Dyeing with dried Japanese indigo leaves

The easiest way to save Japanese indigo is to dry the leaves. This is also the only option, really, when you grow a small amount of plants.

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In traditional Japanese dyeing with Japanese indigo, the harvested leaves were composted (fermented) in a very specific way, sprinkling the leaf mass with water and turning it over. The timing had to be just right, and Jenny Balfour-Paul writes in “Indigo, Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans” that the indigo farmers referred to the packing of the leaves as “putting the baby to bed”. Every time the leaf mass was turned over, sacrifices of rice wine were made to Aizen Shin, the god of indigo.

Composting Japanese indigo was serious business – a difficult and big undertaking. The composting process can only get going if the leaf mass is sufficiently large, on the order of 100’s of kilos (or several hundred pounds). The end result were composted leaves that contained a higher percentage of indigo than the fresh ones. This mass is known as sukumo.

People who only grow a few plants (like I do) have to find a different method. Having read about it on Deb McClintock’s page, I decided to dry my Japanese indigo leaves last year. And I did manage to do so after some trial and error.

The dry leaves look like this:

Dry leaves of Japanese indigo, 2016 harvest.

Some of the leaves look a bit blue, and that does make you think there’s indio. I’ve been wondering why drying the leaves would work (the must have been good reasons for the traditional sukumo method) and I’ve come up with the following story:

In living leaves there’s no indigo, only a precursor called indican. Here, the meaning of the word precursor is a molecule that can undergo some reaction(s) that produce indigo.

Indican production is thought to be a defense mechanism for the plant. In living leaves, the indican is primarily found in a compartment within the cell called the vacuole (shown by a Japanese team of researchers in this paper).

The plant cell also contains enzymes that are able to break down indican, producing indoxyl and sugar, but these enzymes are found in other compartments of the cell.

When you pick leaves and dry them, cell membranes will break because of the loss of water. So at some point, indican and enzymes from other parts of the cell will mix, and indoxyl is formed. When two molecules of indoxyl combine, blue indigo is formed.

I used Deb McClintock’s version of John Marshall’s method but I fiddled about quite a bit, finding my way to do it. The main change is that I didn’t discard the yellow dye, so I get a green-teal instead of blue.

Green-teal with dried leaves of Japanese indigo. From left to right, the skeins are 1st, 2nd and 3rd dip in a vat made from 50 g of dried leaves (3rd skein was naturally grey). The skein on the left was dipped 3 times in a vat made from 25 g of dried leaves. I’m knitting from the first skein already, the striped boy’s jacket in the background.

For my first attempt, I used 50 grams of dried leaves to dye 3 100-gram skeins of wool. The vat stopped working early on, so I added a bit of this, a bit of that. That lead to no recipe, but the result was completely fine.

My next attempt was made during an indigo workshop I taught a while ago, and I know it was hugely optimistic to bring such a difficult project. That vat only gave a slight hint of mint green, but at least we got a lot of brilliant blues from the ordinary indigo vats.

Afterwards, I started thinking that the vat may have gone wrong because the temperature was too low. This also makes sense when thinking about this failed experiment where I kept leaves lukewarm for a longish time.

High temperature during part of the vat preparation seems to be important, and that is a part of the method I ended up with for my third attempt:

First, I simmered 25 grams of dried leaves in water (enough to cover them) for 20-30 minutes. It wasn’t a rolling boil, but some bubbling going on.

To dye blue, the first water should be discarded and new water poured on the leaves. I did not do that, so I kept the yellows from the leaves.

I added 5 grams of sodium dithionite and about 1 tablespoon sodium carbonate. Check that pH is 9, and add more sodium carbonate if it isn’t.

Then, I simmered the vat for 15-20 minutes. It seems wrong to boil a vat after adding reducing agent and base, but in my attempt where I didn’t boil it at this step, it didn’t work.

I took the pot off the heat and added another 5 grams of sodium dithionite. I let it sit until the temperature was 40-50 C, then strained the leaves out. For my first attempt, I left the leaves in to get as much out of them as possible, but that is not a good idea. At this point, they are quite slimy and stick to the yarn.

When the temperature was 40-50 C, I put the pot on gentle heat to stay at that temperature. At this point, the vat is ready for use. I dipped a 100-gram skein of wool 3 times, and it turned a nice teal.

