Moving house

I’m afraid my posts will probably be very infrequent during the coming weeks, as we are planning to move from Bedfordshire to West Sussex to be nearer our granddaughter and our daughter and her partner.

When we put our house on the market in the new year, we expected it would take many months before we found a buyer and also a property to move to. However, things have proceeded rather faster than we had anticipated and we now face the daunting task of clearing and sorting nearly 34 years of family life in this house. There is just so much to do that we hardly know where to begin. And we shall be moving to a much smaller garden, which means that many of my large plant pots will have to stay here, plus all the treasured plants from so many years of happy gardening. And my dye garden, too, will be a thing of the past – at least until I try to establish a much smaller one in our new garden. The outbuildings will also have to be cleared – something I can’t even bear to think about because they are so full of “stuff”.

The prospect of moving away from what has been the home where we raised our children brings so many mixed emotions. The house is full of memories of happy family times (and a few not-so-happy ones, too, of course) and our children are also feeling sad that the home to which they have returned for so many years will no longer be theirs to come back to. Roger and I feel similar regrets but we are also looking forward to starting a new phase of our lives in fresh surroundings, with the challenge of making another home and garden. It will be lovely to be close enough to be able to play a more active part in our granddaughter’s life, although we are sorry that this move will take us further away from our son, who is based in Cambridge. However, as he has pointed out, he will be able to combine visiting his sister with visiting his parents, instead of having to make two separate trips, so there are positive aspects, too.

However, as we haven’t yet exchanged contracts, I suppose events may slow down again if any problems arise. We are keeping our fingers crossed that all will go smoothly, whilst also remaining aware that there are still several bridges to be crossed before the sale of this house and the purchase of our new one are completed.

I will certainly update my blog with any further developments.

Ajrakh – an example of the dyer’s art

Among the pieces in my textile collection are two hand-printed ajrakh fabrics, from Sind Province in Pakistan, that fill me with particular admiration for the dyer’s skill. So I thought I’d write a little about this fascinating dyeing technique.



This photo shows one of my ajrakh cloths






Ajrakh cloth may be broadly defined as a cotton fabric patterned on one or both sides by means of printing blocks. The background colour is either red or blue and the pattern designs are usually encompassed within square repeats or bound by rectangular ones, with geometrical motifs and circular forms.
These cloths are produced on the Indian sub-continent in Sind, Gujarat and Western Rajasthan and represent a high point in dyeing techniques, requiring extreme skill not only on the part of the dyers but also from the craftsmen who carve the wooden printing blocks.



This shows some of the printing blocks in my collection





Ajrakh cloths are worn mainly by Muslim men, as head coverings, shoulder cloths, lungis (lower garments) or as knee supporters when squatting on the ground. Each piece of cloth is of a set dimension according to its intended use. Sizes vary from 1m x 1m to 2.56m x 1.85m. For the largest pieces, two single widths are joined lengthwise.
Several dyeing methods come together in the making of these cloths:  mordant printing, resist printing (or combinations of the two), the tannin/iron complex for dyeing black, indigo vat dyeing and madder dyeing. The finest ajrakh fabrics are resisted, printed and dyed on both sides of the cloth, with such skill that each side is identical.



