The garden in late spring

June 21st, 2013

 

We have had some lovely sunny days recently and so I took the opportunity to take some photos of my little garden. I do miss my old garden but I have tried to make the most of the small space we have here. I have concentrated on dye plants and plants to attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. I have tried to grow mainly native plants, except for some summer plants, such as fuchsias and dahlias, for pots and the plants that were already here, such as wisteria, and of course roses, which I could not be without for their perfume.

 

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Woad in flower in the tiny dye garden in front of my summer house

 

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Wisteria in flower

 

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General garden view with angelica in the foreground

 

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A detail of the angelica plant which the bees love

 

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The roses are just beginning to come into bloom

 

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Centaurea montana which the bees love

 

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The grass is full of daisies which are popular with insects and with my granddaughter for making daisy-chain necklaces

 

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The native red campion (Silene dioica) which is often full of bees

 

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This photo shows on the left the native Geranium pratense and on the right Pilosella aurantiaca or Orange Hawkweed, also called Fox and Cubs

 

 

 

 

Mediaeval Dyes

June 10th, 2013

 

Following on from my earlier posts about Anglo-Saxon dyes, I thought I’d write a little about the dyes used in mediaeval Europe, from around the 9th century to the beginning of the 16th century.

 

As archaeological evidence and the technical analysis of textile fragments indicate, during this period dyers had access to a wider range of dyes as trade developed and increased. Indigo from woad (Isatis tinctoria) remained the main source of blue and madder ((Rubia tinctorum) was the most common source of reds, with kermes (Kermes vermilio) and sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) also being used. Weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) continued to be used for yellows and other sources of yellow included heather (Calluna vulgaris), bog myrtle (Myrica gale), Persian berries (Rhamnus spp.), Venetian sumac (Cotinus coggygria) and sometimes also saffron (Crocus sativus).

The Imperial or Tyrian Purple dye from shellfish, famed in the ancient world, was still being used, albeit on a much smaller scale, and some species of lichens were also used in many parts of Europe to produce a vivid, if less permanent, purple colour. The tannin/iron complex remained the most common method of creating black, although the preferred, but more costly, method was to use red, blue and yellow dyes in sequence.

There were also apparently regional differences in the use of colour. By the 11th century Flanders was known for green, the Rhineland for black and Britain for red. Within England itself, some towns were licensed during the mediaeval period to produce certain colours – for example, York for red and purple, Lincoln for green, scarlet and grey, Coventry for blue and Beverley for blue and red.

 

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From left: Reds and rust from madder (alum mordant), brown & tan from walnut hulls (no mordant), gold & yellow from weld (alum mordant), moss greens from weld + iron modifier and blues from woad (no mordant)

 

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Black from madder + weld + woad (alum mordant)

 

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Purples from the lichen Ochrolechia tartarea (no mordant)

 

Trade flourished in the Middle Ages and the most expensive of all dyestuffs was the insect dye, kermes (Kermes vermilio), from a shield-louse that lives on the kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, found in various parts of the Mediterranean. Sappanwood, from the heartwood of the tree Caesalpinia sappan, was imported into Europe in the later Middle Ages from India, Ceylon and Java and gave red colours. The wood and the dye were known locally as “bresil” or “brasil” and when at the end of the 15th century Portugese explorers found a related tree, Caesalpinia echinata, growing in the country now known as Brazil, they named the country “terra de brasil” after the tree and the red dye from Caesalpinia echinata was called brazilwood. Sappanwood was brought into Europe in surprisingly large quantities and 80% of the reds analysed on fabrics from around 1100 to 1450 prove to have been dyed with at least some sappanwood. It was added to madder dyebaths to enhance the colour and was also used for browns and for some compound colours. Sanderswood (Pterocarpus santalinus) from India and Ceylon was also introduced in the later Middle Ages and was used for reddish rusts and compound colours.

 

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Kermes (Kermes vermilio)

 

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Red from kermes (alum mordant)

 

Mediterranean alum became more widely available and was imported into Britain from Italy, Spain and Asia Minor. Italy dominated trade and Italian dyers had access to dyes that were not generally available in many other parts of Europe. The 14th century archives of  Francesco di Datini in Florence and Prato list lac (Kerria lacca), an insect dye from India and South-East Asia, and indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) from Baghdad among their items of trade.

