Slow Cloth update: The Triumph of Persistence Over Stupidity

Consider this the digital equivalent of a huge sigh of relief.

As you can see, the Slow Indigo Cotton warp has a new less flattering but educational name. I’ll explain that once it’s off the loom and finished, at which point I daresay more of my stupidity and – to be fair – ignorance will be revealed. In the interim, I am pleased to say my plan for it is working and we’re into the endgame.

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Why weave by hand? Why not just buy fabric?

Because as a hand weaver, even a new and somewhat ignorant hand weaver, I can make fabric you can’t buy. I threaded this warp for an 8-shaft point twill, then wove 3.5m of plain weave with cotton weft to get to this point, where I switch to a twill tie-up and indigo-dyed handspun silk weft. The patterned cloth will be used to accent parts of the garment made from the plain cloth. I don’t know what it will look like yet, that will depend on what the cloth looks and feels like after finishing. I’ve planned and am hoping for a hard-wearing heavy shirting/light jacket fabric, stiff to start with but softening with wear. Fingers crossed!*

* When I’m not using them to throw the shuttle.

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Slow cloth, well-travelled

My last post was written in May 2017 sitting at the desk my husband made for me, beside a window looking out on my English garden in an English village (true, but much less quaint than it sounds).

This post is written from what was our kitchen table, repurposed as my temporary work desk, with a window looking out on our new garden on Vancouver Island, Canada. I’ve come home. Almost. ‘Home’ would be Alberta in the 1970s, but southern Vancouver Island is nonetheless a good place to be. Immigrants ourselves, in the summer of 2017 we fled Brexit Britain for our native land, arriving in time to celebrate Canada’s 150th. For nearly 12 months the logistics of our move – selling the house, selling everything we didn’t think worth shipping, packing – and fulfilling my spinning teaching commitments consumed all my time and energy. Only now am I starting to think and plan future textile projects.

But first I have to finish what I started.

Stephenie Gaustad taught me to spin cotton at SOAR in 2009. I fell in love with the banjo charkha, but couldn’t hide it under my sweater to bring it home when class finished so I’ve had to settle for tahklis and bead-whorl spindles, a T-frame charkha, Majacraft Suzie Pro and a Rose. I spun cotton on all of them and my bag of singles skeins grew larger. I learned to weave. One of my first projects on the Baby Wolf was a tiny warp of handspun cotton singles. Success! (Mostly.) Now I knew why I hadn’t plied those skeins, but increasingly I wondered what sort of cloth they’d make. In fact I needed to know, because there’s no point in spinning more cotton for weaving if what I’m spinning won’t make a cloth I like. There was only one way to find out: weave what I had. I’d spun natural shades of cotton from cream, brown and green through to white. I put the whole lot through an indigo vat because I like blue. Plus some handspun silk singles because I had A Plan.

IMG_3109Indigo-dyed handspun cotton singles drying on the rosemary bush by the kitchen door. I miss that bush, and our North Ronaldsay sky-blue doors.

IMG_3111I had to finish drying the yarns on the radiator. Hmm. Clearly I dyed silk fibre, too. I wonder where that is? In one of the many boxes, of course.

IMG_3117The gelatin-sized yarns drying under light tension – those water bottles are not full! – suspended between the hoe and an old rake handle wrapped in clingfilm aka Saran wrap on the clothes tree. The old grey lunchbag contains clothes pegs.

The shorter skeins were hard-spun ( which means with lots of twist) on the tahkli; I put them to one side for use as sewing thread, calculated the remaining yardage and wound a warp. I estimated the set, the number of warp threads per inch from wpi, wraps per inch around a ruler, then beamed the warp and wove a bit.

A digression dealing with the value of my time and the lifespan of the cloth I want to make. Modern fabric is generally soft when you buy it, even before you use it. The yarns are relatively softly spun, the cloth is woven and finished to be soft. Soft yarn, soft cloth doesn’t stand up to wear. It stretches out of shape, fibres pill and pull out of the fabric. This suits our ‘I want it soft and I want it right now’ society and, even better, it makes money for the manufacturers of clothing that will wear out as well as go out of style in under a year. But I invested a lot of time in spinning the yarn for this. Pre-Industrial fabrics, handspun, handwoven and hand-sewn, expensive as reflected the time needed to make them, wore well enough that clothing and bedlinens are often included in wills. I want to make cloth that reflects the time it took to make, that serves me well for years, that wears well. It will be hard to the touch to begin with but soften with wear and age.

