A year ago I saw some references to avocados giving a delicate pink colour without the use of any additional mordants, relying on the tannin contained within the stone or skins, I was fascinated and shortly gave it a test. There were several methods advocated , generally long soaks in water and ammonia mixes perhaps for several months, or long simmering at low temperatures. I tried a few tests and was a bit disappointed with the results, pale pinks but nothing that I thought I couldn’t have got with a little bit of exhaust cochineal, so the idea of using avocados didn’t last.
Fast forward about 9 months and I found an old large jar filled with avocado bits and rather dark red liquid, so certainly worth using with some yarn. I made two small skeins of shetland wool, one alum mordanted and the other untreated, soaked them and pushed them into the jar making sure they were well covered and left them overnight, and indeed for a few days. The liquid didn’t feel soapy so I didn’t think there was much alkali left, but I didn’t check the pH.
By chance it was tricolore salad for supper, so I saved the skins and pits , washed to remove any flesh, smashed the pits, let them dry and the next day very slowly simmered them for about 8 hours or so, topping up with water as needed, and pleased to see a very strong colour appearing, almost as much as the 9 month jar.
Another day passed and tests in the simmered dye bath proved positive for a good strong colour, and when put alongside the fermented bath showed a lot of similarities on the un mordanted skein , but the alum one was a much stronger colour – not so much pink as a light brick red ( on the right of the picture)
With this revelation I decided it was certainly worth using the avocados for a little more research.
For a local Heritage Day event, the sort that buildings are open to visitors to look around and explore, perhaps with a guide and with extra historical explanation, I decided that I would contribute to the local church’s one. Parts of it date back to Saxon times, but the bulk of it was rebuilt around 1611, enlarged in Victorian times, and further enhanced in early 2000’s. It is situated in a very pleasant churchyard with old graves and a few tombs, surrounded by meadows and fields. The grounds are carefully managed in a conservation way with a good sprinkling of unusual and special native flowers and fauna. It sits just above the Hogsmill, a tributary of the Thames, it’s largest claim to fame is that it was the inspiration for “Ophelia” by Holman Hunt.
I had the idea that I would create a selection of dyed skeins of wool, showing the range of colours possible even within a small area. I decided that I would have three skeins of each, one as normally, and then the others modified, either with iron or with ammonia. These choices were historically correct, the iron “saddens” colours, making them greyer or darker, and the ammonia helps to make some colour brighter and changes other very dramatically but increasing the pH.Iron could have been introduced by dyeing in an iron pot, it takes very little to have an effect, and the ammonia could have been nothing more complicated than aged urine.
The iron rinse was made by keeping iron nails in a light vinegar solution for several months, cooking it up every so often, admittedly not terribly scientific but it works, and the ammonia was simply a standard household cleaning product rather diluted.
There are lots of other modifiers around but I wanted to keep it fairly simple and reasonably possible for a simple basic dyer of perhaps 500 years ago.
The first collection, but many more to go, these are mostly spring leaves, but the autumn leaves and twigs will be a little different
Working almost everyday with woven cloth makes you very aware of the type of edge that you have, ideally making kilts you want to have a finished edge at the bottom of the kilt, but one that isn’t actually hemmed. The traditional shuttle weaving produced a selvedge ( self-edge), a term that is widely and also a little inaccurately used today. A selvedge by actual definition is the clean edge formed when the shuttle on the loom goes back and forwards with a continuous and unbroken thread ; this method when carefully managed produces a beautifully pure edge with no added weight of change of feel, it is the most desired edge for kiltmakers.
Of course it isn’t always quite that simple, over the years kilting cloth has been produced on different types of looms and most weavers today use high speed looms which no longer can make a true selvedge. These looms can weave in a few hours what a traditional hand weaver would have woven in a week or more. With the change of loom there has been a change of fabric edge.
The most usual one for kilts is now called a tuck edge where one thread is woven at a time and then folded back upon itself for about a cm and then the next thread is introduced and forms the next line of cloth, working with a single length of thread is very much faster and looms use a variety of high speed methods for shooting the thread across including compressed air or even water, but the key thing is that a shuttle is no longer needed. This edge is slightly firmer and often a little more stable, but it has a little line of cut threads about 1 cm from the actual edge, these are not terribly noticeable depending on which side of the cloth is used. Most tartan weavers now use this edge for the majority of their production.
