Sunday, 20 May 2018
Sunday, 13 May 2018
Some time in 2016, while on a trip to our wonderful North Norfolk coast we spotted an Ercol Chair in a vintage shop in Holt. We were attracted to it but the cushions were in the original fabric and needed recovering.
Image of original chair
I decided I could do that. We liked the chair and later spotted a high backed Windsor version on eBay (the initial chair was a low backed Windsor). However, bad luck got in the way of the first two attempted purchases but eventually we found one locally. Again this needed recovering. I have not done upholstery like this before. We decided before we went to the Outer Hebrides in 2016 that we would buy some Harris Tweed for the recovering from my favourite Harris Tweed Shop, Harris Tweed, Isle of Harris in Tabbert (1).
Estimating the amount was difficult, but I guessed as long as I estimated over it would be fine....I could always make something with what was left.
We went to Harris and bought the material which would co-ordinate with the lounge which we were in the middle of decorating. Life got in the way- the decorating took longer, we went to Shetland, I knitted etc so we got to 2017.
By chance I was at DesignerMakers 21(2) in Diss running some natural Dyeing Workshops at the same time as Bethany (3) had a pop up shop with some delightful artwork and some Ercol Chairs like ours that were sprayed shocking pink and white.
One of Bethany’s chairs
When we got home we found out that both of us wondered if our chairs could be sprayed too but in colours to co-ordinate with the Harris Tweed and the redecorated lounge. Bethany was great, there was much colour matching and samples and the chairs went to the sprayer in Bury St Edmunds.
We had one replacement cushion made, the others were all in good condition and I made the covers. This was a big job, we had estimated the amount of fabric needed before buying it. However we needed scale diagrams to get an accurate cutting plan. I took the covers apart to ensure that I cut out the exact size for the cushions. They needed to have no ease so they looked ‘tight’ on the cushions. Zips were purchased from Jaycott’s (3) and I learnt as I went along. Adding the buttons through the back of the upright cushion was the biggest challenge -not counting doing the construction in the correct order. I backed the seat cushions with iron on interfacing (as I do when I sew my own weaving), this came from Gill Arnold (4).
We got photos of the sprayed chairs from Bethany and I was more than pleased with the cushions, wouldn’t it be great (I thought) if we could find a sofa to match and replace our leather sofa. So time for another search on eBay and this time we found one straight away and set off to Essex in the motorhome to collect it.
We did wonder as we got close if we could get to the owner, our van is just more than 2 metres wide and we needed a large detour just as we approached the village. This sofa was in great condition, all new cushions and they had been recently recovered. It did seem a shame to recover the suite but recovering in Harris Tweed was the plan.
I contacted the shop in Harris, sending a sample and crossing my fingers. They had the length and even though this had got close to Christmas 2017, they were sure it would be delivered before Christmas. So a massive parcel of Harris Tweed arrived. The sprayer kept the chairs to get a good match and I came to realise I was committing myself to as much upholstery as I had already done.
This was daunting.
We collected the suite before Christmas and just LOVED what we had had done.
The two chairs were upholstered for Christmas, this is a quick snap of one:
I had a break for Christmas.
Then I set about the task of recovering 4 more cushions. Again the buttoning was the most challenging, but I had already done this twice. I was very glad I had a long weaver’s needle and enough strength in my body to squeeze the cushion whilst pulling the thread though and fastening on the back button.
I was rewarded by their appearance and couldn’t stop looking at them.
The completed suite
We know that Ercol Chairs first show wear on the arm tips...this is where the ones we started with had gone. So I have knitted them fair isle mitts to match the colour scheme and actually feel they add to the look.
Fair isle mitts detail
I have just returned to normal sewing. This time a pair of trousers for myself...which being trousers are proving a challenge of a different sort..this is another story for a later time.
- Harris Tweed from Harris https://www.harristweedisleofharris.co.uk/
- DesignerMakers21 in Diss, Norfolk http://www.designermakers21.co.uk/
- Bethany - the designer of the chairs http://www.illustrationsbyb.com/
- I find Jaycotts have a great selection of zips, in colour, size and type, all at a reasonable price and they deliver quickly https://jaycotts.co.uk/
- I have taken several workshops with Gill Arnold over the years, focused on couture and tailoring. She sells good quality interfacing of all types. http://www.gillarnold.co.uk/
Sunday, 6 May 2018
‘Should I scour the vegetable fibres that I am going to dye with indigo?’ This was the jist of a very sensible question I was asked prior to running an indigo dyeing workshop.