Deciding the set for handspun yarn is tricky unless you’ve spun yarn to replicate an existing fabric. Standard set charts may be misleading: you can set your yarn like a commercial yarn of similar grist, but if your handspun is a different fibre and/or more or less tightly twisted, it will behave differently from the commercial yarn when finished and you’ll end up with a different fabric. With handspun I start with wpi, tweak it according to what I think of the cloth on the loom, and keep samples for future reference.

I looked at what I’d woven at 40epi, decided it was sleazy, unwove the inch, re-sleyed, wove a bit. Looked at it, decided it was still too open, unwove the inch, re-sleyed, wove a bit. I may have done this a third time, but kindly time blurs painful memories. Eventually what I’d woven looked enough like the fabric I wanted, warp-dominant to emphasize the stripes, that I cut the woven strip off to see what it looked like after hand washing. The small block shows the set and picks per inch off the loom, the long strip has been washed. The brown and tan cottons have dyed greenish. Other stripes are variations in the cream and white cottons, perhaps the result of variations in twist or in the fibres themselves.

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That doesn’t show how washing affected the density although you can clearly see the that the warp has shrunk (the unwashed sample is taller). With the light behind it the overall shrinkage is more obvious, as are the reed marks, the open lines between the groups of ends (threads) that run in each dent of the reed. They’re almost inevitable given that I had no finer reed, but I’m trying to think of them as a design feature – they can be – and they’re less obvious in the washed strip anyway. Notice also that the warp threads have moved in the washed fabric: hot water revives the twist, but the weave structure locks the threads into position. I may see some tracking in the final fabric.

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On balance that sample was acceptable. It’s 50 epi set in an 8-shaft twill currently woven plain weave according to my Plan. It’s 9″ wide on the loom and I think the warp is about 5m long (the one thing I forgot to write in the book). The washed sample shrank roughly 10% in both warp and weft.

I’d hoped to have this woven and off the loom before we left the UK, but I had no time. When the movers arrived I simply folded the Baby Wolf, roughly wrapped paper around the beams, and left them to pack it. Unlike our more fragile ceramics (yes, I am bitter), the loom arrived undamaged. The warp had shifted somewhat, but less than I feared, and as it wasn’t well-wound or beamed in the first place that’s the lesser problem. I’m getting better at warping, but I need a lot of practice.

IMG_4622I have started weaving some fine yarns with the lease sticks in place. Like back-to-front or front-to-back warping, lease sticks in or out is something weavers seem to choose as habit early in their careers. I didn’t like the lease sticks in when weaving thicker, fuzzy yarns: my impression was that the sticks were encouraging fuzziness and binding of threads in the warp. But feeding firmly sized, finer yarns through the even tension of the lease sticks seems to correct some of my warping issues. 

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The colour is more accurate above. Below, a closer view of the fabric on the loom. The slightly more open weave below my thumb is where I started weaving again in Canada. Below that you can see some annoying imperfections, places where slightly thicker areas of the sized warp threads are stiffer and refuse to conform around the weft when beaten. They become much less obvious after washing and one could argue imperfections are part of the charm of khadi fabric, handspun and handwoven, but I’d prefer perfection. I see no reason to pursue anything less. To me the imperfections in this are a reminder that some of this is my earliest cotton spinning and weaving, because they’re less obvious now after I greatly increased the tension on the warp to pull them straight.

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At any rate my handspun singles stand up to the test. They are weavable, and they are teaching me more about weaving. Time to start spinning more cotton!

Why spin for weaving?

Sample

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.

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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.

Swatch

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Magic.

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.

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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…

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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’.

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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.

