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!
Today’s prompt for March Meet The Maker is Workspace Tidy/Mess. I don’t currently have a dedicated workspace but I have plans!
Our house is old. It’s adjacent to the mill race in the heart of the old village on the river Pang in Bradfield, Berkshire. There were three mills mentioned in Bradfield in the Doomsday book in 1086, so there has been continuous habitation on the site for at least a millennium, but probably much longer.
The house has a timber frame (so lots of beams especially the further up the house you go) and it now has a brick skin. It has big Georgian sash windows at the front (facing east. Brrrr!) but you can see from the brickwork that these aren’t the original windows. We don’t know much about the house before it was the miller’s residence in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the start of the 20th Century, the house was a bakery and beer shop. It was around this time that our two stall stable, cart house and tack room were built. By 1955 the house was the general village store and a cafe. The shop closed in 1984 and the house became a private residence. We’ve lived here since 2009
We did a lot of work to the house when we first moved here. Think rising damp to head height and nests of slugs, woodlice and rats and you won’t be too far from reality. Thankfully, that’s all long gone. The house is listed but most of the original features had been swept away in a sea of concrete subfloors and modern plaster. All that had to go. In came a new limecrete subfloor with underfloor heating and more lime was used to replaster the walls (together with miles and miles of split chestnut lathes).
We now have clay paint on the walls and a mix of oak boards and flagstones on the floors. As the house is old, it has mostly small cosy rooms. The kitchen and dining room is the one exception to this. A small oak frame and glass extension added when renovating gives us a lovely view of the garden from the dining table and great entertaining space.
So far as my workspace goes, last summer I was out in the stables. The window faces southwest so has gorgeous afternoon light. However, the roof sprung a leak this winter and we are currently waiting on listed building consent to sort that out, so I’ve moved into the house. My dye pots are in the utility room, the wool is dried in the cupboard which houses the hot water tank and the underfloor heating manifold, undyed wool is in plastic crates in the study, dyed wool is in plastic crates in the dining room. So, yes, it’s kind of taking over the house. Fortunately, I have a very tolerant husband.
Most of my “dry” work is done at the dining room table. This is where I pack my orders, wind my wool and generally do my admin. This table is also the centre of our family’s life; it is where we eat, where the children do their homework, colouring, make models, Christmas and birthday cards and roll out play dough. So, there is a lot of tidying up between activities, which, when I’m trying to work, is less than ideal. Also it makes working quite chaotic during the school holidays when we are all wanting to use the table at the same time.
So plans are afoot! One of our cosy rooms is a “study” which currently houses my husband’s computer, the piano and myriad of other stuff that doesn’t seem to have a home anywhere else in the house. My husband has a huge antique desk with a beautiful tooled leather top, but we’ve both come to the conclusion that it is far too big for the little room. So, in the next day or two it will go up for sale. We are planning a long slim table along the full length of the wall opposite the window which will provide a place for me to pack orders, and will house my wool winder and swift, as well as my sewing machine and overlocker.
However, these grand plans involve us moving the piano. As you may be aware, moving a piano is not a casual undertaking. I’ll keep you posted as to how that goes.
In my last blog post, I promised you some detail on the stratified (layered) system employed by sheep farmers in Britain. The vast majority of wool grown in Britain grows as a by-product (or, too often, sadly, as a waste product) of the meat industry. So this post is less about wool production and more about meat production, but it’s useful as a basis for understanding why we have so many different sheep breeds in Britain. The stratified system is vital for keeping British farming productive and efficient, as it enables all the nation’s land to be used in meat (and consequently, wool) production.
It is a system more or less unique to Britain and derives from our small geographic size, varied climate and the terrain, broadly broken down into three levels; hill, uplands and lowlands.
Hill areas have harsh climates, short growing seasons, relatively poor quality of soil and long winters. Think of areas such as the highlands and islands of Scotland, and the mountain areas of Wales.
The sheep who live on the hills are incredibly hardy and thick-coated. They are excellent mothers (often lambing outside without assistance, attentive and devoted to their lambs, rich in milk etc), and are generally well adapted to living in the harsh hill conditions.
Examples of these breeds include Swaledale, Scottish Blackface, Cheviots, Rough Fell, Dalesbred, Derbyshire Gritstone, and Herdwick.