I’m impressed by the dye content of the leaves. 50 grams of dried leaves gave nice color to 300 grams of yarn, and 25 g gave a brighter color to 100 grams of yarn. My last vat was not exhausted, it had turned dark the next day because the indigo had been oxidized. I didn’t have more yarn on hand, but the vat could have given light shades on another skein.

Wool dyed teal with Japanese indigo, accompanied by fresh and partially dry leaves.

But I’ve saved the best for last: light fastness. I tested light fastness of the first skein from the 50-gram vat from July 1st to September 1st. The left side was covered and not exposed, right side was exposed to the light. I can’t really see any difference between them, and that means the light fastness rivals that of indigo blue. And that is quite impressive for a green-teal color!

Light test of Japanese indigo teal. Two months of sunlight did not affect the color.

PS: I’m growing Japanese indigo again this year. I harvested the first leaves on September 17. this year, and they are drying. They look even bluer than the ones from last year…

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Knitting Better Stripes

Knitting stripes is so addictive. Here’s a simple technique to make the color change from one stripe to the next smoother when knitting in the round

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I’m working on the design for a girl’s dress in multicolor stripes. It has a turned picot edge and it’s knit top-down. The first prototype is knit in Fenris (100% wool, 450 m / 100 g or 492 yd / 3.53 oz) dyed with madder, indigo, woad, Japanese indigo, and a series of purples from cochineal overdyed with indigo.

Dagmar running over a harvested field on one of the last days of summer.
The dress has a round yoke and turned picot edges along neck, arm, and lower hem. Notice the cluster of trees in the left side of the photo – a burial mount from antiquity.

In order to make the color change from one stripe to the next as nice as possible (even though it’s on the back), I used this technique:

After changing to a new color, first knit an entire round, then remove the end-of-round marker.

The first stitch that was knit with the new color is now the right-most stitch on the left needle – the stitch you were just about to knit. Insert the left needle through the stitch right under it from the right side. Don’t let go of the stitch that was already on the needle. You now have two stitches instead of one, and they are not the same color:

Two stitches together, different colors because they come from two different stripes.

Now, knit the two stitches together (with a k2tog) and replace the end-of-round marker. The change of round has now moved one stitch to the left, but that is OK.

The two stitches knit together, and the marker replaced.

The result is this:

The yoke of the dress with jogless stripes.

Not perfect, but a huge improvement over just cutting the old yarn and adding the new.

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Brisingamen

I’ve fussed over this design for a long time. I’ve knit it 3 times, and I’ve had a small army of knitters test the pattern. Now, I’m finally ready to release it!

Brisingamen lined hat – photographs by Lars Bjertrup, Wendy Colding, and yours truly.

The Brisingamen hat is lined all over, and has a design that fell into place when many little pieces came together.

The yarn, for one thing. I’ve long dyed on the Norne base, a single ply pure wool yarn (700 yd / 3.53 oz). It has a very slight stiffness that makes it perfect for lace knitting. I hate knitting lace with very tiny, slippery, unmanageable yarn. Lots of such fine and expensive yarns exist, and people knit huge shawls out of it, it’s just not my cup of tea… The only problem is that Norne is not a very soft yarn.

The solution: knitting only the outside in Norne. Lace is (yea, that goes without saying) full of holes, so the lining solves two problems: it makes the hat warm, and the inside soft. The lining is knit using a new yarn I recently started dyeing: Bestla, a 65% merino and 35% silk mix (656 yd / 3.53 oz). It is amazingly soft. I’m very sensitive to itchy wool, and I find it very soft.

Another big part is the lace pattern. The overall pattern repeat came from a Japanese stitch library, but I fiddled a lot with it.

The first prototype, knit in white, turned out child-sized:

Dagmar wearing the first Brisingamen hat. She’s 7, so even with her thick hair, her head is smaller than an adult’s.

The final version has cables between the large lace motifs:

The Brisingamen hat in madder dyed yarn. Photo by Lars Bjertrup.

The large motifs gradually transition into smaller forms, and end in a rosette of small cables:

The crown decreases.

Finally, there’s the construction of the lining. Care should always be taken when claiming you’ve invented something new, but I have never seen other patterns that use this construction. I started with two provisional cast ons. After knitting a bit, they are knit together. Now, the brim is knit from one set of stitches, and from there, the outside of the hat. Later, the other set of stitches is used to knit the lining.