This shows how the cloth has been patterned identically on both sides





In the past, ajrakh cloths were dyed using natural madder and indigo dyes. Madder red is obtained from several plant sources on the Indian sub-continent, including Rubia tinctorum, Rubia cordifolia, Rubia munjista, Morinda citrifolia and Oldenlandia umbellata (chay), which all contain the red pigment alizarin. Nowadays, synthetic alizarin is widely used. Similarly, natural indigo blue from Indigofera tinctoria has been largely replaced by synthetic indigo. However, in some areas there is a gradual return to natural dyes.
In addition to the madder and indigo dyes, metallic salts of aluminium and iron are also used and it is pastes of these which are printed onto the fabric, not the dye colour itself. These pastes act as both resists and mordants. The mordant penetrates the fabric, whilst the gum and clay, with which the solution is thickened, protect the fabric from unwanted dye. These pastes are applied to both sides of the cloth, unless only one side is to be patterned.
Preparation of the cloth
The cloth is first washed and beaten with a wooden mallet to smooth the surface and remove any irregularities. It is then dried. Next, the cloth is treated in buffalo milk or a castor oil and sodium carbonate solution, to which water is added. This treatment aids the absorption of mordant and dye and also prevents the mordant salts from crystallizing. Fresh camel, goat or sheep dung, mixed with water, may also be added to the solution and this acts as a bleaching agent. The cloth is then dried overnight and washed the following day.
The next stage involves the application of a tannin solution, usually made from the dried fruits of myrobalan (Terminalia chebula), pounded with water to form a paste then mixed with more water. The wetted cloth is soaked in this solution. The tannin acts as an assistant for the alum mordant and also reacts with the iron mordant to produce black outlines.
Before the cloth is dyed in the indigo vat, all areas not to be dyed blue have to be covered by printing on the appropriate paste solution, using carved wooden blocks. The printing processes are carried out on a wooden bench, covered with 15 to 20 layers of jute, topped by thick cotton fabric, which provides a soft, absorbent work surface.
The preparation of the pastes involves complex processes and the ingredients and methods vary from region to region. The basic principles are as follows:
An iron print solution, usually iron acetate or a ferrous sulphate solution mixed with gum arabic or sorghum and mud or clay, is applied to the areas to be dyed black.
An alum print solution, usually aluminium sulphate mixed with gum arabic or sorghum and mud or clay, is applied to the areas to be dyed red. Sometimes red clay, which gives a fugitive colour, is also added to distinguish it from the iron solution. If some areas of deeper red are required, extra quantities of alum solution are applied to those sections. Alternatively, these sections may receive a second application of alum paste.
Any areas to remain undyed are printed with a paste of gum arabic and mud or clay, sometimes with the addition of lime to ensure the resist paste does not crack.
If both sides are to be identically patterned, the second side is printed before the pastes on the first side have dried completely and while they still remain damp. This ensures uniformity of the printed impressions, as the printed sections of the cloth contract when dry and the fabric would no longer remain flat enough to enable the second side to be printed successfully.
The printed areas are then sprinkled with powdered clay or dung and dried in sunlight for up to two days.
Indigo is the first dye to be applied and the fabric is carefully immersed in the indigo vat, then removed to allow the indigo to oxidise. It is important that the cloth does not remain too long in the vat, otherwise the pastes may begin to soften and the designs would be impaired.
Sometimes two depths of indigo blue may be required. In this case, after the first indigo dyeing process has been completed, the sections to remain at the level of blue achieved from this first immersion are printed with the resist paste, sprinkled with powdered clay or dung and the cloth is then dried. After drying, the cloth is dipped again in the vat, resulting in a deeper blue on the unresisted areas. After oxidisation, the cloth is washed and de-gummed whilst it is still wet and for this the cloth is held under running water, which gently loosens the pastes. This process has to be carried out with great care, to ensure the mordant pastes do not smear, as this would adversely affect the clarity of the designs when dyed.
The next stage is the application of the red madder or alizarin dye. The de-gummed cloth is immersed in the dye solution and simmered for up to two hours. It is then removed and washed before being dried in bright sunlight, which helps to remove any red dye which may have fugitively coloured the indigo-dyed areas or the paste-resisted sections intended to remain undyed. At the same time, the sunlight brightens the madder or alizarin dyed areas which received the alum and iron mordant pastes.
The finished cloth is patterned in blue and red, with black outlines to some designs and some undyed areas, which sometimes tend to be beige as a result of the treatment in the tannin solution.



This shows the other ajrakh cloth from my collection, also patterned identically on each side.




Although the processes involved in ajrakh dyeing are complex and time-consuming and demand considerable knowledge and skill, the basic dyeing principles are relatively simple and may be summed up as follows:
Tannin + iron = black
Alum + madder or alizarin = red
Indigo = blue
Thickened paste solutions = resisted areas
Alum or iron thickened paste solutions = mordanted and resisted areas

So simple and yet so complex!

A Patchwork Rug




This floor rug for my granddaughter was made from old white woollen blankets.






My preference for making full use of whatever is available, rather than buying something new, is a characteristic my children find rather irritating at times. My frugality in the kitchen is also often the cause of much mockery, especially when I insist on diluting all dishwashing liquids at the rate of 1 part dishwashing liquid to 3 parts water and on using each teabag for at least two cups of tea and even three, if at all possible. However, occasionally they reluctantly agree that waste materials can sometimes be put to good uses.