On the hills, these sheep are pure breeding stock. That is to say, Swaledale ewes are only bred with Swaledale tups, producing 100% Swaledale lambs. Female lambs who are not being kept for breeding and wether (castrated male) lambs live on the hills until the grass stops growing in autumn and are then sold on to upland and lowland farms to be fattened up for meat.
The ewes kept on the hills for breeding usually lamb for the first time when they are 2 years old. They will usually have a single lamb each year for the next 3 to 4 years. At this point, if they are kept on the hills, their reproductive ability generally declines. However, if they are moved to better land, off the hills, where the climate is less harsh and the grazing is a bit more nutritious, such as the upland areas, they will often grow bigger and have plenty of breeding life left. The improved nutrition enables them to produce twins and sometimes triplets, rather than the singleton lambs they produced on the hills.
So, as I said, conditions on the uplands are less harsh than on the hills. However, while the land and soil do produce more nutritious grass than on the hills, it is still not hugely productive. The uplands include areas of Northern England, such as The Pennines and Lake District, and also in the South West, on Dartmoor and Exmoor.
Our pure bred hill ewes will be bred with a Longwool tup, such as Bluefaced Leicester, Border Leicester, Teeswater, Wensleydale, and Devon & Cornwall Longwool. For each breed of Hill sheep there is a preferred Longwool crossing tup. For example, Swaledale ewes are generally crossed with a Bluefaced Leicester tup. Their resultant off spring are known as Mules or half breeds.
These Mules inherit hardiness, milking and mothering abilities from their mothers and fecundity (the ability to produce an abundance of lambs), larger size and conformity (shape of the carcass), and lustrous wool from their fathers.
It is interesting to note that lambs with Longwool mothers and Hill sires do not make good Mules, often possessing neither good maternal attributes nor good size or conformity.
Once they are weaned, ewe Mule lambs are transferred to lowland farms for breeding and male Mule lambs are reared for meat production, either in the uplands or on a lowland farm.
The lowlands are, not surprisingly, the low lying areas of Wales and England, mostly in central and eastern England where soil is far more productive than on the hills of the uplands, and therefore mostly turned over to arable (crop) farming. Sheep are part of arable field rotations, where fields that have grown crops for a number of years are sown with grass to help improve the soil, aided by sheep poop. This is the landscape I live in.
Our Mule ewes will be bred with what is known as a lowland terminal sire breed. Terminal because this is the last breeding in the stratified system. Lowland terminal sire breeds include Texel, Suffolk. Charollais, Clun Forest, Romney, and Oxford, Hampshire and Dorset Down.
Mule ewes generally reliably produce two lambs each year, but triplets are common and quads are not unusual. These lambs grow fast on their mother’s rich milk and, once they are weaned, the easier terrain and conditions, better grass growth and their larger frame inherited from the terminal sire, mean that these lambs grow faster and produce more meat in less time.
I’ve mentioned the fattening up of the lambs a few times in this post so I thought it was worth quickly explaining what this term means. The word fat here doesn’t refer to fat but actually means the point at which the muscle on the animal is fully formed. It is the muscle which is valuable in the meat industry.
A sheep carrying fat in addition to its muscle isn’t a good thing for a farmer because, generally, they’ll be less successful in breeding.
I hope this has provided an insight into why we have such a large number of sheep breeds in Britain. In writing this blog post I’ve relied on information from the National Sheep Association and from the excellent book Counting Sheep – A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling. I will be taking a more detailed look at some of the breeds mentioned in this post in future blog posts so, do follow the blog so you don’t miss them.
You’d be surprised how often I hear this sort of statement. I always really, really want to ask the person making the statement what manner of material they think merino is. But I am usually too polite to do this and just say something like “Oh that’s a shame”.
I do understand. I really do. I totally get it that if you live in a centrally heated house, and are going to wear your sweater, like the magazine and pattern models do, next to your bare torso, you’ll need it to be knitted with something that doesn’t constantly prickle you. I get that. I was a child in the 1970s so I know the torment of 100% wool polo neck sweaters from those days.