My gut reaction was to say of course it is better to scour. If the question had been asked of wool or another protein fibre such as silk I would have said ‘yes’ without really thinking about it. Lanolin remaining in wool is notorious for forming a barrier and resulting in uneven dyeing. However vegetable fibres have a different structure entirely and I decided to do a controlled experiment - or as controlled an experiment as I could manage - before I replied. I have learnt that it is best to check what you read on the internet and more surprisingly in printed books.
So I took hemp and cotton fibres from the same sources that I had used for a the meadowsweet dyeing experiment. I was pretty sure that the improved uptake of the meadowsweet dye was in part due to the more vigorous scouring the fibres received.
So 2 sets of yarns (hemp and cotton) were prepared:
Set one - to be scoured with washing soda at 100% dry mass of fibre by boiling in the solution for 2 hours
Set two - to be rubbed in a warm washing up solution for 5 minutes to ‘wet’ them.
After this treatment they were rinsed and dipped for one minute in an Indigo bath before being ‘swung’ outside in the air and rinsed as I would normally do and hung up to dry fully.
These are the results:
Reading from the top: hemp not scoured, hemp scoured, cotton not scoured, cotton scoured
2 hours of scouring made no difference whatsoever in the uptake or (initial fastness with indigo).
Of course I do not know how the fibres had been treated before they got to me. But what I do know is how much better they reacted with meadowsweet dye when they had received the more vigorous scouring.
NB Further experiments are being undertaken on the effectiveness of the scouring method with vegetable fibres and non indigo natural dyes.
Saturday, 5 May 2018
I think of myself as a natural dyer, I do quite a bit of it with ANIMAL fibres. If I want to dye vegetable fibres like cotton or linen I have use Procion dyes. However, during a workshop I was running last year I got asked about natural dyeing for vegetable fibres. This was a very apt question as I now live in an area that was, historically, very important in terms of the growth and use of vegetable fibres- namely hemp and flax. I understand that the house I live in was once on land owned by Flaxlands Farm two doors away from my house and that the garden contained a retting pool.
From this discussion I determined to research natural dyeing of vegetable fibres and try and find, or develop, a method of dyeing them that gave the same saturated colours and fastness that I can achieve with wool. Many of the naturally dyed fibres and materials that I saw in my research were very pale and to be perfectly honest I am not interested in these. I wanted something that was vibrant, too many people seem to think that natural dyes only give washed out pastel shades.
So I used my scientific background to take on this challenge. It was essential to consider the chemistry and structure of both the animal and plant fibres. It was here that my ‘old’ textile books came into their own. Different ‘experts’ had their own recipes for scouring and mordanting plant fibres but there was no way of knowing who was just quoting someone else’s method and no explanations of why these methods were noted as being THE way of doing it. For some of the methods I wondered if the author had ever even tried the method before quoting it in print. I have quite an extensive dye section in my textile ‘library’ and used online sources too from open access books, blogs and websites.
The one thing I do know is that I have not discovered THE way of doing it, but I currently have a method that works for me, that I can rationalise and partially understand and I think I can improve on still further.
So I have tried 5 methods of preparing the fibres. I used hemp and cotton from the same sources throughout and each time used the same plant dye liquid extract at the same liquid to dry mass of fibre ratio. I have also dyed wool with the same dye liquid as my standard that I hope to reach with the vegetable fibre dyeing.
I know that in natural dyeing with wool, the scouring of the fibre and mordanting are key to the success of the final dyed yarn. I guessed (and found it to be true) that this is also the case with dyeing plant fibres.
This is the undyed wool and wool dyed with Meadowsweet that I used as comparison
I will summarise each test and show the results obtained:
For Tests 1-3 Scouring
the fibres were boiled in soft water (I used rain water) for an hour and then
the fibres were then boiled in a solution of soap (20%) and washing soda (6%) for 2 hours
The above seemed to be a standard method given by several authors. I presumed that rain water would be better than tap water. Our water is very hard and keeping tap water away from the soap seemed like a good idea. Using washing soda seemed appropriate to try and soften/ break down the cellulose plant cell walls.
For test 1: Mordanting
Alum (25%) and washing soda (6%) were used. I used the timings I often use for mordanting animal fibres of 45 mins to reach boiling point and 45 minutes to boil.
For test 2: Mordanting
Tannin (1%) dissolved in hot water and added to water, then fibres added, timing as in test 1
For test 3 Mordanting
This was time consuming as it was Method 1, followed by method 2, followed by method 1 again.
The actual dyeing:
Both mordanted (methods 1-3 above) fibre types -cotton and hemp were then dyed as along with the mordanted wool.
