Saturday, 14 May 2016

Dyeing with madder, indigo/woad and weld

Here I am discussing it's place in history and my 'take' on this!

I am referring to dyeing wool yarn, but silk could also be dyed the same way.

 These are examples created for a dyeing workshop I led:

Dyes used are from the top: weld ; indigo ;  madder

                                          weld + indigo; initial yarn; madder + indigo

                                          weld+madder; indigo+tin; weld + copper

With these three dyes it is theoretically possible to get all the other colours of the spectrum. It is even possible to grow your own weld, madder and woad to make the process more sustainable and authentic. This is just what I love doing.

Here I will discuss the early relevance of these dyes and their link to the textile industry in Norwich. Why Norwich - well it is my town ( as far as the post office is concerned) but more importantly Norwich has a rich textile - and dyeing- history dating back over many centuries. Norwich and the surrounding area became extremely important in the Middle Ages and Medieval times - textiles being one of ( or THE main) industry leading to the city being the second city of the country.

The history of dyeing is fascinating and appeals to my scientific background. However, there are few records, textiles in general degenerate with time. Written records are also few and far between, dyers were master craftsmen and guarded their methods, often keeping the information in their heads. Also life was far from simple, there were many complications like wars that got in the way. However, I have had a good stab at verifying what follows and I hope you find it is interesting.

It is impossible to know when humans first dyed yarn. Dyeing is likely to have been discovered in different parts of the world at different times. Dyes are said to have been used in China in 6000 BC, but accounts of dyeing in Europe are found to (only!) go back to 1400BC. However, with developments in archaeological technology the dates get pushed back further.


Anyone who does any natural dyeing will know that many plants yield a yellow colour when dyeing. Many of these fade with keeping. Weld give a good yellow colour and also this is less fugitive(1) than many plants. It grows easily in sandy soils so can cope with hot dry conditions quite well and needs very little looking after. However, as with all plant dyes, the conditions it is grown in do affect the quality of the dye!
Pliny wrote about weld as a dye in AD 23 and it remains a useful yellow dye today. It is the simplest to use.
I usually boil up the plant material ( top of the plant) and strain it before adding scoured and mordanted yarn to the bath. If I am going to overdye to get orange ( with madder) or green with indigo I dye the yarn yellow with the weld first. Photo shows weld being added to madder overdye


There are records of this being known as a dye material since 1500BC and material dyed with madder was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Madder contains the dyestuff alizarin. We know it was grown in Central Asia. Recipes for using the dye have been found on a cuneiform tablet ( 1900 BC) and papyrus (about 1100BC). In Norwich, there is an area called the Maddermarket to this day implying that trade for it was important in the city. This implies that much of the madder used was imported and not grown locally. We know that Norwich had good trade links with Europe and countries bordering the North Sea up to the Baltic. In medieval times an area of Norwich was noted for Master Dyers and  is close to the River Wensum. This would have provided the necessary source of water. Red was a colour worn by the nobility, noted as the colour of power up to the middle of the 16th century and so important in cloth finishing in a wealthy city like Norwich.

Anyone who has handled madder will know it is the root that leaves a red mark on the skin! But we can only guess how it was discovered that madder works best below boiling point of the dye bath, but even early fragments of cloth dyed with madder give the impression that this was known. Besides fresh root, both chopped up root and powdered madder are available today. Using the powder, in particular, allows 'solutions' of known concentration to be made and thus the colour can be more or less repeatable. (2)

Indigo / woad

I have put these two dyes together because woad contains indigo, it is just that it is in a much less concentrated form and could be why wool dyed with woad is often shown a paler blue than that dyed with indigo. Indigo is first noted as coming from India. The leaves are used but extracting and using the dye can't be done as easily as with weld.
Again it is interesting to speculate how the method evolved, but as the materials available were plants, animals and minerals in soil it must have been chance or trial and error - early science.

Indigo is insoluble so trying to dye by boiling the leaves with water won't work! The dye needs to be dissolved in alkali and with a reducing agent this forms a colourless product which can be used to dye with - in the absence of oxygen.

