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?

May is for counted work

May is actually for a lot of things, woah nelly, this month is a busy one! There’s the ongoing Peppermint Purple modern blackwork stitch along that comes out every Wednesday. I decided to sign up for a band weaving workshop (mercifully only three weeks, rather than four) that started May 1 (thank goodness inkle weaving is quick!). There’s the Athena’s thimble technique a month plan that I’m still keeping up with AND May has Fool in it, now virtually! Wowsa, that’s more than enough.

(Not to mention that silly full time job thing, and the fact that the garland on my door is still Easter and apparently we need to cook and eat food, like every day. More on that later this week.)

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However! We’re here to talk about counted work, the next alphabetically in the Athena’s Thimble category list. (Also.. can we talk about how it’s May and we’re still in the C’s? Embroidery categories are not well spaced in the alphabet, just pointing that out.)

I love counted work. It’s a happy relaxing place for me, and has been since the counted cross stitch hey day in the 80s. (Which is, to be fair, where I started embroidering, so it holds a happy space in my heart. Get the snooty outta your soul now at the 80s collection of cross-stitch. Much like the knitting phase that came after it, it got a bajillion people with needle and thread to hand, and while some moved to the next trendy thing when it came up, some became devoted and brilliant embroiderers. Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it suck. Alright, rant over.)

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I went poking in some favourite and beloved model books from period. Because the late 1500s totally had printed pattern books, and they literally had charts of flowers and critters and edgings and whatever else your little heart desired to stitch (or knit, or weave, or .. that’s a different blog post!). The one I decided on was Federic Vinciolo – “Singvliers Et Novveaux Povrtraicts” . It was first printed in 1587, although this is a copy of the 1606 printing. I’ve already embroidered five of the critters in my sampler in 2016, and I solidly considered doing one of those again (I really did enjoy them!), but in scrolling through I found seasonal deities. And well, that decided it. So my counted work for the month is going to be all four, because I hate having free time.

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Nitty gritty details for those curious about such things, I’m working in a single strand of 60/2 weaving silk on 30 count evenweave linen. It’ll be a snuggly fit into my 6″ square, but I’ve measured and counted and recounted and remeasured and it should fit. Two of the silks are dyed with cochineal (different mordants? I think? I wish I’d kept notes, but any tags on these skeins got lost), one with madder and one with weld. Everything has been dyed by me at one point or another. I have learned that 4 more years into middle age now requires a magnifier, where it didn’t in 2016. Woe. If you need me, I’ll be counting somewhere.

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 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.