Hand Spinning & Natural Dyeing - Sarah Matthess

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Acorn Dyeing

Some years I wouldn't bother with acorns as a dye material because the English Oaks don't always produce much of a crop.  This year has been fairly good, and the acorns have been lying thickly on the ground in places so it made sense to scoop them up into my pocket whilst walking.

We have a couple of different species of oak in the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.  The oak is our great traditional tree. Most stately homes across the British Isles and Ireland, will have a few ancient oaks.  I have seen some that are said to be 800 years old. This one below is at the back of my house, it's just a young tree and the leaves are now dropping every day.

All parts of the oak tree are useful for dyeing with. Colours from leaves and bark range from buff to a mustard- brown/greeny - brown. Colours from the galls range from light to dark grey, and from the acorns they are in the mustard brown -to grey range. Technically you don't need to pre-mordant the fibre before dyeing because of the tannin, but in this instance, I have used pre-mordanted white Shetland tops, mordant used was alum.

 I weighed out 1.7 kilos of dried acorns. That is actually more than is shown in the above picture, only my container wouldn't hold them all. I don't often follow a 'recipe' for natural plant dyeing but a rule of thumb for many dye plants is at least twice the weight of dye material to fibre. In this case I was way over that. I used 1.7 kilos to dye 200grams of fibre, so that was 8x weight of dye material to fibre.  I do this kind of ratio quite often because I like to really get bold colours. There's nothing worse than going through all this work only to end up with such a pale buff colour you are hard pressed to know if it actually is dyed or not. I would  get a good depth of colour on the first dyeing and use the waste dye bath that the fibre doesn't take up to dye a second lighter batch.

So, into my very large stainless steel pot the acorns went, and I covered with soft water for a couple of days.  Usually I would crush them with a mallet and then add them to the water, but because they were dried, they were very hard, so my crushing of them had to be done after soaking. 

After a few days soaking, and a rough crush with the mallet, I simmered this pot for about 3 hours, very slowly over a low heat. This initial boiling is only in a few inches of water. The amount of water doesn't matter too much. Then I strained off the acorns, and re-simmered them in fresh water to extract more dye. I repeated this twice more until the water was coming clear. I do this with most natural dye plants, re-simmering to extract the last drop of colour. After they were completely exhausted of colour I added them to the compost heap. 

Below is a photo of some white Shetland tops being added to the dye bath. Usually it is best to soak the fibre before adding to the bath, but in this instance it made not a scrap of difference. I planned to soak it over night before adding any heat, and the fibre took up the water very readily. Before simmering, I made sure the fibre was all evenly soaked and then I simmered it low for about an hour.

I always find the next bit a wee bit tricky because although the colour of the fibre was dyed a nice chestnut colour, I wanted more depth, and something in the greeny/greyer shades.  The recognised method of getting dark grey, is to add iron. 

I'm not wildly enthusiastic about using iron on wool because it is harsh.  Last time I dyed with acorns I added a whole teaspoon of dissolved iron to the dye bath and got a really good deep grey, but this time I decided to use less iron.

 This quarter teaspoon was exactly what I used. This is being added to about a gallon of fluid in the dye pot. It's tricky because after dissolving the iron (use gloves and mask and dispose of spent fluids responsibly) in very hot water in a jam-jar, it needs to be added to the dye bath without messing up the fibre. You don't want to dump the concentrated iron solution straight onto fibre. As fibre can easily felt in a dye bath, I don't lift the fibre out, but instead I have a large scoop that I push the fibre to one side of the dye-pot with, and then gradually add the iron, mixing all the fluid in bit by bit before releasing the fibre back onto that side of the pot.  

I've taken the pot off the stove top each time and photographed outside to show true colours. The whole dye pot turns a dramatic inky dark brown - black when the iron is added. A further simmering of no more than 7 or 8 minutes has completed the process for me.  I could have added more iron, I could simmer for longer, but I'm very cautious about damaging fibre, and I was really pleased with this colour, so I stopped there.

 Another word of caution; the dye colour in the pot when the fibre is still wet is a darker colour from when it is rinsed and dried, as the photos below demonstrate.  Bear that in mind when you make your decisions about how long to simmer and how much iron to add. If you have to lift the fibre out, and rinse, and then return it to the pot to obtain more depth of colour, the manipulation of the fibre increases the risk of felting, so it's best to make a decision and stick with it. 

