Natural Dye along pt 1

Conversations in the last little while has prompted me to think that I should document the process by which I natural dye and bring the blog along for the ride. I want some new colours for this month’s embroidery, so I’m dyeing up some silk anyhow.

There’s a few caveats and comments required here. I dye exclusively on protein fibres.. wool and silk in my case. There are others who are wizards with cellulose fibres (cotton, linen etc), but I don’t play in that realm. I also dye almost entirely spun threads. Sometimes I’ll dye unspun fibre, but that’s rare, and I basically never dye fabric. I am a knitter, weaver and embroiderer and I generally work in tiny so my quantities are equally tiny which has some pros and some cons. (Seriously, a 50 yd skein of tiny silk feels like a lifetime supply at the rate I go through thread. Materials are never my cost challenge.) I generally only mordant with alum, copper and iron. Tin and chrome are not generally seen in period and more toxic, so I just don’t bother anymore. I have in the past, but I don’t generally anymore. I am also a one-off kinda dyer. I work with the colours I get rather than being super obsessed about getting a specific thing. Phew. Lots of caveats.

All of that being said.. the very first place to start is with equipment. You need to have pots and utensils that are dedicated to dye work. Yes, that’s a pain in the storage butt, and feels expensive to start. (although my equipment is all dollar store and thrift shop). Dye likes to stick, and while perhaps not immediately drop dead toxic, it is not something that you want to ingest on a regular basis. It is bad for you. If you use modern dye powders, those are also toxic and not for the eating. (Or the breathing. Wear a mask until it is in solution. Fortunately we all have masks now. 🙂 ) There is one exception to this conversation and that is if you work exclusively in food dye (as I did for many many years). Food dye is non toxic, a great way to dye with kids who might well stick things in their mouths and is quick and shockingly wash and light fast. I heartily recommend it, and there’ll be a whole big blog post about it soon. No, they did not have icing dye in the 13th century, but if they could peek into my box of dyestuffs they’d be super jealous that I have that luxury. (and super confused about the digital scale, but I digress.)

There’s a relatively short list of must have items:

  • A pot
  • A scale
  • Something to stir with
  • Something to strain with

The pot

I personally dye in thrift store crockpot about 80% of the time. My amounts are tiny and I utterly appreciate the reality of being able to set it up to simmer somewhere that isn’t in the kitchen because I’m married to someone who loves to cook. This is not a practical solution if you dye kilos of yarn at a time, or have a love for chunky weight, or are dyeing fabric. I generally am dyeing < 100g of thread sized silk or wool. On the rare occaisions that I am working on a bigger batch or something, I have a healthy sized stock pot. It got a little to beat up and bedraggled (and the lid broke) to be one of our ‘nice’ stock pots, so I adopted it into the dye stash. This is another place to keep an eye on yard sales, thrift stores etc. It does not need to be pretty, it just needs to be water tight.

The scale

While I’m quite certain that our medieval ancestors did not use a digital scale to calculate their dyestuffs, modern dye work does, especially for natural dye work. I prefer a digital scale and recently got a new super high detail scale (0.01g! Teeeny!) because I routinely need to measure things less than a gram because my full batch of silk is under 10 g. If you exist at sane quantities, then you do not need a scale that makes your friends think you’ve taken up an illicit sales side gig, but that scale you got for that diet is probably sufficient.

Something to stir with

This is seriously basic. For years, I literally used a scrap of 1″x2″ lumber that was convenient, now I’ve levelled up to a dollar store wooden spoon. If you are working over a fire with a large pot, you will want a longer handled spoon. I also like having a couple sacrificial plastic spoons for scooping out mordants and dyestuffs.

Something to strain with

I do have two here, a mesh strainer and a cheapo plastic colander. The first strains out the dyestuff (if it’s very fine, line it with linen or cotton or a coffee filter), and the second holds yarn while I rinse it. These are equally of dollar store vintage and nothing fancy. Thrift store, also an excellent choice.

Random extra bits

I also seem to always have a couple plastic pots (yogurt pots, or peanut butter jars, or ricotta or the like) to hold yarn while I weigh it, or hold onto sodden stuff, or be a little cup to hold my mordant or dye stuff while I weigh it, or to let some dye soak a while first, or other found bits and pieces just to hold things such that I am not getting my countertops red. (or blue.. or or or..) I also own gloves to keep my hands from becoming multicoloured, but I don’t always remember to wear them. Any gloves will do, I tend towards the dishwashing ones because I prefer reusing them and they hold up better to being used. I destroy a pair of disposable gloves faster than you can blink and then my hands are walnut brown anyhow.