The lining, soft and seamless.

The result is a hat with double fabric everywhere. Lightweight, but warm, and above all else, soft inside. It will be too much if I toot my own horn any more now, but I really am happy about this design.

You can buy the pattern on Ravelry or have a look at the naturally dyed knitting kits in my Etsy shop.

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Green Variations

One of the great things about natural dyeing is that you can keep overdyeing until you get the color you want.

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I recently dug out some green skeins of Norne that were not exactly what I had imagined, and had been sitting in the storage basket for a while. I decided to overdye them to get as many greens as possible. So I wound skeins for dyeing and kept the last part of the skein the way it was.

One skein (skein 1 in photo below) was a medium blue from indigo overdyed with a couple of afterbaths from pomegranate and weld. They gave a rather weak yellow, too weak to match the blue tone, resulting in a quite anemic green.

Another skein (skein 12) had the same problem. Again, a medium indigo blue, this time over dried mugwort dye. I didn’t know at the time I dyed this (as I do now) that dried mugwort only gives a rater weak beige.

Then there was a skein with the opposite problem (skein 5). It’s dyed with a strong (1:1) weld and overdyed with weak indigo, giving a green/Chartreuse that’s just too intense.

Finally, there’s a skein that was actually a good color (skein 9) but I just didn’t have any plans for it. I dyed it long ago with tansy and a madder afterbath to achieve a warm yellow. I wound all the skeins into smaller ones and overdyed them with indigo, weld, and walnut hulls.

Overdyeing and then some more overdyeing, to get as many greens as possible.

Skeins 6, 7, and 8 come from skein 5 and are just overdyed with stronger and stronger indigo, and there’s no surprises there. The strong yellow base ends up as a clear forest green when the indigo component becomes large enough.

Skeins 10 and 11 are yarn from skein 9 overdyed with a bit of indigo and a bit more. Here, skein 10 was a nice surprise, a wilted green, one of my favorite shades of green. I suppose I am really revealing myself as totally ignorant of color theory, but I did not know that this type of green contains such a large proportion of red.

I made a dye bath with 12 g of weld and dyed 25 g of yarn from skein 1 in it. That turned into skein 2 – not a surprise that the forest green emerges when you lift the level of yellow to match the blue in intensity.

Then I made a dye bath with 25 g of walnut hulls. 25 g of yarn from skein 12 turned into skein 13. Again, the ignorant dyer was surprised – turns out army green is based on brown. The afterbath turned yarn from skein 1 into skein 3, another army green.

Skein 4 is yarn from skein 1, overdyed with a rather intense indigo. Here, the weak yellow base gives a really nice teal. Skein 14 is yarn from skein 12 just overdyed with a bit more indigo than it already was.

Finally, there’s skein 15. The yarn comes from skein 12, and was first dyed in the weld afterbath. It didn’t change much, so I dyed it in the walnut hull bath, which had already been used twice. Again, not much change, so I dipped it in indigo. That still didn’t change much so I left it because I ran out of ideas.

Skein 16 and 17 are both dyed with stinging nettle, said to contain a green dye. In the middle of May, I picked a big dyepot full (and they have no problem stinging through thick garden gloves) and dyed two 25-gram skeins. First skein 16, then skein 17 in the afterbath, followed by modification with a bit of iron. None of the skeins 16 and 17 are green but they work really well along all the other greens. Here they all are, along with an indigo-dyed skein, wound in cakes and ready to knit:

All the green yarn cakes, ready to knit.

I am experimenting with knitting very short scraps of all these colors together, more about that another time. So far, it looks like this:

Norne cut in short scraps and knit – color changes by doubling both the new and the old yarn.

But the search for greens doesn’t stop here. In addition to stinging nettles, May is also full of landscapes covered by wild chervil and broom.

I tried dyeing with common broom last year, but picked the plant too late in the season and got very little color out of it. In their “Dye Plants and Dyeing”, Cannon & Cannon write that flowering stems of broom should be harvested in April or early May. I managed to pick them late in May, which is probably fine since the book is English and most of England is south of Denmark.

On alum mordanted Fenris (pure wool), common broom gives me the greenish-beige that Cannon & Cannon promise. They show an almost black with copper, so I tried modifying with copper water for a few minutes. I have a jar that contains the innards from an old wire in household ammonia, and I just added a bit of it. This gave a very pretty green, which is leaning towards brown.

