Natural dye gear

Today, we’re going to talk about gear. Most posts are about how little you can get away with as not to scare off the beginners, and those posts are amazing! (A pot dedicated to dye work, a couple of spoons, a scale. That’s pretty much the minimum. Go forth and be awesome.) This is not that post. This post is about the gadget fond dyer, the one who likes too much information. The water project (I talked about it back in this post.) is pretty much using all of my fun gear beyond the basics, so let’s have a look at what I’m using there.

Alright, let’s break this down by bits. The first thing we’re going to talk about is the weird cylinder thing at the top of the photo. That is my sous vide. It is basically a very fancy aquarium heater, capable of holding a pot of water at a specified precise temperature for a very long period of time. When I am doing large sample sets, I put my samples in jars and then place the jars in a water bath. That lets me do 10 or more samples at a time.. which is a whole heck of a lot faster than one at a time! It is not fast, I will say that about water bath dye work. It takes a lot longer for things to get to temperature than it would if I plunked a pot on the stove, but I also can walk away for hours and know that it will hold at exactly the temperature I’ve set it for, because that is literally what sous vide appliances do. (Not shown: The plastic bin I plan to use to hold my water bath. It’s a short rubbermaid tote. You all know what those look like. Also not shown, the glass jars that hold each sample. They are clean spaghetti sauce jars. You also all know what those look like.)

In the second row of things, starting from the left is a tube of iron test strips. (For things I got off Amazon, I’ve linked to Amazon. No affiliation, no kick backs, no promises that I picked well.) These measure soluble iron, so the Fe molecules that are hanging around waiting to cause trouble (aka react) with things we dye with. They measure in parts per million (ppm) and while I am not fond of colour compare (more on that with the pH strips), they’ve worked fairly well for me in other experiments to this point.

Next in the lineup are my pH strips. This was not the plan. I have a perfectly nice pH meter, acquired from the brew store, and I was all excited to use it. Except that the probe got damage (poor storage at the store mixed with no better storage at my house.. it’s fubar). That’s fine, this pH meter has a replaceable probe for exactly this reason! Probes do not last forever, this is a known thing! Awesome! Oh wait.. it’s only available (right now) in Australia, from a company that does not ship outside the country. Chatting with the Canadian distributer, he asked me to call him if I found any in Canada that he could get his hands on. Right. Thank you supply chain issues. No pH meter. Alright then, pH strips it is.. I hate them. I find them hard to read, the colours are hard to distinguish, and I eternally question their accuracy. Better than the nothing I was facing, but know I am not in a happy pH place.

Next up is my newest gadget.. a TDS meter. Total Dissolved Solids, basically it gives a measure of the hardness of one’s water by looking at the conductivity. Salts and minerals increase the conductivity of water, and so can be measured. Does it tell you WHAT salts and minerals are there? Nope, it sure doesn’t, but it does give a general idea on how much. Not a perfect measure, but gives us a ball park to play in. Which is, honestly, not half bad for kitchen chemistry. I am not set up in a lovely lab with a handy procurement clerk down the hall that I can go request all the bits my heart desires from.. I have amazon and my kitchen. So we’ll manage.

I’m going to hope that everyone reading recognizes a basic thermometer. It clips on to the side of a pot, and lets me keep an eye on the temp of the dye bath. You can tell that it’s seen hard use based on the colour, but it still works fine.

Last but by no means least, are my scales. They are the overlap between basic kit and this one and yes, there are two pictured there. The bottom one measures in grams, and is crap less than about 10 g, but can manage a chonk 7 kg. The top one is my delicate little scale, it measures 0.00 grams, and gets the vapours if you go over 200g. When you work in sample sizes, the tiny little scale is a necessity. (A 6 gram skein would want about 0.6g of alum. None of this is possible on my chonk scale, but the teeny one thinks this is /fine/.) Everything else is fun information gathering, the scales are required equipment.

So there you have it, the extras that I’m growing fond of (other than the pH strips, those are a necessary evil). Questions? Comments? Let me know some of your favourite gadgets!

Water, water, everywhere!

My first major project for 2022 is one that I’ve wanted to do for a long while, and I’m getting a whole lot of help with. How big of a difference does water source really make in one’s dye projects? Well! I decided to experiment with that premise, and asked people to share a water sample from their house. (And barns, streams, lakes..) My reenactment group is very generous and now I have water samples from all over the province, and beyond! 60 samples! I was hoping there’d be 20 or so, I certainly have my work cut out for me.

A messy studio made messier by a lot of bottles of water.

The basic experimental premise is very simple. Keep all the other variables steady (or known at least) and have the water as the main variable. Measure as much as I can about each water sample, to have some idea on what it contains, but then keep the dyestuff, the method, the fibre, the mordanting.. all of that to be the same so that differences can be safely assumed to be because of the water.

