The happy blues

Perhaps the saddest part for me of the whole coronavirus situation is the cancellation of the plans we had made to spend time together with family, here in Asturias as well as in the UK and Norway. Now, I am not whingeing because many people have suffered (and continue to suffer) terribly and we and our loved ones are at least safe and well. The milestones we were set to celebrate won’t come round again but at least once it is all over, we will hopefully be able to catch up with each other again in a joyful celebration of life and love. On the plus side, though, it has been lovely to have very regular video chats with our grandchildren and to help out a little with their homeschooling. Weekly Spanish lessons with Ben, William and Evan are a delight and let me indulge in all the best bits of teaching without any of the headaches; they also remind me how scarily quickly and effortlessly young children learn new things! When Annie had finished her unit of work on rainbows and became interested in indigo, we had a great chat about natural dyeing, and as she and Matthew went off to collect bits of sheep’s wool to dye and weave, I realised this was the nudge I needed to get back to some dyeing, too.

What I realised is that it has been many months since I shared any woolly happenings on my blog; it isn’t because I haven’t been doing anything, just not writing about them so perhaps it’s time for a quick catch-up. Last year for me was all about exploring the possibilities of using natural materials in dyeing, in particular substantive dyes that require no mordant but can be modified in an alkali (washing soda) or acid (citric acid) bath to give a range of shades. Green walnut leaves – of which we have an abundance – gave some beautiful coffee and cream tones in wool and silk.

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Blended together on the hand carders, they made rolags that looked like spun sugar.

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The fibre worked up beautifully into a marled yarn which I wanted to use to make a scarf as a gift, something light and feminine without being twee. As I hate am not a fan of lace knitting, I opted for crochet and a variation on trellis stitch which I hoped would work up well into the garment I had envisaged . . . and that’s where I left the story.

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Mmm, let’s just say things went downhill from there. Several centimetres in and I was starting to feel very unhappy with what I was creating, it was so clumpy and awkward and just felt wrong. Even with the most diligent of blocking to stretch those holes out, I could tell it would still be too ‘heavy’ somehow; I wanted the recipient to feel softly wrapped and cosseted in those subtle walnut hues running through Merino and silk, not like she was wearing the complete tree round her neck. Time for Plan B and here is where my heart sank into my boots because I knew that knitting had to be the answer for this particular yarn. No way could I face a long lacy scarf project, which would take me at least 250 years to finish, and thankfully there wasn’t enough yardage for a shawl so I opted for a happy medium in the form of a shawlette scarf. Yes, it meant a circular needle and several hundred stitches (aaaaaargh!) but the lace border was only worked over sixteen rows and after that pain, I knew the short rows in stocking stitch would be plain sailing, just like turning a giant sock heel. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few ‘moments’ with this knitting and I certainly ended up having to unpick several times . . . but I managed it and was pretty chuffed with the result which suited the yarn so much better. Excuse my less-than-glamorous background in the photos, I don’t have blocking boards so I just pin the damp garment to an old bath towel.

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Well, I’m feeling a tad friendlier towards lace knitting now but I haven’t quite mustered the courage to do something similar to the fibres I dyed with madder. All in good time.

Away from dyeing and something else I decided to try for the first time is felting; I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get round to this, but with Annie and William’s fifth birthdays looming, I was wracking my brain for gift ideas and thought perhaps a little felted bag full of goodies might be a hit. I started with Annie’s bag in her favourite purple shot through with turquoise, a batch of Kent Romney that had had a tough time in the acid dye bath and certainly didn’t lend itself to socks. I didn’t bother with a pattern, just knitted a long rectangle in stocking stitch with garter stitch borders at each end, and seamed the sides to make a bag, adding a garter stitch strap. I know many people swear by felting in the washing machine but I passed on that one for two reasons: first, I never use a hot wash for eco reasons and the idea of doing so for a little woolly bag didn’t sit comfortably with my green principles, also because I love the hands-on aspect of activities like this and wanted to see the felting process as it happened to better understand it. It was so simple: I poured very hot water from the stove kettle into a bowl, added a few drops of Ecover washing-up liquid and (wearing rubber gloves) beat and pummelled the poor bag to a pulp. Wow! It was a fascinating process to watch as the stitches closed up to make a wonderfully thick and soft felt, with just enough definition left in the garter stitch sections to add contrast. On a roll, I got stuck in with William’s blend of red, orange and yellow Shetland, then decided to have a bit of fun and play around with flowers and butterflies as a finishing touch. I stuffed the bags with seeds ~ they are both passionate little gardeners ~ and chocolate to sustain them in their planting escapades. What a great activity! The sequel is in the pipeline . . .

