Hand Dyed Rare Breeds Fibre

I just love dyeing.  It is so self indulgent to be able to use all those colours.  It’s something I never tire of and I like to think of all my lovely hand dyed yarns going to other people’s homes for them to enjoy (although I have to admit I sometimes struggle to put them in the post as they can sometimes be difficult to part with).

Up until now I have stuck to only selling hand dyed merino, alpaca and BFL yarn as they are gorgeous fibres to work with and to wear, and they are the best known.  However, the UK has over sixty varieties of sheep all with their own attributes, but you don’t often get the chance to use the fibre from any of them.  This has resulted in many of them becoming endangered and being listed as rare breeds.  I do believe this is only due to people not knowing about these fibres and not having access to them.  The Shetland Sheep were on the list of Rare Breeds but a concerted effort was made in breeding and promoting them.  They are no longer considered to be a Rare Breed and a lot of people are benefitting from their high quality, soft wool which comes in a large variety of natural colours and is excellent for making lace shawls, warm jumpers and strong socks.

I have very sensitive skin and I have to be honest and say that if I am knitting or weaving something to wear next to my skin I am likely to still use BFL because it is exceptionally soft, has a fantastic lustre and, as an added bonus, is also British.   Other British wools are useful for different things, though, so I thought I would give people a chance to sample some of them by stocking some hand dyed tops from Rare Breeds in the ‘Hand Dyed Combed Top’ and ‘Hand Dyed Locks/ Fleece’ sections of my Etsy shop for spinning or felting.  Each listing has information on the Rare Breed the wool came from and gives you some ideas for what that particular fibre is good for.

Most farmers will say there is no market for wool but any knitter knows that is not true.  Yarn is very expensive (and imported from the other side of the world) and what is available to buy is limited.  That is not to say that wool is only useful to knitters and spinners.  It is the best product out there for stuffing pillows, duvets and mattresses.   It has been used for centuries for making carpets, coats, rugs and curtains and is a really good form of insulation for the roof, floor and walls of your home.  Useful in the garden too in the compost heap and also as a mulch.  Wool is fire redardant, anti bacterial, heat regulating, natural and renewable.  It has excellent insulating properties and is highly absorbant.  It is the perfect fibre.  We have an adundant supply here in the UK and we should be using more of it!

Hopefully, in a few years time all our native British breeds of sheep can be removed from the Rare Breeds list and our wool industry will be revived to what it once was.



So, Not Purple Lichen Dye

I’m not really disappointed.  I did want purple but natural dyeing is all about experimentation and sometimes (or mostly in my case) it doesn’t end up as planned.

Three months ago, yes that was a whole three months, I collected some lichen to use in dyeing.  Now, lichen is a protected species and can only be picked up if it has fallen and unattached itself from its host.  I have to say that it is very abundant here in Cornwall but, even so, I did collect all my lichen from the road where it had fallen following a storm.

Lichen can be used as is to make browns and rusts, but I wanted to attempt purple.   (Apparently the orange coloured lichen you see on stone is the best one to use to make a purple but the green/grey lichen is the one I found and the orange variety does not normally detach itself so was not really an option, although I will keep a look out for any on our walks.)  To extract a purple dye the lichen has to be soaked in ammonia for three months.  So that is what I did, giving it a shake every day.

It did appear to turn purple initially then it went an orange brown.  After three months it was still an orange brown and dyed my Kent Romney handspun a light beige.  So, not purple but it is a colour!  Sadly, I suspect that if I had just used the lichen straight away without fermenting it I might have achieved some brighter rust colours.  Maybe next time.


Solar Dyeing Results

So, the moment of truth.  A whole month has passed since putting my solar dye jars out in the sun and at last I can find out what, if anything, has happened to my fabric.

A couple of days in: To start with the spinach dye smelt like farmyard manure, so I thought it was probably best not to put my lovely fabric in it, so discarded that solution.  Fortunately my fennel plant had grown enough to harvest some leaves.  I just put them in a net bag on top of the sea water and soya mordanted fabric in a jar and added water.  Even the next day I could see the fabric had turned to a lovely pale green/ yellow – perfect.  The avocado one has gone a peachy colour – not quite the ‘flesh pink’ promised.  The plum skin dye has already turned the fabric a gorgeous dusky pink.  I hope that lasts and I’m not really sure about the purple onion skins in the last jar.  The water is a red colour, but the fabric looks taupe?  The onion skins were the replacement for the black beans.  I researched them some more and discovered that they prefer a cold dyeing process.  So, I put some more beans in a large dye pot with cold water and left it for 24 hours before removing the beans (which were in a net bag) and adding some fabric which had had an alum and soda crystal mordant the previous day.  I left this for another 24 hours.  After a few hours it turned a beautiful mauve (gorgeous and I probably should have removed it at this point) but when I checked again the following morning hoping it would be more intense, it had turned a vibrant blue, still lovely but not what I wanted, so I added bicarbonate of soda and it changed to a sage green.  Very pleased with that.  I know it looks grey in the pictures but it is sage green.  Actually, in these pictures the blue does look really nice.

So, a month on:

The jars all look lovely.

