Natural dyeing : a tongue in cheek look at the vicissitudes of a cotton sheet’s life

cotton label

Life as a cotton sheet can be fraught.  Not always of course.  The lucky ones get bought by people who use them on their beds for years.  They get to serve a very passive but important role. They mature and soften and are appreciated in a gentle way by numerous sleeping humans.

Not so for me. I am a victim of the “upsized bed” phenomenon.  That means that SHE (who shall remain nameless) decided that Queen sized was not enough.  When the King Sized bed moved in, with its accompanying sheet sets, I was lucky I suppose.  I was neatly folded and put into the back of the linen cupboard.

For a while I enjoyed the freedom of breathing fresh air (well, relatively speaking, if you imagine the cupboard was fresher than the bedroom….) and of not having my fibres stretched and polluted by the heaving of human bodies.

THEN something that is becoming increasingly common happened.  SHE got the “natural dyeing” bug. You will have heard of it.  Victims are usually members of a privileged society with every material benefit, yet they feel disconnected from “nature”. They may not be over-familiar with what “nature” is, but they know it is GOOD.

These natural dyeing converts often also feel guilt at their consumption patterns. Mind you, they don’t often eschew their purchases of Chinese or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan -made garments but they do want to make a statement.  One option is to put their bras into a (plastic) bag and mail it to China where it will somehow be used to power a city.

Another option is to create art or fashion based on  dyeing with plants on  “natural” fibres.

Natural fibres can be plant based (like cotton or linen) or animal based (like silk or wool).  Wait a minute!  What will the vegans think?  Best to stick to plant fibres, eh?

So notwithstanding the prevailing wisdom about animal fibres taking natural dyes better than those of us made of more cellulosic stuff, SHE decided to dig me out of the back of the linen cupboard.

And chop me up!

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I used to be a lot bigger than this……..

And boil bits of me in brews of oxalis or gum leaves or oak galls….

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And I used to be clean……

And put itchy bits of plants from HER garden or the local park onto me, pressing them in and screwing me up hard so there was “good”, albeit painful,  contact between these weeds and me.

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If you think leaves are painful, try these gumnuts!

“But wait, there’s more”, as one of those damned humans says.  I then get to be either boiled or steamed  for a couple of hours.  I can’t sensibly tell you which is better. SHE says it depends on whether iron or copper or ash or…..is involved.

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It takes a lot of rusty iron up close and personal to me to get this kind of geranium stain on me

 

Before I disappear entirely I want to introduce a distant family connection.  It is a sheet formerly owned by one of HER friends.  In a callous act of sheet trafficking it was passed into HER hands with malice of intent.  That is, the trafficker KNEW of the likely exploitation that would result.

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It’s hard to see from this photo but my fellow cotton sheet has a most distinguished set of stripes that will make it hard for sheet traffickers to disguise.

 

Ensuing blogs will undoubtedly feature this hapless victim *, albeit unacknowledged. Vale cotton bed sheet, originally woven for a very different purpose.

* for a taste of this sheet  exploitation, see the following result of BOILING a piece in avocado pips laced with caustic soda!!!!  Aaaaaagh!!

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To paraphrase Milton: “They also serve who only stand and wait”

Or should that be “.…….who only get ripped up and boiled“?

 

Posted in dyeing with avocado pips, Geranium leaf printing, Iron mordant, Natural dyeing | 2 Comments

Natural Dyeing from the Greengrocer

Artistic inspiration, always an elusive commodity for me, has left the building over the past week.  It’s rainy and cold: it’s soup weather here in Western Australia.

So my inner Earth Mother must have kicked in.  Why not add a few things from the greengrocer into the basket?  That way, you can dye yarn in the kitchen rather than in the windy outdoors.

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Brown onion, avocado, turmeric tuber, purple cabbage, avocado pips and a purple carrot.

Dyeing with vegetables is a lot easier if the plant matter is cut as small as possible.  I know that those of us who own Thermomix appliances are regarded as wealthy and gullible dilettantes but, hey, they are useful when you want to make your turmeric tuber /purple cabbage/purple carrot yield as much dye as possible.  It’s all about surface area exposed to water, right?

[I realise, reading this again, that I have merely fed the poor reputation of Thermomix owners!]

Of course, when you have finely minced plant material as your dye medium you really need to keep it from getting into your fabric and yarn.  Voilà. Enclose it in silk and you keep the dyed fibres clean while giving yourself some lovely pieces of fabric.

