Alum experiment

The lovely folks over at Natural Dye Education FB group, mostly the group’s fearless leader from Mamie’s Schoolhouse, put forth a challenge after watching a talk at the Natural Dye conference in 2020/2021 about alum not being absorbed out of the water quite as much as we think, and so clearly we had to try it. If you want to read about the results from the whole group, she has a collective blog post about it.

The premise was to use 7 identical skeins of wool, and one pot of mordant water. That water held 7% wof (weight of dry fibre) of but a single skein. So the first skein of wool into the mordant bath got a full dose of alum. Then, without topping up any alum in that pot, the next six were mordanted (and labelled!) in succession. So, in theory, we would have no alum left.. somewhere in that chain. All 7 then went into a dyepot, all at the same time, such that they would get the same dye exposure and show up where the alum stopped. So the theory went. It was left up to the dyer on what dye they wanted to use, but alum and wool were consistent for all of us.

This is not spaghetti.

I used madder (because of course I did), and had dug up some bulky weight wool yarn out of the depths of the stash, each 55g. (Except for the 2 that I mismeasured and ended up 65g. whoops.) So because my skeins were (mostly) 55g, a mere 3.85g of alum went into that giant pot of water. I kept each skein at a simmer for about an hour, and then hauled it out hot and let it cool, unrinsed. Eventually there was a giant pile of damp wool.

Cleaned out pot and and fresh water and in went 100g of madder. I had a grand plan of containing it in a little cloth bag so I didn’t have to rinse out madder dust for days, but my bag wasn’t big enough once the madder started expanding on getting wet, so that was abandoned early and I resigned myself to a million rinses later. (Dear Future Me: When you do this again, let the skeins dry after you pull them out and then whap them on the deck railing a whole lot to get most of the madder out that way. You’ll be much happier, you’re welcome.) That sat on the stove at not quite a simmer, about 70 – 80C for a couple of hours.

Top: Most Alum Bottom: Least Alum (plus bonus silk skein)

In goes all 7 skeins at once, and those got to sit around at not quite a simmer (80 – 90C) for another couple of hours before the heat got turned off and everyone went to bed. The skeins in the dyepot, and me.. well.. in bed. Next morning, rinse (and rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse) and plot what else is going in that pot of still dark red dye liquour. The exciting thing here is that in spite of there being successively less and less alum on these skeins, my 7 skeins are functionally identical. Now, madder is a dye that will take without a mordant, but not usually quite this dark and strong, so clearly more experimenting is required. (Oh /darn/, I’ll have to do more dye work. Such a tragedy. 😉 )

Well! I have more of that stash wool, so I grabbed another 600g of it, got that mordanted up (10% ish) and in it went to the same dye bath as the last batch. The madder bath was on a roll! The first 300g were still pretty solid colours, but by the last 300g I was getting pretty pale pinks and I was not in the mood to slowly simmer it down enough to bother storing it, so I called it there. Currently the big bulky wool is telling me it would like to be a stripy big thick sweater, but we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m not very good at using up the bulky yarn in my life, although I better start using up more of my dyed yarn, or I’ll be overrun!

Exhaust baths

Padauk experiment redux

When I wrote about my experiments using padauk wood shavings and isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) vs ethanol (vodka), there was a great conversation (mostly on FB alas) about it all. Those very same people who prompted me to do the first set of experiments, of course, had more questions. As did I! The main question that came out comes from how much distilled alcohol differed from fermented. So we (I) decided to do more playing.

The obvious one is concentration. Vodka starts out at 40%, my ale was 4.2%. (I brewed the ale in the last post, it’s not worth drinking, don’t be sad that I soaked wood in it. Better than it deserved really.) I finally remembered to soak some of the padauk in water, as I hadn’t done that in the last one, having done it before, but I don’t think I’ve ever proven to you, gentle readers, that padauk does basically nothing when soaked in water, so I figured I’d prove it.

Turkey basters are very scientific

The four jars are 5 g of padauk soaking in water, vodka, the ale I brewed and then.. just to be careful.. the ale that I brewed having been filtered through some butter muslin (good quality cheese cloth) that I stole from my cheesemaking spouse. It changed not a whit, nor was there any residue on the cloth, so it felt like an extraneous step. It sat for a few weeks at the back of the kitchen counter, largely being ignored to be honest, but not protected from light or anything, and kept at basic room temperature.

Eventually, I got off my butt and skeined off more silk, and got it mordanted with 10% alum. (Eventually I’ll write up more detail on that process, but honestly, it is barely exciting enough to get mentioned, let alone a whole post about it. Still, I’ll add it to the list.)

I usually dip a bit of paper towel into these dye baths just to see how much colour sticks there, it’s not a perfect indicator on how the dye bath is going to go, but you get the disappointment early at least. Rarely do you get no colour on a dip test and plenty of colour on your skein. Sometimes you can get pretty good colour on the dip and not great on the skein, so there’s opportunity for disappointment certainly, but it’s a good first guess.

I decided that I would dye all four at once in a water bath, as I just was not invested in working up four dye pots. Basically that means that each dye was in a jar, and that jar was in a large pot, filled about halfway up the jars and the whole thing heated on the stove. I do most of my dye work hot, I don’t have the patience (usually) to leave something for a couple of months at room temperature to let the reaction happen slowly. I generally want it now now now!

In this case, the dip test was a pretty good predictor. The water soak got my silk from white to vaguely beige. I had such high hopes for the ale soaked padauk, but the dip test tempered my expectations pretty solidly. It’s coloured at least, but not by much. Well sigh. The vodka was as an awesome a colour as ever, better this time for the longer soak!

Vodka, water, ale, filtered ale

Distilled alcohol is still the king of extraction, the fermented side of things is letting me down here. At this point, I am out of padauk to play more with it as my dyestuff, but I’m not yet out of alcohol extractions to experiment with! Suggestions welcome on the next dyestuff to include. (Must not extract well in water, must extract well in alcohol.) I am also on the hunt for any sort of historical context for alcohol extraction of dye. I’ve only really started poking there, but if you have a lead on it (pre-1600 please!), let me know!