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. . . and this is where the indigo moment comes in, because having seen Annie’s bag, Matthew immediately requested one for himself, but could it be blue, please? Well, how can a granny refuse? I’ve only had the indigo for ten years (possibly longer) so it really was time to get on with it. As luck would have it, Roger had just finished building the extension to the terrace which meant there was plenty of room to set myself up with an outdoor workshop. Mmm, there was inspiration in that sky, too.

As with all new activities, I like to do a lot of background reading and research before jumping in; true, I love the experimentation and exploration and the excitement of the unknown but that has to be measured against a recklessness that could result in wasting expensive and precious resources. As with so many other things, though, it seemed the more people I turned to, the more conflicting advice I found. For instance, the temperature of the indigo vat: it should be heated and kept at a constant 50 ยฐC throughout . . . no, make that blood heat with a warm-up only if needed . . . no, lukewarm will do, no need to heat at all. Well, excuse me, but in my humble opinion, that’s quite a difference! I read time and time again how essential it is not to stir or agitate the vat as that introduces oxygen, only to find a video clip of a lady who whipped hers into an incredible vortex, stirring crazily one way then the other around the pot. Then there’s the whole dipping scene: is it one minute, five, or fifteen? Honestly, my brain was spinning like an indigo whirlpool itself. Something that most folks seemed agreed on was what a messy business it is and that I could expect to be blue all over by the time I’d finished ~ my clothes, shoes, face, hair, the lot. That had me thinking that anyone who indulged in naked dyeing would end up looking like a woad-daubed ancient Briton but really my main concern was not to create an abstract in blue all over Roger’s carefully laid slates!

In trying to cut through the confusion, I opted to loosely follow the method used by Jenny Dean in her book Colours From Nature, by carefully stirring my indigo crystals, washing soda (the vat needs to be alkaline so the indigo will dissolve) and finally some colour run remover into a pot of hand-hot water. The colour run remover contains sodium hydrosulphite, a chemical reducing agent that removes oxygen from the vat and allows ‘indigo blue’ to convert to ‘indigo white’ ~ the science behind this process and all the activity at molecular level is fascinating stuff! Admittedly, it’s the kind of chemical I try to avoid using but the natural alternative of fermented urine somehow didn’t appeal. I know people use all sorts of fruit ferments, too, but in this first go I felt it was essential to get a proper grasp of how it all works before experimenting with that kind of thing. I put the lid on the pot and left it sitting in the sunshine for an hour or so, by which time it had formed a blue skin over yellowy-green liquid and had started to blow a few bubbles; lots of people talk about needing a large ‘flower’ of bubbles blooming in the vat but interestingly, Jenny Dean doesn’t mention it at all. Well, did I need it to bloom or not? Does it have to be a big ‘flower’ or would a small ‘bud’ suffice? Good grief, here we go again . . .

What the heck, I decided it was time to go for it anyway and slipped in a wetted skein of Merino, replaced the lid and left it for fifteen minutes.

The one thing that all experts seem to be agreed on is that indigo dyeing can’t be rushed; like raising children or making mayonnaise, it requires time, patience and lots of love. While my vat was brewing in the sunshine, I pottered about doing a bit of light gardening then decided that the extra space on the new-look terrace was just perfect for my spinning wheel and what better way to pass the time and celebrate the solstice than working with some naturally-dyed fibre in the Spanish sunshine?

Last year, I dyed some Merino in a pot of French marigold flowers in true rustic style, simply tossing the lot into the dye pot together. After a bit of tweaking with modifiers, I ended up with two distinct shades of yellow.

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I always think the wool looks a bit tortured after its time in the pot, as though the effort to not do what comes naturally and turn to felt leaves it exhausted and wrung out. I wasn’t planning on blending it with anything else, but felt a little fluffing up on the carders would help and would add a bit of air and loft to the finished yarn. Like the walnut-dyed wool, I was amazed by the range of subtle shades there are within each colour, so much prettier and effective than the solid colour of synthetic dyes. As an added bonus, there is also the faintest scent of flowers, too. Lovely.