When I told my daughter that I was making a floor rug for Milly from old woollen blankets, she was less than enthusiastic. But I continued nevertheless. The woollen blanket pieces were mordanted in alum, then dyed using cochineal, madder, weld and indigo. I then used the Log Cabin patchwork technique to piece the strips together. I really love this particular patchwork method, as it seems ideally suited to impatient people like me, especially as it can be easily done on the sewing-machine. The backing for the rug was a single piece of woollen blanket, dyed in indigo, and the rug and its backing were placed with the right sides together and then machine-sewn round three sides. The rug was then turned right-side out and the last seam was stitched by hand. Another advantage of this rug is that it can be machine-washed without risk of shrinking, as any shrinking will have taken place during the simmering of the mordanting and dyeing processes, making it unlikely to shrink further. Indeed, this rug has already successfully withstood several machine washes. And my daughter and granddaughter love it, so I feel my efforts were worth while.

I also made a large floor cushion, using the same techniques.


What to do with old stored dye solutions?

As part of my de-cluttering efforts, I’ve been sorting through my stock of stored dye solutions and deciding which to keep, which to use and which to finally discard. Sometimes the decision is easy, such as when the container releases a foul odour on opening, followed by “glops” of mouldy “gunk” when the contents are poured out. Actually, I am often relieved when this happens, because it means I can throw the contents away without feeling I’m wasting something precious. It’s more difficult when the only reason for throwing a solution away is because I just can’t motivate myself to use it up. This happens, for example, with old rhubarb leaf solutions. I know I’ll probably be able to harvest leaves, if I want to mordant with rhubarb leaf solution, and I’m far more likely to feel like making a fresh solution, rather than using up stored ones. So the old solutions can be poured onto the compost heap, although I’ll probably decide to keep one full container, just in case I need some before my plants have produced any leaves to make more. (Incidentally, if you feel hesitant about putting rhubarb leaves or solutions onto the compost heap, gardening experts now seem to agree that it’s fine to do this.)

Among the other stored solutions that cause me some heart-searching are oak-gall and walnut hull solutions. In the end, I’ve decided to offer these to other dyers in my guild, so for the moment I can avoid having to make a decision. However, if no-one else is interested in them, I’ll probably discard all the oak-gall solution, as I have enough oak galls to make some more and it’s not something I tend to use frequently. And I’ll probably decide to make some space in my shed by discarding some of the walnut hull solutions too, as I have dried walnut hulls and some walnut extract to fall back on anyway. These solutions will enrich the compost heap, I’m sure.

And now to the woad solutions I’ve found, all stored in 5-litre containers. (Details for making woad solution for storage are in my books and are outlined below.) Two containers are labelled “2008” and the contents look blue and have the characteristic woad smell. So I’ve decided these can be left and used at a later date. The other container doesn’t have a date on it and the state of the label suggests it may have been lurking in the shed for quite some time, possibly several years. On inspection, the solution looks a rather unpromising pale brown and it doesn’t smell “right” either. But I’m not prepared to throw it away without trying it out, as I know from experience that even the most unpromising-looking solutions can sometimes yield good results.

So I pour off the contents of the container and I can see that some of the blue pigment has sunk to the bottom or stuck to the sides of the container, leaving a pale brown liquid with some particles of indigo pigment floating in it. I check the pH of this liquid and it would appear to have lost some of its alkalinity. So I make a solution of washing soda dissolved in boiling water and stir this into the woad liquid until pH 9 has been reached. Then I return some of the solution to the container and shake it vigorously to try and dislodge some of the blue pigment from the sides. I also use a wooden spatula to scrape as much as I can reach back into the solution.  I decide to try out the solution, so I pour it into a dye pot and add more water to make enough liquid for the vat.



 This shows the solution, with the extra water added to make the vat.





Once the solution has been heated to about 50C and I’ve added sodium hydrosulphite to remove the oxygen, it starts to look more promising. The metallic-looking blue sheen that has formed on the surface indicates the presence of blue pigment, so I stir it gently to one side and then add 300gms of Wensleydale wool yarn and watch as the sheen disappears, leaving yellow liquid, through which the skeins are clearly visible. Then I leave the skeins to steep for about 20 minutes.



This shows the skeins steeping in the vat.






Then I remove the skeins and I’m pleased to see that they have dyed a good mid-blue, so I’m delighted I didn’t throw the solution away without trying it.