But the reason why I think “oh that’s a shame” when someone tells me they can only wear merino, is that I believe they are missing out. We have such a rich heritage of wool in Britain, bourn out of a temperate climate and varied landscape (72 different breeds of sheep!), that it’s a pity they can only wear a product almost entirely imported from the Southern Hemisphere.
Whilst there are a very small number of Merino sheep in the UK, the odds are, any merino you currently have in your wardrobe, comes from Australia (circa 80% of global production comes from this country), South Africa (c10%), South America (c7% of which the majority is from Argentina) and New Zealand (c3%). British merino doesn’t even feature in global merino production statistics. In short, British Merino is a very rare thing indeed.
So, what of our rich wool producing heritage? Why does it matter that we have a temperate climate and varied landscape? Simply put, sheep breeds are specially adapted to survive in the varied climatic conditions found throughout the UK; the hardy hill sheep is a very different animal to the pampered lowland sheep. I’m intending to write a blog post explaining the stratified system of sheep farming and how efficient it is in terms of land management and when I do you’ll find it here. Those climate and landscape adaptations are reflected in the wool the animal produces, with some wools being much warmer than others; Ryeland, for example, is particularly toasty. Some wool, like Dorset Horn, has springiness so is good for hats and socks where a degree of natural elasticity is a boon. Some, like Blue Faced Leicester and Wensleydale have a beautiful lustrous, almost silk like, quality to their wool and drape beautifully. Some, like Shetland, have a natural toothiness (where the fibres cling together), which makes it excellent for colour work. Some, like Jacob, are incredibly hard wearing, without being rough, meaning you’ll get years of use from any garment knitted in such a fibre. Jacob is excellent for things that are not going to be treated kindly, like Dad and Brother hats (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m referring to my relatives here. Your male relative may well be much more concerned for their apparel than mine).
Wool craft, at its most elemental, is about taking a natural resource, and turning it into a useful garment. Choosing a wool with appropriate qualities for the garment in question is as essential an element to its success as picking the correct weight of yarn and achieving the correct tension, but this aspect is so often overlooked. If, for example, you choose Merino for your socks, without the addition of nylon, you are going to find them fairly short lived. But Blue Faced Leicester is still smooth enough to be worn by most people against the skin and when it is spun with a high twist, it will cope with wear very well, without needing nylon. And for tougher socks, like walking boot socks, or welly boot socks, why not consider a Dorset Horn or Jacob.
Once you understand this, the idea that you would only ever consider using one type of wool for all garments seems nonsensical.
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So, if you’ve only ever knitted with merino, but want to explore further and enhance your knitting experience, what do you do?
My advice is always to first try Blue Faced Leicester. This is the softest of our British breed wools and isn’t a huge challenge if you’re used to Merino. If you are ok with that, then next, maybe try a Cheviot, or a Ryeland wool.
When you are at a wool show, don’t be overly guided by how the wool feels in the skein. How the wool feels when it’s in the skein is almost irrelevant (unless your thing is just to adorn yourself with the skeins, and then who am I to judge?). The important thing is how it feels when it’s been worked, so ask to feel a sample of the knitted or crocheted fabric. Hold the sample against your skin to warm it up. Even if there is an initial sensation, it usually passes after a minute or two once the fibre has warmed. And believe me, yarn dyers would much rather you rubbed your make up all over the sample than all over a skein, if you are wanting to test irritability!
Don’t get too fixated on knitting a garment with a new to you breed or dyer. Maybe just buy a single skein and knit a swatch. Then wash, block and wear the swatch (under your bra strap or in the waist band of your skirt, on your hip, or under your jumper on your wrist), then wash block and wear again. It’s only after repeated washing and wearing that you’ll know how your skin reacts to the wool. Louise Scollay at Knit British has an excellent regular Wool Exploration section on her podcast and this is an abbreviated version of the method she suggests. Check out the Wool Exploration episode from 30th December 2018 for a detailed explanation.
Once you know how the wool works for you and how it feels texture wise after washing and wearing, you’ll know what sort of garment it is suited to, and can then invest in a suitable pattern and quantity of yarn.
Finally, you might also like to check out The Woolist for more information of all the different breed woods. Zoe’s story really is rather wonderful and her online database of sheep and fleece is an amazing resource. You also really need one of her sheep breed tea towels in your kitchen.
