Category Archives: historic textiles

Reconstructing fabric from Norse Greenland: Tiny Wadmal!

Or, in Old Norse, vaðmál. 
From vað (stuff/cloth) mál, (a measure), because this fabric was a household standard and trade staple in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland where wool from local sheep was the primary textile fibre. Know to have been in production from at least the 11th century to the 17th century, pieces of vaðmál meeting strict standards for length, width and quality were legal currency in Iceland and sometimes elsewhere. The definition of the Icelandic ell, the unit of measure, changed over time, possibly as a result of increasing trade with England where vaðmál imports supplied coarse cloths. Elsewhere in northern Europe the definition of ‘watmal‘ or ‘wadmal‘ was broader: a coarse cloth worn only by those who could not afford better. Textiles found in the graves of 14th-century Herjolfsnaes in southern Greenland by Poul Norlund’s 1921 expedition provide a wealth of information about local production of vaðmál and how the garments of that time were constructed.

The finds from Herjolfsnaes and other sites in Greenland are beautifully documented in two modern volumes, Else Østergård’s Woven into the Earth, which includes a detailed description of the vaðmál fabrics, and Medieval Garments Reconstructed with even more information about how to spin the yarn to weave vaðmál fabric to make copies of the garments. I’ve had vaðmál on my mind for a long time so, when Kate Larson of Long Thread Media asked me to write an article for Piecework magazine about stitches from Norse Greenland (published in the Summer 2020 issue of Piecework) and how I’d adapted one of them to solve a problem I created for myself, I spent only one evening playing with wool and modern fabric before concluding that I needed to know how these stitches worked on the original vaðmál. 


Icelandic sheep in Iceland, Diego Delso on Wikimedia Commons

Vaðmál is the best example I know of people making the best use of the fibre produced by their local sheep, which from raw wool found in Greenland resembled the modern Icelandic breed. These hardy sheep are double-coated, with an outer coat (the tog) of long hair protecting the inner wool (the thel) from harsh weather. The hairs were removed from the fleece with wool combs, then further processed by combing to be spun for warp. The softer wool was opened up loosely into a cloud of fibre and spun for weft. The Norse women would probably have plucked the wool from sheep rooing (shedding their fleece naturally) as primitive breeds do; few modern shepherds can do that, so my fleece was shorn. Many shepherds in North American shear twice a year and discard the winter fleece, full of straw and hay, but I was lucky enough to find a ram fleece with a full year’s growth.


Washed Icelandic fleece, 12 months growth. The long outer hair is darker than the softer wool.

I pulled the long hairs out of each lock (I find this easier) and lashed them onto my wool combs.


One of the pair of combs with locks lashed on, ready for combing, plus a handful of the wool remaining once the hair has been removed. Note the difference in colour.

Two transfers removed most of the unwanted short fibres, skin flakes and vegetation.


The combed hair ready to be pulled off the combs. The comb is held down; the loose end of the ‘pony tail’ is pulled gently through a small hole in a diz. Done carefully, friction ensures that all the fibres flow through the hole to become a long loose rope of fibre ready for spinning.

The end result was a lovely length of top, but rather coarse and stiff by comparison with the Wensleydale and Cotswold long wools I usually comb.


Bottom: the long combed hair ready for spinning. Above: the short waste fibre and other material removed by the combing process.

I decided to lightly card the thel and spin from rolags because time was short. This wasn’t the focus of the article, after all!

Vadmal Weff

The warp yarn was a z-twist singles (unplied yarn), hardspun (twist angle of 40°–50°), roughly 1mm thick. The Norse settlers would have spun it on spindles; wheels are faster by the hour, I have wheels and I know how to use them. The coarse fibres created a characterful yarn, somewhat prickly and reluctant to flex. The weft included both down (very short soft fibres from the base of the fleece) and slightly longer wool; spun long draw this blend of lengths tends to create a textured yarn as the longer wool fibres can twist-lock either side of a slub that as a result has to be persuaded to draft down to the desired grist. 

I used a strong gelatine size on the warp but the gelatine did not stick as tightly to the coarse, shiny hairs as I had hoped. It did little to lock the stiff ends of the hairs into the yarn, which meant more friction between the yarn and the heddles and reed. Which in turn emphasized any unevenness in the yarn. The cassimere merino yarn was much easier to weave, 


As I wove I was able to feel the fabric developing, understand how the softer weft beats down to almost cover the coarse, hairy warp. The fleece from THIS sheep would never have been dress fabric — it is too coarse — but it could easily have been outerwear, still a garment, when I’d thought that warp would have been best made into rope.


Not my best weaving, but proof of principle is all I really needed.

I cut the fabric off the loom and began to test seam and edge finishes sewn with reserved warp thread. Woven into the Earth suggests that the longest and, finest tog was reserved to be spun into thread, and I now understand why: stiff thread with many protruding stiff fibre ends DOES NOT lend itself to easy tidy sewing. Nonetheless I persevered. I singled some cut edges, stabilizing them by binding the weft threads with thread running into and out of the fabric (see the article for more information about this technique). I wanted to demonstrate the way tablet-weaving was used to bind and protect hems and other ‘edges’ subject to heavy wear, so I ran a short warp of the warp threads on my small tablet-weaving loom (with thanks to John Mullarkey for this lovely little loom).

Tablet-woven edge treatment on the loom, showing how the weft is used to sew the band to the fabric as part of the band weaving process.

If you are familiar with tablet-weaving you may be able to understand how this works from the photograph. In short, the tablet warp is held close to what will be the outer/visible surface of the fabric. Shorter lengths of weft are threaded into a needle; after passing through the shed the needle-with-weft is taken to the back of the fabric then — the point where this photo was taken — brought back through the fabric ready for another pass after the tablets are rotated to change the shed. The band is sewn to the surface of the fabric as part of the weaving process. It’s a bit tricky to work out the spacing of the weft passes to make the band lie flat on the fabric, but practice makes perfect.

The finished tiny piece of wadmal demonstrating various sewing techniques from the garments found in 14th-century Norse graves.

The end result! Tiny vaðmál!
With Norse seams. The Norse women alive 600 years ago live again as my hands learn from the work of their hands.
Women’s work.

The vaðmál itself is a fascinating fabric and I am slowly processing a much nicer, much softer double-coated Shetland lamb fleece to make a larger sample that might, if I’m lucky, be large enough to be a waistcoat.

A truly lovely double-coated dark brown ‘black’ Shetland lamb fleece from Mctavish Farm Shetlands in Oregon.

