Friday, 6 April 2018

Ground Elder Cardigan part three of three

The knitting 

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 Ground Elder Cardigan - part two of three

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 

The Ground Elder Cardigan - part one of three

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 to see the pattern for 2018 devised by Elizabeth Johnston (the wonderful lady who taught me to spin).