can be speeded up these days through the use of sodium dithionite, instead of the urine vat.

But, the thing that astonishes me, every time I think about it is, how did ancient people’s figure it out? There just feels like too many steps, to have stumbled upon it accidentally. I have such regard for ancient dyers who must have been great experimenters and highly observant.

Woad whiff

Woad is a bit smelly. Actually extremely smelly when it is fermenting. I can attest to this personally as, in the heat of summer I left a mini skein I had rather unsuccessfully tried to over dye with woad, in a little water, in a bowl in my studio, for a little too long, while I pondered what to do with it. I tried washing away the whiff, without success and even though I then moved it directly to the wheelie bin outside, the smell lingered for ages. Weeks later, I thought I kept getting an occasional whiff of it, although that may have just been my imagination.

I can wholeheartedly sympathise with Queen Elizabeth I, who refused to allow it to be cultivated near her palaces because of the smell!

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Natural plant dyeing

So, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been trying out natural plant dyes. And it’s been really good fun. There is something amazing about watching the dye seep out of plant matter and then see it transfer onto your wool.

I’ve tried to do this before – without much success but following a chat with Rita from Hedgeknits at Flockfest, I decided to give it another go. Rita recommended I buy some litmus papers so I could test the pH of my tap water. We live in a hardish water area and have a water softener and it hadn’t occurred to me this would have an impact on my dyeing result, but, low and behold, it did.

What’s your pH?

So, for most plant based dyes, a gentle alkaline medium is best. If I’ve totally thrown you by that statement, panic not! Your water can be made acidic, neutral or alkaline, depending on what is added to it. So first up, fill a pan with water and test it with litmus paper. Litmus paper comes in little strips and you simply dip a strip in your water and it changes colour to tell you the pH. You compare the colour to the chart that comes with the papers. My litmus paper was yellow (it comes in other colours) and so, yellow is neutral, orange through to red is acidic, and green through to blue is alkaline. You are aiming for mid green.

Now it’s time to raid the larder. If your water is acidic or neutral, you’ll need to add bicarbonate of soda to make it more alkaline. If its much too alkaline, then you need to add white vinegar or citric acid, to bring it back more towards neutral. My water is only very slightly alkaline and this probably accounted for my previous natural dyeing failures, so I added some bicarbonate of soda, a spoonful at a time, testing after each spoonful, until I got a good green on the litmus paper.

Making the dye solution

Once you have a gentle alkaline ph, pop in your plant material. In my case, I used avocado pits and skins. I’d been saving these up for a while – each time we ate an avocado, I’d wash the stone and skins in cold water to get any remaining flesh off , leave them to dry, split the stone with a heavy sharp knife (keeping fingers and thumbs well out of way) and then pop it all in the freezer. Once I had the stones and skins of 6 or 7 avocados, and was ready to dye, I took the box out of the freezer to defrost. Once defrosted, I added the stones and skins to my water and gently heated it on the hob. Pretty quickly the stones began to exude the most gorgeous pink colouring. I simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes, then left it for a couple of hours to cool. Then I strained the dye solution, discarded the stone and pits and put the dye solution back in the pan.

Soaking the wool

Meanwhile I soaked my wool in some more water until it was thoroughly saturated. I also soaked some wool in some water with added bicarbonate of soda (remember my tap water isn’t very alkaline) and this did result in a slightly stronger uptake of colour.

The very great advantage with dyeing with avocados is that you don’t need to mordant your fibre before you dye. This is because are high in tannin. A mordant is just a chemical agent that helps the dye stick to the fibre.

Dyeing!

To dye, I simply placed the wool into the pan containing the dye solution (making sure there was enough liquid to cover the wool), gently heated again to simmering point, turn off the heat and leave to cool (leave over night for a deeper colour, if you have the patience), rinse the wool and Voilà!

More experimentation

After my avocado success, I repeated the process with dock leaves. These produce the most wonderful bright yellows through to golden browns depending on heat, pH and whether or not I’d mordanted the wool with alum or just soaked it in water.

I’d say a willingness to experiment and allowing in some serendipity – not having a shade or tone fixed in your mind – are key to successful natural dyeing. It’s better to love what you produce rather than feel dissatisfied when your results don’t match your expectations.

There is also a beautiful subtle quality to the colour of naturally dyed yarn. Because the tone is generally more muted than those produced from acid dyeing with synthetic dye (see my blog post here about starting to acid dye) they seem to naturally co-ordinate with each other. I can see that there will be lots more natural dyeing in my future.

I think I’ll try nettles next (but I need rubber gloves and some copper sulphate first), then coffee, rose, and onion skins, and lots, lots more!