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Top to bottom: Purple carrot, avocado pips and turmeric on silk

To keep the whole indoors process safe, I decided not to try any mordanting.  I just lowered the yarn skeins into the pot containing a silk-wrapped bundle of the vegetable concerned, brought it to simmer, turned the temperature down and maintained it at around 60 degrees centigrade for at least 30 minutes.  In some cases I left the whole pot to cool to room temperature overnight.

I raided my stash of undyed, white or cream natural fibres (that is, silks, cottons, wools, kid mohair) and made small skeins from them.

The results are pleasing to me.  They are not spectacular.  Nor should they be.  The thing about natural dyeing for me is that the colours are soft and, yes, natural.  They seem to play well with one another somehow.  Because I use small quantities of both fabric and yarn in my work I relish small variations. I don’t want to produce metres at a time of the one dye lot. Each small batch of dye produces a slightly different outcome, even with the same fibre.  Obviously, that’s because the amount of dye material in the pot varies, the amount of pigment in a particular plant varies with season, etc.

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Left to Right: Wool; Patons baby wool; mulberry silk; and cotton yarns dyed in grated turmeric

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Three balls on the left are all Patons 2 ply baby wool and far right is 20/2 mulberry silk, all dyed in purple carrot

 

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Left to Right: Kid mohair, cotton, silk cord. cotton dyed in purple carrot

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Left to Right: kid mohair; kid mohair; 60% cotton with acrylic and polyester; and 100% linen dyed in purple carrot

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Clockwise from top left: cotton thread; linen thread, kid mohair, 60% cotton with acrylic and polyester, silk cord, and chunky cotton thread dyed in avocado pips.

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From left to right: 20/2 silk; Patons 2ply baby wool; fine wool; and silk fibre from Loom in Bangkok dyed in purple cabbage

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Clockwise from top left: 20/2 silk; kid mohair; fine wool yarn; and perle #8 cotton, all dyed in brown onion leaves.  Leaf crocheted in 20/2 silk.

 

Now I just have to find that artistic inspiration that has been eluding me.  These yarns deserve that!

 

Posted in brown onion as dye, Natural dyeing, purple cabbage as dye, purple carrot as dye, Turmeric as dye, turmeric tuber as dye | 3 Comments

Yarn Dyeing: Buyer Beware

Last weekend I went to a fibre fair in a rural town.  Although i love dyeing my own yarns, especially with plants, I couldn’t resist buying some skeins of 70:30 merino:silk yarn dyed by hand by the seller with  what was described as “an eco-friendly acid dye”. [I have not researched this since the dyer could not recall the name of the product (!) and I’m guessing I might be disappointed at what I found – but then, I’m cynical]

 

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The pink skein with its blemish where too tightly tied

 

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The green skein also had a blemish

On this occasion I am not worried because I work small and quite like variations in any case. However, it would annoy me if I had bought the yarn for a garment!

The lesson here is to look closely at the skeins before buying them unless you know the product and can be sure that it’s been dyed correctly.

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The green skein when balled

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Avocado pips and soy milk on cotton damask

I have previously used avocado pips in a high pH bath to produce pinkish colour on cotton.

This time I wanted to explore the effect of variations in dyeing conditions. The conditions  that we know affect colour are, inter alia,  time; heat; pH and mordants.

Standard throughout this study was a cotton damask tablecloth that had been mordanted in soy milk. The tablecloth was given to me by artist friend Liz Arnold (http://www.lizarnold.com.au).

The soy milk was made as described in a previous post (see note 1 below).

I made the avocado pip bath by placing  12 frozen pips in 20 cups of Perth (Western Australia) tap water.  I then added 2 tablespoons of soda ash to that bath and turned on the heat.

After 30 minutes I added two pieces of dry  soy soaked damask fabric to the bath and simmered them for 20 minutes. They were then removed, allowed to air dry and then rinsed and washed.

 

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Pretty, but also pretty unexciting, not to say insipid, colour.

 

I hypothesised that leaving the fabric in the bath for a longer time might increase the depth of colour.  Moreover, I figured that the actual bath itself might increase in strength over time. So I added two more pieces of the same soy-mordanted damask cotton to the same bath a day later, brought it to a simmer, turned it off and allowed it to cool, then repeated this regime twice more. This took a day and a half by the time I got to the pot again but had involved minimal gas as I had turned the hotplate off each time the bath started to simmer.