Only when the wool is taken out of the dye bath and the oxygen re-enters the yarn does the indigo colour appear. By dipping the yarn back in the bath the colour can be built up in the yarn. Experienced dyers often build up the colour over many dips rather than one longer dip as it gives a more even and stable colour. Some have found that Indigo can have a tendency to leave the fibre and coat your hands, although fortunately I rarely have this problem. Again the whole process is sensitive to temperature and each dyer will develop their own variations on the method to enable them to get the shade of blue required.
It is stated that Boudicca was aware of the colouring properties of woad. She and her Iceni tribe used woad as face paint before battle ( c. AD 60-61).
So was locally grown woad the main source of indigo used for dyeing in Norwich? Or was the indigo like madder imported and traded in these times. Blue was the colour of clothes for the peasants for much of that time period. It is likely that woad was imported into Norwich. Edward 1st (1281) laid down rules for assessing the quality of woad which implies it was an important dye. Norwich being the textile centre it was, it seems likely that the dyers used this imported dye source. Disputes in the following years meant a dirth of woad imports. The situation could clearly be improved if woad was grown locally. As the dyeing of blue resulted in stronger and more even blues, blue became a more popular colour such that by late medieval times woad was the most used dyestuff particular for wool.

For these dyes to work, the yarn needs to be well scoured and mordanted first(3). When this is the case the dye takes up well and is a 'faster' (less affected by light and washing) dye. It is interesting to speculate how alum came to be used as a mordant. Early dyers would have realised that just boiling the dyestuff with water wasn't really successful so what could they try to improve it with? Anything from plants, animals or the ground would have been readily available. Alum has been found in fabrics from 2600BC and is mentioned in trade records from 1300BC. The Romans were able to purify the ore to obtain alum and we know that Bruges was the centre of a trade in textiles ( wool, dyestuffs, finished textiles) from the 9th century. East Anglia was well situated to be part of this trade and it is possible alum was involved but there were constant political interruptions in Europe. It's not certain that alum was being used by English dyers but when considering the good colours being achieved perhaps they were using alum. In 1540 an Italian metallurgist in a book (published posthumously) he  noted ' alum is no less necessary to dyers of wool and woollen cloth than bread is to human kind.' The alum used was mainly coming from Papal and Spanish mines during the 16th century and by the mid 16th century alum was one of the most precious cargoes traded across Europe. Combined with the expense any trade would prove difficult with Henry VIII in conflict with Rome. The search was on for English alum. In 1607 some was found in North Yorkshire but it was proving difficult to produce enough for the large textile industry and there were large financial losses. By 1635 1800 tons were mined and imports of alum could be banned but it wasn't until the 18th century that alum production began to be more profitable.

If you look carefully at the initial picture you will see two additional dye colours, indigo + tin (very little difference !) and weld + copper

The combinations and concentrations to try are virtually endless!

There are more pictures of dyeing with these three core dyes (and my dyeing using other dyes) on my website: under dyeing.

(1)        A fugitive dye fades- particularly in the light

(2)        If you have ever tried to dissolve madder you will know that ‘suspension’ is perhaps the more accurate term to use

(3)        This is not strictly true of woad/ indigo, but if like me, you have ready prepared scoured and mordanted yarn it is fine to use it in a woad/indigo vat.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Daffodil dyeing on a very local fleece

On a whim, as the daffodils were past their best in the garden I decided I would dye with daffodil as I had not tried this before. I knew I had a FSM - fermented suint method- (1) fleece from my neighbour. The sheep had spent some time on the field at the back of our garden so this appealed to me. The most local fleece I had and daffodils from the garden. I picked 200g of daffodil heads and put them in to soak for a week. So that 'said to me' I had 100g of wool to sort. In my head that translated into 10 skeins and 10 colours. So that became the project 10 colours from my daffodils on local wool - great. The sheep is not kept for its fleece, but for its taste! It is probably Texel!