Meadowsweet (gathered and dye extracted from the plant material 6 months previously) and used at 200% dye to dry fibre ratio.
Image of tests 1-3 and Wool for comparison
I was completely underwhelmed with the plant fibres. However, these results did compare favourably with other available photographs of vegetable fibre ‘dyeing’. I was not satisfied. There had to be a better method, after all for hundreds of years people must have dyed vegetable fibres with natural dyes.
More research was needed. I decided I would need to try aluminium acetate as the mordant. I also intended to use soda ash instead of washing soda in the scouring. I had read that ash from a plant bonfire would be good and carefully saved this. However when added to the pan for the scouring the pH was barely alkaline so I abandoned that.
I had read that three times as much washing soda was needed as soda ash and having considered the chemical formulae of each this seemed sensible as washing soda crystals contain a substantial amount of water. On taking the pH this was giving a very alkaline solution. (Note I was going to boil this liquid so I would be extremely careful that it did not splash on me, and not get near my eyes or mouth) either before, during or after the scouring. )
Test 4 and 5 : Scouring
The washing soda (105% yes a huge increase) was added to the pan of warm water and dissolved. The fibres were added. The pan was brought to the boil and boiled for 2 hours. The fibres were cooled in the pan.
Prior to Mordanting for test 4 and 5 the fibres were soaked in boiled tap water for 2 hours before Scouring - this would soften them.
Test 4 : Mordanting.
Aluminium acetate (10%) was dissolved in hot water and then added to hot water in the pan. The fibres were added and left overnight. No additional heating was used.
The fibres were stirred at least every half and hour for the first three or so hours.
This is the result after dyeing with meadowsweet:
This is much more like it. I was pleased with this result.
Test 5: Mordanting
Tannin (10%) was dissolved in hot water and the fibres were added and left for 2 hours. Then the fibres were mordanted as in test 4.
This is the result of test 5. I was disappointed as the dyeing is not even, but I do know some natural dyers prefer this look.
This is an image of all the fibres together
What I have learnt:
To obtain good results in terms of dyeing with natural dyes for animal (protein) fibres is a labour of love. It is time consuming and needs patience and, in my mind, accuracy to get good and repeatable results. For natural dyeing of plant fibres this is even more true, the added time aspect for plant fibres is significant.
It is possible to dye vegetable fibres with natural dyes and get even, saturated colours that are fast. My favourite method is Test 4. However, I still have a couple of tweaks to make to this method before I am happy and of course I need to try it with more than one dyestuff.
I would welcome comments from others dyeing plant fibres with natural dyes obtained from plants such as I used the meadowsweet here.
Friday, 6 April 2018
The next stage was knitting the tension sample, so I could set the stitch and row figures so that my knitleader (primitive shaping device) would allow me to knit pieces exactly the size I planned. I was aware that there would be a lot of ends to finish afterwards and these would in total come to many metres of yarn, so I wanted to keep the wastage to the minimum. The tension sample was knitted, washed and rested overnight and the following day I could actually start knitting.
Showing knitting in progress and the shaping device
Please don’t be under the misimpression that knitting with a knitting machine ‘just happens’ or is ‘cheating’. It is a very skilled operation entirely different from hand knitting. I was making it even more complex, juggling 8 yarns including changing the background colour over a pattern repeat of 54 rows. I knitted the sleeves one day, the fronts on the next day and the back another day. These were then washed and blocked to size. I have each pattern piece drawn out on a synthetic fine paper like material so I know I will get the exact size I have set out to knit. (I had already done the planning to ensure the sleeves and backs and fronts lined up horizontally and where the sleeves were set in.) I am a lover of fitted sleeves and not the (to my mind) unflattering drop shoulder line and in a fair isle pattern this takes some planning. The neckband is done by a cut and sew technique, which I have also developed a variation of for hand knitting. The front bands also were knitted separately. I factor in spending as long in the making up as the actual knitting.
However, the making up calculation was an underestimate for this project. I split each of the waste yarns at the edges of the knitting and invisibly darned these in. I did a quick estimate of the time for this as I was doing them.... that came to 17 hours. In theory this is not needed when knitting with Shetland Wool as they are very unlikely to work loose. However, I wanted the inside to look as good as the outside.
Lots of ends to hide
Ends hidden, seam basted and machine stitched
Being taught ‘whatever is worth doing is worth doing well’ has stuck since being told this as a child. Once the ends were fastened I basted the edges together by overcasting to match each of the horizontal logwood lines exactly. As always I stitched the pieces together, stocking stitch areas only, with a slight stretch stitch on my normal sewing machine. Ribs were hand stitched from the right side using a version of mattress stitch. Final steaming and pressing was done and voila the Ground Elder cardigan was complete.