Which dyestuff to choose was an easy one. Madder is delightfully reactive to changes in water hardness, and pH and generally is a bit of a fussy goose, so it’s perfect for this. I got a nice big container of R. tinctorium, so that all 60 samples can be taken from the same batch of powder. Natural dyes are variable in and of themselves, from one batch to the next. The growing conditions, the soil, how the plant was handled and the dyestuff extracted all can affect the dye that I’ll be using, so at the very least, this one container should be relatively homogenous, even if multiple batches of madder went into it.

Fibre was also a no brainer choice. I’ve worked up small skeins of 100% wool yarn, all of which has been mordanted at 10% wof with alum. Basic, easy, nothing fancy going on here. Wool and alum. Done and done. The skeins aren’t quite perfectly consistent, they range from about 5 and a half grams to about 7 and a half grams, but I’m willing to be ‘close enough’ on that one.

Grocery bins are eternally handy.

I’ve had very good luck with using a water bath to keep my temperatures very consistent, as of course madder is also sensitive to what temperature it’s dyed at. Basically a large tub of water is heated with an immersion heater (sous vide gadget, I do love you and not just for steaks), and each dye bath lives in its own glass jar within that tub of water. I used this method for one of my earlier madder experiments and it worked a treat. I will have to work in batches, as I can’t fit all 60 at once, but good technique should keep that variable to a minimum.

Then it comes to the water itself, and there’s lots of it. The plan is to grab the pH, the iron content and a general measure of hardness (Total Dissolved Solids) from each sample. This should give me a moderately good idea on what’s going on in the water itself. I will admit freely that it is not ideal that the water has now sat for a good six weeks before I’ve gotten to working with it. (Thank you holidays and general life challenges.) Stale water means that I’ve lost most of the volatile compounds that would have been in it, and any that were treated with chlorine (rather than chloramine), that’s absolutely gone. Some of the unfiltered water has sediment that has settled out while it’s sat, and while I do plan to give each a shake before I measure it, it’s not quite the same as fresh. Still, this is what I have, and the reality of collection means that there was always going to be some sitting time before I used it. So be it, we’ll manage.

So expect more on this project in the hopefully near future! I think I have all of the pieces in place now, so it’s just a question of getting to the doing part.

Looking back at 2021

I realize that the vogue thing to do was to have written this a couple of weeks ago, but 2022 has been a slow and gentle easing into the year. More like the painful creep into too cold lake water for a swim rather than the enthusiastic cannonball of getting it all over with at once and then shivering for 15 minutes. So midway through January, I’m just about ready to consider what, if anything, I managed to accomplish in 2021. (Spoilers: It didn’t feel like much, but there were a few things here and there).

First off, full disclosure time: No. I have not yet finished all 12 samples for my 2020 sampler of embroidery styles. I got stalled at nine, and my brain has just been absolutely rebelling at the notion of those last three. In theory, two of which are my favourites (open work and needle lace). I know I hate lacis (so far), but the other two should be a delight, but I’ve had a pattern on my desk for 4 months for a needle lace piece and not even a hint of enthusiasm, just dread. So I’m accepting that reality and we’ll see when it gets done. That’s okay. Life is heavy right now, I don’t need to be a harsh taskmistress upon myself, so it waits.

I did a lot of SCA teaching in 2021 on zoom. Mostly dye classes, a class on saponification (the chemistry of soap making), round tables and discussions. I acted as moderator and TA and general helper all over the place online and it was good. I should do that again. I’m still mad that I missed the deadline to sign up to teach at University of Atlantia this winter, but that’s besides the point. I taught at least seven times in 2021, and in at least 6 kingdoms, which is not half bad, really. Only possible via online events, I would be hard pressed to get to six kingdoms in a year (our most in our craziest travel year was 5.) I’m expecting 2022 to look much the same, provided there are online events to be had. We shall see.

When I went tallying up my finished objects for 2021, my list got to 20. I’m hoping I forgot at least one, so that I can happily claim 21 FOs in 2021, but it’s not the most complete list. Highlights.. I’m very proud of two different projects where I started with plain white silk and dyed all the colours I needed and then worked the project. One was a knit heraldic pouch for an exchange, and the other was leafy trim for a friend’s laureling outfit. (Yes, even the underdress that no one saw had hand dyed silk trim.) A good mix of modern sewing, medieval sewing, modern embroidery, medieval embroidery and a lot of dye work. I kicked myself into making an effort to try new things. Some of which I enjoyed very much, a few of which that I learned that I don’t like it at all. Both pieces are important information. I expect 2022 to look much the same really.

I’ve plans for 2022, a big dye project, some sewing .. currently a lot of nebulous uncertainty that fits well with the copious amounts of nebulous uncertainty swirling around the world in general. I do hope to share more projects here. Let’s see what the future holds! May it be colourful and gentle.