So.. plot twist! Instead of calmly gathering threads out of stash, I’m digging out the dye pot. Get comfy, this is a longwinded chatter about my dye process, as I’ve had a lot of questions recently.
Y’know, when I started this hare brained scheme of doing a sample of embroidery per month, I figured it would be a quickie couple week tiny project, badaboom, badabing, and done, move on. Instead? A full month for each so far, generally involving doing dye work, or elaborate tiny stitches and a whole lot of trying to ruin my eyesight. Clearly the answer for March was to dye a spectrum of shades in natural dye on elderly wool. (I swear, one of these months, I am going to pull everything out of stash, and I won’t have dyed or spun or woven any of it and I will feel /so guilty/ for the whole month. I am ridiculous. When this happens, please remind me that I am being silly, and I do not have to mine my own gold.)
Anyhow! Back to the dyepots. I should mention a couple of points here. I have been doing dyework for a really long time, and I am the absolute WORST for throwing things at the pot, accepting and acknowledging that I am going to get whatever, and not being too stressed about that. It makes me a moderately terrible resource when people ask me for a precise recipe to follow because my notes read like most historical recipes. ‘Season to taste, cook until done’. I can’t always articulate the why of doing something at the time, but I know that it’ll get me what I have vaguely imagined in my head. (And then I talk to a dear friend who does not work in a spaghetti at the wall sort of fashion, and she points out in an organized analytical fashion why everything I did got me what I got and I go ‘oh yeah, that makes sense’) I also work in tiny quantities. I dye skeins of embroidery thread. Even my skeins of knitting or weaving yarn are quite small, because a couple thousand yards of threads lasts me approximately forever at the scale I work at. I am not certain I have ever dyed finished fabric. I know the theory, but I don’t work at that scale. Heck, I dye primarily in a small crockpot. (Which is never, EVER used for food. If you looked at the inside of this, you would know why you NEVER EVER dye in food pots. EVER.) (exceptions made for kool aid and icing dye, but I don’t use that all that much anymore, although it is /so much fun/.)
I have dyed extensively with madder before. It is one of my favourite dyestuffs, and its often the one I turn to first. I love the colours, I love that it is really quite fast, I love that it is not a terribly expensive dye, I love that even when I do all the stupid to it, I still love the colours. It is, however, a fussy dye. It is not indigo / woad levels of high maintenance, but there are a LOT of variables that will change the colour of madder. It’s sensitive to temperature, pH and water composition, and can vary from deep brick red-brown to eye searing orange, depending on what you do to it. It also had the advantage of being in my dye stuff stash, which is getting well picked through and elderly at this point. (More on that later, but I really do need to do a good solid stock up soon.) I was on a timeline, and it was handy. Done and done.
First up is getting the yarn skeined off. Tossing a ball of yarn into a dyepot is a fast train to the outside being a great colour and the inside being undyed. I have totally done this on purpose at various points to get a neat gradiation effect, but it’s not the medieval aesthetic, so I rarely aspire to it these days. So! Skein it out, and then I use about 8 figure 8 ties to keep everyone together. That means, at 8 spots in that skein, I have split the skein in half, and popped a little tie around both halves, VERY LOOSELY. You want to be able to have a couple fingers worth of space in that tie, and you will make the weavers whimper. (Weavers, when tieing off yarn, want it to not go ANYWHERE. Dyers, when tieing off skeins, want it gently herded to not get too far. The transition between the two mindsets takes a moment.) Some folks live on the edge and only do 4 ties, but I’m a weaver too, and I can’t quite be that zen, so I err on the side of paranoia and keep it a little more constrained. You want the ties to be loose such that the fibre can move freely around in the water, tie them tightly and you get 8 (or however many ties) regularly spaced undyed sections. (A feature for some! I’ve also done it on purpose, to great effect.)
Onwards to mordanting! (As with most things in the A&S world, there is a lot of prep before you get to the thing. You can either rail against it, or just embrace it as part of the process. I am not always very good at that second bit, I’m a work in progress.) Mordanting is a pre-step in natural dye work, to basically lay a chemical foundation for the dye reaction. Not all dyes require it, but most do. I teach a whole class in the chemical processes involved in mordanting, but the crux of it is that most fibres need a little chemical bridge between fibre and dye molecule. The most common of these is alum. (Yes, the same stuff you use in pickles.. okay that reference might not be helpful to most.) Dye work is done by weight. This is the reality of life, and the sooner one picks up a scale the happier it is. Weigh the dry fibre. (dry is important here), for alum, we generally want about 10% of that weight in alum. (This starts to become personal dye attitudes. Some folks aim for 5 – 8%, some add 1 or 2% of cream of tartar into the mix. I am boring, and mordant with straight up alum at 10%. Done.) The amount of water.. fairly irrelevant beyond ‘enough to ensure the yarn isn’t crowded’. We are specifically aiming to put enough aluminum compound molecules in there to react with the locations on the fibre. (dye molecules.. much the same.. the amount of water is irrelevant, beyond ‘enough’). As a friend once put it: it’s like marbles in a bathtub, adding more water doesn’t make more marbles appear. The yarn should be wet going into the mordant bath, and wool takes forever to get properly wet. It has a hydrophobic (hydro: water phobic: dislike) layer on fibre, and it needs some time to get past that. Best practices say soak it for an hour or so. I don’t always, sometimes I soak it for much longer. Toss the wet yarn in, and get the whole thing hot. The reaction WILL happen at room temperature, eventually, but most chemical reactions are much more zippy when they are warm, so hot it all up! I had silk in the mordant bath as well (if I’m getting the stuff out, I might as well dye more than I need, future me will thank me), and silk doesn’t like to boil. It starts to lose its sheen above about 80C. So I got to ‘thinking about simmering’, and then shut it off and went to work.
Okay, that’s more than enough rambling about dye work for one day.. part two coming soon!