A tiny piece of velveteen

In March a friend asked me what I knew about fustian weaves. I’m fascinated by European textiles from the Medieval period through the Middle Ages, so I started talking about fabrics woven from mixed materials. Linsey-woolsey is a well-known example, wool weft on a linen warp, but there were cotton wefts on linen warp and wool weft on cotton warp too. But she was interested in the fustians of the late 19th and early 20th century, by which time it had come to mean a pile fabric.

Pile fabrics are interesting. The pile is created by weaving a fabric with floats: where normally the threads might interlace over-under-over-under-over-under, in a pile fabric either the warp (the threads held on the loom) or the weft (the thread held on a shuttle and passed through the warp threads) will float over several threads before it is locked down again. If warp threads float, the fabric is a velvet; if weft threads float, the fabric is a velveteen. This will make more sense if you read it again, looking at the diagram of a velveteen. Start at the bottom and work up:
PileStructure

Rough diagram of a velveteen, a weft pile fabric. I have completely ignored the structure of the selvedges (the edges of the fabric); these are often different from the main fabric.

Because the pile weft is not structural – it’s not needed to hold the warp threads together because the ground weft does that – the floats can be cut, taking great care not to cut the ground weft or the warp thread. The red arrows mark the most obvious cut lines, straight down the middle of the floats. When the floats are cut, the cut ends rise up to form pile. If all the floats are cut, the entire fabric is covered in velveteen pile. If vertical groups of floats are cut and uncut, there will be ridges of pile alternating with furrows of smooth fabric: corduroy!

My friend and I searched for pattern drafts – diagrams of how to set up the loom and weave the fabric – of fustian weaves from this time, and found H. (‘Harry’) Nisbet’s Grammar of Textile Design, third edition (with 669 illustrations!) published in Bombay, as a PDF on the invaluable cs.arizona.edu weaving archive. Chapter II is Fustians, from Imperial or Swansdown through Corduroy and Corduroy Cutting Machines. Nisbet gives a good if somewhat … Victorian … description of the structures of these and many other fabrics. If you want more information about fustians or are interested in fabric, it’s a decent free book.

On page 141 there’s a velveteen draft/diagram, together with a useful illustration of the way that the cut floats form pile.
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 09.41.46

I redrew the ‘design for velveteen fabric’ as a modern weaving draft. The bright pink threads mark the centre of the floats.25549370302_66b9bf3e15_o

By now I was entranced by the idea of weaving velveteen. Not a lot of it, as I suspected cutting the pile was going to be very tricky without a fustian cutter’s table and knives, or even full-fledged mechanisation, but still. Worth a try. Handwoven velvety stuff. Cool!

From what I could find about sett (the density of threads on the loom) and the velvets and velveteens I remembered seeing in shops, I thought sewing thread might be a reasonable warp. I assumed there must be a good reason that most silk velvets I looked at online had cotton warp and ground weft, so I bought a bargain bag of variously coloured cotton thread on eBay. I had some odd cones of 20/2 silk in the weaving stash. It occurred to me that the ground weft should not show in the areas of cut pile – the pile expands to conceal it – but would be visible on the back of the fabric, so I chose three (red, orange, gold) that looked good together and wound a 2m warp. The three spools gave me 200 ends; set 60 ends per inch (6/6/6 in a 10-dent reed), that’s only 3″ wide. Still, proof of principle and all that.

This gives some idea of the warp colours and the scale. I used some ugly silk for my first pile weft and purple cotton for the ground weft. Note that there’s a band of plain weave (the ground weft weave, over-under-over-under) before and after the strip of velveteen floats in greyish silk.
velveteen

Cutting the pile floats was indeed tricky. When this sort of thing is woven commercially, the equipment includes long grooved rods to be inserted down the cutting lines. The rods lift the floats and protect the warp and ground weft threads; the grooves guide the cutting blades. I used a medium-fine darning needle and a single-edge razor blade instead. Wearing strongly magnifying reading glasses I ran the needle under a line of floats, then ran the razor blade down the needle. It worked. The finest (Clover) chenille cutter I could find  didn’t work, it was far too coarse for this.velveteen1

As one might expect of something sharp running against steel, the razor blade required regular sharpening. I kept my fine whetstone next to the loom and re-touched the edge after every strip of velveteen.