So the rest makes sense here is the range of colours I obtained: left to right:
Daffodil: daffodil+ iron: daffodil + tin: daffodil + copper: daffodil + madder: daffodil + acid + iron 2: daffodil+ cochineal: daffodil + indigo: daffodil + alkali + logwood: daffodil + indigo 2 : yarn undyed
( if you came this way from Facebook, the colours will be slightly different as the images were taken with my iPad ( Facebook) and my 'real' camera for here)

I usually dye skeins not fleece, but this was going to be a departure for me, I was going to dye 'in the fleece'. This would mean I had to guess when dividing the wet daffodil dyed fleece into 10 lots. I decided I would do that although it offended my perfectionist tendencies.

After a week, I prepared the dye by my usual method , heating up the plant material and then leaving it to soak in the pan overnight before straining it. Next day I scoured ( washing up liquid) and mordanted the fleece (alum and cream of tartar) and then added this to the dye pan and the result was this. A very good colour to the fleece.
I divided the dyed fleece into 10 lots - didn't enjoy this much and regretted that I had not used skeins- but reminded myself it was needs must. Dye with daffodil like this or do not dye with daffodil at all. ( I do not have freezer space for large amounts of dye plants like I did before we moved back to Norfolk!)

I rinsed and dried one 10 g lot and then used additives of iron, tin and copper on three others so that by the end of the day I had 4 colours. The other 6 fleece 'lots' I kept is separate lots in plastic bags, tops folded over but not sealed.

After each dyeing session, the fleece was washed, I then hand picked it, hand carded it and then it was a session with the spinning wheel. I was really pleased with the resulting yarn. Although this didn't convince me that dyeing before spinning was my favourite method! However, it was fun to see what colour the spun up skein would be.

The next day I used acid ( white vinegar) and alkali( washing soda) as additives.
I checked that I was happy with the pH of each solution and the result was two shades of yellow that were very different from each other. However, on drying they were too close to the daffodil on its own (acid) and daffodil with tin (alkali) for my satisfaction. So thinking cap on and two different dyeing routes needed for these. (If you use washing soda as an additive do be careful, alkali is not good for wool. I rarely use acid and alkali as additives, as I have not found that either has significantly changed the original colour in all my dyeing yet and got more confirmation of this with daffodil! So still 6 more colours to find. I knew how I was getting the 4 I thought I would be left with, so just needed to decide what to do with these 2 extras.

So the following day I was going to make up a logwood bath and used that for overdyeing the daffodil+ alkali skein. I really liked the iron colour so decided to get a darker tone than I had already with the daffodil and acid skein. So this would account for the two extra colour I hoped. Yes, 2 very different colours and I was very happy with them.

For 2 of the remaining skeins I made an indigo bath and dipped the skeins for different lengths of time in total. Colours just as I hoped for.

For the remaining 2 skeins I made up a madder bath and cochineal bath and used these as an overdye. Again, all went to plan.

So 10 colours. However, I like to have a skein of the undyed yarn.

So the set of 11 skeins is shown at the start of this. This has been great fun and the colours reflect my house and garden at this time of year.

This is not quite the end of the daffodil story.
There were some daffodils that were not quite ready for de heading. I now have 40 g of these - 2 more lots of dyeing. These heads are in the freezer as I am going to experiment to see if the daffodil colour is even better from freezing. I know some people note this, so I will be doing the best controlled experiment on this that I can.

(1) FSM is my version of letting the fleece wash itself. To me, this is brilliant, no soap involved at all and just a nice amount of lanolin left in for spinning. Use the labels in the right of blog to see what I do if you are interested. I have described my method and shown pictures!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Meadowsweet dyed yarn and a yoked jumper

The yoked jumper ( post of 10 Jan 16) is very comfortable to wear. I now need to do some samples in the yarn for the meadowsweet jumper if I am to have it finished for the autumn. (Natural Dyeing life gets in the way during the summer months with me!).
I see that although I posted hanks of the yarn I dyed last summer I never posted the finished balls. So here they are.

top row:meadowsweet on its own
middle row : madder and madder overdye on meadowsweet
bottom row : meadowsweet with iron; meadowsweet with more iron: meadowsweet with tin

(If you wish to read more about these then press the label for meadowsweet on the right)

My plan is to knit the same pattern for the yoke as I did with the practice jumper if the stitch numbers work out.