South Downs Yarn & colours from fungi

February 3rd, 2016

Part of the ethos underpinning South Downs Yarn, Louise Spong’s wool company, is a belief in the importance of making use of locally-available fleece, which can be traced back to the flocks from which it came and sometimes even to the individual sheep. The wool for Louise’s yarn comes from Southdown sheep and is sustainably sourced, single-flock wool from smallholders and farmers from the South Downs locality.

The same ethos determines the sources of the plants used to dye South Downs Yarn, so wherever possible the plants used are grown or harvested locally. This can sometimes be challenging, especially where plant sources of pinks and purples are concerned. Whilst virtually all other  colours can be readily produced from locally grown or harvested dyes, pinks and purples are more elusive. Pinks (and also purple) come mainly from the insect dyes, cochineal (found predominantly in parts of Central and South America) and sticklac (from India and South-East Asia). Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) and buckthorn bark (Rhamnus spp.) can sometimes give pinks in the coral range but will rarely give a true rose pink.

The most commonly used source of purple is the heartwood of logwood, Haematoxylon campechianum, from South or Central America. Purple can also be achieved from some species of lichen but lichens are protected in the wild and should preferably not be harvested for dyeing. Lichen purple is also not reliably fast and for that reason I would be reluctant to use this dye for anything I might want to sell or give to anyone else. Alkanet root (Alkanna tinctoria) will give a purple shade under certain conditions but the colours it gives are very variable and not always reliable.

Some time ago I discovered by chance another source of purple, when I added some walnut extract to a madder extract dye bath (both extracts from Earthues). This combination produced a pleasing purple-pink but, following further experiments, I found that this only occurs if the dyes are used in extract form and not when the chopped plant dye pieces are used. (See my earlier posts on this. Not what I was expecting & Walnut hulls & madder root again but no purples or pinks) I must conduct some more tests to see whether this colour can be regularly produced from this combination of extract dyes, as it could prove very useful.

To try and find other sources of pink and purple, I looked again through my dye sample books and decided to try dyes from fungi, in particular from species of Cortinarius.

For this South Downs Yarn fungi dyeing session we used Cortinarius semisanguineus, with an alum mordant and followed by an alkaline modifier. This gave pretty pinks. However, a further alum-mordanted skein followed by a copper modifier after dyeing did not give the purple tones I had hoped for, but a rather dull beige pink. I’m not sure why this was the case but I suspect the exhaust dye bath which we used was too weak to give a pink deep enough to produce the desired result from the copper modifier.

I also had the remainder of a small amount of the fungus Hapalopilus rutilans, kindly sent me from Finland by Leena Riihela for some tests for my most recent book  A Heritage of Colour, and which gives a pretty lavender purple dye colour. I had read that extracting the colour from Hapalopilus rutilans at pH9 to 10 would improve the colour, so I added a small amount of soda ash to bring the water to pH9 when I simmered the fungus to extract the colour. Unfortunately this proved not to have been such a good idea, as the extracted dye colour seemed paler rather than more intense and pink rather than purple in tone and it dyed the skein a rather pale dull pink. (I had probably also added too much fibre for the amount of dyestuff I had and this made the colour paler than I had wanted. Note to self: Don’t add too much fibre in future when you know there isn’t really sufficient dyestuff for a reasonably strong colour to be achieved, especially when you haven’t got enough dyestuff left to re-dye the fibres!) I re-simmered the used dyestuff together with the last remaining few pieces of fungus and used it to dye two small skeins, which this time became a prettier colour, but still pink in tone. I suspect this was because some soda ash solution had been absorbed by the pieces of fungi and had an effect on the dye bath when the fungus was re-processed. However, as this fungus is not readily available I doubt whether I would be able to obtain enough to make it a useful source of purple.

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Cortinarius semisanguineus (photo courtesy of Leena Riihela)

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Shades of pink from Cortinarius semisanguineus (Alum mordant + alkaline modifier) The paler shades are from exhaust dye baths 1 & 2

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This skein was dyed in the third exhaust of the Cortinarius dye bath. (Alum mordant + alkaline modifier)

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Hapalopilus rutilans (photo courtesy of Leena Riihela)

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Small skeins dyed in Hapalopilus rutilans after re-simmering the used dyestuff as described above.

