Turned Hems

“Homemade” or “handmade”? With knitting, it’s all in the details. Here, I’ll show how I finish a turned hem invisibly.

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A while ago, I put up some pictures of this little stripy dress (still no pattern out, but it will eventually come!)

Dagmar wearing the stripy dress, with an antique grave in the background. The stripes are dyed with madder, indigo, and cochineal.

But I’m also working on a matching cardigan for boys. Both have turned hems, a very nice edge on knits in my humble opinion. In a turned hem, the knitting is doubled, and the turn is accomplished by knitting a row that has an inherent bend.

For girl edges, I use a picot (yarn over, knit 2 together) to make the bend:

Turned hem, this one turns around a row of picots.

For boy edges, I simply use a purl row to make the bend, that gives a neutral-looking hem that would fit most any project:

Turned hems, the girly picot hem and and neutral purled one for boys.

To make a turned hem at the beginning of a knitted piece, I use a provisional cast on. I knit a few rows, make the bend (picots or a purl row), then knit another few rows. After unraveling the provisional cast on, the hem is closed by a row of knit 2 together. It is also possible to use an ordinary, long-tail, cast on, and then sew the turn hem to the inside – some might find that easier, but it gives you a much lumpier hem.

But things are a bit different when finishing with a turned hem. The boy’s cardigan is knit bottom up, so it is finished with a turned hem at the neck. Just before closing the hem, this is what it looked like:

The boy’s cardigan, just before closing the neck hem.

In the picture above, I’ve knit 8 rows of stockinette, purled one row, then knit another 8 rows of stockinette. At that point, you can simply cast off all the stitches and sew the edge to the inside, but again, that gives you a lumpy hem. Instead, I do a kind of semi-kitchener stitch where I weave through the live stitches and the inside of the fabric.

These pictures were taken last summer, when I was finishing the dress (that’s why I have such terrible gardening hands). See the captions below for instructions:

The hem with the knitting finished. All stitches are sitting on the knitting needle, and the picot row gives the fabric a bend. Break the yarn with a sufficiently long tail, and thread a tapestry needle on to it.
Step 1: Insert the tapestry needle into the first stitch on the knitting needle knitwise. Pull through, letting the stitch remain on the knitting needle.
Step 2: Sew into the first edge stitch that was initially knit. Follow along the yarn, and pull through.
Step 3: Follow the yarn, duplicating the stitch. You are actually sewing through the bump of the previous stripe. Pull through.
Step 4: Sew through the first stitch on the knitting needle from the back, letting the stitch fall off the knitting needle. Pull the yarn trough, and tighten the stitch to match you knitting gauge. This completes the treatment of the first stitch on the knitting needle.
Repeat steps 1-4 for each stitch on the knitting needle. The result is a completely invisible graft!

This is how I finish the hems. I find it easier than casting off and then seaming, because you have the bumps on the back side to guide your tapestry needle.

I almost cannot believe that I’ve been sitting on these photos for so long. Summer is just a distant memory around here, we had snow yesterday. This is the next picture on the camera roll, from a walk on the same days as the hem grafting above:

A summer walk. I almost can’t remember what sunlight on the face feels like…

Lille Bold

I’ve knit a handful of small balls from leftover Fenris wool, and I have to say my family has never shown more interest in my knitting! “What are you making?”, “Can I have one?”

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I’ve just finished knitting a new version of my Vindauga Baby Blanket, which is much easier to knit than the original version (and I’ll release the updated pattern on Ravelry one of these days). And I have to say it puts me in an excellent mood to look at all this garter stitch and stripes:

Vindauga Baby Blankets, top one dyed with tansy and indigo, bottom one cochineal and indigo.

Looking at the leftovers of both white background color and different blue and purple contrast colors, it dawned on me that I could make a small fun project. And here it is: Lille Bold (that’s Danish and just means small ball). Anyone knitting the Fylgje Shawl with a kit will also have plenty of leftovers.

The ball is knit in small short-row modules in garter stitch, stuffed, and then seamed.

I use a very simple – possibly the simplest – short row technique. After turning, simply slip one stitch purlwise with yarn in front. That’s it, I don’t knit stitches together later or anything of the sort.

Several examples of the Lille Bold along with some tiny leftover skeins, dyed with indigo and cochineal.