But it was a phenomenally slow process. Each group of three red or blue velveteen stripes (at left, below) separated by bands of plain weave (the ground weft alone) took 3 hours to weave and cut.
VVteenStrip

The truly horrible uneven selvedges are a result of alternating plain weave (the ground weave stripes) with the velveteen float weave. The silk weft is much thicker than the sewing thread weft of the plain weave stripes, so the velveteen stripes are wider. Note that the shiny uncut pile floats contrast beautifully with the pile, and that the pile can be cut in patterns. Lots of scope for fabric design here.

I was right; the reverse/back of the fabric was beautiful! The stripes are different colours of cotton thread ground weft – purple, yellow, pink – plus the red and turquoise silks I used as a pile weft. The pale vertical line is a repaired warp thread.
VVteenBack

I learned a lot from this.

  • Even weft tension is important, otherwise loose loops of ground weft may be caught by the needle and cut.
  • Contrasting ground weft helps the weaver to spot this.
  • 100% silk velvet is unusual and expensive because slippery silk warp and ground weft wouldn’t grip the silk pile weft as firmly as cotton does. Of course silk is more expensive than cotton, too. Mercerised cotton is shiny enough and works well for warp and ground weft.
  • While inserting something down a line of floats in order to cut them, keep an eye on the adjacent cut edges: if your needle/whatever you’re inserting is too thick, or you lift it too high, you may pull the adjacent cut edge under the locking thread. I found it better to cut long lines of floats in two tranches because one long one required lifting the needle too high.
  • If you want nice, even pile, try hard to run the cutting blade down the middle of the needle. It’s easier to cut down the side of the needle, but this means one side of the cut float is shorter than the other. The uneven pile doesn’t reflect the light as evenly, and the shorter ends are more likely to pull out when you cut the next float.

I now had a tiny gemlike strip of precious fabric, too pretty and too interesting not to be used for something. Obviously it had to be a hussif or housewife, a little needle case that I could use when travelling with embroidery.

While I was sewing it, wearing magnifying glasses and swearing under my breath, A. asked if I honestly enjoyed making tiny things, as I make so many. Why don’t I make bigger things to work out the details? Well, I only had enough fabric to make one of these, and it wasn’t so complicated (except for the scissors-keeper) that I felt I needed to make a tester. The scissors-keeper I made twice to check the details. The final version is sewn from scraps of sari silk; the snap is off-centre to fit neatly inside one of the finger loops of my cherished Bohin scissors. The felt is handmade; the thimbles are sitting on top of their tiny pocket.

And I do like making small things. I enjoy pernickety attention to detail, I do it well, which is why I was a good technical illustrator and a very bad landscape painter (I wanted to show every leaf, accurately). Of course I enjoy making things even more if I know what I’m doing, but it’s fun even when I haven’t a clue and am working it out as I go along.

 

Copenhagen drain covers: gotta catch ’em all!

Well, maybe not ALL of them. I noticed some days ago that many of the street access covers are much more attractive than those in London. Like New Orleans’ ‘Crescent City’ water company meter covers, they add interest to the street. Also note that most of the pavements/sidewalks are cobbled. And despite frequent street sweepers, there are lots of cigarette butts: it’s surprising how many people smoke in a city full of organic food shops!



We were puzzled by a frequent but irregular ‘whoosh’ sound outside the flat. It wasn’t the lift bridge, the rumble of car tires over the wide pavement. Nothing was moving, but still there was The Noise. Yesterday morning we worked out what it was:

Nyhavn has so many tourists, so much garbage, that these bins are self-emptying: the whoosh was the vacuum sucking the waste to a central, more accessible collection point.


Another indication of just how many people visit the bars (and drink Copenhagen’s own beer): the beer is delivered by tanker. This one holds 9000 litres.

