London

This year, instead of binge-eating and wrapping a load of stuff, then unwrapping it, we decided to go to London on a Christmas trip. I have loved all the times I’ve traveled around Christmas/New Year (Paris, Chicago, New York, and New Delhi) and London was certainly no exception.

It seems that every time I hear or read an interesting story involving plants, Kew Gardens plays a role (for example, a recent radio story about conservation of a native fern on Ascension Island). So I made it a point to go there, although we clearly saw just a very small fraction of the place.

This is a bit of what we saw in the daytime:

Shapes of the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
Meat eating plant, as big as an adult’s hand. If I had wings, I’d fly in there.
The very edge of a leaf of the Victoria waterlilly. I’ve always had a soft spot for this huge plant.

So lots of amazing plants, but I didn’t see any dye plants. The closest was henna, and although it does dye wool (and hair), I don’t really consider it a dye plant.

Henna, Lawsonia inermis

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Museum shops are always a temptation, and I almost bought “50 Plants that Changed the Course of History” by Bill Laws when it struck me that it does not contain any dye plants. Back on the shelf it went. I may be willing to accept that madder doesn’t make top 50, but surely indigo should?

We returned in the evening for “Christmas at Kew”, a lit path through the garden. It was cold and crowded, but beautiful:

The light tunnel continuously changed color, and people were glued to the spot.
The Hive, an installation by the artist Wolfgang Buttress, seen from the outside with illuminated trees.
Inside The Hive

We obviously didn’t go all the way to London without visiting Loop. I looked for naturally dyed yarns to see if they were immensely more delicious than the yarn I dye myself – and found three delicious yarns, but I’m happy to say that the yarn I dye is just as yummy. The first one is Shilashdair Luxury DK, which has quite intense colors, some of them quite vigorously variegated.

The second one is Linen Lace by Artisan Yarns. Beautiful muted colors and shiny texture. I seem to have thought just that also last time I visited Loop, because I actually have such a skein in my stash that I haven’t knit with yet.

The third is Plant Dyed by Mehlsen. I have never come across this yarn before, although it seems to be made not far from where I live in Mainland Denmark. Remarkably, they the colors are really similar to the ones I dye! So they really spoke to me, and I was really tempted to buy some of this yarn, but an internal voice of reason talked me out of it.

In the end, I walked out of Loop with “Estonian Knitting 1, Traditions and Techniques” by Pink, Reimann, and Joeste, a big, excellent, clearly edited and well written book. Lots of interesting information and old photos, and lots of techniques.

Naturally dyed yarns at Loop: Shilashdair (left), Artisan Yarns (middle), and Plant Dyed by Mehlsen (right). Photos taken with the cell phone in artificial lighting, so yarn really looks much better

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) was the last big highlight of the trip. This giant chandelier by Chihuly hangs in the entrance hall, it’s hard to say if it’s ugly or wonderful, but it’s certainly impressive. I find his work always is impressive. It’s also oddly at ease in the natural world – I remember seeing his work at the Botanical Garden in Chicago, and the Aquarium in Monterey, California. In both cases, the glass mimicked the living things that surrounded it.

The Chihuly chandelier at V&A.

The V&A had this amazing knitted baby’s gown, which had been displayed at the 1851 World Exhibition in London. It’s hard to really see in photos, but the knitting is so, so tiny. Tiny! The museum text tells us only that “Miss Sarah Ann Cunliffe of Saffron Walden, Essex, knitted this dress” and that “It was made with 1 1/2 million stitches and approximately 5,770 metres of sewing cotton”. We aren’t told which needle size was used, but I would think 1 mm or maybe smaller.

This picture was taken in low light and without flash, and does not do the 1851 baby gown justice.

There is also many wonderful tapestries at the V&A, and since they are made long before 1856, we can be sure that all the dyes are natural. These tapestries are clearly worth studying for those worried that natural dyes won’t last.

Here are a couple of details from a Belgian tapestry from 1718-24 titled “The March”. Some of the yellows have paled (as expected) which leads to a blueing out of greens produced by yellow with indigo blue overdye, but not disturbingly so. I’d call a color that looks like this after 300 years light-fast.