PATTERN

Yarn, Gauge, Needles, Notions

Fenris pure wool, 450 m / 100 g (492 yd / 3.53 oz) white main color and a contrast color. Each ball takes about 5 g of main color (25 yards) and 3 g of contrast color (15 yards).

A pair of 2.5 mm (US 1) double pointed needles, a tapestry needle.

My gauge was about 12 garter stitches to 5 cm (2 inches), and that gave me a ball with about 7.5 cm (3 inches) diameter.

Abbreviations

bo – bind off, CC – contrast color, co – cast on, k – knit, MC – main color, RS – right side, sl – slip, sl1wyif – slip 1 stitch purlwise with yarn in front, st(s) – stitch(es), WS – wrong side.

Instructions

Using CC, co 24 sts. Leave a tail of at least 20 cm (8 inches) to use later. K 24.

MC Section

Change to MC – leave CC attached for later.

Row 1 (RS): sl 2 sts, k 20, turn.

Row 2 (WS): sl1wyif, k 13, turn.

Row 3: sl1wyif, k 7, turn.

Row 4: sl1wyif, k 9, turn.

Row 5: sl1wyif, k 11, turn.

Row 6: sl1wyif, k 13, turn.

Row 7: sl1wyif, k 15, turn.

Row 8: sl1wyif, k 16, turn.

You have now worked one repeat of the pattern. Now, repeats are worked by knitting 2 rows with CC, then working the 8 rows of the MC section. Work 9 repeats in this way. You now have a total of 10 repeats.

K 1 row with CC. On next row, bo the 2 first and 2 last sts. Break CC yarn.

Work MC section once. Sl 2.

Use CC ends to sew the bound-off CC sts to the co. Thread yarn through all the garter bumps of the end, tighten, and weave in end.

Stuff the ball with carded wool or fiber stuffing. With MC, you can either cast off all sts and sew the ball closed. Or, you can sew the live sts to the co edge.

That’s it. Happy knitting!

Lille Bold

Dansk mønster findes her.

Madder & Chalk

Most sources agree that you need chalk to unlock the true reds of madder. I’ve always had a difficult time reconciling that with my own results, so experiments were called for.

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I spent the past summer with a lot of experimental dyeing, and one of my themes was how chalk affects madder red.

Earlier in the year, I had experimented to see if I could remove the yellow tones from madder by soaking the madder in hot or cold water and discarding that water before dyeing (extraction) but according to my experiments, that’s not possible.

So the problem remained: sometimes I get a nice saturated red, other times a less saturated, more orange tone, although I use the same dyeing method.

My earlier experiments didn’t show a large difference between reds from rain water and tap water. The red with rain water is only slightly better than the one with tap water, but that is because the tap water is soft here.

But I have heard from several other Danish dyers that they have hard tap water, and that destroys the madder reds for them. I’ve also seen that myself where I used to live before, in a place with hard water.

This observation is quite consistent – but – is directly contradicted by a large body of work by many different authors, of mostly English-language dyeing books. Here’s a small selection from different authors:

“Chalk or slaked lime is added, particularly in areas with soft water.” John & Margaret Cannon: Dye Plants and Dyeing, p. 76.

“Add a tablespoon of ground limestone or chalk dust.” Rita Buchanan: A Dyer’ Garden, p. 52.

“If the water is deficient in lime, brighter shades are got by adding a little ground chalk to the dye bath.” Ethel Mairet: Vegetable Dyes, p. 42.

“Powdered chalk or limewater should be added to the dye-bath if the madder is ‘acid’.” Quote from Hellot’s “Art de la teinture des laines et étoffes de laine” in Dominique Cardon: Natural Dyes, p. 113.

I could go on like this. Source after source points out that chalk should be added. Some say if there is not “enough” or ir if the madder is “acid”, others just always add it.

It’s not clear where the idea comes from, but it seems to have been in circulation for a very long time. Hellot, quoted by Cardon, published his “Art de la tenture” in 1750, and it has been a very influential book.

The plant it’s all about – madder, Rubia tinctorium. Here a second-year plant growing in my dye garden in the middle of the summer.

In order to understand the effect of madder and chalk, I carried out a series of dyeing experiments on wool.

In all experiments, the proportion of madder to wool was 1:1, and I dyed at approx. 55 degrees C. I let the madder soak in water overnight, then dyed in that dye bath. During dyeing, I held the temperature for an hour, then let the yarn cool off in the bath until the next day.