Photos taken on a very dull wet November day, one against a dark background, the other against white. Not sure either of these pics truly represent the colour I obtained, but hopefully they help. 

 'Its only grey- brown' I hear someone say.  Yes, it is, but with green under-tones, and a valuable additional colour for truly authentic Shetland and Norwegian knitting. This fibre now available on Etsy

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

More Norwegian Knitting

My latest Norwegian handknit pattern is taken from the book Nordic Knitting by Susanne Pagoldh. This is a collection of over 30 patterns, from Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroe Islands and more. I found my copy in a library sale 15 years ago for £1, but it's getting a little harder to find now, although I see a few copies on Amazon for slightly more money!

This is my second sweater using essentially the same pattern. See my other handknit using a very similar pattern in 'Gallery of Knitwear' which was dyed with onion skin dye (also pictured below). Susanne's patterns are very easy to mix and match, as she shows how to alter, modify and assemble to an individual size. My latest blue handknit is a pull over sweater, but the one below was cut up the front to make a jacket with an added double sided border.

These are both steeked handknit, on circular needles, sized 2.75mm (ribbing) and 3.5mm for the body of the garment. Knit in one piece, and the sleeves knit onto the garment with circular needles after cutting the arm opening steek. In these garments I have added underarm and side gussets for extra space. Usually I would continue the pattern on in the gusset, but in the case of the blue one I decided on a plain gusset.

This is an extra large sweater knitted for a very tall man, so there was a lot of knitting here!!

Yarn for this garment was brown/grey Bluefaced Leicester, which I hand carded out very smooth and spun worsted as a 2 ply yarn, to a '4ply' weight (UK). Basically that's about 30 stitches to 4". BFL can be hard to card, but this was soft and silky lambswool and although it took time, the softness of the fleece is worth the effort.

I overdyed my finished yarn with navy acid reactive dyes, which resulted in what I think is a rather nice French Navy.  The contrasting white yarn is hand spun Shetland, spun to the same weight as the BFL.

The ribbed sections of Norwegian handknits were usually done in blocks, 2x2 ribbing for about half an inch, then swapping round and doing another half inch of purl where you previously did knit stitches, to make a basket weave type pattern as the above picture shows.  I chose to cast on with 2 rows of stocking stitch, which gives a slightly curled edging, which I find wears well over time as it is not 'tight', and the stitches don't pull taught when stretched.

Above is a photo of inside of the gusset that I cut into the garment. After deciding where to place the gusset (knit separately), I tacked in red wool, the area to be cut, then machine stitched a double row of stitching either side of the red tacking. After which I cut up along the red tacking with sharp scissors, and then inserted my gusset, hand stitching it in.  Many people oversew the raw cut edges, but I always bind mine with a bias cut strip of cotton. These garments undergo a lot of pulling about as they are worn and washed over the years, so I feel a biased binding strip is the only way to go for durability.

I first cut out a number of bias strips of cotton fabric (quilt makers weight) on my rotary cutting board. My strips would be abou 1.5" wide. Then I join them all and iron a crease down the centre, running the entire length. Then I fold both sides of the strip into the fold mark in the centre, to make a strip of bias binding.  You can buy bias binding already made, but then you have to take the width the mandufacturer is offering, whereas if you make your own you can use the weight, colour and width you want.  I hand stitch the binding on one side of the raw edge, along the fold line, then when it's all stitched on, I fold the top over and whip stitch the other side on, so the entire raw edge is encased. I then whip stitch the other side. Hopefully these pictures help!The one below shows the top piece of bias being whip stitched on, the bottom piece has just been tacked by hand on one side before being folded over.

When this hand stitching is finished you will have a garment with absolutely no raw edges inside and very neatly finished off. I use Gutterman's hand quilting 100% cotton thread.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Lichen Dyeing

Please check out my new tutorial video on the top tab of my blog here.  It's on dyeing wool with lichen.  This is 'Crottle' lichen, gathered in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

An ancient traditional dye, also used in years gone by, in the Scottish Islands, for dyeing yarn used in Harris tweed.

Below is a gallery of my lichen dyeing...

If you're interested in seeing more on lichen dyeing, check out BBC Coast on Youtube, where Alice Starmore, the famous Shetland knitwear designer, is demonstrating lichen dyeing.