Blue Harvest

This summer, I grew Japanese indigo

japaneseindigoplantsand woad

woadplants

in the garden for the first time. I harvested all of my plants on September 28th (already a long time ago, lots of stuff has been going on here) except the woad plants I left to let them grow a second year in an attempt to get seeds.

After harvest, I had 465 g of Japanese indigo leaves stripped off the stems and 433 g of woad leaves. I’m pleased with this harvest, which came from two rather small patches of land with maybe 12 Japanese indigo plants and a similar number of woad plants.

Following the instructions from “A Dyer’s Garden” by Rita Buchanan, I poured just-boiled water on the woad leaves (it smelled a bit radish-like) and hot (was 44C) tap water on the indigo leaves, then heated them slowly on a double boiler to 71C. It smelled a bit minty almost.

At that point, you strain the leaves out of the dye bath and add base. I used what I happened to have around the house, which was sodium carbonate (it seems that the actual base used doesn’t matter, all that matters is that you must raise the pH). I added 2 spoonfuls to each dye pot.

Then comes the magic! By pouring the dye bath several times from one container to another, you introduce oxygen, which oxidizes the precursor indican into the blue form of the indigo molecule. During this step, my woad dye bath changed from reddish brown to dark green and developed a blue-green foam, and the Japanese indigo bath changed to a classical indigo blue with this lovely blue foam on top:

oxidizedindigo

After oxidation, I added one spoonful of sodium dithionite (reducing agent) to each dye bath and let them stand undisturbed until they presented the yellow-green tinge that they should, which took about half an hour. Then it was time to dye! I left my yarn in the dye bath for about 2o minutes.

As expected, there was much less color in the woad bath, which I only used for one 100 g skein. The Japanese indigo bath dyed 3 100 g skeins, and the last one was as intensely colored as the woad skein.

I then tried the used leaves of both the woad and Japanese indigo on 10-g test skeins of alum mordanted wool, using a standard dyeing method (so just keeping it hot but not boiling for an hour). And here they all are:

indigowool

Bottom – yellow/green skein is Japanese indigo leaves on alum mordanted wool, the tan/beige one above is woad leaves on alum mordanted wool. Then the 3 skeins dyed with Japanese indigo, the first and darkest one is the lower one. Finally on top, the skein dyed with woad, maybe you can see its slightly green tinge mixed into the blue.

Seeing these colors that I not only just dyed, but also grew in my garden, I feel such a sense of accomplishment!!! And I have a renewed respect for blue. Imagine the trouble people went through in the past to get this color.

Conclusion: I will be growing Japanese indigo again next year for sure. I’m not sure about woad, since the dye content is a lot smaller.

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

Nine Daughters Socks, Done!

It’s always a good feeling to finish a knitting project, but I feel especially good about this pair of socks because they are a prototype for a pattern, and they turned out just the way I had imagined.

The only problem is that I got a little carried away when I was knitting the legs, so they are too long to fit on my leg without increases. So I had to give this pair to my mother, who is very pleased with her new pair of socks. I guess having skinny legs has advantages sometimes… trying to think of the advantages of having fat legs, but can’t think of any at the moment. Oh well! Here are the finished socks:

avocadosocks

FACTS – NINE DAUGHTERS SOCKS

Pattern Nine Daughters, a pattern that I’m currently writing

Yarn Fenris 350 m/100 g 75% superwash wool, 25% polyamide

Needle 2.5 mm

Colors Fermented avocado pits and a dash of cochineal

Conclusion I love the wave pattern on my socks and the way it transitions into rib. And I find it enjoyable as ever to knit socks 2-at-a-time toe-up

I am writing the pattern now, and it will be called Nine Daughters (see this for the story behind it). I’m planning to publish this in English and Danish (will be looking for test knitters soon).

Next pair will be just normal sock length. I’m going to keep that pair myself! If I can make them fit, that is… The yarn I’m using for my next pair is dyed with indigo only, and they have the clear blue hue I sometimes achieve with a chemical indigo vat:

indigosocks

Det er altid en god fornemmelse at gøre et strikkeprojekt færdigt, men endnu mere når det er eget design og det bliver som jeg havde forestillet mig! Sokkerne her er jeg i gang med at skrive mønsteret til – og jeg er i gang med et par til mig selv, farvet med indigo. Det første par, farvet med avocado og cochenille, endte nemlig med at passe min mor, damen med de slanke ben.

My Ancient Fashion Colors

I am knitting a very nice little shawl, Fylleryd by Mia Rinde, out of a skein of my new lace yarn, Norne (100% wool, 640m/100g). It’s dyed with a somewhat exhausted madder dyebath:

maddernorne

I like this color. I think it’s vibrant and will make a flattering shawl.

But I was surprised when, a couple of days after beginning my shawl, I went to a clothing store and saw this very color everywhere in the new arrivals.

Then some days later, I did something that I hadn’t done for at least 5 years. I bought a fashion magazine (which you don’t need when you’re anyway covered in drool, puke, breastmilk, and even worse substances). Again, “my” madder color was all over:

madderfashion

And one of the other colors the magazine informs us is fashionable right now is “aqua” or teal. I just dyed a skein the other day that looks like it was made to match this page (it wasn’t):

tealfashion

It still has some plant matter in it, but you get the idea. It’s dyed with indigo and mugwort (grå bynke in Danish) from last summer’s roadside:

FACTS – INDIGO + MUGWORT

Mordant 10% alun (after indigo dyeing)

Water Tap

Yarn Norne 640 m/100 g

Yarn:Dyestuff ratio Don’t know for indigo, 2:1 dry for mugwort

Conclusion Wonderful teal, to be repeated!

I have also dyed some other skeins of Norne with cochineal, and they will be in our shop when we open. An example:

nornemar1502

Jeg er i gang med at strikke et fint lille blondesjal, Fylleryd af Mia Rinde. Garnet er mit entrådede lace-garn Norne, og farven er et efterbad af krap. En farve der har været i omløb i turindvis af år, så jeg synes det er lidt sjovt at lige den farve åbenbart er så stærk i modebilledet dette forår. I det omfang man kan gå op i modefarver når man alligevel er dækket af snot, savl og gylp…

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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.