Blueing out of greens in a 300-year old tapestry

The only bad thing about our trip was that my potted Japanese indigo plant died while we were away. I uprooted this plant when I harvested the last of my plants in late October and it has been growing and flowering inside ever since. I cut it down, and looked inside the dead flowers. It looks like seeds, and it will be interesting to see if they will germinate.

Summer Rain

This summer passed in a big cloud of rain, which has been lovely for plants and mushrooms that came out early and in huge numbers. We went on lots of day trips, for example Skovsnogen Artspace:

skovsnogen
Skovsnogen artspace, a forest full of sculptures.

My mom has managed to finish a couple of knitting projects with yarn that I’ve dyed. An Elizabeth shawl designed by Dee O’Keefe in Einband that I’ve dyed with madder. This Icelandic wool is wonderful to knit with and to wear, but it also takes color beautifully. She also knit a pair of socks, the pattern is Laurel by Wendy D. Johnson, the yarn a sock yarn I’ve dyed purplish blue with indigo and a twist of cochineal.

wendyknitting
My Mom’s knitting successes, using yarn that I dyed with madder and indigo.

We went on a day trip to the hilly landscape at Rebild. The sheep are a perfect match for this landscape, and in the end, it is their grazing that maintains the heath (blueberries though, they don’t touch). I don’t remember ever seeing such steep hills anywhere else in Denmark – it tells you about the power of the melting waters from the end of the last ice age.

rebild_bakker
The hills of Rebild.

Rold forest is close by. There, we saw the unusual old beech trees, called “purker” in Danish. They have multiple contorted growths because they were cut down repeatedly for firewood. Fallen logs are left to rot, giving mushrooms and insects a much needed habitat.

roldskov
The ancient forest of Rold.

We also encountered biodiversity on the island of Livø. We went on a guided tour of the organic test farm, where experiments are made with growth practices for organic farming, as well as testing new crops such as quinoa and buckwheat.

It’s always a good thing to see a field of crops with lots of other plants in it, such as clover and cornflower. I’ve always loved cornflowers, but I do see them in a new light after reading about their color in “Handbook of Natural Colorants” by Berchtold & Mussak. The color comes from a supramolecular, self-assembled, complex of cyanidins, flavones, and metal ions (Mg2+ and Fe3+), and that’s why it cannot be extracted for dyeing. The complex comes apart, and the individual parts are not blue. This could be the case with other pretty colors that are impossible to extract? The amethyst deceiver failure comes to mind.

livø
On the island of Livø, off the coast of mainland Denmark.

I obviously couldn’t walk outside an entire summer without looking for lichens. I’ve added two books to my lichen library, one is a small and useful Danish pamphlet, “Laver i Tisvilde Hegn” by Hørnell, Jeppesen & Søchting. The other is the elaborate, somewhat academic “Lichens, An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species” by Dobson.

I always find the most common lichens: Evernia prunastri, Ramalina fastigiataXanthoria parietina, and Hypogymnia physodes which I’ve already experimented with for for dyeing. So this summer, I’ve looked for Cladonia species.

I’ve often seen the funnel shaped lichen (top left in the image below) on the ground and on dead trees, and I believe it’s Cladonia fimbriata. I haven’t collected this lichen, since I’m not sure how to. One funnel at a time? Also, Casselman’s “Lichen Dyes, The New Source Book” does not mention this species.

Then there’s the reindeer lichens. Until recently, I thought they were mosses, but it’s never too late to learn something new. I found Cladonia portentosa (top right) in several places this summer, and my books do say that it is common, so I’ve collected a bit for dyeing.

I’ve only seen the bottom row lichens once each this summer, so I only took photos. Never pick a lichen if you don’t know if it’s rare. On the left, I believe, Cladonia rangiferina, and on the right, Cladonia coniocraea. Casselman does mention Cladonia rangiferina as a bwm (boiling water method) lichen that dyes shades of red to brown. Maybe it’s more common in other parts of the world.

cladonia
Different Cladonia lichens.

Home again, I’m beginning to prepare for the workshop on natural dyeing that I will teach the first weekend of October.