 

During the Middle Ages dyeing flourished in Europe and it was the craft of the dyer that added most to the value of textile fabrics. Guilds of master dyers became established and a master dyer’s recipe book was closely guarded. The list of dyes and details of dyeing techniques found in dyers’ recipe books of the period indicate the increased complexity of some of the methods. The first known manual written for the professional dyer was the Plictho de larte de tentori, which was a collection of recipes for dyeing wool, silk, cotton and linen. It was compiled by Gioanventura Rosetti, Master of the Arsenal in Venice, and published in Venice in 1548. This manual is an important document in the history of dye chemistry and technology and clearly shows the stage of development that the dyer’s craft had reached by the middle of the 16th century.

Learning new skills

April 11th, 2013

 

I’m afraid I’m just showing off but I’m so pleased to have learned two new skills from workshops at the West Sussex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, of which I am a member. The West Sussex Guild is very small and friendly and one of its features is the willingness of members to share their skills. So, although we can’t always afford the more expensive tutors, we have opportunities for learning new techniques from one another.

The first workshop, led by Martine Woodvine, was on spinning fancy yarns and this is something I have wanted to learn for many years. In fact, I find it hard to believe that I have been a handspinner for over 30 years and have only just begun to learn how to spin fancy yarns.   The photos below show some of the yarns I have spun.

 

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The other workshop, led by Jane Rodgers, was on simple braiding techniques. I must admit that braiding is not something that has ever really attracted me, mainly because I prefer crafts that enable me to produce items for which I have a use and I couldn’t see that I would have much use for braids. However, now that I have been introduced to the delights of braiding, I realise that braids can be made into many things, including necklaces and bracelets, and I am now about to start my fourth braid. I love watching the pattern emerge as the braid begins to grow and I can see that braiding can become quite addictive! The photo below shows two of my braids made into necklaces and a third braid waiting to be finished off.

 

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I am grateful to Martine and Jane for enabling me to discover the pleasures of two new skills.   P.S. No natural dyes this time, I’m afraid

Jill Goodwin 1917 – 2013

March 28th, 2013

 

This week I was saddened to learn from her daughter that Jill Goodwin, author of “A Dyer’s Manual”, died on March 23rd at the age of 95.

 

“A Dyer’s Manual” is a classic in the natural dyeing field and was a vital source of inspiration and information for me and so many dyers of my generation and also for the generation of dyers that followed. Without  this book, which is full of Jill’s knowledge and experience presented in a clear and direct manner, I would certainly not have had the information or motivation to experiment with dyes from plants.

 

I corresponded with Jill at regular intervals over many years and cherish the letters she wrote me.  One of my most prized possessions is a hat she crocheted for me from her handspun walnut-dyed wool and each time I wear it I am reminded of her generosity of spirit and warmth of personality. Jill was a spinner and weaver as well as a natural dyer and she always kept abreast of developments in the textile world generally and in the field of natural dyeing in particular. She never lost her interest in everything new and was often the first to tell me about the latest new fibre or dyeing technique. Every now and then she would telephone me and she usually started by asking “Have you heard about….?” or “Did you know that….?”

 

Whenever I visited Jill – and I wasn’t able to do so very often – she had more dyed samples and hand-made treasures to show me and she was always keen to hear about my latest experiments. She was in contact with dyers from all over the world and shared her knowledge readily and enthusiastically. The breadth of her experience was vast and her advice was always useful and to the point.

 

I will miss Jill and I feel privileged to have known her. I am grateful for all that I was able to learn from her over the decades and I am sure that “A Dyer’s Manual” will continue to inspire dyers for many years to come.

Dyeing brown and grey wool fibres

March 24th, 2013

 

In my new book I am focusing to some extent on native plants and fibres, so wool plays an important part – and not only white wool but also naturally-coloured wool. Recently I have been spinning naturally-coloured light brown and grey wool fleece and I love the effects when these skeins are dyed. The colours can be very subtle. Here are some examples:

 

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From left to right: Madder, Indigo, Rhubarb Root

The first skein in each pair shows the dye colour on white wool and the second skein shows the dye colour on light grey wool.

 

All the skeins are unmordanted.