I hung all the fabrics up to dry in the shade and decided not to wash them until after they have been stored for a few months.  The first jar I emptied was the purple onion skins – a very strong onion smell!  I’m not sure what you would call the colour, (an orangey brown?) but I like it.  I painted a pattern with an egg resist onto this fabric before it was dyed and this shows up as a dark brown.  It will be interesting to see how this alters when the fabric is washed.

The avocado dyed fabric, which also had an egg resist painted on came out a lovely pink colour with dark pink flowers and it didn’t smell too bad.  The third one, the plum skins, was the slightly disappointing one.  It had faded a bit from when I last checked it and was even paler than the avocado dyed fabric, but was still pretty and it had a really lovely plum smell.  Now, for the fennel.  Maybe if I had added more fennel foliage it would have turned out  with more of a green tinge, as it had appeared after the first day in the sun.  As it is, it came out pale yellow and slightly mottled.  I will definitely use this fabric if I can get rid of the aroma of fennel combined with eau de farmyard manure!!  I think I might need to store it separately from my other fabrics.




Solar Dyeing

I have always been intrigued by using things from the garden and recycling things you would normally just throw away.  My garden is not large enough to live off, a small holding would suit me better – maybe one day.  A couple of years ago I started researching natural dyes and had a few (unsuccessful) attempts at dyeing wool on my stove.  I say unsuccessful but had I been aiming for a dark grey then I could say I achieved my goal but I was not aiming for grey, dark for otherwise!  It was also quite labour intensive and probably used a lot of electricity as well.  So a few weeks ago when we were clearing out the attic I found my old aquarium and thought it would be ideal for a solar oven and while I was online looking for ideas on how to do that, I noticed a lot of people were using old jars, which seemed a lot easier and meant I could get started straight away.   The aquarium will still be useful for larger items.  Further research is called for, but for now it is quite happy sitting on the patio.

From my previous attempts at dyeing wool in a large saucepan on the stove I found the dye material was difficult to remove from the dye and got stuck to the wool.  This time I have chopped up my dye material, put it in a net laundry bag in the jar with hot water and left it in the sun for a few weeks.  When the dye is ready the bag can just be removed and emptied.  I have decided against dyeing wool at the moment (I probably have enough yarn in my stash to last about two years) but thought it would make a nice change to have some naturally dyed fabrics to sew with.  I make my own clothes to have something different to everyone else but then I buy the same commercially dyed fabrics that everyone else has.   Due to the unpredictability of natural dyes each batch will be unique.

I decided to get going with four dyes from things I had in the house and garden.  Spinach leaves for a yellow/green colour, plum skins for a deep pink/purple, avocado skins and stones for a pale pink, and black beans for a blue.

Then a late frost was forecast so I brought them inside for a couple of days.

It has become apparent that the black beans are not producing any dye colour, so I’m going to discard that one and either try again or find a different dye material entirely.

Meanwhile, I have dyed some cotton fabric on my stove top using turmeric for some almost instant results. Turmeric does not require a mordant and is good for dyeing plant material like cotton (apparently).  I soaked the cotton fabric for a few hours.  I mixed the turmeric powder (a whole jar) with a small amount of water to make a paste then added it to a large saucepan with enough water to cover my fabric and simmered it for an hour.  Then I put my fabric in the dye, simmered it for another hour and then left it to stand for the rest of the day.

OK, so this was not a total success.  I could say this was the effect I was going for but I would be lying!

In the pot it looked a lovely deep orange and when I rinsed it out (several times until the water went clear) it still looked a lovely deep orange.

So far, so good.  Except that it did smell very spicy, so I gave it a cool machine wash with my Ecover non bio and…

…not orange!  So, I probably won’t be making a fabulous garment from this, but it might be useful for quilting – or I might just re-dye it!  I’ll probably re-dye it.

I should be able to do this.  People have been dyeing wool and fabric for thousands of years.   After more research, I decided to buy Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles by India Flint as there are many mentions of her work online.  I had looked at it previously but it was more expensive than some others, but I now think I should have bought this one first.

Now I know where I’m going wrong!  I really, really wish I had bought this book earlier.  Apparently, boiling your dye stuff to within an inch of its life and adding fabric that has had a  mordant applied only once the previous night with allum or cream of tartar, boiling some more, and expecting to be able to wash and use a newly dyed fabric immediately just does not provide the best result!  So I’m going to take my time and do repeated mordants of alkaline and protein solutions on several fabrics at a time so that I can store them for later use.

In India Flint’s book she describes the best way to treat various different fabrics.  She shares many new techniques she has devised to print flower and leaf patterns onto fabric using fabric bundles and hammering (with a mallet), how to dye with delicate flowers in a technique she calls ice flowers, even a way of using mud.  She also uses many different mordants which are so different from the traditional ones such as sea water (which we have here in Cornwall in abundance) and soya milk!  She also mentions solar dyeing using jars but she does not see the need to extract the dye first, you just add the (already mordanted) fabric at the beginning.  She says that dyed fabrics need to mature or cure before use and it’s best to let the newly dyed fabric to dry in the shade before even rinsing let alone washing.  That would have been useful to know earlier!

This book is very word heavy and also very beautiful with its muted colour schemes.  I have over simplified the contents of this book.  It is very inspirational.  I’m so excited to get experimenting and I have high expectations of what I will be able to achieve, but I have to remember the keywords: ‘slow’ and ‘time’.  I will update you.