Processing local Shetland fleece and an apology

Hullo, it’s been a while and I’m genuinely sorry about that. It’s been a really busy year: last winter my slowly-developing hobby of mending stuff and stitching stuff turned into preparing for and then teaching several workshops on ‘Boro and Visible Mending’, all while prepping for and then teaching two spinning workshops at ANWG 2019 (the Association of NorthWest Guilds Conference) in Prince George. And last month we had a wonderful, WONDERFUL holiday in the southwest US; I will try to put some photos up on the travel blog but fibre takes priority and it has been a very long time …

Knowing I’m looking for good double-coated fleece to investigate the spinning and weaving of medieval Greenland (I am still looking), someone (Pat M.) gave me a local Shetland fleece. The tog, the long outer coat, is not long enough for my purpose, but it’s not a bad primitive breed fleece. There’s some scurf, which is normal for primitive breeds: their fleece stops growing in late summer, so over the winter any dead skin just sits there whereas on a modern sheep breed with fleece that grows continually the fleece continually lifts the dead skin out and away. This is what that looks like on the shorn side of the raw fleece.rawscurf

Primitive breed fleece also has a break point, a weakness where the new spring wool fibres continue on from the fibres that grew the previous year. This is the point where, if the sheep are allowed to roo (shed their fleece naturally), the old fleece breaks away and falls off the animal. The shearer has to wait for the rise, the growth of the new fleece, because the oils that accompany the new growth lubricate the shears. This means a clean sheep is shorn under the break point of the fleece, which means there’s a little bit of new wool that will break away naturally from the fleece to become nepps and other undesirable things in your yarn if you don’t get rid of it before you spin. It’s often a slightly different colour; in the photo below you can see some darker wool to the right, on the cut surface; that’s the short dark new wool I don’t want. washednewgrowth

So how can I get rid of it without hunting over the shorn side of the fleece to pick or pull off every bit of offending wool?

Comb it.

This is what combs excel at, sorting good from bad. When you comb all manner of undesirable stuff is trapped in the combing waste, from short proto-nepps to vegetation. Spin your combed wool worsted style, reasonably thin, and the tightly-packed aligned fibres doesn’t leave much room for vegetation: a constant rain of rubbish falls as you spin hand-combed top, all stuff you don’t want in your yarn.

But you do have to wash your fleece for this to work otherwise the lanolin and suint will hold all the rubbish in the wool. Grease fleece also tends to be sticky (the older the stash, the stickier it gets as light fractions in the lanolin evaporate away) which is not good for combs.

Here’s one of my Valkyrie Fine combs loaded with some washed Shetland, butt/shorn ends nearest my hand.

And here are the results of the first pass of rough combing. I’m not doing the classic English woolcomb comb and plank to evenly distribute fibre lengths, this project doesn’t require it. I just want parallel fibres and less rubbish. Note the bushy clump of short dark wool – combing waste – left in the top comb, the one that was first loaded. The comb below that (I only have two hands and one is holding the phone!) has the longer wool transferred by the combing process.


I do four passes, four transfers from comb to comb. In terms of fibre alignment I start with butt|tip, that becomes tip|butt, which becomes butt|tip, and finishes tip|butt, which means when I take the fibre off the combs and coil it into a little nest, the tips are the last thing to come off the comb – and this is the end that I start spinning. So this prep will be spun tip to butt. That means I’m spinning against the lie of the scales on the fibres, but with the taper (finer to thicker) of the fibres.

End result of the process is below, fibre ready to be removed from the comb with an array of combing waste below.

I saved all the waste. In earlier times very little wool was wasted. Combing ‘waste’ was further processed to be spun as weft in fabrics to be fulled, or even plied for use as warp in sturdy coarse fabrics.


I lashed handfuls of the waste, which contains many fine and short fibres, onto my Valkyrie Extra-Fine (three row) combs. Some of the scurf you can see below will be lost in the combing process, some will be left behind in the waste from this process, and some will end up in my yarn. Over time movement of the fabric and washing will break it down.


The result after two or three passes is shown below. I just pull this off the combs and put it in a bag to be spun from handfuls, semi-woollen.


And the end result of the process. Yarn! Mini-skeins of single. Incipient weft and warp straight off the bobbin reveals its fibre content and spinning style.


Nests of combed, aligned fibre, a bag of combed, sort-of-aligned fibre, and the yarn shown above after steaming to set the twist (can you see that the warp is now on the left?). Next stage will be to needle-weave a tiny sample on a piece of card or other tiny loom to see if I like the way it looks as fabric. I had hoped the weft would be slightly darker than the warp… I’ll keep you posted.


The Cassimere Insanity Part II

The Cassimere Insanity Part II
(Part I is here)

Just a warning that this turned out to be a very long post. I could have said more, though, so it could be worse.

I need to know more!

This is how my everyday insanity progresses. I find something interesting, I ask myself questions about it, I look for answers, I find fascinating nuggets of information that give rise to more questions … and before I realise it I’ve dug myself into a hole so deep that if myth were correct I’d see stars in the sky at midday.

Yerbury’s Patent contains very general information. As a hand spinner I have specific questions that it doesn’t answer.

What was that ‘Spanish wool’ really like?

“soft, good wool, all Spanish or a mix of Spanish and English”
By 1800 Great Britain was importing 5 million pounds weight of fine merino wool each year from Spain. In Sheep and Man Ryder states that the name ‘merino’ was first applied to the sheep in the 15th century, but the breed type can be traced to at least the 13th century. There is evidence of fine-wooled sheep in Roman times, including textiles from 1st-century Italy containing fibres of 16-24 microns. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that by the 18th century ‘soft’ Spanish wool was similar to modern Merino, which is roughly the same range. At some point during all this research I found two manufacturers selling cassimere fabric for re-enactors. I ordered samples from both, but only that from Kochan & Phillips resembled my memories of the fulled cassimeres in the V&A. Sean Phillips kindly advised the use of fine merino, so I used 16 micron merino for this project, which on reflection was almost certainly finer than necessary.

fibre preparation

How were the wools prepared for spinning? Warp for traditional broadcloth (Yerbury’s ‘Common Cloth’) was combed, and probably spun with some type of short forward (worsted) draw for strength, while the weft was carded and probably spun softly woollen to encourage fulling. Yerbury’s ‘New Invention’ has warp and weft spun in similar fashion, and worsted yarns don’t full well, so they were probably woollen or semi-woollen spun. But from hand-carded wool or drum-carded wool?  Lewis Paul’s spinning machine invented in 1738 drove rapid development of carding technology, and in 1775 Richard Arkwright was able to patent a carding machine fundamentally similar to modern drum carders that produced continuous lengths of roving.  Only 10 years later Arkwright was unable to prove his invention had been unique – which suggests there were other carding machines in use at the time – and his carding machine became common property. Yerbury seems the type of man who might well have taken advantage of new technology, so I felt it was reasonable to spin from drum-carded fibre. As I was not spinning a soft and lofty yarn – this had to be strong enough for a singles warp as well as weft – I eventually found it more convenient and faster simply to spin my modern merino ‘top’ (traditional top is produced by combing, but most commercial top we buy today is pin-drafted from carded fibre) from the fold.

spinning and preparing the yarn for weaving

One fundamental assumption based on my general research into historic textiles is that cassimere, like most fine historic textiles, was woven from singles rather than plied yarns; the samples I’ve seen do seem to be singles.

