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Let’s talk about Silk

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but not really daring too. It flies in the face of so much of what I see on social media. Silk is almost universally adored for its lustre and softness. It takes a dye beautifully and for that reason is much beloved of hand dyers. And was much beloved of me too for a long time. But then I learned how silk was produced and I no longer see it as desirable.

So, a quick history lesson:

According to Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi (there are multiple spellings of her name), was the first person to discover silk as wearable fibre. There are several variations of this legend, all on a theme. But they generally go like this; the Empress was drinking tea under a mulberry tree, and a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. Or she saw a silk worm spinning it’s cocoon whilst out walking in the palace gardens and thought it would be wonderful to be attired in such a fibre. You get the idea.

©wikipedea.com

What is certain is that someone or a group of someones, three thousand ish years ago, discovered the fibre produced by the Bombyx mori silkworm found living on the white mulberry, and developed what is known as Sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms, and invented the reel and loom.

Initially, silk was worn exclusively by Chinese royalty, but silk cloth spread gradually throughout the China and then into Asia and Europe. Demand for silk in Europe eventually created the trade route now known as the Silk Road, taking silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wool to the East.

The Chinese wished to maintain their monopoly on this lucrative industry and travellers were searched thoroughly at border crossings with anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons, silkworms or even mulberry seeds out of the country were summarily executed. However, eventually silk production did spread, first to Korea, then to India, Japan and Persia. And silk spinning and weaving became widespread throughout Europe. There is an old silk mill quite near to my home although it is currently closed (reopening August 2018).

© Hampshireattractions.co.uk

Why all the fuss?

Silk is a remarkable fibre. In spite of its delicate appearance, silk is relatively hard wearing. Its smooth surface resists dirt and odours. It is wrinkle and tear resistant, and it dries quickly. It is also a surprisingly good insulator so is great added to wool for winter garments and it can be worn as a second layer underneath to warm without being bulky. It can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp so will absorb perspiration while letting your skin breathe, which makes it great for summer garments too. It’s also the most hypoallergenic of all the natural fabrics thanks to its unique structure.

But the real oooh factor for silk is its unique sheen, which means colours radiate and assume a luminescence.

So what is my issue?

I’ll admit it. So far, this post has sounded like an advert for the silk industry. And this is as far as most people want to go when thinking about silk. But my discomfort comes from the way the silk is made. It’s time for a bit of biology. If you can remember back to your school days, and your lessons on the life cycle of the butterfly, the silk worm is very similar, in that, left to its own devices, the silkworm goes through 4 stages.

© kullabs.com

The first stage is the egg. The female silkworm will lay up to 400 eggs in clusters on mulberry leaves. The female dies after egg laying. The eggs hatch into larvae in around 11 days. This larval stage is the second stage. The larvae eat the mulberry leaves and moult 4 times, growing bigger each time they moult. After the final moult, the larva spins a protective cocoon of silk around itself and turns into a pupa. This is the third stage. Nothing appears to happen at this stage but inside the pupa, the worm is undergoing massive changes called metamorphosis, which change the silkworm larvae into the moth. The moth breaks out of the cocoon and flies off to mate and, in the females’ case, lay more eggs and so repeat the cycle.

However, silk production rudely interrupts the cycle at the third stage, when the silkworm is a pupa. If the silkworm is allowed to hatch out of the cocoon, the silk on the cocoon will be broken into short lengths rather than unwinding in a long single strand. This is not helpful when spinning silk. So, the silkworm farmers, kill the silkworm at this stage by placing the cocoons in boiling water. The heat kills the pupae and, happily for the silk spinners, makes the silk fibre easier to unravel. It is said that the silkworms can then be eaten but I have been unable to find much evidence that they actually are eaten other than out of desperation or as a ‘delicacy’ sold to tourists (although if you are a regular consumer of silkworms, I would LOVE to hear from you.)