The result was a much darker colour in the fabric. The master of soy milk fabric preparation (see note 2 below) tells us that soy milk cures over time.  He suggests that up to three months can be left before washing a dyed piece. I so wanted to wash my pieces!  However, I decided to wait……………………

Three days later I was over waiting. So I washed one of the two pieces of fabric, dried and ironed it. That tided me over for another week.  Then I weakened and washed the other one.

 

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Left: the fabric dyed on Day 1 of the avocado pip bath. Centre: the fabric dyed on Day 2 and washed after three days. Right: the fabric washed ten days after  dyeing.

It does seem that the dye bath developed its colour over time and yielded a more saturated result after a couple of days.

It is also clear that a gap of three days or ten in washing a dyed piece makes little difference to the depth of colour.  By the way, the strong marks in the fabric seem due to extra dye take up. In some cases, as with the marks at the bottom of the middle piece above, that was due to pooling around a crease.  In other cases it might be due to pre-existing stains in the former tablecloth.  They don’t worry me. In fact I like them. Since I will be using them for fabric collage the more variations and textures the better!

Ever the pseudo scientist, I then decided to use the same dye bath, now verging on elderly, to test some other hypotheses.

  1. What if I put unmordanted damask cotton in the bath?
  2. What if I put silk unmordanted fabric in the bath?

Prediction: The unmordanted damask cotton will be paler than the mordanted one. The silk will be darker than the unmordanted cotton and perhaps the same or better than the mordanted cotton.

Outcome: QED!

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Left: a silk sleeve; Centre: unmordanted damask cotton serviette; Right: soy-mordanted damask cotton dyed over two days.

Finally, because this avocado pip bath seemed to be capable of keeping on giving, I tossed in a piece of silk from my stash and a piece of cotton sheeting.  All unmordanted.

I expected the piece of silk, albeit unmordanted, to respond well to the now mature and rich dye bath.  I was a bit disappointed so I ripped it in half, saved one piece for comparison, and re-immersed the second half for a day. The cotton sheet piece picked up a lot of colour. The second piece of silk also picked up more colour.

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Left: silk after first dyeing session, Centre: unmordanted cotton sheeting after one dye session, Right: silk after second dyeing session.

Overall, I am pleased that I have developed a range of cotton fabric in different rosy shades for future work as well as gaining the confidence of getting this good colour in future out of avocado pips.  Cotton is such a challenge to dye naturally without harsh things like iron.

Next challenge: some fresh mulberries a friend has left on my front porch!!!!

Note 1: (https://wordpress.com/post/mnfblog.com/3799).

Note 2: (http://johnmarshall.to/H-Soymilk.htm accessed 22 Oct 2018 and 3 Dec 2018)

Posted in dyeing with avocado pips, Natural dyeing, soy milk mordant for cellulose fibres | Leave a comment

Is soy milk a mordant?

Jenny Dean (1) doesn’t think so.  She says…”I am rather puzzled by the many references I have seen recently to soya milk/soymilk “mordant”as I would not describe soya milk as a mordant, rather as an assistant in certain dyeing and fabric patterning processes. In my understanding, soya milk has the same purpose in Japan as buffalo milk has on the Indian Sub-Continent – in both cases the milk solution is used as a binder or sizing agent, applied to fabric before mordanting or dyeing, in order to increase absorption and to prevent wicking and improve the sharpness of the outlines when painting or printing mordants, pigments and dyes on fabrics. Unlike a true mordant, soya milk solution does not form a chemical bond. I have never known soya milk solution to be traditionally applied to yarns rather than to fabrics and as far as I know it is not commonly used on woollen fibres.”

In the past I have tried to mordant cotton fabric with soy milk on the understanding that it somehow  makes the cellulose fibres “mimic” protein fibres, thus allowing a better bond between the fibres and the dye molecules.  The results have been unconvincing but it might be that my use of store bought soy milk is the problem.  How much soy is in supermarket soy milk?  Are there other additives in the supermarket soy milk product that are counter productive to dyeing?

A visit to the exhibition of artist Helen Coleman: Windfall-Chemistry of the Dyepot  at CASM in Mandurah, Western Australia (3), alerted me to the fact that one can make soy milk from soy beans and that this is effective in natural dyeing on cotton.

A bit of research yielded an easy recipe for soy milk by an expert, John Marshall, ( 2) and I discovered that soy beans are relatively inexpensive (A$2.99 per kilo) at my local Asian grocer.