What grist was the yarn for this ‘superfine’ cloth? Superfine by contrast with earlier cloths, so what were they? Textiles and Clothing 1150–1450 speaks of coarse as fewer than 10 ends/cm, good middle quality 12-13 ends per cm, and fine as >18 ends per cm. The authors are writing of archaeological finds, so that’s in the finished cloth. What did it look like before fulling? Crumbs. There’s an entire research program for me right there if I have time. Fulled broadcloth was roughly half its woven width (hence the name: it was broad on the loom) so roughly half that epi?  Sean Phillips discussed cassimere specifications with me, and his suggested grist of 9,000- 10,000 yards per lb (ypp) was similar to what I’d found mentioned elsewhere.

I looked at twist angle in the Kochan & Phillips sample – which was thoroughly fulled – and concluded that I couldn’t conclude anything useful from it, even with a microscope and Mabel Ross to hand.

So I sat down at my Majacraft Rose and started spinning fine singles in the standard clockwise direction. Skeined a sample  – a known length – off the bobbin, weighed it, calculated yards per lb. Fail. Try again.  This was not an easy grist for me to maintain: the fibre was so fine it was easier to spin a finer yarn. If I stopped paying attention the yarn would become too fine; when I then tried for thicker it would be too thick.


But I persevered, wound a decent sample on a control card to sit by the wheel for quick comparisons while spinning and, more importantly, wound off samples and checked the ypp regularly throughout the spinning process. I spun and I spun and I spun and I looked at the yarn I was spinning – so much finer than any handspun wool I’d woven before – and wondered whether it would weave. I am not an experienced weaver. I didn’t want to spend weeks spinning something I couldn’t make into cloth! I stopped spinning, wound off into skeins, steamed them to set the twist and sized them with gelatine to further hold the twist. I don’t have my notes for this to hand so I can’t remember the exact strength of the size, for example, but I have found a picture of one of the cassimere warps drying after sizing in what I call The Sizing Room (everyone else calls it the bathroom).

sized warp

The skein is spread evenly on the chopsticks so as few threads overlap as possible. If necessary I will cut tight skein ties to spread it more widely, as fewer ties are needed once a sized skein dries. I do not mess about with it any further: too much handling will increase the fuzziness despite the size. The milk bottle supplies enough weight to eliminate pig-tails and straighten the yarn, but not so much as to risk stretching it. The plastic separator increases airflow around the two sides of the skein. I try to remember to rotate the skein once or twice to minimize pooling of the size at the bottom of the skein, as this glues some of the threads together; it’s not a fatal flaw but pulling them apart is unnecessary stress and can create fuzz. I am all about preventing fuzz.


I remember thinking it was a good sign that the warp beamed on my Ashford table loom with no trouble at all.


The 45° angle shows I tried hard to beat square!

It wove like a dream. On reflection I should have sett it slightly tighter for a slightly denser cloth “well struck in the loom” as Yerbury phrased it but at this point I had no idea how fulling would affect it.

I wove to the end of the short sample warp, cut it into six pieces, blanket-stitched the cut edges with more of the singles as thread (in case cotton sewing thread interfered with the wet finishing of such small samples). A soak in hot water followed by hand washing removed the size and allowed the fabric to find its shape, which was lovely. Light and warm. But nothing like Yerbury’s cassimere: fabric isn’t finished until it is finished. Wet finished.


Yerbury’s cassimere was to be “smartly grounded at the fulling mill by a quick motion”. Fulling has two purposes, the first being to remove any fats and oils used in processing the fibre for spinning. We’re talking serious oils here, such as rancid butter and fish oils used to grease wool for combing, but fortunately these combine with the ammonia compounds in stale urine to become soap that not only scours the cloth but lubricates it. This aids the second purpose, which is to work the fibres together, starting the process of interlocking wool scales that leads to felting. The fabric thickens, becomes denser and less flexible, also more resistant to wear, and for centuries it was a normal part of the finishing of wool fabrics, converting wide bolts of relatively thin plainweave broadcloth into narrow bolts of water-resistant warm hardwearing fabric. The picturesque ‘waulking’ of cloth in Scotland is fulling by hand, suitable only for relatively small scale fabric production. The Romans relied on slave labour walking in place, trampling the fabric in tubs of ankle-deep urine. Water-powered fulling mills had been in use since the 12th century in medieval England: a stock mill imitated the action of walking feet with wooden stocks driven by a waterwheel working either horizontally or vertically. Modern fulling mills are rotary, uniformly processing immense lengths of fabric. I knew without even asking that no commercial fulling operation could do anything with my tiny samples!

I first tried fulling my sample as I’d fulled wools before, working it by hand on a flat surface. Always in the warp and weft directions, never on the angle as that will deform the fabric. The result was nice to the touch, but far from even and both thicker and less dense than seemed right.

From left: cloth off the loom; washed; fulled by rubbing


So I imitated a vertical fulling mill with a wooden mallet wrapped in plastic. The remaining three samples were wetted, lightly soaped and then fulled by incessant (or so it felt) tapping with the mallet on our kitchen counter. It worked. It more than worked, it made a lovely fabric, dense and light and very different from the hand-fulled sample. If you’re at all interested in fulling, you should try this technique.

So that will suffice. What next? Raise the nap: brush to raise fibres from the surface of the fulled fabric. In times past teasels mounted in wooden frames might be used for this, and it was skilled work. I used a nailbrush and would not call myself skilled, but the fabric developed a lovely soft halo of fibres.

After the nap was raised it was sheared or cropped. Shearsmen were probably the most highly skilled of all the craftsmen involved in this process, able to crop a uniform finish by eye on yards of fabric using huge steel shears. Fabrics were often napped and sheared repeatedly to obtain the smoothest possible finish.shearman

Fortunately I had tiny shears (my embroidery snips) to match my tiny piece of fabric.


I love this piece of fabric. It’s delightful. Not as densely woven as the 18th-century swatch I saw in the V&A, but still cassimere. It’s light, warm and the singles woven in twill structure make it remarkably stretchy. But each time I handled the swatches I ended up admiring the second one, the plain washed fabric. Still flexible, but soft and smooth with a lovely drape. I wondered what it would feel like as a larger piece. I had more fibre, I could find out. For speed I spun the singles for this fabric from the fold and thinner, which I found easier. Roughly 11,000ypp, roughly 13 yards spun per 5 minutes while watching tv, so could have been faster.

The full set of samples from the first cassimere warp: from right, loom state; washed; fulled by rubbing; fulled with a mallet, no further finishing; mallet-fulled, nap raised; mallet-fulled, nap-raised and sheared. Plus my control card and a sample skein spun for the second cassimere warp.


I spun, I skeined, I sized as before. I wound a shorter but much wider warp and wove it off sett at 48epi (it wrapped at 72). Soaked in hot water, washed and ironed, it had a subtle sheen and draped beautifully.


By the twentieth century it seems from catalogue descriptions of fabrics and garments that almost any wool twill could be described as a cassimere so, while this isn’t Yerbury’s patented cassimere, it’s still a cassimere.  And once I’ve spun the current big bag of silk, I’ll be spinning to make more of it.