 

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The samples above are from horsetail (left) and tansy (right) and show from left to right: alum mordant on white wool, no mordant + alkaline modifier on brown wool , no mordant + alkaline modifier on grey wool

 

I find alkaline modifiers extremely useful, especially when used on fibres that have not been mordanted with alum. Even when the colour on the dyed fibres looks rather insipid initially, an alkaline modifier can often deepen and brighten it. The results of alkaline modifiers on naturally-pigmented wool are particularly pleasing, as I think the samples above show.

Hacked again

February 27th, 2013

 

I’m afraid my website has yet again been hacked into, so Colin, my website manager, has suggested I make it more difficult for people to make comments, at least for the time being. I apologise if this causes any inconvenience.

However, I can still be contacted by clicking on to  “Contact Jenny” at the right-hand side of the home page.

 

On a more positive note, I’m pleased to report that the first draft of the new book is ready to be sent to the publishers. Oh, and the sun is shining here today, although it is cold; the primroses and hellebores are brightening up the garden and the daffodils are beginning to come into flower. Perhaps spring will come before too long and I will be able to take the few remaining photos for my book.

 

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P.S to the post about chickweed

February 16th, 2013

 

On Leena Riihela’s blog there is a post with some useful comments about some Finnish sources of information about chickweed and some suggestions as to how the misleading notion that chickweed could be used as a mordant might have come about. The post is written in Finnish but there is an English translation underneath. Some of the comments on Leena’s post are also interesting.

 

If you click on the link to “Riihivilla” on the right hand side of my blog, you will find a link there to Leena’s blog.

 

Also, in a German dyeing book, “Farben aus der Natur” by Gretel Fieler, published in 1981, I have found a reference to a recipe from 1817 in a German dyeing book by Johann Hinrich Ehlers, in which he mentions the use of chickweed plus alum as a mordant used with logwood for dyeing shades of blue. However, although chickweed is mentioned in the mordanting paragraph, alum is added to the chickweed solution before the wool is mordanted, so it is the alum which is the true mordant here, not the chickweed. I think it is possible that the chickweed may have been used for its potash content, which could shift the colour from the logwood from purple towards blue. It is interesting to find such an old recipe, which is almost identical to those mentioned in the more recent books from so long ago.

 

Now I must find the time to try out this recipe with chickweed, alum and logwood, to see how it compares with the colours from logwood when chickweed is not included. But before I do anything else, I must continue working on my new book.

 

Chickweed as mordant?

February 10th, 2013

 

Before anyone gets too excited, I’m afraid the answer to the question posed in the title would seem to be “No, probably not.” So where did I get the idea that chickweed might be used as mordant?

 

Last year I read an interesting article in “The Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers” about natural mordants. The article was written by Krista Vajanto, who teaches textile history at the University of Helsinki, Finland and is researching Iron Age Finnish textiles. Among the details of the better-known natural mordants (rhubarb leaves, tannin, aluminium from clubmoss) was a mention of chickweed. The positioning of the comment gave the impression that chickweed might also be an aluminium accumulator and if this were the case it would, of course, be extremely useful for dyers who want to use only natural mordants from plants.

 

Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a common weed in many gardens (although, rather annoyingly, not in my garden) and apparently several Finnish dyeing books from the 20th century mention using chickweed as a “natural mordant”.  Unlike clubmoss, chickweed is not rare and could therefore be used freely for dyeing, so I decided to do some experiments to test its potential as a “natural mordant”. The article stated that chickweed should be used fresh but unfortunately it proved impossible to locate any fresh chickweed. So, as I usually extract aluminium from dried, rather than fresh, clubmoss, I thought it ought to be possible to use dried chickweed, which I bought from a supplier of dried herbs.

 

I treated the chickweed in exactly the same way as I treat dried clubmoss when I extract aluminium from it and then I used the chickweed solution as a mordant in the same way.

 

I then made a dyer’s broom dye bath and dyed skeins treated with clubmoss and chickweed and also alum-mordanted and unmordanted skeins in the same dye bath. The results were interesting. The alum-mordanted skein and the skein treated with clubmoss dyed a very similar yellow, indicating the presence of aluminium in the clubmoss. The skein treated with chickweed and the unmordanted skein dyed to almost exactly the same shade of pale yellow, which suggested that there was no aluminium present in and extracted from the chickweed. Although I wasn’t able to use fresh chickweed and I admit I might have got different results had I been able to do so, I have so far come to the conclusion that chickweed is unlikely to prove useful as a natural mordant. Indeed, I feel certain that, had it been useful as an alternative to alum, dyers would have been aware of that fact long ago. However, I will reserve my final judgement until I have managed to try the same experiments with fresh chickweed, just in case.