What dye equipment can you not live without?

Miscelleny

I had plans, cunning plans, to write up a nice detailed and functional blog post about dye work with food dyes, and that’s still in the pipeline, but this month has been so scattered, I thought I’d just succumb to the inevitable and make another mish mashy post about the bits and bobs I’ve been up to. Some SCAdian stuff, mostly not. Come back next week for something with meat in it. 🙂

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I did muse at the beginning of the month that it was crazy busy, and I was not wrong. I’m going to put it out here right now that in spite of the fact that there are two days left in the month of May, short of a time turner and a clone, May’s counted work is not going to get done in May. A heady mix of too much else needing my time and attention, the fact that I chose a very ambitious amount of stitching and the acceptance that the garden is rather particular about when it goes into the ground, and embroidery really doesn’t mind waiting a week. Or three. I’m still working on Autumn and have Winter left to do.. and it’ll get there. Eventually. I’m not super stressed about it, and honestly my back will appreciate doing it in shorter stretches rather than a marathon.

I made myself hand cream (adapted modern recipe) and I really rather like it, and then started researching how to make it more SCA period. (I also then promptly misplaced my adapted recipe, so I’ll share it when/if I ever find that bit of paper. Someday I will learn that recipes on bits of paper are destined to be lost and stop doing that.) I should have stirred a bit more, but beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter (unless it was cocoa butter.. hrm.. really need to find that paper) and almond oil. Greasy as all get out, but my hands are still able to work with silk even when I chronically forget to put on gloves to work in the garden.

I made another silly garland for the door, and remembered in the process how much I hate crocheting. But it’s cute and it’s done, and ideally I don’t come up with anything else that needs crocheting anytime soon. Also.. flowers really cover me ’til autumn, I do rather win on the longevity of this one. Pattern is this one, I found it relatively straight forward, but there was a time when I taught crochet (I do like it better at tiny, surprising no one.)

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I’m generally caught up on the Peppermint Purple modern blackwork stitch along. I haven’t done this week’s yet, but it’s only been out for two days so I hardly feel as if I’m behind the pack yet. That has been a lovely respite from thinking. Every Wednesday there’s a wee bit of stitching waiting for me, already patterned out and ready. I choose a colour and listen to a podcast (Currently Runelanders, getting my gamer fix on.) and just stitch. It’s been a balm in the chaos, I’m very glad I decided to do it. I heartily recommend it, and you can start anytime. There’s no deadline for finishing, if it takes you until 2030 to get it done, so be it. 

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I also participated in a reddit needlework exchange, and while Canada Post says that my giftee’s pressie is still in transit, I got a mystery package last week. Amazon decided to make it properly a mystery and include not a whit of a clue that it was a gift package, nor anything. It took Penn reminding me that I’d signed up for the exchange to make me clue in that this was probably it! For someone just going on the vaguely sketch details of my interests provided, they did really really well! The embroidery book is super weird and quirky and kinda awesome. (Embroidery pattern for a dissected frog or skinned rabbit anyone?) The metallic thread is lovely and I really adore the little needlecase. They totally won! 

Phew, I think that mostly catches you up on the bits and pieces I’ve been working on, there’s more I’m sure, but I’ll leave myself something to ramble about next week when a real post eludes me then too. 

Sourdough brain dump

So, the world has gone crazy for sourdough. Which is cool, and honestly pretty awesome all in all. I’ve played with sourdough before, and I’ve had some failures and some success and every time I go out playing with sourdough, I learn more. This time, no different.  This is a collection of brain dump items that I shared with a co-worker who was working on his first starter, and I’ve no clue if any of this is useful to anyone else, but he found it interesting, so now I’m sharing it with everyone.

 

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Sourdough starters

Flour choice

I don’t fuss too hard about what flour I’m feeding Fred. (Fred’s my usual starter name, I have had Wilma in the past, but I’m back to Fred, I don’t know why.) All purpose, whole wheat, rye. Those are usually my choices, and it seems to be whichever is closer. This house is fully glutened, so I have never experimented with GF flours.