The Cassimere Insanity Part I

If you’re visiting because you’ve heard about my article A Brief History of an 18th-Century Woven Cloth: Cassimere in the Winter 2019 Spin Off, welcome.

Honestly, that’s what it is, insanity. I just didn’t realise it until I’d dug the hole too deep to climb out:
I had to keep going all the way to the other side.

I am deeply curious about how yarns were spun in England before the Industrial Revolution. In the Middle Ages England was the leading producer of woollen textiles in Europe: across a wide swathe of the country you can still see the ‘wool churches‘, magnificent structures paid for by the profits of the medieval wool trade, which is to say people buying and selling wool fibre, yarn and fabrics. ‘The medieval wool trade’ … four words that encompass centuries of skill needed to breed sheep producing different types of wool, to develop the hand spinning, dying, weaving and finishing skills to spin the different types of yarn needed to create different cloths that could then be finished to create some of the most beautiful and desirable fabrics known in Europe at that time. In England at that time skilled hand spinning was so fundamental that we have little information about how fibre was spun except in illustrations: everyone knew how to spin, so there was no need to document it. Nonetheless surviving fabrics can tell us something about the fibres and skills used in their construction.

the beginning

In 2014 I was invited to be one of the spinners demonstrating techniques at John Styles’ ‘Spinning in the era of the spinning wheel’ workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum Clothworkers’ Centre in London. Historians and fibre arts handworkers met to discuss the making of an array of fabrics from the V&A’s immense collection. One of the items on display was a book of fabric samples, ‘T.350-1989: Bound sample book containing different types, qualities and colours of cassimere or kerseymere cloth.’ I’d first seen cassimere (also known as kerseymere) mentioned in Kerridge’s Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England as a cloth invented by Francis Yerbury and patented by him in 1766; I remembered it because of the name, which I had read somewhere is thought to have been derived from ‘cashmere’ to reflect its softness, and because it had never occurred to me that a fabric could be patented. And now here it was in front of me, or at least examples of what were known as cassimere in 1795.


Note that my finger is NOT TOUCHING anything.
It’s hovering about 1cm above the fabric to give some idea of scale.

I was entranced. Moths and time had removed some patches of the surface fibre from one swatch (the one I photographed), revealing the twill structure and the beautifully-spun yarn. There were many other wonders spread out on the tables, but I left the workshop determined to find out more about this thing called cassimere. Kerridge focuses on the history of textile manufacturing, not the textiles themselves, and mentions cassimere again only as being responsible for bringing weavers into employment in large workshops, which was “possible because the looms were narrow and necessary because the weaves were new and intricate [compared with earlier standard weaves].”

The search for information

The internet rapidly made clear that cassimere/kerseymere continued in production until the 20th century and beyond, but also that these were very different fabrics from that patented by Yerbury… Aha! The patent! We were now living in Canada, so I couldn’t just pop down to the British Library in London. I emailed the Business & IP Centre asking if there was any way I could find a copy online, and will be eternally grateful to the  staff member who noticed I was writing from Canada and sent me a PDF.

Yerbury’s patent YerburyPatent1766-1

Page One of Yerbury’s patent.

Greetings from the 21st century, Francis. But I wish you’d given me more information! The meat of the patent is on pages 2 and 3, where Yerbury’s ‘New Invention’ is contrasted with the ‘common method of making cloth’. In short:

Common cloth warp is spun with a lot of twist, the weft with as little twist as possible and about 2/3 thicker than the warp, and the two should have different twist directions in order that they interlace tightly when woven. The fabric is a plain weave and the final fulled cloth is thick, water-resistant and durable.

Yerbury’s new Invention warp and weft are spun in the same manner “nearly about the same degree of smallness, weight and twist”. There is no specific weight or thickness of yarn but it should be spun from soft, good wool, all Spanish (i.e. merino) or a mix of Spanish and English. He describes two kinds of cloth distinguished in the weaving; one is clearly a straight twill, right or left; the other “quilled in the weaving with a flat whale [wale]” defeats my current understanding. According to the Google Books preview of The Dictionary of Fashion History, Beckinsale’s The Trowbridge Woollen Industry mentions only twill weave for cassimere.

Yerbury developed his new ‘cassimers’ fabrics to fill a niche in the market, which at that time was virtually crying out for lighter wools suitable for wear in warmer climates. But on the third page of his patent he mentions another reason for devising an innovative fabric: not only was the common cloth “hot, inconvenient and heavy for the summer wear at home and warmer climates abroad”, but it “hath also been introduction of many slight and whimsical things from our great rivals in trade the French”. In other words, the French were saying rude things about heavy, traditional English broadcloth.

So this is how I discovered cassimere. In Part II I’ll tell you how I found more information and began spinning.



Why spin for weaving?


To make fabric like this.

I can’t look at it without smiling.

The seeds of this project were sown at SOAR, the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat at Tahoe in October 2012 when I attended Stephenie Gaustad’s ‘Spinning for a replicate or reenactment textile’ aka the Class of Awesome!  It truly was a Class of Awesome: I left with far more knowledge and confidence about spinning for weaving as well as a class handout containing descriptions of several historic textiles. ‘Donbæk Check’ – named for the burial site where it was found, near Frederikshavn in Denmark – sounded fascinating. Dating from the Iron Age, the 2/2 twill fabric had a chequerboard pattern produced by the light falling differently on the intersections of singles spun clockwise and counter-clockwise in the warp and weft. I’d heard of/seen pictures of twist-patterning in tablet-woven bands but hadn’t thought about it on fabric. Back in the UK I made a special expedition to the University Library to photocopy the reference and vowed I’d try this one day.

Fast forward to January 2017, when I was preparing to teach my first ‘Spinning for weaving’ workshop. While I enjoy making *any* fabric from my handspun, I wanted to show the students something memorable, a fabric that would be impossible or at least very difficult to weave from commercial yarns… and I remembered the Donbæk Check. Perfect. I had 2 x 100g packs of charcoal grey Wensleydale combed top from Julia Desch/Diamond Fibres: this is not pin-drafted top from giant drum carders, this is real (commercial) combed top. It’s special. It’s lovely.  I spun each 100g in a different direction using a short forward (‘worsted’) draw for a dense and shiny singles yarn that would – I hoped – reflect the light effectively.

WensFibreThe fibre: a slightly darker version of the Wensleydale top, together with a washed lock from a Wensleydale fleece. Shiny!

Sized&unsizedThe singles, before and after steaming to set the twist.

I wanted to protect the smooth surface of that yarn and wasn’t sure how much I’d use for the warp, so I used a gelatine size on all of it.

sizingThe sized singles yarns drying on the clothes tree. The plastic bin is weighted with just enough water to hold the singles taut, removing the pigtails, but with minimal stretching. Remember that wet wool is weaker than dry wool.

I wound a warp from just over half the yarn by weight, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise yarns every 26 ends to yield a rough 1″ check. Sett at 27epi for twill calculated from wpi it was seriously sleazy. I unwove the first 2″ and re-sleyed at 36epi, an eyeballed guess. This produced what I think is a lovely looking fabric that wove with a delightfully clear shed; although I hadn’t spun the yarn particularly tightly, the fact that it’s a longwool meant there were fewer ends, well locked down, so relatively little fuzz.