This photo shows the dyed skeins.






So what would I have done, if the solution had proved useless and the skeins had failed to turn blue? Well, I had already prepared for this possibility by making a solution of indigo powder and washing soda, ready to add to the woad solution in the pot if necessary. (I dissolved 3 teaspoons of washing soda in about half a cupful of boiling water, allowed it to cool slightly, then mixed in 3 teaspoons of indigo powder.) This solution will now be stored in a tightly-sealed glass jar until I decide to make an indigo vat. So instead of reducing my stock of stored solutions, I seem to have kept the situation exactly as it was, by using up one stored solution and then replacing it with another!

(Note on making woad solution for storage:

This is exactly like preparing a vat from fresh leaves but you stop the process just after whisking the liquid to incorporate oxygen. So firstly pour boiling water over the fresh woad leaves and leave them to steep for about 1 hour. Then pour off the liquid, remove the leaves and add washing soda until the colour of the liquid changes from brown to green (or until pH 9 or 10 is reached). Then whisk vigorously, or pour the solution from one container to another, until blue froth forms. Carry on whisking until this froth starts to become white again. Leave to stand until the froth has subsided (you can help by gently mixing the froth into the liquid but make sure not to lose any of it, as the froth contains the precipitated indigo particles) and then pour the liquid  into a airtight container with a well-fitting lid, filling it up until the liquid overflows slightly. Then fix the lid on tightly. When you want to use the stored solution, just pour it into a heatproof pot, heat it to 50C and add sodium hydrosulphite or thiourea dioxide (Spectralite or Thiox) to remove the oxygen. Then continue as usual.)

More Knitted Cushions

 The photos below show some cushions I knitted recently for my daughter, who wanted a “modern design using oranges and blues”. I’m not sure to what extent the patterns I designed can be described as “modern” but at least the colours are right! The dyes I used are my old favourites – madder and indigo.

To achieve an orange shade with madder, I used about 25% madder on an alum mordant and then applied an acidic modifier made with clear vinegar. The paler shades were from the exhaust dyebath.

















The knitting technique I used for the cushions is a form of patchwork I use fairly frequently for cushions and bags. I start off with a square or rectangle, then pick up stitches along one side and knit in that direction for a while. I leave these stitches on a spare needle, or a length  of yarn, and then I pick up stitches from another side and knit back and forth along that edge for a while. And so on. The designs develop as I knit and give me plenty of scope for colour patterning as well.

For the reverse side of these cushions, I dyed some woollen fabric in indigo, cut it to size and then stitched it onto the knitting. I made an opening for the cushion pad by overlapping the edges of fabric, as with a pillowcase, so it will be easy to remove the cushion cover for washing.

A New Book









The gloom of this dull, damp, miserable winter was relieved this week when I received an unexpected gift through the post – a recently-published  book on natural dyeing, co-authored by Eva Lambert and Tracy Kendall.

I have known Eva for many years and visited her several times in her studio and dye-workshop on the Isle of Skye. She has a wealth of practical experience to share, as she has been running her own business, Shilasdair, for many years, selling her naturally-dyed yarns and beautiful garments made from them. Tracy Kendall, whom I met several years ago when we were both demonstrating dyeing at a conference on Mediaeval Dyes, is a lecturer at Central Saint Martins College in London and she also has her own design studio producing hand silk-screened wallpapers.

The book, “The Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing – Techniques and recipes for dyeing fabrics, yarns and fibres at home”, is a lavishly illustrated, full colour paperback, published by Search Press and selling at £12.99. It covers the basics of mordanting and dyeing, and the yarn section, written by Eva Lambert, also includes top-dyeing, tie-dyeing and random dyeing. The fabric section, written by Tracy Kendall, covers several fabric-patterning techniques, including various resist-dyeing methods, such as folding, clamping and batik.

The dyeing sections cover collecting and preparing dyestuffs and give recipes for using a wide range of dyes, including classic dyes, such as madder, cochineal, weld and logwood, plus a section on indigo dyeing.

As a dyer, I am always interested in the methods and techniques used by other dyers. Some of the recipes in this book, especially those for mordanting fibres, differ from those I use  myself and I found the sections on colour and patterns interesting. All in all, this book is a delight, full of useful techniques and recipes, with luscious colour on every page.