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So I made some. The process is not instant but simple.  It’s just repetitive. However, one factor in this might have been that I used my Thermomix rather than a food processor.  It may be that the bowl of a food processor would offer a bigger volume so that more water could be added to the beans in one step than I could manage, thus reducing the processing iterations.

I had been gifted an old pure cotton sheet.  It was a simple matter to rip it into many rectangular pieces about 30cm x 60cm.  (Sorry sheet!)

Before I considered any dyeing, I took some of the pieces of fabric and subjected them to the time-honoured practice of flour pasting, crackling, and over-painting with acrylic paint.  I wanted to test whether over-dyeing with natural dyes would produce additional complexity in the fabric , or merely obscure the paint patterning.

For this first experiment I only dipped the fabric pieces (both the virgin and the acrylic painted ones) once, rather than soaking, removing, dipping a couple of times more then drying,  as Jenny Dean (1) recommends.  Also, although I squeezed the fabric out , there was undoubtedly an unevenness in the distribution of the soy milk across the fabric when it had dried.

This is where the pseudo-scientific method ends and the truly subjective reporting begins.

Why?  Because I forgot to include a control…..

However, I got results which convinced me on the basis of past experience that treating cotton fabric with properly prepared soy milk enhances colour take up. Mind you, Jenny Dean may be right. My colour was better than non-soy-assisted fabric results but perhaps not as good as if I had subsequently mordanted with alum.  I am still learning and I do not yet understand how one would mordant with alum without removing the soy?

Anyway, no one reads a blog that doesn’t have photos.  So here are some:

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Cotton, soy milk treated, covered with iron-dipped geranium, casuarina,  and eucalyptus leaves and steamed for two hours

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Cotton pre-treated with soy milk, steamed with purple carrot puree, then steamed with iron-soaked grevillea

 

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Cotton, pre-teated with soy milk, steamed with hibiscus (Alyogine huegeli) above a bath of acacia.

Left above: Cotton treated with flour paste, crackled, painted with rose acrylic , dried then treated with soy milk then wrapped with iron-soaked leaves, including one large rhubarb leaf.

Right  above: Cotton pre-steamed with pureed purple carrot then treated with soy milk then wrapped with iron-soaked geranium and peppermint leaves.

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Cotton treated with soy milk, processed  with flour paste and burnt sienna acrylic paint, dried then put in bath of acacia bark

 

I have concluded that pre-soaking in properly made soy milk does help enrich the dyeing results on cotton.

It also seems possible to pre-paint cotton fabric with various acrylic painting techniques and then do some natural dyeing over the top with resultant richer texture.

In future blogs I will try to show the differences between dyeing by steaming  frozen plant material; boiling fabric in “solutions” of the same material; and  wrapping and steeping fabric in thawed material over time….

(1) http://www.jennydean.co.uk/soya-milk-soymilk-solution-used-mordant/ accessed 3 Dec 2018

(2) http://johnmarshall.to/H-Soymilk.htm accessed 22 Oct 2018 and 3 Dec 2018

(3) https://www.mandurahmail.com.au/story/5622699/mandurah-creative-highlights-regions-diverse-flora-in-exhibition/ accessed on 3 Dec 2018

 

Posted in Natural dyeing, soy milk, soy milk mordant for cellulose fibres | Leave a comment

Stash scrap helmet [or a beanie cover]

The brief: “Mum, I’d like a sort of hat that goes over the other hats. Neutral colours please.” For fishing and camping in the Snowy Mountains.

The design points:

*keep it simple

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Rough sketch on scrap paper of an oblong piece that can be folded over and stitched into a hood shape. Add holes for a fastening strap.

*use stuff from the stash and choose thick yarns for warmth or at least DK weights that can be paired together as a chunkier yarn.

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Thick neutral coloured yarns from the stash

*use crochet rather than knit stitches because the former use about a third more metres per unit area than the latter and therefore make a denser fabric.

 

Knitting comparison with crochet

Top: 3m of yarn crocheted. Bottom: 3m of the same yarn knitted. No. of stitches across was the same in both pieces.

 

*Block it before making up

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It’s a bit hard to see the pins but here is the dampened oblong pinned to a polystyrene board

What actually happened:

*I ran out of neutrals and had to add some reds.  I hope it still meets with approval!

*Even with a doubling of thinner threads, I needed to add texture in those areas to add weight

 

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The basic fabric is all (English) double crochet stitches but “bobbles” are worked on the tan  area and in the variegated area above it to add weight. 

