As the morning gathers a rainbow…

The title for this post comes from the Finley Quaye song “Sunday Shining” which has to be one of my very favourite Spring/Summer songs.

“as the morning gathers a rainbow… I want you to know, yeah, that I’m a rainbow with you”. Today this song seems especially apposite…

…keen-eyed spotters might notice the rainbow in this picture. Would you like a closer look?

I have been preparing for a dye workshop which I will be running here at MoKS on Saturday. As well as practising with the Birch leaves and Woad balls which we will be using then, I wanted to dye with the Madder roots which I have been growing – and writing about here – for 4 years. I have been thinking a lot about plants, and dyeing with plants, and how this work connects the textiles of today with ancient textiles and recipes, with ancient acts of digging in the earth for colours, or shredding leaves around a fire, into a pot.

I am more than pleased with the colours I got from the Madder roots. I harvested just under 700g of fresh roots from my garden last Autumn in a very happy and memorable afternoon of soil and sweat; I then dried the roots out and saved them up for a very special project. I knew when I was awarded the MoKS residency that this would be the time to use my special roots. When I learned about the use of related Bedstraw in historic Estonian textiles, I felt I had discovered a link – in colours – between the old textiles of Estonian (especially those of Kihnu) and my plants.

This is the ball of Bedstraw-dyed yarn in the Kihnu Museum. Bedstraw is part of the Rubiaceae family of plants, along with Coffee and Madder. Its roots are tiny and thin, and much harder to harvest than the pencil-thick, beetroot-scented, succulent juicy roots of the Madder plant. It takes many hours to harvest Bedstraw roots, and many roots yield just a little dye.

I LOVE the complexity of plant-colours. I attended a talk at the Oxford Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, where the difference between aniline dyes and plant dyes was explained to me. I do not understand the in-depth science, but the gist of the talk was that all colours are produced by light reflecting off surfaces at specific frequencies. In aniline dyes, the frequencies are highly specific… so that a synthetic fuschia pink, for example, will only reflect a very small and narrow section of the spectrum. In plant dyes, often several pigments work together at once, so that the colours reflect broadly across the spectrum, on many different wavelengths. The reason why plant-dyed yarns invariably look so good together, is that they share – and reflect – many common frequencies across the spectrum.

I have often read that it is difficult to get a “true” or “clear” red from Madder roots; you can apparently rinse the roots before dyeing with them in order to wash off the more orangey pigments within them. But I love the complex, rich, brick-like shades which resulted from my dye experiments. It is yellow, red, earth, ochre, tea, clay and root to me all in the one colour. Pah to true red! Madder red is beautiful to my eyes, just as it comes, in all its brick-like glory!

From left to right: Alum-mordanted yarn dyed with Madder; Alum-mordanted yarn dyed with Madder and Birch-leaves; Alum-mordanted yarn added to the Madder dyebath at a significantly later stage in the process.

Kihnu bricks.

My recipe for dyeing with Madder is simple.

80g dried Madder roots
10g calcium carbonate (Madder apparently dyes better in hard water)
3/4L water
100g fibre (though you can add more to the dyebath later, to exhaust the colour)

I never heated my dyebath above 80 degrees C as this can damage some of the red pigments in the roots. I simmered my roots in this mix at just below 80 degrees for about 2 hours before straining off the roots through a sieve, and setting them aside. I added yarn to the solution – one skein about 30 minutes after the other – and left them in the dyebath for 2 hours, on very low heat. I then left the yarns in the pot overnight. In the morning I took the yarns out of the dyebath and re-introduced the roots. I boiled these for an hour or so, strained them again, and repeated the whole process.

To mordant the yarn, I used 4% cream of tartar and 14% aluminium sulphate. The middle yarn – the yellowy one – spent a stint in the Birch leaves dyebath (more of this in a moment).

From left to right in this photo; Madder exhaust dyebath (I added a 40g skein of yarn to the Madder dyebath over 24 hours into the process of dyeing the much darker skeins); Birch leaves; Onion skins dipped in the Woad vat.