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For spinning purposes, I’m just pulling random rolags out of my basket so that the finished yarn will be a mix of all the shades together. So far, so good, and possibly another little bag in the making.

Meanwhile, back to Indigo World and the moment of truth once the fifteen minutes were up. Having read absolutely everywhere that the wool needed to be exposed to the air for at least twenty minutes to allow the colour to fully develop, I assumed (completely wrongly, as it turned out) that I would have plenty of time to rinse the wool in cold water, peg it on the line, ditch my gloves, grab the camera and take a series of time lapse photos to capture the colour change. Ha, not a chance! It emerged yellow from the pot and had turned to a gorgeous sea green before it even hit the rinsing water. (I’d like to reassure anyone who might be slightly freaked out by my knees that I wasn’t trying the skyclad, woad-painted thing ~ it was hot so I was wearing shorts. Honest!)

By the time I had walked the few steps to the washing line, the colour had changed again into a beautiful denim blue, exactly the shade I had been hoping for. It was like a magical alchemy, over in seconds, but it had me totally spellbound.

Well, after that I was on a roll and as I’ve been spinning plain skeins for just such an occasion, I threw in a couple of batches of Jacobs and a skein of Kent Romney blended with kid mohair. I messed about with shorter times in the pot and a couple of re-dips, ending up with a range of subtle shade differences that made me very, very happy.

As there was still life in the indigo vat, I then tried a length of Jacobs fleece top and some tussah silk. Oh, those colour variations! If I could turn a back flip, I would have done . . . although possibly on the side of a mountain there could have been dire consequences with that one.

So, what next? Well, I have plenty of new projects waiting in the wings. I can really see the possibilities of creating some fabulous greens by dipping yellow yarn in indigo; I don’t have any French marigolds this year but masses of feverfew and Queen Anne’s lace, both of which are said to yield some pleasing yellow shades. In fact, there’s still a long list of plant materials on our patch which give substantial dyes to experiment with, including things like eucalyptus, heather and sage. I’m currently researching the use of bramble leaves as a tannin-rich mordant; they were used historically which is the sort of thing I find interesting and we certainly have no shortage here, although I think they would add brown to the mix so I would need to choose the dye materials carefully. I have a few rusty nails steeping in a jar of water and vinegar (is there no end to these dark arts?) to make an iron mordant water which should help to enhance colour fastness; iron deepens or ‘saddens’ colours but there’s nothing sad about the possibility of using it to yield a deep purple dye from madder. Lots to do . . . I think my main problem is going to be running out of fleece! For now, though, I’m just very happy singing the blues. ๐Ÿ™‚

6 thoughts on “The happy blues

  1. Oh wow! I have yarn envy! That indigo is so beautiful! I mean, the others are too, but that really is special!

    I am also really impressed with your lace – I’ve done one lace shawl (which was listed as ‘piece o’ cake’ on Ravelry) and it brought me to frustrated tears on numerous occasions.

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    1. Honestly, if you get the chance, have a go ~ I’m now planning so many indigo events, it’s unreal. It’s great for wool because there’s no damage from heat but I’m thinking a bit of messing with white cotton fabric might be in order, too. The colours are truly gorgeous. Might have to try a few woad seeds in the garden . . . Lace knitting has been my nighmare for ever, I have nothing but awe for those knitters who create wonderful shawls and things. Give me good old aran cables any day! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. How lovely your skeins of yarn look, you must be thrilled, but steady on with the back flips! Matthew will be delighted with his indigo bag to keep his little treasures in. The process looks very much like alchemy and it must be very frustrating to research with so many differing ideas. Still, what you have achieved is magic. ( The terrace looks lovely too)

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    1. Thank you! We’re very chuffed with the terrace, we spend so much of our time out there and it’s given us a lot more room ~ including for a sun lounger. ๐Ÿ™‚ The indigo really was magical, I can’t wait to have another go and maybe try some cotton or linen fabric, too. I might have a go at growing some, it likes warmth and humidity so would possibly be happy here, otherwise I could always try a few woad seeds. The way I’m going, I might have to invest in a couple of sheep, too! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. It is without doubt the best natural dye I’ve used so far, I’m not surprised that it has such an incredible history. I’ve ordered some indigo and woad seeds to try in the garden . . . and feed my addiction, obviously! ๐Ÿ™‚

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