First, I wanted to find out if it is chalk in tap water that affects the madder color, or something else. And by “something else”, I mostly mean iron, which may be present in tap water, and can affect colors a lot, when present even in small amounts.

For comparison, I began by dyeing a skein in tap water.

Then, I added chalk (from a garden center) in the amount of 4 g/L. That corresponds to about 2 Tsp in 10 L of water, giving a very slightly elevated pH of 7-8 instead of plain 7. The amount was just a guess, at that point in my experiments, I didn’t have a good idea of how much to use. I tried adding that amount both to tap and rain water.

Finally, I tried quicklime, which is a very strong base. So I neutralized it with a strong acid, since base destroys wool.

The results from that first round are below. On the left, yarn dyed in tap water, a paler red, the usual shade with tap water. When I add chalk to tap water, the color darkens slightly, just slightly. With rain water and chalk, the color is a bit lighter that with tap water alone, but very similar. So the conclusion so far is that chalk is the component in tap water that affects the color, not something else like iron.

But to be more sure, and having read that chalk for the garden can contain iron, I also tested quicklime. Calcium in tap water and in chalk for the garden is CaCO3 (calcium carbonate). Quicklime, on the other hand, is Ca(OH)2 (calcium hydroxide), a strong base. It was impossible to measure accurately, so I just took some of the chalky water in my bucket of quicklime and added it to demineralized water. This way, no other metals or minerals are present. I then neutralized the quicklime with a strong acid (I don’t remember which one).

The result of the quicklime experiment is seen at right. A very dusty pale red. So my conclusion so far is that yes, chalk has an effect, which is to make madder red paler and dustier, not more intense red. And yes, the component of tap water to affect the color is chalk. And the more of it (the harder the water), the larger the effect.

Madder dyeing in tap water, tap water with added chalk, rain water with added chalk, and demineralized water with neutralized quicklime.

After this first round of experiments, I started thinking that I had added too much chalk. It might just be that there was a good effect at a certain low amount, but that too much chalk added could ruin the color. Having searched through my entire dye library, I finally found the figure 1-2% mentioned by Mairet. Most books just give nonsensical directions such as “a spoonful per dye pot”.

In order not to miss the sweet spot, I tested addition of 0.2, 1, 5, and 10% chalk. The result below was not entirely what I had expected. There really is no difference between dyeing in pure rain water and adding up to 5% chalk. The color began changing very slightly at 10% added (becoming paler) but the difference is so small that the photo does not capture it.

Wool dyed with madder in rain water with no chalk added, and with 0.2, 1, 5, and 10% chalk added.

I couldn’t really decide if this was a good or bad result. Chalk in relevant amounts does not have an effect. It does not help unlock the good reds, but it also doesn’t do any harm.

But if all the English-language dyeing books are wrong, are the Danish dyers then right? Does the red color improve with less chalk? Below, a comparison of madder dyeing in rain water, tap water, and demineralized water. There is the usual difference between rain and tap water, the former giving the better red.

I took extra care with the yarn dyed in demineralized water. After mordanting, done in tap water as usual, I washed the yarn in rain water several times, and also cleaned the glassware for dyeing in rain water. That treatment gave the best red in the entire experiment, so I have to conclude that less chalk gives better red.

Dyeing with madder in rain water, tap water, and demineralized water. Tap water gives the least good red, demineralized water the best.

Below, I’ve shown all the colors in one picture so it’s easy to compare them.

All colors from the test together. All are 1:1 madder on wool, and cards grouped together were dyed simultaneously in glass jars over a water bath.

So my result is very clear – less chalk gives better reds. But one mystery does remain. Why do all dyeing books from the last 3 centuries state that madder gives better reds when chalk is added?

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Madder’s Family

Madder has several relatives that are also rich in useful reds. These plants are native here in Denmark, and have been used as red dyes a very long time back.

Believe it or not, the year is drawing to a close. So, I want to try to summarize all the many dyeing experiments I did over the year.

This summer, I searched for madder’s relatives, to find as many as possible. Madder, Rubia tinctoria, belongs to the madder family (Rubiaceae) in which you also find the bedstraws (the genus Galium).

Galium species do not contain as large amounts of red dye as cultivated madder does, but several of the species grow wild here in Denmark, and their historical use is well known.

Madder plant growing in my dye garden.