Copenhagen Day Four: Roskilde and the Vikingeskibsmuseet

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

A long time ago, at a Medieval Textiles conference in London in 2011, I was held spellbound by Anna Nørgård talking about spinning and weaving sails for the reconstructed Viking Age ships at Roskilde. I took copious notes – I still have them on file – and clearly remember purposefully forging through the crowd to handle the samples of yarn and sailcloth, as it came off the loom and after waterproofing with fat from whatever animals had died recently. I promised myself that one day I would go to the Roskilde Vikingeskibsmuseet and see the woollen sails on the ships. 

The timing of this entire holiday was determined about 6 months ago by the availability of evening cruises on the fjord (in reality a large brackish waterbody, no cliffs. This is Denmark, not Norway) in vessels built at the Skibsmuseet, plus A Birthday date. 

The twin pointy things visible over the rooftops are two spires of Roskilde Cathedral.

So at long last on Thursday morning we walked north to Nørreport for the train to Roskilde.There is more to see here:  Roskilde Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first Gothic cathedral in Scandinavia, the first Gothic cathedral built of brick, and the burial place of Danish monarchs since the 15th century. 

It’s impressive. Very impressive. Strangely approachable, almost homely in warm red brick by comparison with the   more usual cold grey stone. Someone was practising on the organ (the oldest parts of which date from 1555).

Medieval wall paintings cover some of the chapels. Those in St Birgitta’s chapel date from the early 1500s.

The main theme, though, is the death of Danish monarchs. There’s a good summary here with photos, albeit not English text.

The chapel containing the monuments to Christian 9 and Louise, Christian 10 and Alexandrine, and Frederik 9 and Ingrid is stunning in its relative simplicity. Tombs of grey granites and marbles and white marble statues (the ‘three sisters of the Little Mermaid’: Grief, Memory and Love. The sculptor Edvard Eriksen’s wife was the model for all four) are bathed in light from the dome, reflecting off the white walls. It’s Northern and beautiful, and too busy for a photo while we were there. 

The chapel of Frederic 5 has a similar feel but the neo-classicist style is more ornate.

I was rather taken by the use of dead blacke velvet to cover some of the coffins. Intending no disrespect to Juliana Maria, my eye was caught by some of the gold trim … It looks very like brocaded tablet weaving.

Christian 1’s chapel is also richly painted with frescoes from the second half of the 1400s.

It’s worth several hours.

Follow the signs, walk down the hill to the harbor, and we’re there.

The café serves good food and information

While we waited for our lunch (it had been a long morning and would be a longer evening), i bounced around the workshops in the yard. Especially this one: the rope maker. He was at lunch, but the materials – and a counter covered with sample ropes were there to be admired. Look closely at the cones of hemp yarn visible at right: that’s the last stock of hemp yarn tight-spun for  ropemaking in the world. If they want more they’ll have to commission it, and the minimum order is enough to rig an entire ship larger than any Roskilde have.

In addition to the ‘Viking’ boats, the ship museum builds and maintains a collection of traditional working boats. They’re building another take of the Gislinge boat, a working boat from c. 1130. She should be ready for the water some time in November 2016.

Early log boats (hollowed trees) were enlarged by adding boards to raise the side, sewn together with fir or spruce roots, or lime bast.

The rope maker was back! We talked about lime bast vs seal hide, and he showed me how to make rope from bast. I’ve studied Youtube to no avail, but now I think i understand.

It’s more wrap than twist, although there is twist. The winder is used to add a little more twist.Starting the loop at one end of the rope. Each piece of bast rope is made to order, a specific length, with the ends finished in a specific way.

I spent ages watching and asking questions before i took my leave and we headed into what is for most people the main event: the building housing the restored original Viking boats.

A 1:10 model of one of the boats, used to work out the principles before planning the full-size replica.

Down the far end, in good light, we saw a warp-weighted loom of linen yarn and someone sewing: Anna making linen ‘summer’ sails for the 2016 Gislinge boat.