That new obsession I mentioned

I’ve decided to practice stitching on the sampler from the Hand & Lock Opus Anglicanum workshop instead of planning something amazing without in fact knowing what I’m doing. I’m already pleased with the decision because I’ve learned that some threads seem to split more nicely than others: all this is split stitch, but the brown shows the stitches much more neatly than the blue, which seems to want to twist and close the open surface created by the splitting. ‘Laying’ the stitches in a finished fill by smoothing the area with the side of the needle makes an real difference to the sheen and smoothness of the fill. I suspect it’s even more important if working in silk rather than single strands of cotton embroidery floss. The direction of the stitches really matters: they have to flow, ideally avoiding sharp corners, so plan ahead.

Incidentally I’m wearing +3.5 reading glasses to work this; each stitch is 1.0–1.5mm long and my ageing eyesight can’t copy on its own. It’s such fun that I spend too long at it each evening: although the fabric is mounted in a hoop that stands by itself, my arms complain about being held in sewing position. I may need to order a cheap pair of reading glasses set up for a longer distance from the optician so I can sit a little straighter with my arms extended a little more.

But this is fun. I’ve decided that weird object he’s holding is a book, which I think I’ll couch in purple silk because I have some. I don’t know what he thinks is hanging from his belt, but I think it’s a bag for the book. I have no idea why the shadow is so dark under his chin; it could be a beard, but I like the line of his unencumbered chin too much to change it. I may run with a couched gold halo around his head but it does look a bit like a Rastafarian ‘tam’ … a tempting thought.

No wonder he looks apprehensive and admonitory! “Don’t you dare” he’s saying, “you heathen. DO NOT DARE DISRESPECT ME!”

opusang-sampler

There is a lot of beautiful stitching and information about opus anglicanum here. I’ve seen that ‘cabbage stitch’ used to create a pattern of dapples on a horse;  I’m thinking of using it for some of the Pearly Monster’s surface in case I don’t have enough plastic pearl beads. Although I may have some in the Box of Requirement.

Denim jacket yoke leads to a new obsession

I mentioned last June that I’d bought a vintage denim jacket that proved to be in worse condition than I’d thought, so it became an excuse for my first sashiko stitching project. As Wikipedia says, this is traditionally done using white thread on blue fabric, although the truly daring use red thread for decorative effect. I thought it would be interesting to go beyond daring into eccentricity and use the stitch grid as a basis for changing colours. Of course there had to be a skull somewhere too.

This is what it looked like when I showed it to you in June.JeansJacket1

This is what it looks like now.

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I am rather pleased with this. The stitching is far from geometric perfection – the old denim has stretched and as a twill fabric it moves – but it has life. I extended the stitching onto the front left shoulder (see the photo at the end of this post) when I realised how thin that fabric was; this wear, taken with the visible wear on the seams on the left side leads me to think that someone who owned this jacket carried a shoulder bag on their left shoulder.

purplecornerThis shows the details but the colours are dark and lifeless thanks to the dim British winter light.

I didn’t plan the colour changes before I began work, just decided I’d move from a relatively pale blue on the left shoulder to purple/red on the top of the right shoulder, and picked colours on the spur of the moment to effect the changes as I stitched from left to right.

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I laid out a grid of stitches for the skull. Each grid square contains 6×6 fabric threads and is true to the grain of the fabric. The skull is counted cross-stitch calculated to fit on the area of the internal label, 4 stitches per grid square, worked with a single strand of embroidery floss. I don’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed that most people who see it, even local Guild members, assume it’s painted with fabric paint until they look very, very closely. I intended to leave the grid in place as background to the skull – I like organic shapes set in visible opposition to geometry – but the more I looked at it the more the ‘busy-ness’ of the grid+twill lines detracted from the skull. So I cut the threads and pulled the grid out, thread by thread. skullfinished

I confess I find this sadly exciting. I can paint with thread! In January I attended an Opus Anglicanum workshop at Hand & Lock in London. Working from 10am until 4pm with 30 minutes for lunch I managed to cover about 2cm^2 with stitches… but what stitches! The tiny patch of underside couching at bottom left was a revelation (I can live without pearls). opusang

We started with embroidery floss to establish the technique and finished with gold. I loved it. Tiny stitches requiring precision (and magnifying glasses), exactly what I love. Then Helen McCook (the hare, look at the hare in her header!), the tutor, mentioned Or Nue: tiny stitches requiring precision, painting with colour on gold so the density of stitches influences both colour and shine…  I MUST TRY THIS. LOOK AT IT!
I have acquired an Elbesee ‘sit on it’ hoop stand and hoop (that I have to wrap), I’m stitching a cotton square to mask the areas of embroidery I’m not working on. I’ve ordered gold thread for a trial design, a pack each of gold and silver thread for my first real projects. I know what I want to do but I’ve learned patience: I will start by working something very simple to test my understanding of the technique. And before that I must get some paying work done.