Wild chervil (also picked in late May) gave the expected fragile yellow with a touch of green. To some eyes nothing special, and for sure, there are many ways to get such tones. But I do find it lovely, it just captures the freshness of spring and early summer. Modified with iron, the color darkens and completely looses the freshness.

Yellow and greens dyed with common broom and wild chervil. The large skein on top is dyed with wild chervil, the one below the same but modified with iron. The third skein is dyed with common broom, the fourth common broom and copper.

Red Madder

Madder is one of the most ancient dyes, and one that is described in pretty much any book on natural dyeing. But every book seems to give a slightly different method for obtaining the sought-after madder red. There’s only one thing to do – experiment!

A bunch of madder dyed skeins. They’re all dyed in slightly different ways, so the colors have turned out differently.

Madder was one of the first natural dyestuffs I tried just when I began learning about natural dyeing, many years ago. I followed Jenny Dean’s “Colours from Nature”, the first book I bought back then (now, of course, I have a largish library on natural dyeing).

Dean gives a dyeing method for larger pieces of madder root, not powdered root. She rinses the root in cold water, then boiling water, and then adds the water for the actual dye bath. I tried her method for my first attempts with madder, but only got a series of tan/coral shades. Sometimes slightly more pink, sometimes more towards orange.

After my first attempts, I was ready to just give up. Coral was not exactly my favorite color, and I didn’t make any further attempts with natural dyes. That was until I happened to talk to some dyers at iron age and viking markets. One of them told me, that she always got good reds with madder by using destilled water.

After that, I happened to find a copy of a classic Danish dye book from 1972, “Dyeing with Plants” by Ester Nielsen. Nielsen steeps madder for 24 hours, and mentions nothing about changing the water at any point. Also, she mentions nothing about the type of water. Over time, I arrived at a variant of Nielsen’s method, using rainwater instead of distilled water because rainwater is free. I leave the madder to steep overnight in my dyepot, add alum mordanted wool, heat slowly to 55 C, and then wrap the pot in a blanket and leave it until the next day. So, yarn and madder in the pot together, and no changing the water.

I’ve achieved many clear reds with that method, but sometimes, the color has turned out more orange than red. That’s the case with the yarn for this hat:

Brisingamen hat in madder dyed yarn.

I do like orange, but it’s red you’re after with madder. Also, I’ve become increasingly confused the more I’ve read about madder dyeing, and I am not the only one. As mentioned, Dean uses a hot extraction (a soak in water that is discarded) whereas others, for example Ecotone Threads use a cold extraction.

Madder contains many different dye compounds. According to “Handbook of Natural Colorants” by Berchtold & Mussak, more than 35 different anthraquinones have been detected in madder (anthraquinones are the type of molecules that alizarin, the important red in madder, also belongs to). The different dye compounds have slightly different colors, so the the point of (cold or hot) extraction would be to remove some of the yellow or brownish ones.

I decided to test, whether I could get rid of my orange reds by using an extraction method. For this test, I’ve used my usual 12-gram skeins of Fenris (100% wool) mordanted with 10% alum. In all the experiments, I used 12 grams of madder powder per skein, leaving the madder in the dyepot the entire time. A few writers say that the madder should be removed from the dyepot before fiber is added, but most agree to leave it in.

According to Liles’ “The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing”, alizarin has a very low solubility in water, and that’s why the madder should stay in the pot. As alizarin in solution is taken up by the yarn, more will be released from the madder. In all cases, I dyed the yarn by heating yarn and madder to 55 degrees C keep it there for 1 hour, and then leave the yarn in the dyebath overnight.

In my little experiment, I tested the following, both with rainwater and tap water: steeping the madder overnight and dyeing in the same water, filtering out the madder and dyeing with it in new water, and finally pouring boiling water over the madder and then dyeing with it in new water.

Filtering a small amount of madder in an old fashioned coffee filter.

Results below:

1: Madder steeped overnight in rainwater, yarn dyed in the same water.

2: Madder steeped overnight in tap water, yarn dyed in the same water.

3: Madder steeped overnight in rainwater, filtered, run-off removed and yarn dyed in new rainwater.

4: Run-off from 3 (the liquid that ran through the filter).

5: Madder steeped overnight in tap water, filtered, run-off removed and yarn dyed in new tap water.