Fructose Indigo Vat

indigo_pincushion

Quite a while ago, I knit this little pincushion, the physical evidence of my experiments with an organic indigo vat. It’s knit in Fenris 100% wool, 450 m/100 g.

The pattern is free, Peerie Pin Cushion by Ellen Kapusniak. You’re supposed to sew it together, but I, of course, grafted it closed.

I normally use a chemical vat with sodium dithionite as the reducing agent, which reliably works for me without crocking or anything of the sort. But it stinks, and I don’t like mixing the chemicals in the same house as my children.

Another problem I’ve experienced with this relatively harsh reducing agent is that the color doesn’t deepen with successive dips. This is a known problem with this type of vat. It is just as efficient at depositing indigo on your fiber as it is at stripping it back off.

And then, I was also inspired by my visit to the natural dyer Kenichi Utsuki at Aizenkobo to try the real thing myself. He holds nothing but contempt for indigo dyeing that, although it uses natural indigo, uses an artificial, chemical vat for the dyeing process. According to him, the complexity of the final result depends on the slow build-up of layer after layer of color – as does the light-fastness.

I tried using a fructose vat, using the ratio found in Maiwa’s instructions (there’s also instructions for the same type of vat here). Here, one uses the fructose as a reducing agent, since fructose is a reducing sugar. It’s not nearly as potent as the dithionite.

The instructions say 1 part indigo, 2 parts lime, 3 parts fructose. Or at least I thought I used their instructions – they say 20 g of indigo, but I decided that I would try with 5 g. That gave very little blue on my yarn, but lots of blue was left at the bottom of the vat. You can almost see how weak the color is here:

indigovat

I was later advised by the knowledgeable dyers of Ravelry that the fructose vat doesn’t scale. You have to use at least 20 g of indigo, and that should give you a living vat that you can feed more fructose and base and keep using for months.

I tried scaling it up, but the results I got were not what I had imagined. Sure, I dyed yarn blue, but the amount of color I got out of the vat still just didn’t correlate with how much indigo I put in. There was still a lot of blue sludge at the bottom of my vat.

I would love to run this vat much longer and get a continuous process going, in order to transform more of the indigo at the bottom. The vat has to become a living thing, and you have to dip and redip and so on!

I want to try this type of vat again because it is much more people and eco-friendly, and it is much closer to traditional methods of indigo dyeing than the chemical vat is.

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Bilskirner, the Final Prototypes

I’ve finally completed my prototypes for a child and adult version of the hat that I’ve decided to call Bilskirner. The design changed a bit since the first prototype… My family was not impressed with the rib edge on the first prototype, so my hands were tied. I had to make a garter edge in the final version, and I must admit it looks better.

hats1

hatsonly

In Norse mythology, Bilskirner is the home of the thunder god Thor. According to one of the Icelandic manuscripts called Grímnismál, Bilskirner with its 540 rooms is the largest building known. There are a lot of translations of Grímnismál (you can see some here), here’s one that I like:

Five hundred rooms and forty withal
I ween that in Bilskirnir be;
of all the halls  which on high are reared
the greatest I see is my son’s.

I imagine the huge home of the thunder god as an angular complex, and it feels like a match with my simple geometric unisex design.

And talking of a big angular complex, we went to one such and that’s actually where we took the top snapshots of us wearing the hats: on the roof of the new Moesgaard Museum outside Aarhus. I love the way this building rises out of the ground, it gives you the feeling that the ancient objects on display are somehow still under the ground

moesgaard

Plus, there’s the view from the top of the roof, you can see the land at the other side of the bay (Mols)

viewfromroof

We saw the exhibition there of the  Chinese terracotta soldiers that were found alongside the first emperor. They were truly beautiful!

terracotta

FACTS – BILSKIRNER HAT

Pattern Bilskirner, my pattern that is now ready for test knitting. Comment below if you want to test the pattern

Yarn Guldfaxe 100 m/50 g 100% alpaca

Needle 4.5 mm

Colors Gradient from madder to tansy, on a natural white background

Conclusion I’ve had good fun designing this hat. The rib edge on the first version drew the eye away from the color pattern, so I’m happy with the garter edge on the final version. At this point, all that remains is to race off to my dye pots to make some more color schemes!