We talked about nettle and linen and the Must Farm finds, and then it was time to go and wait for the evening cruise. Not in fact one of the big and rather temperamental Viking boats, but a replica Norwegian working boat – with a hand-woven, hand-sewn greased woollen sail. Not hand-spun: it would take too long for one spinner who also has to weave! Anna spun samples that were sent to the mill. I don’t have many photos: I was a little reluctant to have my phone out while we were on the water. 

Apparently this is an old sail, wearing thin, so the wind goes through it more than it should. It catches more wind when freshly dressed, but people in the boat object to melted grease dripping from the sail in hot weather. 


We rowed out of the harbour (i like rowing, except for the person behind me who couldn’t keep stroke) until we caught the wind and could raise the sail. We sailed out, around the island and back; tacking was required. A. had the tiller for most of the journey back and was told he’d done very well fir someone who’d never sailed before. It’s not easy trying to keep the wind in the sail AND the boat making progress to the harbour. Then we rowed back into the harbour and i still liked it, except for the same person behind me.

And then we walked to the station and caught the train back to Copenhagen. 2300 hours was a long day of fun.

Copenhagen Day Three (most of it, anyway)

For at least the last week our weather app has said this will be the wettest day, so we declared it Museum Day, just in case the app was right. 

So, after breakfast at the Lagkagehuset on Torvegade in Christianshavn – where we ate yesterday, and they remembered me as the English person with the skulls – we walked to the National Museum of Denmark. And then around the block because it wasn’t open yet. A, poor man, was following me, and I had one goal: Danish Pre-history (which is to say Danish history before anyone wrote it in words). 

I have, therefore, A Lot of pictures. Well over 100, in fact. Here are some of the highlights…

The skeleton of an elk that died in a bog nearly 9000 years ago.Probably not of natural causes: the small bone point was amongst the bones, the harpoon and shafts nearby.

A fragment of fish spear stll bound to its shaft with BAST FIBRES(!! my emphasis), 8000 years ago.

The skull of Porsmose man, bone arrow through his face and another through his sternum. It was striking (ha, not funny) how many weapons were on display in the Prehistory section. Admittedly they survive when other organics might not, but still: imbalance.)

This is so amazing I have trouble finding the words to explain its significance: an ard. The first, the earliest plough. Probably pulled by one human, guided by another. An agricultural revolution before the concept existed.

Crops and domesticated animals: a strainer for making cheese.

And then the main event, at least for me. The tour groups clustered  around Egtved Girland her reconstructed garments

but I looked into the hollows where Skrydstrup Woman‘s eyes should be, and was lost.

There were other graves at Skrydstrup, with textiles, but as I looked at her I felt she could be looking back. Are we answers to her unasked questions?

Then I learned new things about sun symbols,and something I’d never heard about before, the Bronze Age concept of the Journey of the Sun across the sky. Their webpage has the diagram, but not the explanation: the sun travels around and across the flat earth. At sunrise a Fish pulls the sun up over the horizon from the Night Ship to the Morning Ship, and is then eaten by a Bird. At noon the Sun Horse takes the sun from the ship -incidentally the stylised ‘s’ of the sun horse(s) looks exactly like other assumed sun symbols in the iconography of Near East rugs and embroidery! In the afternoon the Sun Horse delivers the sun to the deck of the Afternoon Ship. In the evening the Snake passes the extinguished sun to the night ship.Part of the totally engrossing Journey of the Sun display.

Ninth-century BC blankets found with the body of a woman in a bog in Jutland. Think of the woman, but also note that one blanket appears to be thoroughly fulled.Me leaving noseprints on the glass as I peer at said blankets.

As we walked through pre-history I counted spindle whorls and other mentions of ‘women’s work’. It wasn’t difficult: no discussion of spinning, weaving, cooking. (As opposed to weaponry, battles, injuries.) One Bronze Age spindle whorl (shale) and about 5 Viking age (pottery). Ninth-century AD gravegoods from women’s graves in Jutland, including tortoise (shaped like) brooches and spindle whorls.