6: Run-off from 5 (the liquid that ran through the filter).

7: Poured boiling water over the madder, filtered immediately, yarn dyed in new rainwater.

8: Poured boiling water over the madder, filtered immediately, yarn dyed in new tap water.

9: Run-off from 7 (not repeated for 8, as it would be identical.

The madder dyed skeins – theme and variations.

Skein 1 is dyed with just one volume of rainwater, which is my usual method. Luckily, skein 1 is one of the good reds in my test. Skein 2 is the same method, but using tap water. Skein 1 is only a slightly bit redder than skein 2, so using rainwater instead of tap doesn’t seem to have the importance that I thought. I measure pH of both baths, and they were both neutral after steeping overnight.

Skein 3 and 5 are dyed with madder that was steeped overnight, and then filtered to remove the first volume of water. If it was true that steeping and removing the water would remove yellow and brown tones, then skein 1 and 3 (both dyed in rainwater) and skein 2 and 5 (both dyed in tap water) should be different, but they are not. My conclusion is, that cold extraction does not remove yellows and browns.

That conclusion also seems to be correct when you look at skein 4 (rainwater) and 6 (tap water), which are dyed with the run-off from 3 and 5. If the extraction removed yellows and browns, then skein 4 and 6 should have those colors, but they don’t. They are tan/coral, exactly the kinds of colors I normally get from second, third and later afterbaths. So this could mean that cold extraction just removes a small fraction of the overall color present in madder.

Finally, the hot extraction. Skein 7 (rain) and 8 (tap) are dyed in new volumes of water added to the madder after the hot extraction. They are weakly colored, and the shades are very similar to those of skein 4 and 6. So most of the color is just gone after the hot extraction, and has ended up in the run-off that was used to dye skein 9.

Skein 9 has a good, saturated red-orange color, which is not that surprising. Temperature is the only factor that more or less all authors agree on. The temperature mustn’t get too high, as that brings out orange or terracotta tones, exactly what I’m seeing here. If  the light fastness turns out to be good, then this is actually a very good method for dyeing orange.

It’s nice to observe that this little experiment fits with my very earliest observations with madder. Deans method gives skein 8, a pale tone that would definitely be disappointing if you are trying to dye red.

So, in summary, the conlusions of my little experiment are:

Reds obtained with rainwater and tap water are not very different, and rainwater gives a red that is only very slightly better than the red with tap water. This conclusion is for my tap water, and may be entirely different elsewhere.

Cold extraction is not efficient for removing yellows, and hot extraction removes almost all the color.

I usually keep the temperature around 55 degrees C, but I have never checked myself to see how sensitive the color is to temperature. And I haven’t even begun to look at pH and calcium. My next experiments will be on those factors.

Hypogymnia Lichen Windfall

I return from many of my walks with pockets full of lichen windfall. One of the common finds under trees is two slightly different species of Hypogymnia, a good dye lichen.

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Lichen windfall is perfect for dyeing, since it does no damage to just pick up the fallen lichens. I’m therefore writing a small series of posts on the different species of lichens typically found in windfall, and I’ve already written about Ramalina fastigiata.

This time, I’ll have a look at Hypogymnia physodes and Hypogymnia tubulosa, two common species that are closely related (that’s why part of the name is the same). Also, they do look alike – both are grey-green and foliose (flattened, leaf-like). Hypogymnia physodes, here seen covering a small branch, has flat lobes, sometimes with soredia on the outer part. Soredia is one of the way that lichens can reproduce, and break through the surface in lots of little dots, making the surface look grainy or powdery. In Hypogymnia species, the soredia are found on the bottom side, which folds up on the tips of the lobes, making the grainy lower surface visible:

Hypogymnia physodes covering a small branch. Detail on the right shows the lobe tips folded up, displaying the graininess because of the soredia.

Hypogymnia tubulosa looks a lot like Hypogymnia physodes, but has hollow lobes. In the right side of the image below, the hollowness is visible since I cut one of the lobes:

Hypogymnia tubulosa with a cut lobe on the right side.

Both species are very common, and grow in many places, including on trees, stones, and wooden surfaces. They like growing on acidic substrates, and Dobson’s “Lichens, An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species” mentions that Hypogymnia physodes is among the species least sensitive to sulfur dioxide pollution. Hypogymnia tubulosa is a bit more sensitive.