Trip to Japan – Part Two

I’m still busy digesting all the impressions from our trip to Japan, and I wrote about our visit to Tezomeya and Avril here.

But I think the highlight of the trip in terms of natural dyeing was our visit to Aizen Kobo.

It was a rainy day (and it seems that when it rains in Kyoto, it pours!) and I was almost worrying that we wouldn’t find the place before it closed – but we made it, so I won’t say anything more about the Japanese non-system of non-addresses that make it just basically impossible to find anything. Did I mention the names of small streets are not written in Latin lettering?

But we did make it, and it was really, really worth the effort. The indigo dyer Kenichi Utsuki and his wife spent a very long time showing us everything in the shop, and explaining the entire dye process. It was an honor to be able to learn about this from the master dyer himself.

aizenkobo

Kenichi Utsuki uses a traditional Japanese organic indigo vat. Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) is grown in the Tokushima area where a handful of farms still grow and compost it in the traditional way. After harvesting it in the late summer/fall, the leaves are composted in a process that ends when the the temperature becomes too low for it to continue. The indigo then makes its way to the dye pot the following year.

The traditional Japanese indigo vat is an organic fermentation vat where organic matter in the form of wheat bran and sake is added (this is the reducing agent) and the pH is raised using limestone powder and ash lye. If you want to read (a lot) more about the principles of this and other vats, I recommend the book “Indigo – Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans” by Jenny Balfour-Paul.

I didn’t want to leave Kenichi Utsuki’s shop without a souvenir, and after some indecision I finally decided that this shibori (tie-dye) silk scarf needed to come home with me

indigosilkscarf

And here is a close-up, you can tell where the threads of the tie-dye process were. An interesting fact is that certain families tie, and other families dye (apparently this division of labor is age-old, and come to think of it, there were similar divisions in Europe at the time of the guilds).

indigoscarfcloseup

To the uninitiated, this silk scarf may just be a normal nice scarf. But the trained eye will definitely pick out the all the hand stitching and handmade ties, and above all the dramatic deep indigo blue that can only be achieved by repeated dipping.

PS: We didn’t spend the entire holiday in Kyoto – we also went to Takayama in the mountains and to Tokyo. All the places we went to were really interesting, but Kyoto is the one that makes the number one spot on my list of places to visit again!

PPS: Not all of our trip centered around natural dyeing (although my family felt that way) and I really want to share some non-natural dyeing highlights here!

First, the alley of tori gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha (I was lucky to catch a couple of girls wearing kimonos in the frame)

fushimiinari

The Great Buddha in Nara – Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s huge:

greatbuddha

Free public foot baths – city planners everywhere ought to make this a priority:

footbath

Taking Shinkansen – I read about that train when I was a child, but didn’t really expect to really one day make it there. And if I somehow made it there, I most certainly did not expect that I would be sweating like a horse and dragging a lot of heavy luggage and screaming children. But it still exceeded expectations…

shinkansen

The thatched traditional houses of Shirakawa-go, with mountains and rice fields

shirakawago

Japanese people in all age categories heavily armed with electronic equipment

photographer

And finally the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. Picture taken from the Starbucks next to it, because serious over-caffeination helps you navigate a city where changing lanes is hard when you are on foot!

shibuyacrossing

Trip to Japan – Kyoto, Part One

It’s been a bit quiet here at the blog over the last few weeks, and that’s because we’ve been in Japan on holiday. There are so many impressions to process, but here I’ll just share the ones that have to do with yarn and dyeing. Natural dyeing seems to be quite popular in Japan!

The first stop on our route was a very nice shop/workshop called Tezomeya. They have a full range of cotton clothing, which I really liked. Here’s a quick snapshot of their shop, taken with our small pocket camera so not the best, but just to give an idea:

tezomeya

Unfortunately, Japanese clothing sizes are not really made for me, a Dane of just above average height (actually, I tried on a pair of men’s trousers in another shop, and they were about 8 cm too short! The man in the shop commented that my legs were “too long”).