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Colours from Hapalopilus rutilans without pH adjustment for colour extraction. The top sample is alum-mordanted & the lower sample is unmordanted.

 

These results indicate that Cortinarius spp. of fungi can be useful sources of pinks. I am also experimenting with the alkaline extraction method on birch bark to see whether this might yield a pink colour. More information about this will follow later.

Autumn Colours

November 2nd, 2015

Autumn seems to have come quickly this year and the garden reflects this change in the seasons. I love the colours of this helenium.

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The forest pansy ( Cercis canadensis) always looks spectacular at this time of year, especially with the light shining through the leaves.

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Even its fallen leaves have a beauty of their own

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Autumn wouldn’t be the same without pumpkins

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The autumn colours inspired me to dye some skeins of South Downs Yarn wool, using dyes harvested from the garden.

From left to right: dyer’s broom, buckthorn leaves plus madder root plus woad, dahlia flowers plus madder root, dahlia flowers (All alum mordant)

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Shearing Day for the Nepcote Flock

June 29th, 2015

Saturday June 20th was the day set for shearing the Southdown sheep from the Nepcote Flock. Luckily the weather was dry, although rather cloudy, and Louise Spong and I joined the flock’s owners, Graham Langford, Hari Doman and Martin Rolph, at the field. Louise and I wanted to look at each fleece as it came off the sheep’s back so we could select those we wished to reserve. As it turned out, the fleeces were generally of such good quality that we selected nearly all of them.

The photos below are a reminder of a great day with excellent refreshments too!

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Here are the sheep waiting their turn for shearing

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Number 11’s fleece looked good to me, so I made a note of the number and waited for her to be shorn.

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Number 11’s turn has come

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The fleece starts to come off

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Number 11 without her fleece

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Here is her fleece rolled up

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This lamb was very interested in the fleeces

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These two watched the proceedings with interest

 

 

My garden in June

June 11th, 2015

In the five years since we moved here I have managed to transform our small garden into one which resembles my old garden but on a much smaller scale. It is full of plants to attract bees and butterflies and other beneficial insects and of course I have a small dye garden too.

Here are some images of my garden in June:

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Woad in flower

 

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Herb beds with a self-seeded foxglove in front of the angelica

 

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Angelica gigas flower heads

 

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William Morris rose

I will add some photos of my dye garden in the next post.

Dyeing greens for South Downs Yarn

May 12th, 2015

I have been doing more natural dyeing with Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn, (see link on the right of the home page), this time focusing on greens. The photo below shows a range of green shades from one of our dyeing sessions.

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Although green is the most common colour in nature,  producing green from natural dyes is not as straightforward as one might expect. Mossy greens can usually be achieved by using an iron modifier on yellow-dyed yarn and using a copper modifier on fibres dyed with plants such as weld often gives lime green. However, a true grass green is almost impossible to obtain from a single dye and has to  be achieved by dyeing blue over yellow or vice-versa.

The photo below of colours from weld shows from left to right: weld + iron modifier, weld with no modifier, weld + copper modifier.

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There are numerous sources of yellow but indigo is the only reliable source of true blue. I tend to prefer to dye yellow first and then use the blue dye; I feel this gives greater control over the final colour because the indigo blue can be added gradually by dipping the fibres in the vat several times. If the vat is weak and each dip is brief, the green colour can be built up gradually until you reach the desired shade and depth. Some dyers prefer to start with blue fibres and then over-dye them with the yellow dye and this also gives good results. The shade of yellow determines the shade of green. Dyeing blue over a bright clear yellow gives grass green; mustard yellows tend to produce mossy greens, whilst over-dyeing pale yellow or a beige yellow often gives a turquoise green. It is also important to remember that most yellow dyes require a mordant, in which case the yarn you use will need to be mordanted even though indigo does not need a mordant. Yellow dyes that do not require a mordant include rhubarb root and saffron. However, saffron may be considered too expensive to use in the dye pot, although about 5% should be enough to achieve a reasonable yellow..