The dye content sometimes differs a lot even for species that are otherwise very similar. So I decided to test if the two species give the same color.

I used unmordanted yarn, since lichen colors are substantive. I made one dyebath with 9 g of Hypogymnia tubulosa, and put a 12-gram skein of Fenris (pure wool) and a 5-gram skein of Bestla (merino-silk) in. Another dyebath was 15 g of Hypogymnia physodes, and two 12-gram Fenris skeins and one 5-gram Bestla skein went into that one. So half the weight of lichen compared to fiber in both cases. I modified one of the Fenris skeins in an iron afterbath.

Both lichens give the same color – a fine, dusty yellow, the completely expected shade from bwm lichens. So in conclusion, no reason to sort Hypogymnia physodes and tubulosa. The merino-silk takes the color a little less well than the pure wool, and an iron afterbath does significantly darken/sadden the color at turn it green.

Left: pure wool and merino-silk dyed with Hypogymnia tubulosa. Right: pure wool and merino-silk dyed with Hypogymnia physodes, further right a pure wool skein dyed with the latter, modified with iron.

Spring Cleaning

In the summer, when all the plants stand tall, I usually collect good bundles of tansy, yarrow, and other wild dye plants. And they have to go before the next harvest.

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My dyestuff stores from last year contained big bundles of mugwort and tansy, a smaller amount of yarrow, a box full of dry velvet pax, and dry pomegranate shells (among other things).

Spring has shown itself from its worst side this year, but I’ve managed to get outside with my little stove on an extension cord, working to bring down the amount of stored dyestuffs.

First, velvet pax. I found quite a nice harvest of this mushroom last year, more than half of what i found was from driving through a small forest, spotting the mushrooms, and hitting the brake!

I had 190 g of dried mushrooms. On 100 g of wool, that gave a good green (middle skein in photo below) and the afterbath a green-beige (right). I could not capture the color in the photo, but I was pleasantly surprised how well the dried mushrooms retain the color potential, including the green tones. In conclusion, velvet pax is a very good dye mushroom, fresh or dry.

There’s a beige skein on the left in the photo below. That’s 100 g of yarn, dyed with enough dried mugwort to fill a large dye pot completely. I even gave it an iron afterbath. Thinking back, this is actually the second time i get dull beige from dry mugwort, and the conclusion is that it does not dry well. The fresh plant, on the other hand, gives a nice yellow-green.

From left: dried mugwort and iron, dried velvet pax, 1. and 2. bath.

Next up, pomegranate shells. I had saved a very modest amount of shells, from just two fruits, weighing 85 g dry. I followed Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour” and put the shells in a plastic bag and pounded them with a hammer. To test the new (to me) dyestuff, I wound two 12-gram skeins of Fenris (100% wool) and a small 5-gram skein of Bestla (silk-merino).

The pomegranate shells gave nice yellows on wool and silk. I modified one of the wool skeins with iron, and that gave a darker, greener tone, that actually looks a lot like the color from velvet pax.

Next time people eat pomegranates around here, the shells will be saved. They give a nice color, and they are available during winter, where little else is there in terms of fresh colors.

Pomegranate shells on silk-merino (back) and wool (middle), and modified with iron (front).

Several large bundles of yarrow, tansy, and mugwort turned into the yellow-beige first dye for a new round of matrix dyed yarn for Baby Vindauga kits. The second yellow os weld, and the skeins are overdyed with indigo as usual to produce the 9 different blues and greens.

Matrix dyed wool in blue and green.

And once I got started, a matrix in purple and blue, using cochineal and indigo, also appeared.

Matrix dyed wool in purple and blue.

The matrix skeins turned into contrast colors for new Baby Vindauga Kits, you can see them at my Etsy shop:

Purple-blue Baby Vindauga Kit.
Green-blue Baby Vindauga Kit.

A Herd of Hats

What’s the collective noun for hats? “Herd”? “Flock”? “Mob”? “Head”? Or, in my case, “parliament”, or even “pandemonium” may even soon be appropriate. I can’t seem to stop knitting them.

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I’ve been working on two new designs for hats, a lacy one that leapt out at me from a Japanese pattern dictionary, and one in stranded knitting that came about by swatching. Yes, swatching.