But my mother (who wears a much smaller size than I do) bought two excellent stylish t-shirts in organic cotton, one in a dark indigo, the other dyed with pomegranate.

The dyer (whose name I didn’t catch) was very friendly and showed me what he was up to that day – dyeing with a type of shellfish purple that is used in Japan. This is not the shellfish purple that was used in antiquity, but comes from a form of sea snail that people eat in Japan (raw or like escargots). It contains an inedible part, I’m supposing it’s some kind of gland, and this is the very part that contains a pink/purple dye. Seeing that I was interested in it, they gave me the shell of one of these creatures. Here it is:

shellback shellfront

A rather handsome seashell, I think, and quite large – about 12 cm long. Googling a bit about, it seems to me that this could possibly be a dye called akanishi, coming from Papuna venosa. This book about an excavation of an archeological site dating from around year 0, shows a picture of a shell, which to my eye looks a lot like the one I have, and says that “this shell is very common in the sea near [northern Kyushu] while we have found many crushed shells during excavations, which imply the use for purple dye”. Not impossibly far from Kyoto where we were, and 2000 years later, the species could still be a common one – so the story could fit together. But if someone knows more about this, I’d love to hear from you!

In Kyoto, we also went to the very yummy yarn shop Avril. Among other (non-natural dyed) things, I bought a skein of natural colored quite untreated lace weight silk. Here it is, posing along with an “antique” yarn spool from a Takayama “antique”/tourist trap shop. Another spool is still wrapped in its newspaper

silkskein

I don’t know yet what I’ll make with this silk, but it seems to somehow beg to be combined with something indigo blue…

The Faintest Pink

Once your eye adapts to spotting lichens, there is one in particular that beckons to you from just about everywhere – bright yellow Xanthoria parietina, growing on stones, fences, and branches.

It’s even in my holiday snapshots from last year, taken at Dybbøl, where the Germans beat the Danish army back to the stone age in 1864. Xanthoria parietina is the yellow splotches on these big boulders my daughter is posing on:

dybboel

And here is a branch with the lichen up close:

xathoria

The color of the lichen can actually vary quite a bit. The Wikipedia entry says that the deep yellow color is caused by the pigment parietin, which has a biosynthesis that is light dependent because parietin is actually the lichen’s UV protection. I have indeed often seen intesting lichens growing in the shade, and stepped closer just to find that it was actually a green-grey version of Xanthoria parietina.

The yellow parietin reacts with KOH to give red, one of the standard test one can make when typing lichens. I don’t know the exact chemistry, but I am guessing the same should happen when you steep it in ammonia?

Parietin, Wikipedia informs us, is also found in the roots of curled dock (Rumex crispus, kruset skræppe in Danish). Jenny Dean lists the roots of curled dock, dock, and sorrel as sources of reddish browns, but I’m not sure if that has anything to do with its parietin content.

But back to Xanthoria parietina. Irish lichens (one of my favorite web sources on lichens) tells us that it is a very pollution-resistant lichen. It seems to be spreading, and is even considered invasive by some people, so this one is fine to gather whenever you find it.

I have kept a jar of Xanthoria parietina since November 15th last year. It contained 42 g of lichen in ammonia (I buy the ordinary one at a supermarket and dilute it to 1%).

I try to remember to shake my jars of lichens. The book I read on the topic, Karen Casselman’s “Lichen Dyes, The New Source Book” returns to the point several times: “Aeration is important”, “Vats ignored […] may not develop properly” and so on.

But in real life, of course, it’s hard to remember. It only takes moments to take the lid off, replace it, and shake the jar, but like flossing and taking vitamins, initial determination can quickly wear off. Some weeks I may have shaken this jar every day, but at least half of the time, it’s just been on its own.

The dyeing process, on the other hand, is easy. Just pour the liquid into the pot and dye the yarn in it over gentle heat. My 10 g test skein came out a faint, but pretty, pink:

xanthoriaskein

and this is actually the best color that I have achieved with Xanthoria parietina. I think it’s a pretty color, although you are actually supposed to turn it blue by exposing the wet skein to sunlight. I tried that with a similar skein, but the blue tone it turned into was so faint that it was white that just felt a bit blue… My guess is that the initial pink should be very strong in order to get a good blue – this is also based on the photos that mycopigments posted here.