Good Old Onion Skins

I haven’t used onion skins in the dyepot for several years, although I still always save them, and I keep the red onion skins separately from the brown ones, as they often give slightly different shades in the dyepot. Whilst rummaging through some of the boxes in my workshop recently, I unearthed several bags of onion skins, so last week I decided to use some of them to dye some skeins of wool.

Onion skins will dye quite readily without the use of a mordant but for the strongest, most vivid colours I use an alum mordant. However, if you use unmordanted fibres, the use of an alkaline modifier after dyeing will increase the depth and brilliance of the shades. For very deep colours you may need to use 100% weight of onion skins to weight of fibres, but I usually find that 50% gives sufficient depth and brilliance.



Colours on wool from brown onion skins






I started off by using some brown onion skins. The above photo shows, from left to right: Alum mordant, alum + iron and, from the exhaust dyebath, alum mordant, alum + iron

I then made a dyebath using some red onion skins. In the past, I have sometimes achieved interesting green colours from red onion skins but this time the colours obtained were not as bright as I had hoped they would be, probably because I only had a handful of skins. The photo below shows from left to right: alum mordant, alum mordant + alkali, alum mordant + iron, no mordant, no mordant + alkali.




Colours on wool from red onion skins






Afterwards, I wondered why it had taken me so long to get round to dyeing with onion skins again, as they really do give lovely colours, even if their light-fastness is limited.

Thank you, Leena

As a Christmas gift to myself, I was unable to resist buying some of Leena Riihela’s naturally-dyed skeins of wool. (Click on the link to her website for more details of what Leena has to offer.)

My daughter had asked me to knit a jumper for Milly, my granddaughter, and she wanted something that could be worn outside as an alternative to a coat. The advantage of a jumper is that it has no front-fastening buttons to come undone and I also knew that I’d need to knit something warm enough for outdoor wear and loose enough to enable Milly to wear a T-shirt underneath.

So this is the jumper I knitted. The pattern I made up is so simple, as it consists mainly of rectangles and the sleeves are knitted by picking up stitches around the armholes and working down towards the cuff. The shoulder-opening makes it easy to put on too and I hope my daughter and granddaughter will be pleased.








The wool was dyed mainly in cochineal, with some indigo, and the shades blend in together beautifully. So many thanks to Leena for producing such lovely colours.

More About the Uganda Project

A little while ago, I wrote about a group of basket makers in Uganda, who weave beautiful baskets from naturally-dyed raffia. (See post “A Natural Dyeing Project in Uganda”)      

One aim of this project was to produce blues from the leaves of Indigofera arrecta, an indigo-bearing plant which grows wild in the area around Rubona, where the project is based. For some time I have been in correspondence with the project leader, Rupert Kampmueller, offering advice to help him achieve this aim, and I was convinced that the methods used to extract indigo from fresh woad leaves could be adapted for use with this local source of indigo.

This week I was very pleased to hear from Rupert that, after much trial and error, he has at last been successful in his attempts to produce deep blues from locally-harvested indigo leaves. Based on the methods I use for dyeing with fresh woad leaves, Rupert has developed suitable extraction and dyeing methods to enable the ladies in the Rubona group to produce a range of blues on raffia, using the leaves of locally-growing Indigofera arrecta. The next stage will be to see whether the method I use for storing woad solutions can also be used successfully with indigo solutions made from the leaves of these Ugandan plants.

The following photos, supplied by Rupert, show some of the stages of production.









 This photo shows Indigofera arrecta growing wild near Rubona.

Following processes similar to those used with fresh woad leaves, leaves from these indigo-bearing plants are harvested and first steeped in very hot water. After an hour or so, the leaves are removed and soda ash is added to the liquid. Oxygen is then incorporated into the solution to precipitate the indigo particles.








This shows the strained-off indigo solution being poured from one bucket to another to incorporate oxygen.









This shows the froth containing the precipitated indigo pigment.








 This shows the raffia dyed in the indigo vat made from the leaves of Indigofera arrecta.

This successful use of local indigo plants is of great significance for the weavers of Rubona, as it means they now have a readily available source of blue and no longer need to rely on imported indigo.

Sincere thanks again

Once again, I send my most sincere thanks for all the kind messages I’ve received, following the announcement that “Wild Colour” will be revised and reprinted later this year.

I really appreciate all the encouragement and support I’ve been given.