Finally the display of Viking Age domestic finds from Trelleborg included spindles and loom weights.Huh. No wonder the ‘Viking!’ exhibition at the BM was all about shiny and killing people: it was telling the same story. 

But Skrydstrup Woman has forgotten more than we will ever know.

And then we went to the Glyptotek followed by Groms pizza and wine and ice cream. It’s raining, but tomorrow should be dry.Tomorrow is Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum.

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.

AlençonLace

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.

AlençonLace2

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

 

AlençonLace1

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

AlençonLace3

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

Below, the same area magnified 80x. 

AlençonLace4

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.

The less time I have, the more I want to do

When work is busy, I find myself dreaming up more projects for what little leisure time remains. The less time I have, the more I want to read, make, travel, buy. I’ve begun to suspect that some of this is a form of promising myself that I WILL be able to do these things at some unspecified time in the future, when I am at leisure to devote my leisure to the things I want to do. [Mostly. I don’t want to clean the bathroom, but I’ll still have to do it or risk our early deaths from disgust, embarrassment or horrible diseases.] There was a time when I could not resist a nice handspinning fleece – and didn’t bother trying. I just promised myself that there would be a time when I had time to spend sorting, washing, drying, combing or carding, spinning and then using that fleece. Fortunately a summer spent washing and drying and starting to comb some of the hoard taught me a lesson: I already have a lifetime’s supply of wool to spin. Not to mention cotton, silk and flax.

More productive and more fun than buying promises to myself is devoting some of my precious spare time to artistic mending. A couple of years ago I found an umpteenth-hand denim jacket in a flea market. It had a peculiar odour and was covered with a fine red-brown dust, but it fitted me: I bought it. I wore it a couple of times before washing it, which was just as well because I had time to start to love it before the washing machine revealed patches of incipient disintegration.

The yoke is in the worst condition, possibly due to exposure to the sun. I decided to learn sashiko [not sashimi, stupid computer] stitching by using it to attach a lining to the yoke, with embroidery thread shading from blue to red because colour can be fun. I tacked the lining to the yoke with a grid of white sewing cotton and began stitching. When I reached the first badly damaged area where only the white weft of the denim remains, I realised that sashiko alone would not be enough to take the strain, so decided to further reinforce those areas. I duplicate-stitched the twill furrows in various shades of blue; the more I did, the more my technique improved. I really like the finished effect (it’s better from a distance when you can’t see all the imperfections as below).

JeansJacket3

The rectangular area marking the position of the label on the inside of the yoke posed a problem. I could try to stitch through or skim the label and continue the sashiko across it, or I could use it to define a feature, which is what I did. I designed a motif suitable for cross-stitch, picked 6 shades from my ancient hoard of embroidery thread, donned my most powerful magnifying glasses, laid out a 6×6 thread grid, and started counting and stitching. Then stopped, counted, ripped out, and counted again before stitching again. Clearly I need practice at both counting AND stitching.

At this point I reserve judgement as to whether a motif was the right decision. Looking at the back of the jacket in its entirety, I think I’d have done better to continue the sashiko. But, with more work on the motif than in the photo above, it’s working and I like it. Even if variations in the thread thickness of the soft, worn denim mean that the stitching lacks precision: to paraphrase Tara, it loses precision but it gains life.

JeansJacket4JeansJacket1

I could rip out the motif and the grid, re-do it elsewhere on the jacket, and continue the sashiko to cover the yoke. And I think I want to expand the sashiko beyond the yoke, too. After all, it’s only time. I should use the time I have to do my best. Who knows, this jacket may long outlive me. I do sometimes imagine people decades or centuries from now looking at something I made and wondering about me and my life, as I wonder about those who made  the antique textiles I look at today.

Speaking of which, who wants to see some antique lace?

 

 

 

Planning another Summer of Blue

I had planned to focus on indigo last summer, but in the event various other things intervened – although I did accomplish more than I posted. I must show you my shoes!