Image of me wearing the completed cardigan
It had been a more challenging project than I had initially anticipated but I was pleased with it and best of all, I know I will never meet anyone wearing the same garment.
Many Thanks to Myra Ryan for introducing me to Natural Dyeing and to Helen Reynolds for managing to take a photo of me smiling!
Wednesday, 4 April 2018
The natural dyeing
Now the project could start. I began with picking the Ground Elder, we had a lot in the garden so no problem with that, I used leaves and stems and would be working at 200% to dry weight of yarn. I find the dyeing is most effective if the bits of dyestuff are small and present a larger surface area, so I set about tearing up 880g of ground elder into smaller pieces. I was disappointed that I didn’t actually use much of my total crop in the garden. I soaked the plant material for a couple of nights in rainwater.
A neighbour had given me an old Burco boiler minus the lid. We replaced the ageing wiring and found a large dish meant for standing a large plant pot in would act as a lid. So all the soaked Ground Elder and water was added. I brought this to the boil over approximate 45 minutes and boiled for an hour. I then left it to cool over night.
Now all I needed was a good run of weather as I do my Natural Dyeing outside. I set about skeining the wool which was quite a job as I needed 3 figure of 8 ties in each one. I decided to use acrylic ties in a yarn colour close to the intended version of the Ground Elder that would be their final colour. For example I used a light and dark green as these two shades were in my plan. This turned out to be a very good idea.
I had a lot of yarn to dye and decided to split it into two dye pots. I wanted to ensure there was free movement of the skeins to get the best possible result I could.
Next came the scouring of the yarn (I use washing up liquid of a well known brand) and mordanting using alum and cream of tartar based on my usual recipes.
The skeining of the yarn to be dyed, the scouring and mordanting took a full day.
I then set about dyeing all the yarn to be dyed in strained Ground Elder extract. I had divided this between two pans to allow ample room for movement of the yarn. I heated the yarn up to boiling taking approximately 45 minutes and then left it simmering for the same time. After that I removed the yarn that was to be used as Ground Elder colour and rinsed this a couple of times. It was hung on the line to dry with a knitting machine weight to keep it under some tension, which would keep the yarn straight. I also soaked the ground elder dyed yarn which I wished to lighten in a 4% cold soda and exhaust ground elder solution for 20 minutes. Soda can damage wool, so I checked this every 5 minutes.
I had two colours now:
Light yellow from the ground elder unaltered
Brighter yellow from the addition of soda
While this was happening on dyeing day one, I scoured and mordanted the yarn that was going to be left as off-white. I did this as the yarn is quite oily and I would therefore knit with yarn that had had virtually the same treatment and would give me a better tension.
Tomorrow I would over dye and use additives to get my other 5 colours. The weather was good and I achieved the other colours thus:
Orangey shade - 10% madder solution on to the yellowy would give me an orange shade. Remembering that when wet the yarn is a darker shade, I judged when to remove it.
Dark greyish - 10% logwood, again I judged when to remove the yarn.
Light green - 5% iron sulphate solution was used , this was brought to the boil for 3 minutes
Darker green -more of the 5% iron sulphate solution
Brownish - 5% copper sulphate solution was used.
For the above, the yarn was placed in a pan of exhaust ground elder liquid with the additive dissolved first, before adding the yarn and heating
So including the off white yarn I now had my eight colours. The yarn needed balling ready for the knitting.
Final colours used:
Top row: ground elder on its own, ground elder and madder, ground elder and iron 2
Middle row: ground elder and logwood, off white yarn, ground elder and soda
Bottom row: ground elder and copper, ground elder and iron 1
I designed this to wear at Shetland Wool Week in autumn 2017. It caused quite a bit of interest and I received some lovely compliments from the local knitters whose expertise I value highly. It was suggested that this would be of wider interest and I thought I would describe the story behind it to show that making a unique item is not too difficult and is very rewarding when complete. The yarn is Shetland jumper weight 2 ply (that knits as 4ply ) and comes from Shetland. All except the off white (original colour) is naturally dyed with ground elder from my garden in Norfolk.