I was worried at this point because although I’d dutifully alternated the clockwise and counterclockwise singles in the weft (carrying the unused yarn up the selvedge), I could not see a pattern. I checked the underside… no pattern. Well. I needed to know how the cloth would behave after finishing (simple washing, in this case), and as the class had been moved forward I needed an example of it as soon as possible, so I cut that strip off as a sample, roughly stitched it to bind the ends and create a tiny ‘loom state’ sample, then washed the slightly larger piece.




The size was obscuring the pattern on the loom state fabric. It’s even more subtle than I expected: if the fabric is flat so the light does not play on the surface the pattern is scarcely visible.


I didn’t have time to finish the sample warp before the class, so I took the table loom and that small sample to show them, which was probably better than the finished sample alone, as students who hadn’t woven were able to try their hand.

Then I raced home to weave it off the loom, stitched the ends and threw it into the wool wash cycle of the washing machine. I ironed the damp fabric on the counter top (not the ironing board, which is too soft), using all my weight and the ‘linen’ setting to flatten it: the chequerboard formed hills and hollows in the unironed fabric.

Sample1Unsurprisingly the weft stripe is more obvious on one side, the warp stripe on the other, but the chequerboard is visible on either side if the light is right.

It’s even more visible if light passes through the fabric. Isn’t that interesting?  I’ll just go and find a hand-lens so I can mark the twist directions of the singles in the sample…


In The Big Book of Handspinning Alden Amos wrote “If warp and weft have the same twist direction, the threads will bed together better during the weaving … If the warp and weft have opposing twists, the individual yarns will be plainer or clearer in outline, the cloth will not be quite as dense.”

First I must consider another factor: the amount of twist I put into the singles when spinning. I almost always spin singles clockwise or ‘S’ – it’s the modern tradition – and this means my hands don’t get as much practice drafting while spinning counter-clockwise. Spinning counter-clockwise felt awkward, and I had to adjust my whorl and treadling to accommodate the slower drafting. When I look at the singles at 20x magnification, I can see that the counter-clockwise singles have a shallower twist angle – less twist – than the clockwise singles.

In that photo the clockwise (S) singles certainly do exactly as Alden suggests: they bed together tightly, forming the densest squares (S/S). Looking more closely at the fabric than I can photograph – you’ll have to take my word for it – I see that the counter-clockwise singles also bed together tightly, but only in small areas of the Z/Z squares: the variation in twist is interfering, and this is why on average the squares look less dense. In the S/Z or Z/S squares, the yarns do seem to form a more regular grid, as though the warp prevents the weft yarns from cuddling together and vice versa. It occurs to me that this sort of interaction would have caused the hills and hollows in the fabric when it came out of the washing machine – and that my hot iron and heavy pressing may have altered the ‘natural’ interactions of the singles.

All food for thought. Further experimentation is required!

The Hat of Authority

That’s a gripping title if ever I saw one. Thanks to Freyalyn, who named the hat during the ‘Spinning for Weaving’ workshop on Saturday as I put it on to call the class to order. It’s hard to miss, especially as the coins and charms chime as I move.

hatwalkingWearing The Hat in public for the first time, hiking in Derbyshire.

Two previous blog posts tell the story of the fabric of the hat: ‘The wrong fibre in the wrong place at the wrong time‘ describes how a highly unsuitable fibre preparation was re-processed to become something far more suitable (if any of the workshop attendees are reading this, note the use of a small cardboard loom-equivalent to establish whether the fabric would full), and ‘A project for the Cotswold.‘ briefly describes how I came to make a hat from it. I didn’t post more because the description became an article for Spin-Off Magazine (Summer 2014, ‘Uzbekistan by Hat’.

The executive summary, in pictures:
I work primarily with handspun singles. To prevent loss of twist, to make the yarn easier to manage and (to some extent) to protect it during the weaving process, the singles may be sized. Here the sized warp is drying on a makeshift stretcher in front of the bathroom radiator. (Workshop people, note that’s a hiking pole and chopstick stretcher, not the broom handle and hoe I use if I have more skeins!)WarpSized

From left to right: the Cotswold warp as it came off the bobbin, after steaming to set the twist, and lastly the dry sized skein.Warp

The hat fabric on the loom: Cotswold warp and handspun ‘Falklands’ (unspecified blend of Romney, merino and similar) weft.Fabric

I chose Falklands for the weft because I wanted to full the fabric, which I did in a hot indigo vat. Here the fabric is drying immediately after dyeing. I agitated it considerably in the vat to aid the fulling; the end result was not entirely even, but very beautiful. Or at least I think so.FabricDyed

Samples of the fabric for my records. Despite the fact it would be difficult to duplicate these handspun yarns (not that I can see any reason to try), the samples are useful records of how the wools and the fabric behaved. Note the tracking (the twill-like diagonal ridges) visible in the finished samples.Samples

I’d never made a hat from fabric. Clearly before I could make a hat I had to make a pattern. Having decided to make a hat inspired by those worn in Uzbekistan, I chose a style that looked as though I might be able wear it in public without dying of embarrassment, and started cutting up bits of paper to work out a pattern.hatplan

My first attempt proved to be a tiny yurt suitable for wearing on my head. But after some adjustments and more waste paper, I tacked together a fabric version to test the size and fit, then untacked it for use in cutting my fabric.TheHatProject.hats

Time passes. A LOT of time passes.

Sheila Paine and many others have written many words about the significance and meaning of folk embroidery. A gift from Sara Lamb, ‘Skullcaps of Uzbekistan‘ proved particularly interesting and useful. Reading and re-reading, I eventually could no longer postpone putting needle into cloth. What to use for the embroidery? Silk, in bright – and significant – colours. Some I dyed and spun for The Hat (it had acquired initial capitals in my thoughts), some were thrums of silks dyed and spun for my tablet-woven bag.embroiderysilks

Research suggests traditional makers usually embroider the hat fabric before the pieces are cut but, as I had never made a fabric hat before and had very little clue about what I was doing, it seemed wisest to make a hat that fit and embroider that. Having used some of the finer silk to sew the hat together, I rapidly discovered that I needed guides for the geometric patterns, hence the lines of white sewing thread.HatAgain1

Each of the patterns has – or is thought to have – a meaning or purpose, generally protective: bringing good fortune, or warding off bad luck and demons. The colours, too, have meaning: in many cultures across the globe red is apotropaic: it wards against evil.

In the photo above, the maze of complex swastikas is a demon trap in the making: entranced by the complexity they wander into the maze and are lost. The mirrors of the shisha embroidery dazzle and confuse any that elude the maze. Above, ram’s horns symbolise strength, courage and protection.