I’m making tentative plans for more blue this summer.

greenhse

I had hoped that the tadeai, the Japanese Indigo Polygonum tinctorium, would survive the mild winter in its house but even though I added fleece and bubblewrap when the nights dropped to -4C, there’s no life in the stems. It may be an obligate annual, or it may simply have flowered itself to death late last autumn without setting any seed, alas.

I admired the few remaining dead leaves somewhat wistfully: look, they’re blue!

DeadindigoGrense

And then cut most of the stems off. I’ve left a few root masses with stubs of stem for the moment, but there was no green in the pith and the roots I pulled up looked brown and dead, so I doubt anything will shoot. But I sowed seed as well; the seed tray is now sitting indoors in the warmth where I am already watching it hopefully.

I took cuttings  – lengths of stems with leaves – from the plants last October when we returned from our holiday and put them in a jar of water. As might be expected from a Polygonum the cuttings formed masses of roots from the submerged leaf nodes, but the rest of the nodes sent out flower shoots.  I pinched them out and more appeared. The cuttings were extremely well-rooted and looked reasonably healthy in late January when I potted them, but just continued to try to flower until they died, leaves slowly shrivelling. A friend who rooted cuttings in August says two are still alive and seem well, so I wonder whether the trick is to catch them before environmental cues set the growth points to ‘flower’ mode. I will try to test that this summer, as cuttings would be the best way to maintain a line that dyes well.

The woad looked reasonably happy. As a biennial this is its year to flower and seed, with leaves that yield little or no blue. I left the plants last year thinking to gather the seed – these were grown from seed I harvested two years ago – but there isn’t really enough space in our tiny garden to keep plants for seed especially when they attract so many Cabbage White butterflies to lay eggs on my salad rocket! The woad is no longer happy: it is composting and I’ll sow more in the Brassica Bed shortly.

Woad

All this plus ‘standard’ indigo vats means there should be more blue this summer. But what shall I do with it? I’m designing stencils to print with fresh indigo leaves, because that was immense fun. But there’s much more fun to be had: a friend sent me two fascinating books.

dyeing

dyeing1

This is the work of Mrs Akiyama, who made a personal study of the natural dye plants of Awa in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan. Awa is famed for its Polygonum tinctorium indigo dyes; there are pages detailing dyeing with fresh and dried indigo (if I’d had more dead leaves I could have dyed with them!) as well as many other plants. And there are notes on working with bast fibres, as well as information on finishing yarns and fabrics after dyeing.

dyeing2

The other book tells me what to do with what I’ve dyed:

Ikat

No more peering at fuzzy videos on YouTube! With luck this will be a summer to remember.

To finish, a reminder of last summer.

shoes

Super-cheap runners, sold as ‘cotton’ (I have my doubts, see below). I washed them thoroughly with dishwashing liquid and rinsed them thoroughly too, then dumped them into a standard thiox indigo vat on the stove.^1 No matter how many times I dipped them, the uppers would not go darker than this; given the depth of blue in the soles. I wonder whether the fabric is in fact polycotton.

The first dyeing attempt was extremely patchy when it dried. Blotches of pale fabric near the heels, more blotches on the toes. I left them outside in the weather for a week or two to think about their sins while I sulked. Then I needed to exhaust the vat, so I reheated it, added reducing agent, and chucked them back (dry, I think), out of curiosity rather than any expectation of success. Imagine my surprise when, after two or three dips, they emerged a relatively solid and respectable pale blue. After washing thoroughly and drying, I considered decoration: stencilling with fresh tadeai was the obvious answer. I cut an assortment of crude paisley stencils and discovered that stencilling on curved surfaces is rather tricky. But the end result is a pleasing variety of blues produced by a variety of indigo techniques, especially when embellished with tablet-woven laces.

It’s a great shame that the shoes are so uncomfortable :-/

^1: A caution. If you try this, be prepared to spend ages scouring melted runner-sole off the sides of the pot. A hint: reheating the pot gently softens the stuff a bit, but it still requires a lot of effort.