© squishfibrearts

So, silk production is terminal to silkworms. And this does not sit well with me. I’m not a vegan, or even vegetarian. But, I don’t eat meat everyday and when I do eat meat it is always high welfare and organic, if I can get it. I also use as much of the meat as I can, making stock for soup and risotto from bones and using up all leftovers. I acknowledge that animals have to die so I can eat meat. This does not make me feel warm and fuzzy inside (how could it?) but it’s something I think about, talk to my children about, and keep under constant review. But, I just cannot get comfortable with the idea that an animal had to die in order to give me a lovely lustrous garment, so I can look good. I just can’t look at silk garments and think they are gorgeous. I look at silk garments and see dead silkworms.

Ah, but what about peace silk? Peace silk (sometimes called Ahimsa silk) is produced from cocoons that are collected after the moths have emerged naturally. This all sound soothingly natural and happily non fatal to the silkworm. However, there are no certification authorities for peace silk and it’s entirely possible for conventional silk producers to label their products as peace silk. Additionally there are no welfare standards for peace silk so the silkworms are still potentially subject to mistreatment, by, for example, being forced from their cocoons too early, or forcing the female moths to lay their eggs on trays rather than on mulberry leaves, and putting males into a refrigerator, bringing them out occasionally to mate and then throwing them away when they were no longer able to mate. In my experience, where there is money to be made and no authorities to check, abuses inevitably follow.

My feelings also apply to recycled silk. This is basically the remnants of conventional silk left over from sari manufacture. It’s a nice way to make sure all the silk is used and not wasted but silkworms still died in order to produce it.

So where does this leave me? Well, here is the thing, in relation to woollen garments, I don’t even need silk. In the last few years, silk has been increasingly blended with that most common of breed wools, Merino, because, despite its supreme softness, Merino doesn’t bear much lustre or strength, and silk gives it both of these. This is how I purchased most of my silk (before I felt out of love with Merino – but that’s a post for another day) and I do own a couple of hand knit sweaters in this blend. But, lately, I found myself wondering why I even need my hand knits to be shiny? What’s that all about? In any event, you only need to look to a breed like Wensleydale for softness and lustre.

So, given I don’t need to wear silk, I’m happy to state that I’m not going to stock it in my shop. You will never see me dye pure silk or a silk blend. No more silkworms will die on my account!

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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!

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Shop Opening

Squeeeee!

I’m so excited. I think I might burst.

I have news.

I’ve opened an etsy shop selling my hand dyed wool, and as you can probably tell, I’m a little bit thrilled about it.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but it’s a big leap from wanting to do something to summoning the courage and actually taking the plunge.

But I’ve done it.

I’ve been a big supporter of British food for a very long time, shopping small and local, at farmers’ markets, and at the farm gate, as much as I can. And I made a decision at the end of last year, to further support British farmers, by only buying British wool in 2018. I had a passing thought that this might have the added benefit of curbing the growth of my stash. I assumed there would be limited choice. I now realise just how naive I was. Buying British has opened my eyes to the enormous choice and variety in British wool. And its all just so wonderful, and I’ve been having so much fun dyeing all the different breed yarns, seeing how it responds to the dye, trying out different techniques, that I wanted to share.

I’ve started with two bases, Brazen DK which is 100% Jacob, and Audacious DK which is 100% Wensleydale. Both grown and spun in the UK and all hand dyed in my kitchen in rural West Berkshire. In addition to the 100g skeins, I’ve also dyed some 20g mini skeins in these two bases. These are just about the cutest thing ever. I adore them.

I’ll be introducing new bases and weights over the next few weeks; the ever popular Blue Faced Leicester, and after that, I have plans for Dorset Horn, British Falkland Island’s Merino, then Cheviot, Corriedale and ….. the list goes on and on. I think we are going to have a lot of fun exploring all the different breeds.

So pop over to the shop and have a browse, and let me know what you think. Are there any colours you’d especially like to see? Or any breeds you like me to stock? Please do let me know.