Below, one of my personal favourite symbols, a non-traditional orobouros symbolising infinity and the cycle of life becomes two owl eyes to frighten demons. The mother-of-pearl buttons used for the eyes and the silver coins are traditional embellishments, catching the sun to distract and confuse evil spirits. Hatback

Below, just visible on the left side band are two traditional Uzbek stylised birds. Apparently there is an old belief that if a bird sits on a man’s head it will make him happy (don’t ask, I don’t know). At the front is a sun disk, offering protection from the evil eye and any passing impurity. It is flanked by guardian cats.hatFront

Somewhat distorted by perspective, at the top of the hat is a band of shepherd’s crooks (protective), below which is a band of ‘amulet triangles’. Thought to be based on very, very early depictions of the Goddess, these are protective. Some of mine have diamond-shaped ‘heads’ containing four squares, the shape known as ‘fertile field’ that usually means fertility in the sense of offspring but I’ve used as heads because I’m interested in fertility in the sense of ideas. Tiny gold stars (light to distract demons) and the s-shape that may be a greatly simplified dragon (protective) also appear.  Dangling from the top of the hat are glittering, noisy coins and a miniature silver Maes Howe ‘dragon’.


When I presented my project to the spinning group I found my voice breaking with emotion as I tried to convey how I’d felt as each stitch linked me more closely to the many, many others who for millennia have made clothing to protect those they loved. Writing this I find the same emotion rising again. Think of the work involved in making a garment, even a hat, when women clothed their families in the days before millspun, machine-woven cloth. Gathering the fibre, preparing it, spinning it, weaving it, thinking of the person for whom you’re making it. Saving and bartering for cherished bright silks, shiny coins. Hoping and believing with every stitch that your embroideries are more than embellishment; you are creating a garment that may offer guidance and protection to the person who wears it, a tangible expression of your love and skill.

We’ve lost that. Our lives are so much easier… but we’ve lost something along the way.

A handspun, handwoven, mostly hand sewn jacket: almost finished!

In April 2014 I decided to spin and weave fabric a fabric from singles (unplied yarn) for my first planned garment. I bought black (‘black’ in this context means very dark brown) Shetland for the weft, above top left. It was a bit boring when spun from the top, so I carded bats including some slivers of multi-coloured silk. I thought Black Massam (the other two images) would make a good warp. Massam being the offspring of a Teeswater ram put to Dalebred or Swaledale ewes, the fibres should be longer, a bit coarser, and have more sheen than the Shetland. In the event neither of the tops were quite as I expected: the Shetland had a lot of kemp (very coarse flattened hairs) and more hair mixed in with the wool, and the Massam was shorter and very variable in thickness. Nonetheless I persevered. Once spun the warp was steamed to set the twist then sized to make it easier to manage; the weft was steamed (otherwise it can twist into little pigtails after the shuttle is thrown and before it’s locked into place by the changed shed).

The sized warp dries under light tension.

I warped and threaded my Baby Wolf loom for an 8-shaft broken diamond twill at 30 epi. The yarns behaved reasonably well on the loom although I had more breakages than I like, mainly where I’d made quick-and-dirty joins while spinning, laying the spun end from the orifice onto the fibre instead of opening up the spun end to join fuzz-to-fuzz. I wasted far more time protecting fraying joins with hair gel than I’d have done making them properly in the first place! The quick joins are fine for yarn to be plied, but they’re disasters waiting to happen if you’re weaving singles.14410873262_a0ab954361_c

I can’t remember how much fabric I had when I finished, but I do remember the wonderful feel of it washed (zig-zag stitch the ends, throw in the washing machine wool wash cycle, remember to clean the filter afterward!) finished (hot iron both sides, no cloth) and the satisfying weight of the roll. But what should I make? Laying out modern pattern pieces on my narrow fabric would be wasteful, and I’m not a tailored jacket sort of person. I decided on a jacket based on Pattern 23, ‘Man’s coat, Afghanistan’ from Dorothy Burnham’s extremely useful Cut My Cote. Never having made anything other than commercial patterns, and never having made anything that actually FIT me, I wasn’t sure how to work from Burnham’s sketches of the pattern pieces laid out on the fabric width.


I enrolled in one of Alison Smith‘s ‘Three Day Own Choice’ workshops and – amazingly – emerged having learned to translate the sketch to paper pattern pieces, use these to make a toile, adjust the pattern, cut my fabric, overlock/serger all the edges, sew the jacket AND insert a mandarin collar into the existing collar band. I can’t recommend Alison too highly! I returned home with a lightweight unlined jacket, on which my exposed selvedges are a decorative detail. (Alison’s suggestion, she liked them. All weavers may now pick their jaws off the ground and replace them.)


The lack of internal seam finish annoyed me. I decided to weave lengths of inkle band to cover the seam allowances but, several months and about 8m of band later, concluded this was a bad idea: the decorative bands were too bright and, worse, made the seams too stiff. The jacket went into time out (also known as a plastic bag in the closet).

Imagine the flickering calendar pages of time passing…

After seeing one of the reconstructed Herjolfsnes garments at the Ship Museum in Roskilde in 2016, I started thinking about making some of the dresses for myself, first in a commercial fabric and then in handspun handwoven. Reading about the garments and sewing techniques in Woven into the Earth: Textile Finds in Norse Greenland and its companion Medieval Garments Reconstructed, I remembered the abandoned jacket: I could rip off the inkle bands and practice medieval sewing techniques!

In order to sew, I had to have thread. Handspun thread. Not being able to carefully select the best hairs from my fleeces after washing and shearing my double-coated sheep, I dug through my stash to find the remaining twist of Shetland from the weft. The mix of kemp, hair and wool means it’s far from perfect, but it works.

Top left, singles spun on a light spindle; Below, my plying spindle and mugs;
Right, the final 2-ply thread.

I take pride in my ability to wind fine spun singles into balls without using a core but it is easier to ply from the balls if they don’t bounce around: using a pebble as a core adds weight, and putting each ball into a mug and wrapping the singles around the handle before taking it to the spindle makes it much easier to control. The plied yarn is well within the parameters of those used on the Herjolfsnes originals.

The book mentions the possibility that the threads were finished with something, perhaps beeswax, before sewing. I found quite a lot of information about thread finishes, something that I – a non-sewer – knew nothing about, on the internet. I decided to try running the thread across beeswax before using it, and now I’m a convert, at least for handspun wool thread.


The wax stiffens the thread, making it easier to thread the needle. Being slightly sticky it pulls off some of the fuzz from the thread (see the hairs left in the wax), which makes the thread much easier to work with. And it smells lovely.

Three or four inches at a time, I’m trimming the overlocked finish off the raw edges and binding them down to the garment.


Pebbles from California on which to wind thread, the snips I use to trim the fabric, and the bowl from Dawn P.  in which for some reason I kept ALL the edges I’d trimmed off the seam allowances.
I think it’s time I threw that lot away.