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The photo above shows the development of turquoise green from pale yellow over-dyed in indigo.   Later in the year I shall be writing an article on dyeing greens for the “Journal for Weavers, Spinners & Dyers” and this will give more information and include several photographs.

More about the Nepcote Flock of Southdown sheep

April 20th, 2015

 

It’s lambing time here and lambs from the Nepcote flock of Southdown sheep can be seen in the fields in Findon village, where I live. I took my granddaughters to help bottle-feed one of the lambs, who was rather weak, and they were thrilled to sit with the little lamb on their laps.

 

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I have also been spinning a Southdown shearling fleece from the Nepcote flock. It has a reasonable staple length (about 4 to 5 cms), is soft and fine in texture and is producing a pleasing springy yarn. This fleece was one of three shorn recently from shearlings being prepared for showing later in the year, by which time they should have grown another lovely fleece just ready for the show.

 

The photo below shows washed fleece ready to spin and a handspun skein

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The photo below (taken early in the evening) shows Graham Langford, the co-owner of the sheep, followed by some of his shearlings, including those from which the fleeces came. When the rest of the flock is shorn in June I shall be looking out for more shearling fleeces.

 

Graham herds his sheep

 

 

 

Colours of the Romans

February 23rd, 2015

 

Last year I dislocated my hip for the third time and sadly had to cancel the workshop “Colours of the Romans” at Fishbourne Roman Palace. This was particularly frustrating, as I had had to postpone a previous workshop at Fishbourne a couple of years ago when I dislocated my hip the first time. Fortunately, this earlier workshop was re-scheduled but my physical health has become so  unreliable that I have decided to “retire” from workshops, except for those on a one-to-one basis at my home.

 

As I had already done all the preparations for “Colours of the Romans”, including printing off all the information sheets and sample cards and preparing the wool sample sets, I decided to offer the workshop to the education department at Fishbourne, rather than let all my work go to waste. Katrina Burton, Head of Learning at Fishbourne, and Beverly Lee, the Education Officer, took up my offer and earlier this year they came to my home for the workshop. Louise Spong, from South Downs Yarn, also joined us and assisted with the heavier physical work, which has become too much for me following my recent hip surgery.

 

The dyes used by the Romans included madder, kermes, weld, woad, walnut hulls, oak galls, saffron and lichen purple. With the exception of kermes, which is no longer available, these were the dyes we used on the course.

 

According to Pliny the Elder, orange, red and purple were colours worn by priests and priestesses. Purple was the colour for high officials and the purple clothing of Emperors was dyed purple using a dye from shellfish of the Murex species. The dye colour was known as Tyrian or Imperial Purple and vast quantities of shellfish were required to produce relatively small amounts of dye material. This mollusc dye was overused and the supply of shellfish gradually dwindled. By the Middle Ages, the Tyrian Purple dye industry had become considerably reduced and with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 it more or less disappeared. A purple dye from the lichen Roccella tinctoria was used by the Romans to simulate the purple from shellfish.

 

MADDER (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder is a source of red dye and, according to Pliny, it was cultivated near Rome c.50AD. It is interesting to note that, although there is evidence that the Romans used madder when they were in Britain, its use in Britain appears to have ceased for a period after the Romans left (c.410AD). This would seem to suggest that the Romans imported madder from Rome as a prepared dried dyestuff, rather than cultivating it in Britain.

KERMES (Kermes vermilio)

This red insect dye comes from the shield louse Kermes vermilio, which lives on the kermes oak found in various parts of the Mediterranean. Today kermes is very difficult to obtain, although the insects may still occasionally be found on host trees around the Mediterranean.

WELD (Reseda luteola)

Weld is one of the most ancient dyes and has better colour-fastness than most other yellow dyes. The yellow from weld was the colour worn by the six Vestal Virgins and was also the colour of Roman wedding garments.

WOAD (Isatis tinctoria)

Woad was used by the Romans as a source of indigo blue dye. Indigo from Indigofera tinctoria was also used by the Romans, but as a paint pigment rather than as a textile dye. It was probably brought to Rome from India in small quantities via the land route.