To make a dyebath from Birch leaves I took 140g of fresh leaves from Silver Birch trees. This is not a special dyestuff:leaves ration; rather 140g is all I could gather before I was overwhelmed by Estonian mosquitoes of death, and abandoned the mission! I shredded my 140g dyestuff then left in a bucket of water, overnight. In the morning, I stoked up the woodburning stove in my studio and gave the birch leaves a hard boil for 2 hours. I then added 100g Alum-mordanted wool, and boiled them together for a couple of hours. At some point, the mixture went from being a bright acid-yellow to being a sort of buttery golden colour; I also added one lighter 50g skein from my Madder bath into the Birch leaves dyepot to see if I could get a bright orange. The shade of yellow is very pretty but a little bit more buttery/golden than I was going for! I put this down to the long boiling time I gave the leaves; the light leaves:yarn ratio; and the addition of the Madder-infused skein of yarn halfway through the dyeing process. It’s very pretty, but not the acidic shade of yellow I was after, which is more like the one in this Kihnu stocking.

I got a more acidic yellow later on, when I added 89g dried Onion skins to the exhausted Birch leaves dyebath, and a 100g skein of Alum-mordant yarn. The yarn itself was a sort of oatmeal grey/white affair, and the greyishness combined with the vibrant yellow suggested to me that I should overdye this bright yellow in my Woad vat, creating green. I am so pleased with the colour I got! The only thing is, the bands of yarn I used to secure the skein were a little tight in places and so there are some yellow patches in the skein. I think this will knit up beautifully, though. It is the perfect reminder of Estonian Spring, which is incredibly green and yellow.

The blue on the right hand side of the green was obtained through the creation of a Woad vat, using one of the Woad balls I bought from Ian Howard. I referred extensively to Jenny Dean’s notes on dyeing with these Woad balls – her post here is very helpful.

I first of all softened the Woad ball with water after hitting it very hard for some time with a pulveriser, to crush and open it up. After this, I added about 2L of boiling water and left the mixture for about 30 minutes. Then I strained off the liquid, reserving the Woad ball pieces.

I then added 40g Washing soda to the liquid and whisked it to aerate the mixture. At this stage in the process, you need to oxygenate the Woad in order to release the indoxyl contained within the plant matter, so I then tipped the mixture back and forth between 2 buckets and whisked it furiously. If I have understood properly, then at a molecular level, Isatan A, Isatan B and indican within the Woad leaves combine to form indoxyl, in the presence of oxygen. 2 indoxyl molecules join to form indigotin. This is the blue pigment which will colour your wool fibres.

With fresh Woad leaves, the process of oxygenation results in the mixture turning greenish, but with the Woad balls, the liquid remained a sort of brackish green/brown. To understand the various steps in the process of extracting blue pigment from Woad, I found this page very helpful. For the purposes of my Woad vat, it is enough to say that oxygen must be introduced at this point in the proceedings to release the blue dye from the Woad leaves. Next, in order to create a solution which will physically bind the blue pigment to the protein fibres, it is necessary to remove the oxygen from the Woad vat, and so 25g of Sodium Hydrosulphite were next added to the vat. I also returned the woad-ball pieces at this stage (it’s much harder to whisk the mixture with the pieces still in it)!

I then raised the temperature of my Woad vat to between 50 – 60 degrees C, and simmered 200g yarn in it for an hour. For this purpose I used 50g white, 50g light grey, 50g dark grey and 50g natural black/dark brown sheep shades of Kihnu sheeps’ yarn. I didn’t stir the mix at all and I kept the lid on it, to make sure as little oxygen as possible would infiltrate the mixture.

Dyeing with Woad is one of my very favourite things to do, as the yarn doesn’t turn blue until you take it out of the Woad vat and hold it in the air, where it oxidises, completing the entire dyeing process with a magical moment as yellow-greenish murky yarn turns to glorious blue before your very eyes. You can see in the picture below how it works when you overdye different sheepy shades of yarn with Woad!

Today I am experimenting with dyeing some raw fibres in the Woad vat, and on Saturday we will be making a new Woad vat and dyeing the Blacker Yarns that Sue Blacker of the Natural Fibre Company sent to me, to facilitate the notion of “The Wool Exchange” and to allow me to share my enthusiasm for some of our wonderful UK sheep breeds with Estonian knitters interested in such things.

Thank You to Sue and The Natural Fibre Company for the amazing yarns! I am proudly sponsored by Blacker Designs, you are my favourite yarn company in the UK, nobody else is offering such a wide-range of breed-specific yarns for sale, and the work you do to promote our wonderful sheep breeds Internationally is peerless and commendable. In terms of rainbows, my first and favourite yarny rainbow was knitted in Blacker Yarns as a celebration of the natural shades of SHEEP available for knitting with. I wear it nearly every day here in Estonia, and it is a wonderful opportunity to talk about Shetland Sheep; Ryeland Sheep; Manx Loghtan Sheep; Teeswater Sheep etc.

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