Water choice

Guelph water is only chlorinated, not treated with chloramine. Lemme pause here for a quick chemistry lesson, I promise it won’t hurt. There’s two main ways that city water can be treated to kill off bacteria, chlorine and chloramine. (NB: it is not the same chloramine as in swimming pools.. do not try this at home.. related but not the same.) There are other options for killing off pathogens in water, but those are the two most common in cities. While most use chlorine to disinfect initially, it is the wee bit of residual disinfectant that we care about. Chlorine is quite volatile, it doesn’t really want to stay in the water, it has places to be and things to react with. Chloramine is a much more stable molecule and hangs out in the water allll the way from the treatment plant to your tap. Now, we are attempting to start a yeast farm here, and by rights, that disinfectant that is trying to keep the water clean and safe is also kinda trying to kill our yeastie beasties. By and large, there is not enough residual disinfectant to cause huge problems, unless your tap water smells like a swimming pool. (If it does, I expect you’re not drinking it either.) That being said.. chlorine is volatile, and if you let a clear jar of water sit on the counter for a few hours, it arses off. Chloramine does not. I emailed my city’s water department to ask them which they used (This website has a chart for Canadian cities,  but they are trying to sell you stuff, so take with salt as needed, you may want to just email your public works department) and Guelph uses chlorine. So I just have a jug of water that sits on the counter and my plants and yeasties and cat gets that.

Feeding schedule

I feed Fred once a day, generally and equal parts flour and water. That keeps him at 100% hydration (What does hydration mean? It is what ratio is your water to your flour.. and hey look.. mine are the same.. 100% water for my flour. It’s the most common if you’re looking at technical sourdough pages.) You can measure your flour and water by weight (my preference, but that’s how I bake as well), or by volume. Up to you. I only discard when he’s getting too big for his jar, otherwise I feed him up to have enough to bake a good batch of bread from and still have some left over to continue Fred. There are oooooodles of recipes online for what to do with sourdough discard, but I throw it in to muffins as often as not, or fry it up as griddle cakes, rarely does it hit the compost. It’s just flour and water and some yeasties in there, there’s no reason not to use it somewhere you need flour and water. If there’s a weird layer of liquid on top, that’s alcohol and you can mix it in or toss it. (I toss it, I don’t care for the taste, but it won’t hurt you.) and it’s a sign that your Fred is going too long between feedings.

Temperature

Yeastie beastie like to be warm, but not tooo warm. (They are very much like me in that regard, actually). Where Fred lives needs to be in the 20s C, and honestly.. my house isn’t from about Oct – June, so he usually lives on top of the fridge or on top of the router (make sure he’s got PLENTY of room in his jar before putting any jars of goop on computer equipment), or in the oven with the light on. I seriously thought about getting one of those plug in mug warmers, but I thought that might be too warm for Fred. This is a major spot I’ve struggled with, and too cold for too long has mucked with my starters in the past. Keep Fred cosy!

Baking

​When it comes to baking with sourdough starter for yeast.. it’s all a waiting game. Timing on recipes are vague guidelines. Your yeasties will take as long as they need to double your dough, and they didn’t read the recipe to know what it said. I like two rises, and I don’t generally stick any in the fridge, but my house is cold enough already. Accept that you are going to be eating a lot of bread while you figure out what your favourite baking style is, and that’s it’s a good and delicious thing.

Uh Oh

Sourdoughs are mostly really forgiving. If they get pink or green fuzzy bits, they are compost. That means the turf war between bacteria and yeast went to the wrong kind of bacteria. There are good guy bacteria in there too, they provide the sour flavour (IIRC.. this is where my research is sketch, so correct me if I’m talking out my butt), but really you aspire to keep yeast happy enough that there’s just not /room/ in there for the other guys. Stirring is good, yeasties like oxygen, the sour making bacteria do not, so it might keep things milder too. (This is all WAAAY oversimplified, eventually I will get myself together to do a fermentation class as part of my modern alchemy series.)