LICHEN PURPLE (Roccella tinctoria / Ochrolechia tartarea)

This dye is sometimes referred to as orchil. Relatively few species of lichens will give purples and as lichens are protected they should never be harvested indiscriminately from the wild. For the workshop, we used the lichen Ochrolechia tartarea, as Roccella tinctoria is not found in northern Europe. For experimental purposes, make sure you have identified the lichen accurately and use only a very small quantity, for example a piece about the size of a 50p coin. To make lichen purple solution, put the lichen into a strong glass jar and add 2 parts water and 1 part household ammonia. Put the lid on firmly and leave the solution for several weeks, shaking or stirring it two or three times each day. The solution will become a deep purple colour and is then ready to use. (Note: stale urine contains ammonia and can be used instead of household ammonia) When the solution is ready to use, strain it carefully into a dye pot, add more water and add the fibres to be dyed. Simmer them gently for 45 minutes, turn off the heat and then leave them to steep overnight. Then rinse well. Lichen purple is not a very fast dye and materials dyed with lichen purple should be stored in a dark place away from daylight. (NB Ammonia gives off unpleasant fumes and should be used with caution.)

OAK GALLS (Quercus spp.)                                                             

Oak galls are rich in tannin and were used by the Romans in combination with iron to make a black dye. When used alone as a dye, oak galls give tan and light brown colours.

WALNUT HULLS (Juglans spp.)

According to Pliny, the outer green hulls of walnuts were used as a brown dye for wool and hair.

SAFFRON (Crocus sativus)

According to Pliny, saffron was cultivated in Abruzzo and Sicily & was used as a yellow dye. Although saffron is very expensive, only a very small amount is required for dyeing and for the workshop samples we used only about half a gramme.

 

Another dye reportedly used for yellow was turmeric, from the roots of Curcuma longa, which was imported from the Orient during Imperial times.

 

Alum

The Romans used alum as a mordant and also iron but, as with madder, it is likely that alum was imported from Italy for Roman use and was not available in Britain after the departure of the Romans until it was imported in the later Anglo-Saxon period.

 

The photo below shows the colours we achieved on the samples we dyed at the workshop.

 

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Top row left to right: weld, weld overdyed with madder (orange shade), madder, madder overdyed with woad, lichen purple & walnut hulls

Middle row left to right: saffron, saffron overdyed with woad (greens), more saffron, walnut hulls overdyed with woad, walnut hulls overdyed with weak lichen purple, walnut hulls overdyed with madder, walnut hulls, weld overdyed with woad (green)

Lower row left to right: oak galls, oak galls plus iron (grey), oak galls overdyed with woad, woad, lichen purple overdyed with woad, lichen purple & lichen purple plus clear vinegar (reds)

 

More information on most of these dyes can be found in my latest book “A Heritage of Colour”.

 

A cashmere fibre project in Afghanistan

February 8th, 2015

 

Life can be full of pleasant surprises! Following an exchange of emails with Jane Mundy, who has set up a project in Afghanistan, working with Afghan women using the fibre from cashmere goats to hand-spin yarn for knitting, this week I met Jane  to find out more about her work. The project, called Qaria Cashmere, aims to give Afghan women the opportunity to learn skills which will enable them to gain some independence and make a living using materials from Afghanistan. The Afghan cashmere fibre is wonderfully fine and soft and comes in lovely natural white, brown and grey shades. However, some of the yarn will be dyed using natural dyes and this is where I hope to be involved.

 

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Afghan goats in Badakhshan province in NW Afghanistan

 

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Afghan goat herders in Badakhshan province

 

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Sorting cashmere fibre in Herat

 

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Afghan cashmere fibre

 

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Afghan woman hand-spinning cashmere fibres

 

The natural dyes most commonly used in Afghanistan to dye wool for carpets are madder, indigo, walnut hulls and pomegranate rind and a wild form of larkspur is also used to dye yellows. So my next task will be to test dye some of the cashmere yarns, using dyes which should be available to the Afghan women from the local carpet weavers or from the market. Cashmere fibres will require special treatment to ensure they don’t felt during the dyeing process but I’m sure it will be possible to develop mordanting and dyeing techniques which will be suitable for this lovely fibre.