At this point every year, I start to experience feelings of sadness at the passing of a year, but excitement at the prospect of the start of a new one. This is, of course, ridiculous, as very little will change at midnight in the 31st December. Despite any resolutions I may make, I will still wake up on 1st January 2019 as fundamentally the same person I was in 2018. So will everybody else.
I realise that this might not be a popular view point and I might be on the receiving end of a few Bah Humbug! comments for saying this but, most of what we do, is done habitually, and habits take lots of time and attention to change, and so, no matter what I resolve, I’m strongly suspecting I won’t be much different in February 2019 than I was in November 2018.
It seems to me, the making (and breaking) of New Year’s resolutions has become just another opportunity to spend money. In recent days, I have been urged to join gyms, start expensive diet plans and even “get my workout wardrobe in shape”.
This last one is particularly ludicrous. I seriously question why anyone would want to buy a lot of expensive gym wear before starting a new exercise regime. Yes, I know it can be confidence boosting to have nice new things. But it’s unlikely that you are going to be half way through your exercise session and desperate to take a rest but think “No! I must not stop. My workout wardrobe is in shape…”.
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So 2018 was a very mixed year for me. My family ended 2017 to the news that my Mum, after many years fighting against an incurable cancer, was at the end of her life. Her bone marrow had failed and whilst the wonderful NHS would do all they could with blood transfusions and antibiotics to keep her going, she wasn’t going to stage a miraculous recovery. So we all knew that 2017 was going to be her last Christmas with us and, whilst we tried to keep to the same family traditions, it was all unbearably sad.
She hung on, weary and in pain, with ever increasing amounts of time in bed and in hospital, until April. It was horrible to see her, once so vibrant and such a force within our family, become so diminished. The end, when it finally came, was, mercifully, very quick.
I miss her greatly. I always will.
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It’s hard to go from that to an upbeat “Yay! I launched my yarn dyeing business” announcement but that is basically what happened. I’d been wanting to do it for a while, and I talked about my plans with Mum, but then put life on hold while she was really unwell. In a peculiar way, her passing was just the boot up the bum I needed to get on with it. Life is dismayingly short, so do more of what you love, has become my motto of sorts.
I’ve been lucky enough to have the time to learn how to naturally dye with plants. Even though I know it is really only chemistry (and, for the first time ever, I really do wish I’d paid more attention in ‘O’ level chemistry), it feels like there is something magical about dyeing wool with plant colour, using some of the same techniques our ancestors did for thousands of years (see here for my post about dyeing with woad). I love the slow mindfulness of the process; growing or foraging for plant material, extracting the dye from it, sometimes over many days, and then encouraging that colour to stick onto the wool, with just enough heat, but not too much. Some of my most beautiful colours were achieved during the heat of the summer, when I just left the dye pot out in the heat on our patio, for the whole day. Serendipity has a big part to play in the process, and I’ve learned to embrace and love it.
And this has changed me more than any resolution I have ever made. Years spent as an accountant, in thrall to a timesheet and billing, meant I used to be all about getting to the end point as quickly as possible. The end product was the most important thing. The process was just something to be got through or endured. But, being forced by nature to wait for results, has made me enjoy the process so much more. And not just with my yarn dyeing but with my knitting, baking, and even, dare I say it, chores too.
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Those of you who follow me on Instagram or Facebook may know that I’m exhibiting my wares at Unravel in February (for details, see here). As a newbie, I’m very grateful to them for affording me the opportunity to come along. Planning for this has been in full swing for ages. as it takes a long time to prepare for a big show using natural dyes, and especially when you have just one (overworked!) dye pot, so I’m hoping I can do justice to the opportunity. Please do come and say hi if you visit the show.
So, I’m starting 2019 both excited and nervous about Unravel and not really able to think about much beyond it. So, I shan’t be making any resolutions at this stage. I’ve planned a period of quiet assessment at the end of February, and that’s as far as I can go with my head as full as it currently is.
And, this is my point (and, if you are still reading, well done for hanging on in there!), you don’t need it to be 1st January to make changes. Clear a tiny bit of head space, identify the things you love, and do more of them. Do them with care. Enjoy the process of the doing.
And please don’t, even for a moment, think you need to get your workout wardrobe in shape.
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 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!