The first Galium species to present itself was cleavers (Galium aparine). It’s everywhere! Anybody who has ever walked outside surely know this plant. Or at least its seeds. They are extremely good at clinging to clothing and dog fur. The whole plant is covered with clingy hooks – the very same that cultivated madder has.

My attempt to dig up cleaver roots quickly came to an end. The roots have the thickness of sewing thread, so a lot of digging is required. But the roots are said to contain dye, so I’m keeping them on my list of maybes.

Cleavers up close. You can see the characteristic clingy hooks on the seeds. The very same that madder is covered with.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is the plant mentioned by most natural dyeing books. I tried growing it in the garden this year, seeding it outside in the spring, but nothing grew.

Whenever you’re looking for a specific plant or mushroom, but haven’t found it yet, it’s simply invisible. But, once you find it, you start seeing it everywhere. The relationship between Lady’s bedstraw and myself developed exactly like that over the summer. Once I found it, it was everywhere! For example this coastal grassland:

Coastal grasslands with very sandy and infertile soil, perfect for Lady’s bedstraw. I took this picture in a region of Denmark called Mols.

 

Lady’s bedstraw truly thrives in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, along with yarrow and St. John’s wort.

Lady’s bedstraw growing in a big cluster.

Unfortunately, several walks with a shovel only yielded a very small handful of Lady’s bedstraw roots – so little that my scale didn’t register. Like with cleavers, the roots are extremely fine, and they tangle up with roots of grass etc. In combination with stony, sandy soil, the digging job gets hard. To get your hands on a larger pile of these roots, I suspect you have to grow them in a well-prepared sandy soil without obstacles. Anyway, I tried dyeing with my small handful of roots, but it gave almost no color.

But then, on a forest walk, this plant turned up – hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo):

Flowering hedge bedstraw photographed in July.

Hedge bedstraw is also mentioned by different books as a dye plant, so I brought out the shovel once more. Again, it was difficult. The forest soil is obviously full of tree roots that make digging quite impossible. But I managed to get a couple of handfuls of roots, mainly because hedge bedstraw roots are not that thin. I dug up the roots on July 9th. The next day, after cleaning, the slightly dried roots weighed 30 g.

My pile of hedge bedstraw roots, with reds clearly showing under the out bark.

I soaked the roots in cold water overnight, then dyed my usual alum mordanted 12-gram skeins of Fernris to test the dye. I removed the overnight water because Jenny Dean does, but I should have concluded from my madder experiments that it is not necessary to do so. The water used to soak the roots overnight simply contains a small amount of dye, with the same properties as the dye you extract when you heat the roots in water (the small 6-gram skein laying across the others in the picture below was dyed with the discarded water).

Then, I dyed alum mordanted 12-gram skeins in a 1st and 2nd dyebath, in exactly the same way as if it had been madder: heating up to 60 degrees C, then leaving the yarn in the dyebath until the next day. The first bath gave a convincing red-orange, which would not have been a surprise had it been madder I was dyeing with. The dye is less abundant in hedge bedstraw than in madder, but the difference is actually smaller than anticipated. Here, I used 30 g of roots on 12 g of yarn, with madder, you would get this shade with less than 100% weight of fiber.

After the second bath, which also worked well, I was evidently feeling on top of things, and threw in a 50 g skein. There was not much dye left, but to extract everything that was there, I left the bath with yarn in a jar outside. That was in mid-July.

A couple of times, I heated the entire jar over a water bath to give the process a helping hand, but the rest of the time, it was just standing there. I turned over the yarn to get an even dye, and for a while, it also fermented. Both time and fermentation should help release the dye. Also, I imagine that a skein of yarn in the bath will soak up the dye as it is released, permitting more to come out (alizarin has a rather low solubility in water). In any case, my large skein stayed in the jar for 6 weeks, and turned out a pleasing coral color. And, the dye bath ran clear, so there was probably nothing left in the roots.

Dyeing with roots of hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). 1st bath (left), 2nd bath (middle), and the large skein on the right is fermentation of the 3rd bath. The small skein across was dyed in the water used to soak the roots overnight.

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Fylgje

Fylgje is a very large winter shawl, knit in stripy modules. I’ve worked on variations of it for a long time.

Hurray! The pattern for my Fylgje shawl is now released, in Knitty Winter 2017. I’ve been following the magazine for such a long time, so I can hardly believe that my pattern is now part of it.