If anyone reading this knows what type of transfer paper might have been used to copy what looks like a laser printer image onto the fabric, I’d really like to know. It’s slightly stiffer than the fabric around it, but there’s no thick layer of plastic as I’ve seen on other transfers.

And of course I get to wear my jacket. First rock concert of the year is in May. I will practice using a wallet so my backpack/purse does not obscure and eventually damage it.

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Ethel Mairet’s natural dyeing II: Extract of Indigo

As I described in part I, Highland Blue, the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft is celebrating the centenary of the publication of Ethel Mairet’s A Book On Vegetable Dyes by asking dyers to replicate the recipes. Because I have a thing for blue I volunteered for two of the indigo recipes; this is the second.

p66. 2). To MAKE EXTRACT OF INDIGO.
4 oz. sulphuric acid, 1 oz. finely ground Indigo. Mix like mustard,  and leave to stand over-night. Prepare the wool  by mordanting with 5 oz. alum to 1 Ib. wool. Boil for 1 hour and dye without drying.

This is the dye also known as Saxon Blue, Chemie, Indigo Carmine, sulfonated indigo, indigo sulphonate, and indigo sulphate, which according to JN Liles in The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing, was discovered in 1740 not long after concentrated sulphuric acid was first made. In my mind’s eye I see a chemistry lab with in which people in lab coats pour this new acid on everything they can think of, just to see what happens, but I suspect it was much more directed. New colours and methods of dyeing textiles were much in demand, so perhaps it was logical to experiment on indigo. It’s completely different from the ‘Saxon Vat’ of the peasants of Saxony in which the fermentation of matter in unscoured fleece drives an indigo fermentation vat.  Although indigo sulphonate is said to have first been used in Saxony. Clearly a hotbed of inventive dyeing, Saxony.

Anyway. In short: the addition of sulphuric acid to indigo converts the indigo into an acid dye, with the sulphuric acid content of the dye bath acting as the acid to fix it to the dyestuffs.

I’d been wondering about trying a sulphuric acid indigo blue long before the Ditchling Mairet project. Blue and smelly is good, blue and DANGEROUS is just as attractive to my inner 5-year-old. But as with ‘ordinary’ indigo, I needed to understand the process before I started. There’s a lot of information on the internet. I was charmed by p255 of ‘The Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine’ for 1843

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An excerpt from this delightful publication.

which explains quite simply the basic problem I faced: as a private individual in 2016 I can’t buy strong enough acid. 98% as sold on Amazon *sounds* strong, but it’s not: ‘fuming acid of Nordhausen’ is in fact 102% by volume. I will not take you down the by-ways and cul-de-sacs I explored online investigating the solubility of indigo (it’s remarkably recalcitrant stuff) or the phone calls and plaintive emails sent to various chemical suppliers begging them to send me the good stuff. I offered to come and collect it so they could assess my harmless middle-agedness themselves. The answer was always No, Sorry, We’re not allowed to. So I ordered what I could get (which is sold as drain cleaner),  an assortment of lab glassware, and some safety kit.

CAUTION: DO NOT even think about trying this unless you have experience working with strong acid and are fully aware of the hazards and precautions necessary. 98% Sulphuric Acid might be weak for my purposes, but it’s strong enough for the fumes to damage your lungs and eyes. The liquid will burn holes in most things including human flesh.

sulfindigostart

I faffed a bit about the quantities because clearly, given I had 98% acid, this would be as much art as science. In the end I used 15g of my most expensive indigo powder to 113 ml sulphuric acid. Mixing the Extract of Indigo was quite straightforward. It does mix ‘like mustard’ – it takes a lot of stirring to thoroughly wet the indigo powder. Better to start with a very little acid and work into a paste before adding the full volume. There was no visible reaction when I added acid to the indigo powder but the reagent flask gradually became gently warm to the touch so heat evolved.