Before sewing, the raw edges on the Herjolfsnes garments were stabilised by ‘singling’: a fine thread was sewn to and fro into the thickness of the fabric, in from the edge, not stabbed up and down through the fabric. I haven’t enough raw edge on the seam allowances to do that, so I’m taking pains to run the needle in and out of the fabric for additional stabilising as I sew one way, then I take it back over the fabric to the starting point. A picture is worth a thousand words:


I’m trying to stitch every 2mm or a little less. You can see the waxy whiteness of the beeswax on those recent stitches, but it soon disappears as the garment is handled.

I think the end result looks good, is appropriate for a handspun, handwoven fabric, and will allow me to tell people about the astonishing finds at Herjolfsnes.


Some of the internal seams. The stitches are not generally this visible: I chose the light angle to highlight them.


Seams as they appear on the outside of the garment. The stitches pick up a thread or two of the fabric at both ends, so create a subtle and decorative ridge.

Once I finish all the internal seams (as you can see from the pattern, there are more than a few), I will try my hand (and foot) at fut-slyinging, incorporating a foot-tensioned tablet-woven decorative band along the hems. I think all this handspun thread, hand sewn and woven really should outweigh the fact that the garment seams are machine-sewn!

Also, some of those seams were even sewn with an appropriate needle. Bone.


In January 2020 I realised that I should tell the story of the jacket that stars in my article on seam techniques from Norse Greenland in Piecework Magazine Summer 2020. And then 2020 went a bit pear-shaped for the entire world. As I begin to pick up the juggling balls where I left them, I can start by clearing out my Blog drafts folder!

thoughts on seeing a piece of antique lace

I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that I’m a hand spinner. I use my hands and various tools such as spindles and spinning wheels to make what I’ll loosely term ‘yarn’  from loose fibres by twisting them together. It’s an ancient skill. Yarn and the cloth made from it doesn’t usually survive to be dated (it rots, especially the early yarns made from plant materials), but sometimes the impressions of texture and pattern made by cloth and string in mud or soft soil do survive. Fragments of clay found in the Czech Republic show the pattern of cloth thought to have been woven 27,000 years ago. Some of the ‘Venus’ figures found in Europe dating from 20,000 BC have carefully carved string skirts, some so detailed that they show the skirt string is plied. Left dangling loose, a single strand of twisted fibre rapidly untwists to become loose fibre. Only if two strands – known as singles – are plied, twisted together in the opposite direction, will the dangling string remain string. Given the skills demonstrated by the things that have survived, it’s been suggested that people – probably women, as men are traditionally hunters – have been spinning fibre into string/yarn for over 40,000 years.

That’s a long time.

That’s many, many generations of my female ancestors. Only for the last 300 or so of those 40,000 years have women not needed to spin, at least in western Europe, where I come from. I am descended from a long line of women who could spin, and spin well, because the yarn they spun was needed to cloth their families, to be sold for money to pay the rent or feed their families. In the early days the string they made would have been knotted into nets to catch fish and birds. If my ancestors hadn’t been good, productive spinners, they and their children wouldn’t have survived. I wouldn’t be here.

So, as I’m spinning, I think of my ancestors, spinning. I didn’t gain my skill directly from their hands – my mentors passed on their own skills from their hands to mine – but my hands are doing the same things, going through the same motions, as those of my ancestors. Spinning unites us, hand to hand, across nearly 40,000 years.

Lynn, I search out antique handspun textiles because handling those textiles, learning new skills by examining them, is a direct link with the people who made them. For me, it’s all about the people, not the finished piece. I don’t care if something is tattered, too badly damaged for a ‘serious collector’: the ragged edges and loose threads mean I can see how it was made, whether the yarns are plied or singles, estimate their grist. I can extract individual fibres (of wool) to estimate staple length and fineness of fleece. Knowing these things I can try to replicate the yarn. Spinning it, I remember with respect the person who spun the original.


So. Here is a piece of linen lace in the style of Alençon, in northern France, dated by style and condition to the 18th century (1701–1799). Pre-Industrial Revolution, there’s no doubt the thread used for this was handspun and, for lace, of the finest quality at the time. Because in this condition it is of no value to a collector 48″ of this cost £5, but to me it’s beyond valuation. It’s 48″ of people’s lives: the skills of the flax grower, the processors, the spinners, the lacemakers.


Detail of the lace magnified 20x. The lens circle is 1cm in diameter.



The damage allows me to examine the individual strands of yarn more closely.


Above, a damaged area magnified 20x, showing what seems to be a single thread.

Below, the same area magnified 80x. 


The lustre of the individual threads and the ‘hand’ of the fabric, even after more than 200 years, suggests this is linen. I am awestruck by the fineness of the fibres in the yarn: having done some flax processing myself (this link shows the basic principles), I have some idea of just how tricky it would be to get fibres this fine. Having spun flax, I have some idea of what it takes to spin this fine. At this point I’m not even sure whether this is plied or a singles yarn. I did find a description of the spinning process in Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, Vol. 4 1865 on Google Books:

“Why, the flax of which the old Brussels and the point d’Alençon were made, was cultivated on purpose; it was chiefly grown in Brabant, Halle, and Courtrai, and had to be spun in underground cellars, because contact with external air made the thread brittle. The thread was so fine as almost to elude the sight; the spinner had to go by the sense of touch, examining every inch as it left the distaff, and at the slightest irregularity stopping the wheel. The room was kept in darkness, except for one single ray of light arranged to fall on the thread, which was thrown up by a background of dark paper … “No wonder,” said Goody, “that fine lace is so costly; why, I have read lately, that at the present moment, hand-spun thread is often sold at £240 sterling for one pound only.”

MeasuringWorth says £240 in 1865 would be between £20,690 and £471,100 in 2015 pounds. I am stunned.

I hold the lace and I respect the people who made it. I remember with respect the people who, generation upon generation, developed the skill to make things like this. They may not be my personal ancestors, but without them we wouldn’t be here.

All that from a piece of old lace.

How the magic works: the chemistry of blue.

dd541-woad6The transformation from green-yellow to indigo blue that takes place before your eyes when something is removed from an indigo vat is the nearest thing to real magic that I know of. But it’s not magic, it’s chemistry, and understanding it is helpful in troubleshooting vats and in choosing vats for specific fibre types.

Where does indigo come from, and why is it there in the first place?

Most of the indigo used commercially is now synthetic indigo, one of the myriad colours chemists derived from the magic compound aniline in the 19th century. I’m more interested in natural indigo, which is extracted from plants such as Woad (Isatis tinctoria, a member of the Cruciferae, related to cabbages) and Japanese Indigo (Polygonum or Persicaria tinctoria, a type of knotweed) in addition to ‘true’ Indigo, Indigofera, a member of the Leguminosae (related to beans and peas) which has several species including tinctoria and suffruticosa. In fact many plants will yield indigo, but only a few yield it in sufficient quantity to be of any use in dyeing.

I haven’t yet found a reference giving a firm reason for the presence of the indigo compounds in plants, but a couple of papers suggest in passing that it might discourage pests.

Indican, the compound that yields indigo blue, is a glycoside: a sugar (in this case a form of glucose) bound to another molecule, indoxyl. When the glycosidic bond is broken, the indoxyl is freed. When the indoxyl compound is oxidised, it becomes blue: indigo blue. Sounds simple enough, but how does the processing of the plant material and the dyeing accomplish this?