More resources

I really like the King Arthur Flour site about sourdough: ​https://www.kingarthurflour.com/learn/guides/sourdough
I really like their site for most baking things, actually. Clear, scientific based information and the recipes have been tasty too.
I turn to Serious Eats a lot for other things and they did a day by day starter-along a few years back: https://slice.seriouseats.com/2010/11/how-to-make-sourdough-starter-day-0.html
If you’re interested in current sourdough research, there’s a woman looking for information about your starter: http://robdunnlab.com/projects/wildsourdough/
Most of the internet currently is waxing poetic about starters and sourdough everything, give it a go! Eat more bread!
Any grievous errors, let me know!

Madder abuse, pt 2.

We’re back for more ways I did terrible things to my madder dye pots in preparation for March’s canvas work. None of these are the end of the world, clearly.. spoilers.. I got dyed fibre in the end. That being said, I absolutely did not follow best practices.. kinda. More on that shortly.

First off, more about mordants. (I love talking about mordants, I mean.. I teach an entire class just about mordants, not a dye molecule in sight, just getting things ready.) Anyhow, it’s an important step. It’s laying the foundation for everything and a lot of people, especially newbie dyers (and those of us who tend towards the impatient <cough>) spend a lot of time asking ‘Do I need a mordant? Really?’ Assume yes. If you aren’t sure, mordant. The dyes that are substantive and effectively self mordant won’t mind, and it’s good practice. It should be the default, not the exception. If you tend to use a lot of a certain kind of thread, mordant more than you need. Then, when you are impatient, or a friend says ‘hey, I’ve a dyepot going, wanna toss something in?’ (happens more than you think in certain circles), you have it ready and waiting. The mordant makes a chemical reaction with the fibre molecules, that’s the point of the process, it’s fine to get dried out and wait for your next dye day. (The dyes that don’t generally need a mordant are usually full up on tannins all built in, just in case you were wondering.)

By the same token.. experiment! Toss a mordanted skein of something and an unmordanted skein of something in the same dye pot. How do they differ? How do they differ in 6 months? We want this to be an exact science, but it’s not. The dye stuff, and the fibre itself are natural products and change year to year, growing season to growing season. There are trends, and generalities, but sometimes.. dye pots do whatever they darn well please, and we appreciate the colours they give us, even if it might not have been the one we were expecting. (Sometimes that appreciation takes a few days.. weeks.. to develop. <ahem>)

So when last we left our hapless skeins of yarn, they’d hung out in a mordant bath all day, while I went off and did things that get me a paycheque (I am fond of those paycheque things). I pulled them out of the mordant bath, and tossed them into a bucket to wait for me. I was planning on using them right away, so no need to carefully dry them out, and honestly, I was fine if some extra water and mordant hung out on the skeins (Sometimes mordant molecules don’t find their home with a fibre molecule.. it’s sad, but it happens. A missed match in the love lives of molecules.) While the skeins were hanging out cooling off in the big dye pot, the little crockpot was cooking away all day.

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I am notorious for not gathering up my dyestuff into a little fabric baggie to keep it contained, and I did that this time as well. The last of an elderly (although at that point, I’d rather forgotten how elderly) package of madder (about 40 g) into a crockpot of water, put on low and away I went. A crockpot on low sits at about 200F, just a shade below the boil. (Thank you Edith for hunting that up for me). Madder shifts towards the browns at 160 – 180F. (Did I mention the lack of exact science? Right. Exhibit A.), and I was alright with getting browns. I rather like the red/brown that hot madder gives, and my dye crockpot doesn’t have a keep warm setting, and I wasn’t going to fuss with a sous vide water bath, or babysitting it to keep it warm, but not hot. Brown is lovely. Yay brown. It got to sit in the crockpot all day, and then I strained it through a scrap of cotton cloth into the dyepot when I got home. Like making stock for soup.. the liquid is the bit you want. Ask any dye worker (or cook) and you’ll find someone who has once.. just once.. absently drained some or all of what they wanted down the sink. <sigh> But not this time! Hold onto that strained stuff too, tie it up into a packet like I should have done to begin with. It goes back into the crockpot to get simmered again (hey.. could have more dye molecules left in there!), the dye liquor now is safely ensconced in the big dye pot.

This is, or should be, the strongest colour you’re going to get from your dyestuff. It’s the first extraction, it should snag the most dye molecules (even if they’ve been shifted brown cause lazy crockpot). Top it up with some water, toss in some mordanted fibre and hot it up. This time, I really did just get it to hot and then turned it off and left it to cool all on its own. You can just let it stay cool and ignore it for a really long time, but your dye molecules are making a chemical bond with your mordant molecules (who have already made a bond with the fibre). That reaction happens faster when things are hot.