Another edge that is sometimes seen is a leno edge, which has a distinctive extra few twisted threads often white at the edge and a fringe from the uncut weft threads,this is the possibly the faster weaving method but it does mean that any kilt fabric will have to be hemmed. One excellent Scottish weaver has worked out how to have a selvedge on one side and a leno on the other, they use this on single width tartan and this means that a kiltmaker still has the chance to use a good edge at the bottom of the kilt, and the leno edge is cut off and used for the waistband, and hidden from view.
While a selvedge is the favourite it is not always the easiest to produce these days and is now more expensive with only a few weavers offering this. When it is well done it is excellent, but some weavers try it and fail miserably, this is an example of a rushed and imperfect selvedge, however with a lot of ironing, steam and pulling and stretching it can be made a little better, and if it wasn’t for a special order it would have been returned, a kiltmaker has enough to do without trying to fix a weaving problem. Often I’d rather have a tuck edge than having to spend time remedying a weaver’s problems.
Watching a weaver work is a wonderful experience, seeing the magic work of converting a mass of threads into a cloth is fascinating. Traditional looms for weaving tartan haven’t changed very much in hundreds of years, a strong wooden box like construction , but actually very simple, relying on the skill of the weaver and a flying shuttle ,it was the only way of producing any from of tartan until the beginning of the 19th century.
Mechanisation happened and the introduction of power looms made the mass production of tartan possible, dobby looms which followed around the 1850’s revolutionised the speed of weaving and the possibility of more complex designs.
It also meant that some weaving could be done at home or outbuildings which is largely how the Harris tweed industry came about, with a benevolent investor many looms were bought and the local community began to change what was already a low level cottage occupation into a world wide industry. The looms most associated with Harris tweed are the Hattersley single width looms many of which are still working nearly one hundred years later. They are wonderful work horses excellent for the substantial tweeds. These looms do produce a selvedge but realistically with the heavy yarn it’s not often usable without a hem for kilts. One edge will be smoothish and the other will have all the carried threads, but as the tweed is generally for pattern based clothing this presents no problems
One last little nugget; occasionally I see a thread that has been attached to a length of cloth this tells me that there is a fault of some sort, the thread is always at the edge ( this time a tuck edge) and the flaw will be roughly in line with it, when the cloth is rolled up it is easy to see how many threads to judge what sort of quality to expect, this is supposed to be the origin of the phrase “no strings attached” meaning that the cloth was good quality and that no extra work was needed to put it right!
Safflower is often called false saffron, it looks a little like true saffron, and does impart colour in cooking, but little else than that, certainly none of the wonderful saffron taste. I know that it produces oil from the seeds and can also be used as a dye, but that it is fairly fugitive, so in many ways really only for something temporary. Another of it’s unusual properties is that with careful pH manipulation it can go from a rather nondescript yellow on wool, to wonderful bright pinks on silk, linen, and cotton. In fact when cotton tape is dyed with safflower the result is “red tape” that wonderful legal item, that binds important and pressing documents together.
I was given a large pot of it from a friends travels so it seemed a perfect time to give it a try.
First the petals need to be soaked and rinsed a few times to remove most of the yellow colouring, this can be kept and used, but with so many other far more satisfying yellows from a huge range of other plants, I’m not sure why you would!
With the washed petals the pH needs to be increased dramatically to pH 10 -11 with washing soda, or any strong alkali, and left in solution for about an hour or so, the petals will all turn soft and brown, but keep stirring every so often to convert as much as possible. Strain the solution and then add vinegar or citric acid to neutralise and in fact turn it slightly acid as well to something like pH 6
The magic now happens, simply use the dye solution cold, no heating required and soak silk, linen or cotton for at least an hour, or perhaps even overnight. No mordant is needed, stirring when you can, or when you remember
The cotton and linen will take on a wonderful clean pink, and the silk a slightly more coral version, wool however barely colours, perhaps if you are lucky a very delicate baby pink.
There is a technique where you use cotton fabric as a sacrificial /interim method, where after you have got pink cotton, you then re soak it in alkali to remove the pink, remove the cotton, re acidify the bath and then dye silk to get pink. I can’t say if it works, but it’s a clever idea, however a little bit of cochineal to my mind seems a much easier way of going about getting pink silk, and although it might be a little more expensive there is very little procedure and messing about, and not least the cochineal is permanent as well!