I suspect that the shift to faint blue will eventually happen if the yarn is exposed to sun at all (photo-oxidation). Red2white shows a series of light tests here, and in addition to color loss, there is also a change towards blue. But faint and possibly also quite fugitive – good blue can only come from indigo!

In conclusion, the dye from Xanthoria parietina is fun to play with, but not lightfast. I still find myself planning out more experiments, so next time I pass a yellow branch, something will go into my pocket (for a lovely day of acetone extraction perhaps?)

FACTS – Xanthoria parietina

Mordant 10% alun*

Water Tap

Yarn Supersoft 575 m/100 g

Yarn:Dyestuff ratio 1:4

Conclusion The color is pretty, but faint. And it is not lightfast

Possible improvements More diligent vat-shaking – more efficient aeration should develop the dye better. And maybe ripping the lichen into smaller pieces will also help extraction? According to Casselman, lightfastness improves if the yarn is dried before the dye is rinsed out

*Alun mordanting should not be necessary when working with lichen dyes, as they are substantive = able to bond to animal fibers by themselves. But I just had some mordanted skeins on hand, and it doesn’t interfere, either.

Lav-arten Xanthoria parietina bør, efter extraction i ammoniak, give en pink farve som skifter til blå i direkte sol. Jeg har prøvet at få denne blå frem tidligere, uden held. Denne gang har jeg ladet garnet tørre uden sol og fået en svag fin lyserød farve.

Gradient Hat

I’m in hat knitting mode right now! As soon as this hat was finished, I had the next one on the needles. The pattern, a Danish one called “hue 1” (that just means hat 1, the book has more than one hat) really makes my brain go berserk with color scheme after color scheme.

hatfromside

I’ve cheated a bit since I didn’t only use naturally dyed yarns for this project: the black background consists of different commercial yarns from my stash.

FACTS – GRADIENT HAT
Pattern hat 1 by Lone Gissel and Tine Rousing, Nordiske masker
Yarn Supersoft 100% wool 575 m/100 g (plus some commercial stuff)
Needle 4.5 mm
Colors Privet berries (from our garden, winter) Indigo + tansy (bought + collected from the roadside, summer) Reed flowers on grey yarn (collected from the seaside, summer) Yarrow (collected from the roadside, summer) Mixed lichens (collected in the forest – this was bits and pieces I couldn’t type and in the end just swept into the dye pot) Parmelia sulcata (a lichen, collected in the forest) Dyer’s polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii) (a mushroom, collected in the forest, fall).
Conclusion Love it! The colors, the fit, the fox fur
hatalone
It’s often been said that any naturally dyed colors fit together, and I do think that is the case. I did take some care lining up colors that blended well one into the other, but they were not very hard to find in my big basket.
Another observation: I think natural dyeing is the best kind of yarn tourism. When I look at the hat and its colors, I’m immediately taken back to the places where I collected the dye stuffs.Well, not so much the privet berries from our garden, but other wonderful places we walked during the nicest months of 2014.Just one example. The reed flowers are from our august summer vacation in the southern part of Denmark, right on the border with Germany. I picked my flowers by the ocean, and I just had some fun trying to find the exact spot on the map. And I did it! The exact coordinates are 54.894576, 9.626491, and you can even see the mass of reed growing there when you use the max zoom of the map… Right next to a tiny harbor where you can stand on the planks and watch crabs hurrying around on the bottom. And when you look over the water, you can see Germany. Imagine, all that worn on a hat in the form of a stripe of yellow-green yarn!
Mønsteret til hatten er er fra Nordiske Masker af Lone Gissel og Tine Rousing, og det mønster bliver ved med at køre rundt i mit hovede i forskellige farvekombinationer! Her har jeg strikket den på en sort baggrund som er fabriksgarn, jeg havde liggende. Regnbuen fra grøn til varm gul er mine egne naturfarvede nøgler.

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