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There’s a few important notes in here. Your dye pot needs to be big enough to let everything float around with space in there, otherwise you will get splotchy spots. This is a grand dance of dye molecules surfing the room looking for a best beloved with a mordant molecule and relationships rarely bloom when you are nose to jowl with a pack. Wool likes consistency, if it’s going into hot water, it should already be warm at least. If it’s going into cold water, it should be cold. Wool doesn’t like getting roughed up, especially when its wet. Gentle swishing. Silk doesn’t mind the temp changes, and it’s moderately robust against swooshing, but it doesn’t like getting too hot, it wants to stay under that 180F as well (80C). Fibre should already be well soaked, or else the dye will strike differently on dry fibre vs wet fibre. The mark of a good dyer in history was not the funky dye effects that are popular in hobby dye now, but having a perfectly even product.

I generally leave it in the dyepot for a few hours, because otherwise I yank it out immediately which is fine in some cases, not fine in others. This time, I left it overnight, letting the dyepot cool off on the stove naturally. Rinsing is up next. This is where wool is the most fraught. You want to make sure to wash the wool well, but the water temp needs to be pretty much exactly what it came out of, and you need to not agitate the wool too much. Gentle! Gentle, gentle, gentle. Either pull the wool out of the container you are running water into, or run the water on the side without the wool. Gentle swoosh, or just let it sit. Squeeze lightly, or not at all. The adage I’ve always worked under is that one rinses until one is willing to drink the rinse water. Then you know it’s clean enough. You want it to get all of its running over with now and not when it’s made up into a finished piece and it rains. Or you spill a cup of coffee on it and it needs a bath. This is the time to solve the dye running issue. If it never stops running dye, you need to keep rinsing, or brain storm a new way to convince the dye to bond with the fibre. (That’s a whole different post.) Tah dah! You have dyed your fibre, hang it up to dry (I used to use a drying rack in the tub, but my drying rack turned out to be the perfect size to hang sausage off, so now I have a much smaller rack that fits in the tub. I think it was supposed to be a shoe rack at the dollar store.)

But wait, I can hear you say, there’s still colour in the dye pot, and the little bundle of madder dust has given a wee bit more colour.. yes there is! This is when you start tossing more skeins in and getting the paler colours, as there is less and less dye left in the vat. When you started with a darker red/brown, now it’s more peach, or pink, until you’re getting the most vague blush and then it’s time to toss the bath. At this point, you could pop them into an afterbath to modify the colour, which I did with one. Some iron sulfite into water (a more period route is to let metal hang out in tub of water ’til it’s good and rusty, or simmer it in an iron pot for a while, I went the modern route), let the dyed skein hang out there to have iron molecules mess with things a bit. Iron makes colours ‘sad’, sort of dulls them out, which is a nice shift when you’re looking for shades.

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I got pale (for madder) colours, even on my strongest bath, because my madder is elderly. Like ‘could start school’ sort of elderly. I combated that somewhat by simmering the snot out of the poor stuff, but it shifted colours, even from when I used it for my pent a few years ago (yes, same batch of madder, and it wasn’t new then!). There’s a good reason why madder is one of the most common and popular dyestuffs, it is versatile and even when you are a complete jerk to it, you still get pretty colours that are fast. They don’t budge much.

I harp a lot about not using random stuff to dye with, because for my time at a dye pot, I want something that is going to give me good colour and be pretty solidly light and wash fast. In my early dye days, I didn’t care.. I tossed anything and everything in to see what happened? You get a lot of terrible yellows that fade quickly, but that time built skills and taught me a lot of things, even while I got fugly yarn. If you’re starting out.. experiment! Make ugly yarn, you can always overdye it, but know that for those working in a professional environment as a dyer, they used the tried and true that was worth their time doing.

Madder abuse (pt 1)

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.)

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This is probably Kool Aid.

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/.)

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Madder experiments in 2016

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.

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Skeining off silk.

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.)

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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!