A few months ago I responded to an online post that was looking for someone who could spin flax into linen for a London school visit, I thought for a moment and decided I’d follow it up. I had done some flax work a few years ago,, mainly to make bookbinding thread, but rather left it behind when wool work took over much of my time. I’m generally happy demonstrating in front of people and I figured that I wouldn’t get picked as there was bound to be many others more experienced than I. Much to my surprise and delight I received a very positive email, as several exchanges we met up to discuss the details. It was to visit 8 different primary schools in East London , talking and demonstrating about flax and showing how to spin, it might have been because I use drop spindles that I was picked! The project is one which has been running for a few years enabling school children to grow vegetables in the school garden, which they tend and ultimately enjoy a meal or two from their labours, a thoroughly worthwhile project which was developed into growing and processing flax as well : which is where I come in.
I’ve been working on getting a selection of teaching materials together to show the various stages of the process of spinning.
I know that there is only enough time to introduce it to the children, and barely enough time to let them have a play as well, but if I have enough samples they will, hopefully, have an idea of how fascinating the whole spinning process is.
I’ll take a few of these spindles as well, jut to show that no magical equipment is needed, in fact the simple things are often best.
I’m not entirely sure what we will end up , but I thought it would be a good idea to have a few samples available so that they can see that a whole range of threads are possible, and suited for lots of different jobs.
Jacob fleece might be one of my favourite wools, it is very variable both in quality from fine to coarse fibres and also from pure white through cream to brown and almost black.
I was given a large bag of jacob which was remarkably clean, it had been skirted already but there was hardly any straw or vegetable matter, it felt and smelt wonderfully woolly with a generous coating of lanolin.
I gave it a quick wash with a little detergent and lots of hot water, a few rinses later and after drying in the sun it was ready to go.
I decided that I would simply spin it as it came, not worrying about separating the colours, in the hope for a rustic grey.
The photos should all be fairly self-explanatory, the 3 ply was spun after making a plying cake with 3 singles and spun tightly to make a good hard wearing sock yarn
Some months ago I was given a brown paper feed bag of sightly anonymous white wool from France, apart from being quite yellow and quite full of vegetable matter I knew nothing about it. I decided that it would be my general purpose wool to use for my dyeing samples and also my idea would be to spin enough to knit myself a jumper from it. I’ve been washing basins of it instead of cleaning the whole lot in one go, and when I’ve had a moment I card enough to keep me happily spinning.
I’m spinning finely and then plying it which will give me a reasonable weight to knit up as Fair Isle, which is the plan once I get around to do some more dyeing.
It’s taking some time to prepare and spin, but I’m in no hurry, I spin when I am able, it’s not a full time occupation for me, which brings me to the title. I’m happy to spin anywhere I can and I usually have a bag of rolags and a spindle in my bag wherever I go. It’s fascinating, for me, to watch people watching me whenever I’m on the bus or the train. I don’t need a lot of space, admittedly a little slower when I am sitting down instead of standing up, but every draft is another few feet of yarn and it soon adds up. There are lots of surreptitious glances and even the odd photograph taken by a phone, if only they realised that I would be more than happy to talk to them about the process. Drop spinning to me, even after a few years, is almost magical and the idea that a handful of loose fibres transforms into a coherent thread is a wonderful thing. When I give my talks on fleece to pleats, I always get a moment of silence when the audience realise what is happening, which is only further emphasized when I tell them that it was way all yarn was made until at least 1250, and on some countries the spinning wheel is still a fairly recent introduction. The idea that you can walk and spin at the same is perhaps the point where most people see how a stick and a whorl could actually be capable of producing miles and miles of thread.
So back to my bus journey of a few days ago, I got off a mile or so away from home and walked back spinning as I went, in fact walked back happily spinning, a few people looked and some cars slowed down but perhaps I’m already enough of an oddity , no comments at all. It did make me realise, that drop spinning on the go is a perfectly good way of spinning, yes the thread broke once or twice, but thee spindle was easily caught without damage and the thread re-joined. It was a dry day, and a little windy and the spindle did catch the breeze, but it worked so well that I think that perhaps whenever I go walking in the future I won’t want to miss out on creating yards of yarn.
Queen Anne’s Lace is everywhere around my neighbourhood at the moment I’ve often seen it mentioned in dye books, but until yesterday hadn’t done anything with the rather delicate flowers.
I’d been told they can give a good yellow, and as it is easy to find, and free , it was worth a test or two
I picked about 20 or so heads, soaked them in boiling water overnight, and I also soaked some handspun 2 ply in a 15% Alum solution as well.
Each skein was simmered for about 30 mins, and then some were treated with modifiers, I was happily surprised to see how bright the yellow was, and after a washing soda rinse lost a little of the greenishness and became slightly more eggy. All told a successful morning, and I’ll be very happy to try it again.
There are a few names for Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota , part of the wild carrot family