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A touch of jauntiness at the pointy top is probably going too far.  Instructions for removing them were included in the parcel!

 

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The helmet can be buttoned or left loose with the strap securely threaded through a button hole on the other side.

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Err…..perhaps a bit TOO boho?

Posted in Beanie, Clothing, Design, freeform crocheting | 2 Comments

My first KAL

A KAL is knit-world speak for “knit-along”. I discovered that only recently when one of my usual Australian on-line yarn suppliers (Yarn Glorious Yarn at https://www.yarngloriousyarn.com.au) posted one on Ravelry  (https://www.ravelry.com/groups/yarn-glorious-yarn).

The KAL was for a particular design by Amsterdam based designer Stephen West (https://westknits.com) but I decided to choose another of his designs:  Smock-It!

 

Knitting Smock-It image

Stephen West’s own image of “Smock-It!” from his website.

I had also only recently heard of the hand-dyed 3-ply fingering weight of merino knitting yarn produced by Brisbane indie dyer Stitch Abeille Yarns called (naturally!) Drizzle Merino Fingering.  So I decided to use that for my KAL project.

I chose three colours that would blend together in shades across the shawl, just as Stephen West had done with other yarns.  The colours’ names were Dagon, Etty Bay and Outback Quarry.  I loved the very Australian sounds of them!

 

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My three yarns

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The first third of the wrap in “Outback Quarry”

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Almost there: just needs the 600 stitch wide edging with “smocking” and picot edge

 

Finally, it was finished within the two months allowed for the KAL (July and August 2018.

Knitting final Smock it - 1 (1)

The light end

Knitting final Smock it - 1

The dark end

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The whole shawl

I reckon I might do another of Stephen West’s designs and use the marvellous Aussie dyed Drizzle merino yarn as well.

Posted in Clothing, Knitting, Scarf | 2 Comments

I love mistletoe

OK, I know that’s like saying I love roses.  Which roses?  Name specific species! Leaves or flowers?

Well, I don’t know more.  I harvested “mistletoe” from a forest reserve in Western Australia and used it experimentally on fabric.

Because it’s found on gum trees, its leaves look like the host species’ leaves.

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Mistletoe on white paper

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Close up of the mistletoe leaves

They have the same shape as their eucalyptus hosts but typically look redder and feel more waxy than the leaves of the gum trees they parasitise on.

I put a small number of these leaves into a cotton sheet derived bundle and brought it to the boil. I added a small skein of kid mohair to the pot and turned it down.  Later, I raise the temperature again , then turned it down.  Result: small kid mohair skein turned from white to light brown.

BUT! Over the next week, out in the winter cold the square of cotton sheet in which the mistletoe leaves were wrapped turned  lovely peach-orange colour!!!  So I tried heating the pot again, this time with some small skeins of different cotton yarns.

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Cotton yarns drying in the sun before washing.

The yarns did fade with rinsing but are still a very pleasing colour.

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Yarns and fabric after dyeing with mistletoe and after being rinsed and dried. At bottom is the kid mohair.  Top yarns and background fabric are cotton.

At some stage I will compare these outcomes with the outcomes I might get from pre-mordanting the cloth and fibres with, say, alum.  However,  to have these colours from untreated cellulose fibres,  which are notoriously more difficult to colour than silk and other protein fibres, is exciting.

Posted in Mistletoe as dye, Natural dyeing | Leave a comment

Dream Time Shawl

IMG_8841I’ve called this blog Dream Time Shawl because that’s what its designer Teresa Dair called it.

This project has been on the go (or off the boil) for several years since I bought the pattern and the yarn at the main Perth Craft Show when Dairing (www.dairing.com.au) was still coming to it from Victoria.

Knitted in garter stitch on 7.00mm needles and a cotton chenille slub (DM50x120gms), it is simply a large rectangle of approx. 2m x 70cm.

Its real attraction for me, with my leaf fetish, is that the fabric this yarn creates reminds me of scribbly gum.

Scribbly gum is a name given to a variety of different Australian Eucalyptus trees which play host to the larvae of scribbly gum moths which leave distinctive scribbly burrowing patterns on the bark.[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scribbly_gum

Thank you Teresa for devising a “pattern” that showcases this yarn so well!

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The scarf held in front of my studio doors

Posted in Clothing, Knitting, Scarf | 1 Comment