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.

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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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…

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.

Harvest

I’ve finally finished harvesting my dye plants and seeds, and it has been an abundant year in the dye garden. In addition to woad seeds, I’ve also harvested seeds of dyer’s coreopsis. I harvested some of them on September 27th, and a lot more when I removed the last plants on October 24th. I don’t know when they should be harvested, but I suppose I’ll see if any of them sprout next year.

coreopsisseeds
Seeds of Dyer’s Coreopsis. Lots of them, and they are tiny.

Then there’s my Japanese indigo, which  grew really well this year. I harvested most of my Japanese indigo, 22 plants, on September 27th. I tried two different ways of drying the leaves.

First, I stripped the leaves off the stems, spread them out outside on a sunny day. They almost dried, and I moved them inside in a mesh hanger before dewfall that evening. In a couple of days, they were completely dry.

dryjapaneseindigo
Drying Japanese indigo bunches. Only the outer leaves dry this way!

Second method (because stripping the leaves off was so time-consuming) was borrowed from Deb McClintock – I hung bunches of leafy stalks to dry inside because by then, the season had changed and the first fall storms and rains were here. But after a week, only the tips of the leaves had dried, because the thick stalks retain all the moisture. I’m sure that would not be a problem under a hot Texas sun, but this isn’t exactly Texas! In the end, I stripped the leaves off the the half-dried stalks and let them dry. So although option two seemed easier, it’s not really an option here – next time, I’ll know there’s no way around a bit of tedious work.

I ended up with a bit more than 400 g of dry leaves, and they are showing a blue tinge. Definitely a good sign.

indigoleaves
My dry Japanese indigo leaves with a blue tinge.

The rest of my Japanese indigo, maybe 8 plants, stayed in the garden. In late September, the plants had quite a few buds, and I wanted to leave some to see if they would flower and maybe even produce seeds. I followed the weather forecast closely to see when the first night frost would come. That was forecast for the evening of October 24th, so I went to our garden that afternoon to harvest the last plants. And they did flower – but no seeds.

indigoflower
Japanese indigo flowering in late October.

The last crop was used for a bit of experimentation, trying to extract indigo from the fresh leaves of Japanese indigo using the instructions from Wild Colours. I stripped the leaves off the stems, washed them briefly, packed them in a pot and filled it with rainwater.

I then left it on my hot plate on low heat, switched on for 15 minutes every 2. hour. This kept the temperature around 35 – 45C, and I left it for 36 hours.

Then, I added sodium carbonate to raise the pH to about 9, and started pouring the liquid back and forth between two buckets. The reddish brown foam is supposed to turn blue (because pouring oxidizes the precursor indican to indigo) but nothing happened. Nothing. The next day, I took out a small part of the liquid, added some sodium dithionite, and tried dipping a scrap of yarn. Again, nothing. So in the end, I tossed the entire experiment. I think the reason for this failure was the very late harvest of my last Japanese indigo. So I haven’t tried my dried leaves yet, but I hope they contain some indigo! I’ll return to the extraction method next year with plants harvested earlier in the season.

My Dye Garden

Summer is leaving us, and I feel like summing up my gardening for the year. I had 2. year woad plants, and just a few plants gave me a big pile of seeds. That’s despite the fact that I moved those plants last fall. This is just some of the seeds.

woadseeds2
Lots of woad seeds.

I also grew dyer’s coreopsis, which gave me these lovely orange shades a couple of years ago.

coreopsiswool
Coreopsis orange on wool.

But dyer’s coreopsis is also a pretty bicolor summer flower, and much visited by pollinators:

skonhedsoje16
Coreopsis blooms in red and yellow.

Unfortunately, I was a bit late in harvesting my coreopsis, so I just took a few stalks of the freshest flowers. I left the rest for now, to see if I can get seeds out of them. It make take a while longer, judging from a comparison between my flowers and this excellent overview.

This year, I’m attempting to grow weld for the first time. I expected tall flowers to attract loads of butterflies, but the plants only produced these leaf rosettes. Looks like the stalks will come next year.

vau16
First-year weld rosettes. Can you tell that I weeded around them just before taking the picture?

I’ve also started growing madder for the first time, and my plants are rather scrawny. I hope they’ll do better next year, if they survive winter, that is.

krapplanter16
Madder, not doing that well…

My Japanese indigo, on the other hand, is really having a good time. This year, I’m planning to dry the leaves and try this method.

japindigo16
Japanese indigo, doing really well!

The Dye Plants are Sown

Today, I’ve sown some of my dye plant seeds in small pots indoors. The night frost has almost gone, you see…

Last year, I had luck growing Japanese indigo and woad from seeds that I cultivated indoors before planting outside, so I’ll do the same again with Japanese indigo this year. I’m skipping woad because Japanese indigo has a much higher dye content. Also, I have some woad plants growing from last year, so they might flower and produce seeds.

I’m also sowing seeds of weld and madder, and that’s the first time I try those. Weld seeds look like poppy seeds, but the plant is related to cabbage and mustard. It is said to have exceptionally fragrant flowers the second year, so I hope it’ll survive that long!

seeds_txt

Madder seeds are a bit special, angular and sticky

madderseeds

Now, all the seeds are in their little pots. Madder seeds just under the surface, weld and Japanese indigo seeds just on the surface.

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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.

Summer Days Dyeing

Summer finally came roaring with several days of temperatures around 30C (yea, hot for Denmark!). We’ve been outside almost all the time, except the times I’ve had to go into the house and check my dye pot on the stove.

Our garden is wonderful right now, the highlights are Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)

sweetwilliam

flowering thyme with bumblebees

thyme

and elder at its midsummer best – so fragrant

elder

But I also have some potential dyes growing! Here is pot marigold which is growing everywhere in our garden because of extremely efficient self-seeding. It should give a nice yellow at some point

potmarigold

And then there is this. My woad plants. Previous attempts I’ve made were completely unsuccessful, so I’m very pleased that they are growing at all

woad

And finally, Japanese Indigo. I had to put them in a plot of hard and dry soil because we ran out of good spots, so I don’t know how they will grow. I’ve never grown them before!

japaneseindigo

But instead of just waiting around for these plants to grow, I’ve been on several good walks to gather dyestuffs.

On the very last day of June, my daughter and I ventured out to gather some of the bounty of wild growing lupines that have been flowering for the past few weeks. And it was probably good we didn’t wait any more, because most of them had already produced seeds on the lower half. I gathered just the flowers

lupinflower

150 g of purple lupin flowers went into the dye pot, and I waited for my green yarn to finish. Only it wasn’t green, but just one more yellow. A nice dusty baby yellow, but – yellow

lupindyedwool