 

 

 

Alchemy 201: Saponification

The next class in my Alchemy series debuted last weekend. The numbers are purely about topic.. the 100 series are dye, the 200 series are soap. I haven’t decided what (if) the 300 series might be. Suggestions welcome. (I mean you can tell me that it’s a terrible idea too if you want. XD)

The class went well, over all. It had normal first class jitters. Where you stumble over those quips that sounded so clever when you were preparing, or can’t remember exactly where in the notes you wrote that detail. Students were generally engaged, asked good questions, although it was rather less rambunctious than my last class. I need to work a bit on the notes to include a bit more overview, and manage expectations a bit. This isn’t a how to class, and these notes are not going to give you instructions on how to make soap (nor did the mordant class teach how to mordant yarn for that matter). And of course, I had grand plans of taking a class selfie, and then totally forgot. Whoops.

I’ve added my class notes to my documentation page, although be aware that they are going to get an update soonish (Before Pennsic, eep!)

I did go into this one feeling a lot more confident about the subject. Saponification is a really interesting reaction and is very well researched and understood. There’s a lot more definite answers about what’s going on in there than with mordants. It’s also a fairly controlled thing. These items go in, this happens, this stuff comes out, everyone shouts hurrah and goes home.

The next step is to take a deep breath, gather up my 20 seconds of courage, and offer to teach it at Pennsic. Teaching at Pennsic is something that’s always intimidated me (no, I have no real clue why.. possibly I just trust the Ealdormere A&S community not to be a jerk to my face.), but that’s ridiculous, and at some point I am going to have to put on the big kid pants and do it. They won’t bite, and if they do.. well after a consolation drink or two (mmm. Slushies), I’ll have great stories to tell. Having missed the book deadline by.. well.. a lot, there’s also the distinct possibility that I will sit by myself in a classroom for an hour and that’ll be that. (Weirdly, I have no such fear of teaching at Known World events. Apparently I trust string folks too. Hunh. Brains are terribly odd.)

Pennsic prep (and panic) are in full swing! Packing, classes and garb, oh my!

Black Sope

This was part of the plan for Kingdom A&S in March. I had acquired the wood ashes (surprisingly challenging when one lives in the heart of suburbia without a fireplace), I’d even managed to drip my lye by the time KA&S rolled around in March.

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Homemade lye

Let me back up a step to talk about lye. That’s the hazardous part of soap making that scares a great many people off. (Yes, it will burn you. Treat it with the respect it deserves. Gloves are smart, don’t breathe the fumes, but equally don’t freak out and run screaming. You got this.) Lye is the basic (alkaline) part that makes saponification go. Saponification, in a super quick nutshell, is the chemical reaction that happens when fats and bases get together and produce soap (and some other stuff). There will be a much bigger post about saponification after I finish writing that class about it that I’m teaching at Trillium Wars. <counts days, has a quiet erk. Right!>

Modernly, you go to the hardware store, look in the plumbing section and bring yourself home a bottle of lye crystals. (Or you go to Amazon, cause Amazon.). That’s Sodium Hydroxide, and it’s pretty stable in crystal form. (Wear gloves. Don’t sniff deeply, don’t lick it.) It makes the lovely firm bars of soap that we all know and love. It’s also challenging to get in a medieval context. Not impossible, just challenging. Period lye was Potassium hydroxide generally, and much, much easier to get your hands on. Hardwood ashes + water = potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide makes a soft soap, not quite liquid soap, but goopy that never really sets up hard. There wasn’t much in the way of pH meters hanging about, so the strength of your lye was determined by how well it floated an egg. (Interestingly, the strength of brine.. also determined by egg floating. Eggs are darn useful things, and tasty too! Do not eat the egg you floated in lye. Just saying.)

Right! So I dripped my (distilled) water through the hardwood ash and came out with lye. I even diluted it to the required strength for a mild soap. (My soap making directions all came from Mistress Elska who knows more about period soap than anyone else I know. Go read all of her awesome. She’s super cool.) As much lye above the egg as below it. Perfect.

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pH testing magic

And then life happened. And we all know how that goes, and suddenly it was June and I wanted period soap to try washing some fleece with. Ha! Incentive to get this cooked up. A quick pH test showed my diluted lye was at least pH 9 (the indicator I used only goes to 9 and my pH meter was hideously uncalibrated and I was out of calibration solutions. The woe of the modern alchemist who wasn’t planning ahead.), so not wholly dead yet, but I had some concerns. Liquid lye isn’t the most stable of things, it’ll degrade pretty good. The recipe called for 3 parts by weight lye to 1 part by weight fat. So my 927g of lye was going to get 309g of fat. I had some lard I rendered that needed using up, and then the other half of my fat was beef tallow.