Some recipes for Saxon Blue suggest adding chalk to the mix; Mairet doesn’t, and Liles says there’s no need, so I didn’t.

‘leave to stand over-night’
It’s clear from much that I’ve read (including Liles) that this extract in fact benefits from a longer reaction time – if it is well-sealed so the acid can’t absorb water from the atmosphere – so I wasn’t concerned when I couldn’t use it exactly 24 hours after mixing.

The books agree that Saxon Blue is a dye for wool and silk, which makes sense because acid dyes require an acid (low) pH. Acid conditions render cellulose fibres (cotton, linen, ramie) less able to absorb dye; a friend familiar with the chemistry of paper (also cellulose) says “Higher pH on cotton produces very strong covalent bonds. Less pH value, weaker, if any, bonding.” (thanks, Terry!) So the dye particles simply don’t stick to cotton and linen under acid conditions. I had samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen to test this. I mordanted the wool and silk with alum and cream of tartar, one skein each of cotton and linen with alum and washing soda, and left the spare pair of cotton and silk unmordanted out of curiosity.

Mairet instructs readers on the use of the extract in various other recipes.
3) To Dye Wool With Indigo Extract: For 4-6lb of wool. Stir 2 to 3 oz of Indigo extract into the water of the dye bath. The amount is determined by the depth of shade required. When warm, enter the wool, and bring slowly to the boiling point (about 1/2 hour) and continue boiling for another 1/2 hour. By keeping it below boiling point while dyeing, better colours are got, but it is apt to be uneven. Boiling levels the colour but makes the shade greener…

Given that this is basically ‘add what you think looks right’ I worked from Liles’ recipe, reducing the quantity of extract for my 3litre pan.

saxonbluevat

The colours are not quite right in this, thanks to weird light from both cooker and room lights. It was a little more turquoise than it looks, visibly different from ‘ordinary’ indigo blue. Also, as the dye heated, it developed the chemical odour I associate with rooms full of weaving yarns: not wool, nothing to do with wool or lanolin, a rather sharp indeed acid chemical smell. Very interesting. I opted for a gentle simmer rather than a boil as I wanted ‘better colours’. After 1/2 hour at about 85°C I put the yarns in the sink to cool and ran the dye bath to waste with copious water. And then kicked myself, almost literally, because I forgot to check the dye bath pH at any point. Next time.

yarns-in-sink-steaming

On my machine those colours are about right. The pale yarns are the cotton and linen, as might be expected; note there’s no obvious difference between mordanted and unmordanted. The dark are one wool and two silk. Again, no difference in shade between mordanted and unmordanted silk. Once they’d cooled, I began rinsing, and things became interesting because the silk lost a lot of dye. A LOT of dye. I tried to hurry it along by washing a second time with dishwashing liquid rather than gentle soap, but I left it in the water to soak out the detergent and the water turned dark blue again. I put the yarns in clean water and left them overnight: in the morning the water was dark blue. Something interestingly chemical was happening to strip the dye, I think. But I’m not a chemist-dyer, I’m fermenting organic smelly sludge dyer so I need to do some reading.

saxonskeinsAnd here is the result, reskeined with the Ditchling Museum Project Record. I’ve added a bobbin of cotton dyed with with an ‘ordinary’ indigo vat for comparison: it’s clear to my eyes at least that the Saxon Blue is more teal, somewhat greener than the ordinary. But sadly not nearly as green as the example I saw produced by a friend with access to Fuming Sulphuric: the stronger the acid, the higher the proportion of green ‘sulph-indylic’ dye formed by the reaction. But still, it is very pretty.

saxonskeinsdet

Now I’m thinking of offering an Indigo Dye workshop next summer, working with fresh leaf indigo and/or woad, plus at least two vats. If I do I’ll happily accept 100ml lab grade fuming sulphuric acid as part payment from one attendee!