The indigo-bearing leaves (it’s usually the leaves; the lower the amount of other plant matter, the better the final grade of indigo) are harvested. In Japan the Japanese Indigo leaves are dried in the sun and stored for later use. Elsewhere the leaves are then physically damaged – chopped, pounded or trampled – presumably to release larger quantities of indican. This is the point at which woad was traditionally made into balls of leaf matter and dried for easier storage and transport. In West Africa the pounded leaves might also be dried and stored at this stage. Alternatively (in West Africa and elsewhere) the mass of fresh leaf material might be fermented; in Japan the dried leaves are later moistened and fermented; in Europe the woad balls are moistened and fermented (the process known as couching). In other words, bacteria are encouraged to consume the glucose in the indican, leaving the indoxyl molecules as highly reactive free radicals. The bacterial breakdown of glucose may be an aerobic process in which the bacteria consume oxygen, creating the reducing (low oxygen) environment necessary for the next stage of the process, or an anaerobic process in which the bacteria release hydrogen that acts as a reducing agent in the next stage.

The indoxyl free radicals bind to each other to form indigo. If an alkali is present (pH is above neutral), this takes the form of water-soluble leuco-indigo (leuco means white), also known as white indigo or white indigotin. The ‘white’ refers to the compound’s relative lack of colour: the leuco-indigo solution is a clear yellow or yellow-green. This is the form in which indigo dyes, so at this point it is possible to convert the fermentation vat to a dye vat, or to continue the process to extract indigo from the solution. Extraction is simply a matter of converting the soluble leuco-indigo to its insoluble blue form by adding oxygen: straining the fluid off the leaves, then pouring it back and forth between two containers may be sufficient, after which the blue particles of indigo can then be filtered out of the liquid. I wrote a post (with lots of pictures) about processing woad leaves in this way in 2013; you can see it here.

The actual indigo pigment content of the particles is reported to vary from 12% for Japanese Indigo, through a maximum of 40% for woad and 77% for Indigofera indigo. The remained of the mass is plant matter, mineral matter and other pigments such as indirubin (known as indigo red and one of the components of Murex purple). This mix is one reason that natural indigo produces more variable shades of blue than the purer synthetic form.


Handspun Bombyx silk indigo-dyed in three different vats. The dark blue on the left was put dry (unwetted) into a 1-2-3 Fructose vat, to which I added a little more fructose and heat to raise the temperature back to 50°C before leaving the silk for 45 mins. The patchy warm-grey-blue on the right was well-wetted before spending an hour in the urine vat. The curl of bright blue silk in the centre had 5 dips in a standard Thiox vat.

How does indigo dye?

Water carries the soluble form, leuco-indigo, as it soaks through the material in the vat. When the material is exposed to the air (or another source of oxygen such as well-oxygenated water) the leuco-indigo oxidises to blue indigo particles that physically lodge in unevennesses in the material. Unlike many other dyes, the particles are not chemically bound to the material, just wedged into cracks and crevices. This means that dense, smooth materials or those that are not easy to wet will not hold a lot of dye or will not be easy to dye. Indigo is one of the most light-stable natural dyes, but the way in which it dyes means that materials dyed with indigo ‘fade’ in two ways: as particles of indigo are dislodged and fall away from the material, and as the dyed material itself wears away to reveal undyed material. Taken together, these largely explain the classic fading of denim. (Light does degrade indigo into compounds such as isatin, but the physical damage is more significant.)

Making leuco-indigo: reducing the vat to remove oxygen

Whether they’re based on synthetic or natural indigo (including plant material that contains indigo), all indigo vats work on the same basic principle: convert the blue indigo into soluble leuco-indigo, then allow that solution to penetrate the material to be dyed. As leuco-indigo only maintains that form in the absence of oxygen, the vat must be reduced – the oxygen removed – in some way. Traditional vats use bacterial fermentation: the vats contain organic matter on which bacteria feed, such as the nutrients in urine, rice bran, the plant material that contains the indigo compounds, or even the skin flakes, sweat and manure held in a sheep fleece.

Chemical vats use raw chemistry, compounds including sodium hydrosulphite or thiourea dioxide or reducing sugarssuch as fructose to remove oxygen from the vat.

Making leuco-indigo: the vagaries of pH

pH – the acidity or alkalinity of the vat – is important, as the conversion to leuco-indigo requires an alkaline environment. It’s easiest to predict and maintain in a chemical vat, with recipes calling for measured amounts of lye (sodium hydroxide) or washing soda/soda as/soda crystals (sodium carbonate) or calc aka calcium hydroxide aka slaked lime. It’s just as important in a biological vat, but much trickier to maintain, because the fermentation process produces byproducts such as lactic acid that lower the pH. Apparently dyers in the past learned to manage their vats by tasting the fluid or feeling it between their fingers, trying for something that’s slippery (alkaline), but not too slippery. Fortunately we have pH paper, which works even for indigo vats – the blue does not appear so quickly that it prevents reading the pH.

pH also influences the dyeing process in other ways. Both cotton and indigo are ionised at higher pH; there are two forms of leuco-indigo, and the most ‘efficient’ of these in terms of dyeing is most common at pH11, which is also the pH at which de-protonation/ionisation of the cotton (and possibly other cellulosic fibres) has begun, making it attract the dye. So cellulosic fibres are best dyed at pH11.

But protein fibres such as silk and wool are damaged by high pH, and heat accelerates the damage. pH paper allowed me to confirm that my sig (urine) fermentation vat does indeed run at about pH 9 in the relative coolth of the pop-up greenhouse, whereas the 1-2-3 Fructose vat I created yesterday was pH11 at 50°C. So: to dye my handspun silk (a smooth, dense fibre, hence takes up less dye) a dark blue, I had the option of multiple dips in the urine vat OR a shorter single dip in the Fructose vat.

Having said all this, pH paper and knowing how to use it doesn’t guarantee success with a biological vat. I think the current woad vat may be a loss, possibly because I used garden lime instead of calcium hydroxide to try to control the pH. But perhaps there’s so little blue present that I’m not seeing it on the material. Further work required.


There are far too few pictures in this post, so here’s a Norwich damask, a dress fabric dating from the early 1700s. Handspun 2-ply wool warp; the purplish shadows in the pale areas hint that the warp was once dyed reddish-purple, probably with logwood, long since faded except where protected inside the seams. The handspun singles weft is clear pale indigo blue. The original fabric was probably lavender-lilac purple with red-purple patterning.

Further reading

Balfour-Paul, J, 2011. Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans. British Museum Press

Hall, K, 2012. Indigo background (written specifically for South Carolina teachers).

Click to access Indigo-Recipe.pdf

Melo, M J, 2009. History of Natural Dyes in the Ancient Mediterranean World. In Handbook of Natural Colorants, John Wiley & Sons.

Vuorema, A, 2008. Reduction and analysis Methods of indigo

Click to access AI388%20Vuorema.pdf