I know that many of you are sad that the fabulous gals behind Wovember aren’t running it as an organised campaign any longer. However, knitters and crocheters are still celebrating all the woolly goodness this month and, in recognition of that, I have a coupon running for 25% off all my non naturally dyed British wool. If you click here the coupon should be automatically applied when you checkout.
Coupon runs until I decide to stop it, or the stock runs out. Naturally dyed yarn is NOT included in the coupon offer.
Last week, I was talking to a very experienced knitter about different breeds of wool and I casually made a comment about the characteristics of a particular breed wool. She asked me what I meant, so I explained, but at the same time it occurred to me that I’ve done very little to record my knowledge on the different characteristics of each of the breed yarns I stock, and that this knowledge might actually be helpful to other knitters.
So I’ve resolved to do a little write up for each of the breed wools I stock. This is the first one.
Jacob sheep have a very distinctive fleece with patches or spots of dark coloured wool on a white wool background. The breed is thought to be one (or at least related to one) of the oldest breeds, probably originating in The Middle East around 4,000 years ago. There are examples of spotted sheep in ancient Egyptian art and there is also a bible story which attempts to explain how the distinctive coloured fleece came into being.
The breed first came to Britain in the 17th century as an ornamental sheep to graze in the deer parks surrounding stately homes, and consequently they don’t form part of the U.K. stratified sheep farming system (more on this to come in a future post) but with the changes to society after the First World War, many flocks disappeared and by the 1960s, there were very few Jacob sheep left in the UK. However, a small number of dedicated breeders and enthusiasts formed the Jacob Sheep Society in 1969 and saved the breed from extinction.
Their fleece makes Jacob sheep one of the most easily recognisable breeds of sheep. They always have horns, either two on top of the head, or four as worn by this formidable fellow.
They make good mother’s, who have a high lambing rate (commonly having twins) and generally easy births. They are also hardy and long lived, so they easily over winter outside and attract few disease problems. Their good health means they can rear lambs for a long time; 7 years or more is not uncommon.
As I’ve already mentioned, Jacob sheep have a variety of colours in their coat, from creamy white through to dark brown/black. The colours appear in well defined patches so it’s possible to sort the fleece into light and dark, and also to blend the yarn to give graduated shades of the natural yarn.
The individual fibres of the fleece are quite thick, with a good degree of springiness and a staple length of between 75mm to 180mm (3 inches to 7 inches) . The micron count varies from 25 to 27.5 for fine fleece to 30 -33 for regular fleece.
The thicker individual fibres mean the fleece isn’t generally suitable to be spun into lace weight yarn but it works particularly well spun into a double knit or aran weight yarn. It is these two weights which I stock in my shop.
Jacob’s wool takes the dye beautifully with the potential for a nice tone and a good depth of colour. The wool is crisp, but not scratchy, and smooth rather than fluffy. These characteristics make the yarn very versatile and it can be knitted and crocheted into a wide variety of items, from blankets, to sweaters and hats. I have a sweater in Jacob wool and find it very comfortable and warm. I don’t tend to wear my sweaters next to my skin (preferring a layer underneath) but I don’t notice any discomfort around my neck or wrists where the wool touches bare skin.
I’ve heard it said that it probably isn’t suited to baby clothes and I’d tend to agree with this. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to use my Jacob base for my children’s clothes, especially if it’s not intended to be worn next to the skin, for example sweaters etc.
Fabric produced in Jacob’s wool is hardwearing with very little piling. Additionally the garments retain their shape when hand washed and dried flat (no stretching or shrinking). These qualities mean that any garment made from Jacob’s wool will be long lasting, which is a quality I’m especially keen on as larger garments generally take a lot of knitting, so I’d like them to last, more or less, forever.
It’s extremely difficult to felt Jacob’s wool, which is a commendable feature, should your hand knits inadvertently end up in the washing machine, as mine do from time to time. However this does mean the wool wouldn’t be useful for items that require a degree of felting such as slippers or bags.
I have also found that it holds its shape well whilst being knitted, so if your needle should accidentally slip out of a few stitches, they tend to stay in place awaiting the needle again, rather than running away down the fabric. The wool also takes frogging and reknitting well. This makes it a good learners wool.
My Jacob’s wool base is called Brazen and is available in both double knit and aran weight here.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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!
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!