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Pork lard and beef tallow

Melt the fat, pour in the lye, give it a darn good whirl with the stick blender (yes, I could have done it by hand, but it was late) and let it wait overnight. Another good stir the next day and then the cooking started. I work in a crockpot, and remember that life thing that got in the way of using the lye in the first place? Right. It kept popping up for the cooking of the soap. It was getting cooked for a couple hours at a kick, and then I’d have to leave, so I’d turn it off again, and come back to it much later and start again. So it went, and then it was the night before I wanted it and it was STILL liquid and not soap. I was headed to bed, it looked like it was JUST barely starting to come together, and I asked my video game playing spouse to keep an eye on it, stir it now and then and turn it off when it looked like thick pudding, or vaseline.

I got up the next morning to a dark brown pot of charred goo. (Yes, he forgot and yes he apologized. Such is life, it isn’t the end of the world.)  I came >< close to just chucking it, but decided at the last moment to toss it in a plastic pot and bring it along to the event. At the very least, we could have a good laugh about my charcoal riddled goop. When I was washing out the crockpot, I noticed that it.. acted like soap. It melted like soap, it felt like soap between my fingers. Not classic soap, soap with the texture of playdoh and random crunchy bits, but certainly soap. Well, hunh.

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Mind the crunchy bits.

Arrive to a group of awesome people and a swack of dirty fleece and we all have a snicker of the charred goop, and decide to try it. I mean, we’ve plenty of fleece to play with, a bit of ‘well that didn’t work’ isn’t going to be the worst. While I’d been off at other obligations, they’d already tried a laundry bar soap, some laundry detergent and just water to varying degrees of clean. So into the warmish water a clump of my goop goes, with a lot of swishing about to get it to dissolve. But it DOES dissolve! (Mostly. It really does need encouragement, and well.. one needs to pick out the charcoal bits, those don’t dissolve. <ahem>)

In goes some wool, and it gets a good swish about and hotting up and after a little while, a trip through the salad spinner. (Best. Thing. Ever for pre-drying your wool. Seriously. I needs me one.) And it’s white! It’s clean! Pretty and clean! Our tepid water was doing nothing to the lanolin, but the soap of epic fail did a darn fair job at washing the dirt out, I was most impressed.

<I forgot to take pictures of the wool. Picture pretty wool, all white and clean before carding or combing>

I will try and make it again with freshly dripped lye, and a lack of forgetting it to burn, and see what we get, but wowee, even with everything against it.. we got soap! Alchemy ftw!

Alchemy 101: A new class

The title phrased that way sounds like I’ve wandered off into the Star Wars universe, which is not wholly wrong for this reign, but I digress.

I had an inspiration after an advanced natural dye class down at Gulf Wars in 2018 that I’d love to bring something like that up to Ealdormere. Time passes, distractions happen and then I end up on a ‘no string’ diet and go off to find other things to keep me busy, mostly beer and soap, two things I’ve long wanted to experiment with. Then the thinking happens. <insert dramatic key change here>

Beer and soap are basically alchemy. Certainly they would have been in period, even if not defined as such. Substances go in, ritual happens (slow or not), and then completely different substances come out. Dye is much the same way. White goes into a ritually prepared vat of disgusting, other colours come out that don’t wash out (much). Ritual here being used in a non-religious sense.. a cooking recipe is a ritual.. something you do by rote, the same every time. (Okay.. apparently some people cook like that, I don’t, but the theory is sound.. just work with me on that comparison.)

The next thought came: ‘I know a lot of folks doing this who don’t wholly understand the science behind it. The SCA attracts a lot of folks from the arts (woot!) but if they took high school chemistry, it was a) a class they detested and got out of asap, and b) was <coughmumble> number of years ago.’ The thinking continued into ‘Hey, I have a chemistry background <blows the heavy layer of dust off that degree>, I could translate out of chemistry into normal and give people some clue what’s happening in there’.