I submitted a lot of photos, but the ones I though would be considered the best were not picked. Since I’m not trained in photography, I’m still always wondering what makes a good photo. I know which ones I like, but many times, I’m not completely sure why.

Anyway, here’s a handful of photos that are not in the pattern:

My mom wearing the shawl, gazing into the forest. Several people have commented that she is very stylish, and I agree. This is a picture with no make-up or photoshop, so she looks like this in real life.
This is taken later in the year, and I like the slope of the shawl on the shoulders.
Walking down the street. I know you’re not supposed to take photos into the sun, and the background is rather dull, but I like the movement and the line of the lamppost’s shadow.
With my daughter. She wasn’t supposed to be in any photos so she is in her pajamas. We wrapped her in one of the shawls so no nightwear is showing. I think it makes them both look a bit funny, but they look very pleased!

Looking for Fylgje knitting kits? Find them in my Etsy store.

Folkvang Tam

Folkvang is a classic tam with a couple of twists

Folkvang tam, here shown in indigo blue with accents from velvet pax and reed flowers.

Color knitting makes a wonderfully warm fabric, but the yarns that behave the very best in stranded knitting are not very wonderful right against the skin.

I think I’ve solved that problem with the design for the Folkvang tam. The first twist is that it begins with a turned hem, lined with laceweight silk-merino, Bestla (600 m / 100 g, or 656 yards / 3.53 oz). Then, the rest of the hem and hat is knit in Fenris, my pure wool 2-ply fingering (450 m / 100 g, or 492 yards / 3.53 oz).

So you have the warmth and strength of Fenris, but only the soft Bestla touches your forehead.

Inside the hem, there’s lovely soft Bestla silk-merino.

The other twist is the color knitting. I’ve admired Bohus knitting for a very long time, and this design draws its inspiration from the Bohus tradition.

Bohus designs are often asymmetric in the direction of knitting, so motifs don’t have a center that they repeat around. During swatching, I did away with that, settling on a simple square pattern with repeated rounds. The important thing that I kept from traditional Bohus is purl stitches in the colorwork. That is what really makes the design, and I am a bit in love with the way that purling makes the background colors mix together:

The blue Folkvang tam on the left, on the right, a version dyed only with mushrooms: the grey-green is from velvet pax, the pinks from Cortinarius species.

To celebrate the release of the pattern, is is 50% off until Sunday November 26th at my Ravelry store.

And, the first 25 to comment below get a free copy of the pattern.

Looking for Folkvang knitting kits? They’re at my Etsy store!

Easy Knitting

Last week, I brought my yarn and kits to a market, and took the chance to chat with lots of people.

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Lots of people stopped by, some drifted by on their round of the entire market, others stopped to chat.

There were two things that most people told me. The first one: they really liked my colors, and didn’t need to be told that I only use natural dyes. And I completely agree! These colors basically shout that they are natural:

My color circle – blue of course from indigo, purple from cochineal and indigo overdyeing, reds from madder, yellows from tansy, greens from indigo + plants, and dusty greens from whole leaf Japanese indigo.

The second one: people seemed to like my designs, but thought they were complicated. And well, I sort of knew that. I use techniques like provisional cast ons, grafting and so on, because it gives better results. I insist that these results are better, but I do understand that many people find such techniques difficult, or think they are.

So here’s my resolution. I will write easier knitting patterns. I’m reworking my Vindauga Baby pattern, making a version that only uses standard knitting techniques. I’m going to keep the picot edge, that one is easy, and very decorative. My plan is to release the pattern again, this time with an easy and a challenging option.

Purple, easy Vindauga Baby blanket.

Finally, I’ve deployed my secret weapon. My Mom! She dug through all my yarn, and found this:

Fenris dyed with indigo (left), with indigo and cochineal (middle), and Norne dyed with whole leaf Japanese indigo (right).

To begin with, she has her hands on the blue-green skein of Norne (that sort of had my name on it). Her plan is simple, geometric garter lace, it’ll be interesting to follow the progress.

Tansy Experiments

Among some natural dyers, tansy is seen as quite boring. It’s a common plant, easy to find, easy to dye with, and it contains the so-common yellow – just like so many other plants. But tansy has a long cultural history, and its yellow dye is of high quality!