Brisingamen is inspired by a Japanese pattern, and knit in two layers all over. The entire inside is knit in Bestla, a 35/65 mix of silk and merino, the entire outside is Norne, my 1-ply pure wool lace yarn. It took a bit of hard thinking to come up with a way to line both the hem and the rest of the hat – in the end, I went with two provisional cast ons. That may sound incredibly complicated, but it’s really not. And the result really is excellent. Since the gauge is small, the double fabric is thin, but very warm, even when it’s windy.

Here’s Dagmar on a snowy day a while ago, wearing the first prototype, knit in undyed yarn. It turned out too small for me, but fits her just perfectly.

Dagmar happily wearing the Brisingamen prototype.

For the final version, I only had to do small recalculations. A triple cable replaces the single line of twisted stitches between motifs, and the rib is longer. Here it is, almost done, in yarn dyed with 1:1 madder. I’ve dyed with madder on pure wool so many times, and still love how it takes the color. Silk merino takes the same dye in a slightly different, no less delicious, way. Perhaps it is the silk sheen that alters the look just slightly.

Brisingamen hat, the outer layer is pure wool, the inner silk-merino. Both dyed with madder root.

Folkvang is a tam that was inspired by Bohus patterns. Since I first read about Bohus patterns, I’ve wanted to make something using them as a starting point.

I started swatching to try patterns out. In the beginning, I wanted an arched pattern, so that’s how the swatch starts out (right side). But the arch didn’t behave, and I realized that you would have to work 3 colors in one row to make an arch that separates areas with two different background colors. I hate knitting 3 colors at a time, so I continued the swatch with rectangular shapes.

First, a white rectangle on a blue and green background. It’s OK, but the purl stitches on the long edges don’t add anything. Next, a blue rectangle on beige background. Purl stitches inside the rectangle add texture that makes the pattern more interesting. Now, I was on to something. I changed to white background, kept the dark indigo blue as the contrast color, and added in a bright green band of background color. I was getting close, and was finally happy with the pattern when I let the white background peek into the purled inside of the rectangle, and softened the bright green with a bit of beige.

The Folkvang swatch. White background with contrast colors blue (indigo), dark green (tansy and indigo), beige (velvet pax 2. bath), and bright green (reed flowers).

The vertical lines of blue purl stitches just beg to be lined up with purl stitches of a corrugated ribbing, so that’s what I did:

The Folkvang tam, flying off the needles.

The hem is lined with silk-merino. The outer part is knit in Fenris, which is excellent for color knitting, but really not that soft.

In order not to break up the corrugated ribbing when progressing from the hem to the main body of the hat, I used a new (I think?) way of closing the hem in color knitting.

In the photo below, you see the corrugated ribbing in front. The provisional cast on is undone, and the live stitches put on a needle, sitting behind the work. Now, holding the yarns appropriately for color knitting (blue is my dominant color, so it’s towards the left because I knit continental), I purl the purl stitch with blue, then knit together 3 white stitches with white, one from the front needle and two from the back. This leaves the purl columns unbroken, very satisfying to the obsessive knitter.

Closing the hem in color knitting.

Indigo & Cotton

More and more things around here fall into my big indigo vat!

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I’ve often written about indigo, so I don’t think anybody doubts my undying love for the blue stuff. I usually dye on wool, but indigo works on all natural fibers, so here’s a bit of indigo dyeing I did on cotton.

I found this cotton blouse at the thrift shop, it’s from Thailand, and I like the neckline and the tufted fabric. But, the sleeves make it look very frumpy on me, plus it’s beige and too small.

Thrifted Thai cotton blouse – beige before indigo.

So the top obviously went into the indigo vat, several times. Even with a good strong vat, cotton comes out just medium blue, whereas dyeing wool in the same vat gives a rather dark blue. And also, I had terrible trouble dyeing an even blue even though my vat is large enough.

My finished top after many indigo dips, with new seams all over, sleeves removed and wedges inserted into the sides. The color is uneven, but this photo does exaggerate the unevenness.

Many dips did not remove the unevenness, so I am beginning to understand why the traditional use of indigo is usually for shibori and other techniques that create patterns. Yes, these patterns are beautiful, but it’s also extremely hard to make just an evenly blue fabric. Even in the modern use of indigo for jeans, the threads are dyed first and woven afterwards, and I don’t think this is any coincidence – if the threads are unevenly dyed, it will not show much after weaving, whereas if you dye the finished fabric, everything shows.