 

So how did this belief originate? I have come to the following conclusions. Firstly, the term “mordant” tends to be used very loosely in some literature and often seems to mean “anything that can be used as a base for other dyes or as an addition to a dye pot”. I suspect that, when applied to chickweed, the term “mordant” was being used in that rather loose sense. I believe it is possible that, in situations where it might have been difficult to obtain more expensive dyes or chemical mordants, plants such as chickweed, which grow abundantly as weeds and give a light yellow colour, might have been used as a base for more expensive or difficult to obtain yellow dyes, in order to reduce the quantity required of the more precious dyestuff. So the belief might come about that, if chickweed “helped out” with yellow dyes, it might also have a similar effect with other dyes.

 

But I’m afraid I feel it is unlikely that chickweed has ever truly been, or indeed is ever likely to become, an alternative “mordant”. Unless, of course, experiments with fresh chickweed suggest otherwise but first I must find some.

 

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The photo above shows samples dyed with dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria)

From the top: alum mordant, clubmoss mordant, chickweed base, no mordant

Snow!

January 20th, 2013

 

Snow is a  relatively rare occurrence here in West Sussex and we have about 3 inches at the moment but I know this will not impress those of you who live in countries where there is “proper” snowfall. In a news item on the radio about the cancellation of flights at Heathrow airport yesterday, I heard a Canadian say: “I don’t know what the problem is. This is just like a lovely spring day where I live in Canada.”

 

Today we have enjoyed watching some intrepid goldfinches feeding on the seeds left on our teasel heads. Although our garden is small, I like to grow teasels to give some structure to the garden, especially in the winter. As added bonuses, the flowers attract bees and butterflies and the seed heads provide interest in the autumn and winter and food for goldfinches.

 

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New Natural Dye Extracts in Liquid Form

January 8th, 2013

 

Just before Christmas I noticed some new dye extracts in liquid form on the D T Crafts website (see link on the right) and, as these are new to me, I ordered some. The dyes are called Botanical Colors Aquarelle and have been certified as compliant with the Global Organic Textile Standard. So my first dyeing project for 2013 has been to try them out.

The dye extracts offered in liquid form are Madder, Lac, Himalayan Rhubarb, Cutch and Saxon Blue. These dyes come with clear instructions and are simplicity itself to use, as they are just added to the dye bath water and stirred in.  They work equally well on all natural fibres, although Saxon Blue tends to produce paler shades on vegetable fibres. A little goes a long way, so I feel they are reasonably priced.

 

The photos below show some of the colours.

 

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LAC: The wool skein on the left was mordanted with alum, the central skein was unmordanted and the skein on the right was another unmordanted skein, this time over-dyed in Saxon Blue. The skeins are shown on unmordanted silk fabric dyed in the exhaust dye bath.

 

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HIMALAYAN RHUBARB ROOT: The upper two skeins were mordanted with alum and the lower two skeins were unmordanted. The skeins are shown on unmordanted silk fabric, dyed in the exhaust dye bath.

 

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SAXON BLUE: This liquid indigo is an improved formulation of Saxon Blue, which was first created in the 18th century. It is used in exactly the same way as the other liquid dyes, so there is no need to prepare a vat using stock solutions or reducing agents and the blue liquid can be added to other dye baths, so for example green can be produced by adding some Saxon Blue liquid to a yellow dye bath. All the samples shown are unmordanted and the skein on the right shows the effect of the dye on grey wool.

 

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MADDER: The two wool skeins on the left were mordanted with alum and the two skeins on the right were unmordanted. The skein on the extreme right shows the effect on grey wool. The skeins are shown on unmordanted silk fabric dyed in the exhaust dye bath.

 

As the photos indicate, the colours from these dyes are lovely and there is considerable potential from just these few dyes for creating further colours by varying the strength of the solution and by over-dyeing or colour mixing. If the Saxon Blue liquid extract lives up to expectations, it should make many compound colours so much easier to achieve.  I feel very enthusiastic about these new liquid extract dyes and look forward to experimenting further with them.