And so ‘Alchemy 101: What’s really happening in your dye pot?’ class was born. It only covers mordants. Class is designed to be only an hour long, lest the whole pack of us get to eye crossed overwhelmed with big words and thoughts. It has its inaugural teaching at FooL this past weekend, and while I was fully prepared to sit by myself for an hour when no one turned up.. class was full! I ran out of handouts (I had only printed 5, I thought that was plenty optimistic!) It seemed to go well, there’s a few spots I want to do more clarification and of course the first time running any class is a bit of a scattered mess of getting off topic and reordering the ideas to more closely follow class questions.

I am pleased. We’ll see what Alchemy 102 looks like (more dye? care and feeding of yeastie beasties? saponification? So many options!), and of course..comments and suggestions on Alchemy 101 are always welcom.

Beer Experiments

When my arms decided that I was going to enjoy an extended and involuntary break from my usual string, I took up brewing. (The joke being that I had to drown my sorrows.. perhaps not wholly wrong.) The fact that brewer’s guilds (formal and informal guilds) from three kingdoms are terrible influences is a minor technical detail, and apparently I only have so much willpower. I dutifully followed the brew store’s beginner (ish) recipe for the first batch, had it turn out rather nice really. (Coffee stout, partial mash)

Then I went out on my own, because why on earth would I follow directions for brewing when I’m incapable of following recipes or patterns to the letter /either/. I moved to 1 gallon batches, because if its going to go all horribly wrong, it’s less whimper inducing to dump a single gallon down the sink than a giant 5 gallon batch, and well.. I might enjoy brewing beer, but I don’t actually drink very much beer (or any alcohol really). (Yes this means that you can get free beer from me at camping events. Newbie who doesnt’ follow directions brewer, you’ve been warned. Drink at your own risk, it’ll be worth the price you paid for it.) (PS. I want the bottles back.)

In any case. I spent the winter of no-knitting or sewing playing with yeastie beasties. A couple more quite successful brews (mostly following the instructions!).. and then I went out on limbs. The first experiment was a wort split 3 ways, with three different yeasts. I entered it in A&S, and you can go read my Beer and Bread documentation if you’d like. The TL;DR of it is that a bitterly cold winter, a damn cold back room made for pretty sad (aka low %) beer, although the sourdough starter works just fine to brew with. (My doctors appreciate me drinking a 2% beer though!) It’s tasty though (IMO), if overcarbonated (open over the sink or in a field, pour into a glass quick!) I do want to run that experiment again when my back room isn’t sitting at about 15C. Poor shivering yeasties.

This past weekend, I decided to go play in what the homebrew community calls SMaSH beers. Single Malt and Single Hops. I also decided to poke at small beer, which is the second run through of the grain. Forget sparging (washing the sugars out into the first batch), just make a whole other batch!

The technical details are 2 lb of Marris Otter, 12 g of East Kent Goldings and 50 g of Wilma the sourdough starter. I brew in a bag, cause convenience wins around here. Each was about a gallon batch, the small beer is a bit less, and I decided not to dilute it further by topping up with water. First run OG is 1.058 and the second run through the grain has an OG of 1.020. I was going to do a third run, but honestly if the second one is already down to 1.020, the third really is going to just be water at that point. It seemed overkill.

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I can’t imagine that even in my cool kitchen that the small beer is going to take that long to ferment, there’s just not enough sugar in there for the yeasties to need to work at it all that long!

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Soap survey

At Birka last weekend, I got to chat, and pick up supplies from an Aethlemarc soap maker (Mistress Elska), which meant that the bonus day off I gave myself once I was home, I got to play with soap.

I decided to take three plausibly period fats (beef, pork and olive oil), and make soap from each using modern lye to have an idea on how each fat makes soap differ. Most modern soaps are a blend of all sorts of fats, but before I start playing with my own blends, I want to meet each of them individually. Because I’m also entirely too fond of compare and contrast, I also took each batch and split it after I got to trace. One half straight into molds, and the other half got cooked down.

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L – R Olive oil, pork, beef. Cold process on top, hot process on the bottom.

I absolutely overcooked the beef tallow soup, I fear I might have undercooked the pork lard soap. I expect the cold process soaps will provide the best comparisons, but I need to wait 3-6 weeks for those to be ready.

The lard soap was /so/ hard to get to trace. I rendered that lard myself, so I do wonder if it’s not quite pure, or something.

Now to wait! All of the soaps will be at Kingdom A&S in March to compare.