Oh well. I dipped the top until I liked the intensity of blue. I may return to it some other time, maybe I’ll overdye with dark tones from iron and tannin.

When I had the right blue, I redid all the stitches that show with thread of a matching blue color. I removed the sleeves and cut 4 wedges out of the fabric. Then, I ripped the side seams and inserted 2 wedges in each. This gave me a new side seam so I could easily redo the side slits. I’m happy with the result, and the shape is now a lot more flattering on me. No pics of me wearing it, though, I’m not really fit to appear in front of a camera today!

But in conclusion, wedges like these can rescue lots of clothing that has become too small for some reason.

Wedges to make the size larger and form a new side slit.

I had a bit of left over fabric from the Thai top, and that went into another project along with some cotton thread that I used for wrapping a shibori project  (more about that one another time). Because the thread was wrapped tightly, it did not dye uniformly, but that’s OK.

Enter pair of destroyed toddler pants. I’m not sure why an almost 3-year old crawls outside on pavement, what I do know is that it wears through the knees in no time. The crotch was also busted, so I decided to try my hand at some boro – the Japanese mending technique. This is the crotch patched. Not pretty, but very functional:

The simplest boro.

Here’s a progress photo. I’ve finished one knee, which was not worn all the way through, but had just worn very thin. I put a piece of fabric from the Thai top on the back, and seamed perpendicular lines of running stitches – sashiko. The other knee has worn through and has two holes.

Pants during boro mending. The sashiko stitching is closer where the fabric was most worn.

This is what I did with the other knee. Seamed around the edge to stop fraying, then I seamed the fabric onto the back side using circular shapes dictated by the holes. My boro stitching may not conform to very orthodox boro rules (if they exist?), but I do give myself some points for the fact that my boro is true mending, not decoration on purpose-made holes. I foresee more mending like this in my future.

Sashiko stitches around the fixed knee.

Germination Test

I harvested seeds from my dye plants last year, for the first time. So instead of just counting on the seeds, I decided to test their germination before spring truly arrives.

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Last year, I harvested seeds of dyer’s coreopsis and woad from the garden, not a big surprise there. Coreopsis is an annual, and will make huge numbers of small seeds. My woad plants were in their second year, so their seeds were also expected.

The surprise was my Japanese indigo. When I harvested my last plants on October 24th last year, several plants were flowering. On a whim, I potted a plant that I had just ripped out of the soil with roots, and brought the pot inside. There, it calmly kept growing, actually until we went to London for Christmas – the plant had died when we came home. When I was going to throw it, I noticed the seed, good numbers, actually. But it did spend the summer outside with the bees.

Japanese indigo seeds.

I tested the germination of all my dye seeds by placing 10 seeds in moist kitchen paper towel in a ziplock bag that I put under the microwave oven where it’s warm and dark. From January 31st, I let the seeds germinate for a week, and got this result:

Coreopsis, harvested September 27th – 5 out of 10.

Coreopsis, harvested October 24th – 6 out of 10.

Woad – 5 out of 10.

Japanese indigo – 9 out of 10.

Not bad! That was on February 7th, so I decided that this was still too early for the coreopsis. Also, I just sewed it directly last year. So I tossed the sprouted coreopsis for now.

The sprouted woad and japanese indigo, on the other hand, went into seed-starting pots where they now grow. Last year, I found that I was too late in the season, and that was with germination beginning on  April 16th. My notes are sporadic, but it seems they grew in the seed-starting pots for about a month, and in larger pots outside for another month before I transferred them to the garden. So that would have been mid-June.

Various sources disagree on when to start seeds indoors, maybe because they are written for different climates? Recommendations range from early May, 2-3 weeks before the last frost to 6-8 weeks before the last frost.

According to (the authoritative?) “Handbook of Natural Colorants” chapter 7, “Indigo – Agricultural Aspects”, Japanese indigo should germinate inside in April and be transferred to open land in June – and that just happens to be what I did last year (although I hadn’t read that chapter yet). The book goes on to conclude that Japanese is a good crop for Central Europe, but not for England and Finland because the growing season is too short.

I imagine that it’s possible to beat the short season by transferring well grown plants, and doing it earlier than June. So that’s why my sprouted indigo is allowed to continue growing indoors, and more seeds are germinating. Even though this is what it looks like outside:

The frozen wasteland…