Some background about me
I was an avid knitter having learnt to knit (and sew) from my mother before going to school. Attending a Girls Grammar school, I was firmly told by staff that this was the sort of thing you kept for your spare time. I was selected to do ‘science' for GCE as it was then, and therefore went onto a career in science involving chemistry. I did carry on with my textile interests in my spare time. We moved to Cheshire nearly 20 years ago and I joined Clwyd Guild. I was attracted to whole day meetings and workshops on Saturdays. It was here that I was introduced to natural dyeing and my life changed. So I became a scientific natural dyer. Since then I have increasingly used local dye plants and specialised in obtaining as many colours as I wanted from the same plant . You may have seen my apple dyed skeins in the Association National exhibition in 2016.
It was whilst preparing to lead a natural dye workshop using plants from the hedgerow and garden that I decided to do a demonstration set using ground elder (the parts that are above the ground). Ground elder is a prolific plant in the garden we moved to when we returned to live in Norfolk in 2014. So I had a sample set of 6 colours.
Image of initial ground elder dyed skeins
From left to right: Ground Elder on its own, plus copper, plus soda, plus iron, plus madder, plus indigo
I had already designed and knitted a black and white fair isle Cardigan that I wore at a previous Shetland wool week. This was machine knitted as I am rather a perfectionist and like a very professional finish. At the time I told the many people who commented that this was just a practice piece. I intended to knit another using a range of natural dyes and did this to get the fit and the pattern to my liking. The motifs are traditional Shetland fair isle patterns -many taken from Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor (1) but other motifs were included too, including my initials!
Image of my black and white cardigan.
This cardigan was the pattern that I would use for the 'Ground Elder Cardigan'. However, I did not realise at the start how complex a task l had set myself. I needed to know how much yarn of each colour way I would need to dye. All the colours would be dyed initially with Ground Elder, and all except the main colour would then be modified to get the remaining colours. Once I had my yarn initially dyed with Ground Elder there was no room for errors.
Initially I knitted a sample in some similar colours from my vast 'stash'. I intended to miss out the horizontal lines as I assumed they would be too dominant and not use the indigo dyed ground elder as I found this did not ‘go’ as well. In designing being able to be selective can be very important.
However, from the first sample I discovered that the horizontal lines were necessary in the design, so what colour would I make them? More sampling and then tweaking of aspects of the design took several days until I had colour ways I was happy with. I was going to use 3 background colours: off white, ground elder and a lightened version of ground elder. In all I would be knitting with 8 different colour yarns.
Image of samples
Top row: initial sample with no horizontal demarcations, draft sample in ground elder colours, two further samples testing modifications
Bottom row: tension sample of the chosen motifs
Now I only had 2 problems left :
- dyeing these colours from ground elder
- calculating how much of each colour I would need
I didn’t see the knitting or getting the fit right as problems as I already had the black and white cardigan.
I decided to work on the calculation. Initially I calculated how many stitches of each colour were in the sample of one repeat of the pattern - 24 stitches and 54 rows. I then knitted a sample in one colour and worked out how much yarn that took. So in a sample I thought I knew how much yarn would be needed of each colour - I was working in length and weight as a double check. Then reality struck, this was a completely flawed calculation. In fair isle a lot of yarn is carried between stitches and I had to allow for that.Many of the rows were single rows and so yarn would be left at the start and end of the rows.
So I knitted another sample using the same yarn but in different colours and thus this was more exact. By weighing the yarn at the end for each colour I would know the mass of each colour used in the sample. I could then estimate the number of small sample sized pieces needed for the jacket and I would be there. I also took the weight of the sample-I was weighing and measuring everything I could!
My years as a scientist were not wasted, I knew I needed a double check. I weighed the black and white cardigan which included 10 glass buttons which were quite heavy but which did not include so many ‘ends’ as I was only dealing with two colours. I estimated the proportion of the final weight of the sample that was each colour. I decided to add 20% to all final figures as I thought that would be ample but my husband said he didn’t want any last minute panics so I added 30% and was confident I would also have enough over to knit the tension square which was needed to set the sizing for my 40 year old punchcard knitting machine, the Wool Week hat (2) and some other accessories.
1.There are several sources of fair Isle motifs that can be put together to make patterns. The height of the motif and the width are important considerations in planning.
See for example: A Shetland Knitters Notebook Mary Smith, Chris Bunyan; Fair Isle Knitting Handbook Alice Starmore; Fair Isle Knitting Patterns Mary MacGregor, A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers
2. Wool Week takes place for a week at the end of September each year in Shetland. It is a wonderful collection of events and draws people from around the world. Each year the SWW Patron devises a pattern which attendees are encouraged to wear and although there might be 400-600 people there, it is rare to see two hats that are identical. Look at www.shetlandwoolweek.com to see the pattern for 2018 devised by Elizabeth Johnston (the wonderful lady who taught me to spin).