 

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Dyeing wool for Afghan carpets in Kabul

 

Jane left me some cashmere fibre which I will hand-spin for these tests. However, I fear my skeins will not look as lovely and evenly-spun as those produced by expert hand-spinner, Amanda Hannaford, and shown below.

 

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Samples of Afghan cashmere yarns hand-spun by Amanda Hannaford

 

I will write further posts giving more details of the Qaria Cashmere project. The project has a Facebook page “Qaria Cashmere” and a website (www.qariacashmere.com) is currently being developed.

 

 

The Nepcote Flock of Southdown Sheep

November 30th, 2014

 

This week I was invited to meet some of the Southdown sheep from the Nepcote Flock, which provided the prize-winning fleece I bought at the Findon Sheep Fair in September.

The sheep in the Nepcote flock are owned by Graham Langford, Hari Doman and Martin Rolph and can be seen in several fields around Findon, where they have become part of the village landscape.

 

It was a typical English November day – damp and misty with drizzling rain – when Hilary Langford, Graham’s wife, took Louise (of Southdown Yarns) and me to the field where some of their Southdown sheep are kept. Graham had kindly put some of their sheep in a pen, so we could see them at close quarters and inspect their fleeces, which were remarkably clean and looked as if they could be ideal for handspinning. The sheep we met were this year’s lambs and some of them are used to being led on the halter in preparation for the show ring. so they seemed quite content to be admired and stroked. It was so quiet and peaceful in the field with the sheep that no-one seemed to mind getting wet.

 

Southdown sheep are relatively small and particularly appealing, with their woolly faces and legs. The wool of the Southdown is among the finest wools of the British breeds and it is used for a wide range of high quality fabrics, including hosiery, hand-knitting wools, dress fabrics and lightweight tweeds.

 

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This shows some of the Nepcote Flock penned ready for us and interested in inspecting their visitors. From the directions in which they are looking, it is easy to guess where we were standing.

 

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Graham is holding the halters of two of the sheep, which stood patiently nuzzling one another for nearly an hour while we admired them and inspected their fleeces.

 

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Our presence was noted by one of the unpenned sheep, which came over to greet us.

 

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Such appealing faces!

 

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A close-up of the Southdown fleece, which has an average staple length of 4 – 6 cm

I hope that when the sheep are shorn I will be able to purchase some fleeces for handspinning.

 

 

Southdown fleece & the drum carder

November 15th, 2014

 

Last year I bought a second-hand, but unused, Barnett drum carder. Thanks to Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn and her eagerness to see the effects of drum carding on Southdown fleece, I was given the necessary incentive to get the drum carder set up and at last I have finally got round to trying it out on the prize-winning local Southdown fleece I bought at Findon Sheep Fair..

 

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Washed Southdown fleece ready for the drum carder

 

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The drum carder in action. I think I may have introduced too much fleece at once onto the drum. This would be typical of my rather impatient nature, I fear!

 

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Batts from the drum carder ready for spinning. They are probably not the best carded batts ever produced and should, I think, be smoother and finer.

 

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These skeins have been handspun from the drum-carded Southdown fleece batts above and the ball of wool was handspun from commercially-produced Southdown tops.

I suspect I need to practise more in order to produce better batts, as better batts should produce a more even yarn with fewer lumps and bumps – unless one wants lumps and bumps, of course.

 

I have become quite enthusiastic about Southdown fleece. Although the staple length is usually fairly short, carding produces fleece which can easily be handspun and produces a yarn which is soft, lofty and bouncy. Other advantages of yarn from Southdown fleece are that it dyes extremely well and it doesn’t tend to felt or “pill”.

 

I get particular pleasure from working with fleece from the sheep which have for centuries roamed the South Downs near my home in Sussex, especially when I can buy local Southdown fleeces from the sheep I can see in the fields around my village.