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Tansy’s common name is simply an abbreviation of its latin ditto, Tanacetum vulgare. I recently ran into a nice (and plausible) explanation of the name in an old Danish book by an important author on natural dyeing, Esther Nielsen. She writes that Tanacetum is probably a derived form of Athanasia (a-thanasos means immortal). Supposedly, the immortality is a reference to the fact that the flowers keep their strong yellow, also when dry.

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare.

Tansy has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. The plant is poisonous, especially to insects, and was used against intestinal worms. Today, eating tansy is not recommended, and it’s now known that its toxicity comes from the alpha-thujone content in all parts of the plant.

Nevertheless, it was used as a herb in the past, and it does have a very strong smell. I usually boil tansy dye baths outside!

As a natural dye plant, tansy has a lot of advantages. The plant is very common, so you’ll find it growing at just about any roadside – at least here in Denmark, which is in tansy’s native range. Since the plant is so common, it’s completely fine to harvest as much as you need, as long as you cut the flower stalks of, leaving the rest of the perennial.

The yellow color from tansy is very light fast, in my light tests, it always comes out as more fast than weld yellow, which is known for its good light fastness.

According to this paper (Phytochemistry 51, p. 417, 1999), tansy flowers contain a lot of apigenin and luteolin, the same yellow dyes that you find in weld. The leaves contain slightly different compounds (that are similar to luteolin, but not exactly the same). So it makes perfect sense that leaves and flowers give slightly different yellows. I’m not sure, though, why the light fastness of tansy yellow is better than that of weld yellow in my experiments…

After reading about dye extracts (somewhere), I decided to try making a tansy extract. Extracts are obviously a compact way to store dyes, but I thought that they might be interesting for other reasons, for example printing on fabric.

I even found a paper where the authors described concentrating tansy extract to the point that it became a powder. So this is what I tried:

500 g (just over a pound) of fresh tansy flowers and leaves (picked August 11th) were boiled in enough rain water to cover them. I left the pot until the next day, strained out all the plant material, then boiled the extract to concentrate it until it didn’t loose any more water. I also dried it in the oven at very low heat. And the result was a small amount of extremely sticky tansy syrup:

Tansy syrup – dark brown, smelly, poisonous.

So my extract clearly didn’t turn into a powder, but a very dark and sticky syrup. Ages ago, in organic chemistry class, I was taught that syrup means impure product. But I guess that is expected in this case, since I just concentrated a crude extract of the plant, which is a mix of many different compounds.

To test my syrup, I simply dissolved it in water and used it to dye 100 g (3.5 oz) of wool (Fenris) instead of exploring more exciting options. I wanted to see how the dye was affected by being turned into syrup and back again. Here is a comparison with 100 g of wool dyed with 500 g of fresh leaves and flowers (left), 500 g of fresh leaves and flowers dried and then used (middle) and tansy syrup dissolved in water (right):

Fenris pure lambswool dyed with fresh tansy (left), dry tansy (middle), and tansy syrup (right).

The picture above shows, that the color from tansy is the same, whether fresh or dried flowers and leaves are used. And that is good to know – drying does not affect the dye.

The skein on the right, dyed with tansy syrup, is a bit browner than the two others. But other than that, the syrup treatment didn’t really affect the dye potential. Next year, I want to explore plant syrups more!

But once I got started with tansy experiments, more followed. While cleaning up my dyestuff storage, I found some dry tansy leaves from last year (2016). I wondered if long storage would affect the color – in the picture above, there’s no difference between yellow from fresh and dried tansy, but I only stored the plants for a couple of weeks.

I also wanted to answer another question: In order to extract the dye, is it more efficient to finely crush plant matter, or is it OK to throw whole leaves in the dyepot? So I powdered some dry 2017 leaves in my mortar to see if the color intensified, and the result:

12-gram skeins of Fenris, each dyed with 25 g of dry tansy leaves. Whole 2016 leaves (bottom), whole 2017 leaves (middle), and powdered 2017 leaves (top).

The skein dyed with powdered 2017 leaves has exactly the same color as the skein dyed with whole 2017 leaves, so there’s no gain by powdering the leaves. Luckily, since that process is really cumbersome. The 2016 and 2017 leaves don’t give exactly the same yellow, but very close. I don’t think this small difference is caused by an extra year of storage – rather, the fact that the plants didn’t grow in the same place, the difference in weather and harvest time might have caused the small difference in color.

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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