Thursday, October 25, 2007

Never say never: Headfirst into the dyepot

I have sworn for years, sometimes vehemently, that I would not allow my fibre affliction to cross into the realm of dyeing. It's smelly, it's messy, I don't have room, I don't have time, and I'm perfectly happy with natural-coloured fibre and the occasional purchase of some fancy-schmanzy pretty dyed stuff (main point there being: Dyed by someone else, KTHXSBAI). Frankly, such an activity opens a whole can o' worms for a personality like mine. I anticipate I would very quickly accumulate books and powders and chemicals and more fibre, and be forced to seriously consider planting a dye garden so that I can grow weld and woad and madder and any number of Very Useful Things. Which will force me to get a yard... you see where this is going, right?

I should know better than to say never, though. In mid-September, in and among the Not Writing That Next Thing stress and the Not Preparing For That Conference stress, I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at a house in Toronto's Kensington Market with four ladies whose company I enjoyed emensely, one of whom has a full-blown medieval dye garden in her little city-sized backyard. And because she is all kinds of awesome, she invited us to come over for a dye party. I bring wool (the old standby Dorset fleece), someone else supplies the dyestuff, knowhow and mess... who am I to say no? And besides, there is that super-secret project I'm helping with, and it's starting to look like we'll need to dye quite a bit of wool for that. Might as well soak in some knowledge of more experienced types, right?

There were several pots of boiling plants and insects, into which we plopped a variety of fibre from raw wool to linen cloth. We chopped up fresh weld, boiled the crap out of it and dyed things yellow.

Do you think it matches my eyes?

We ground up cochineal bugs, boiled the crap out of them and dyed things... um... Not Red.

No, Ford, I don't think anyone will mistake it for your tail.

Actually, we were a little puzzled by this, but not unhappily so. We were going for red, since that's what cochineal is, after all, known for. Red is cochineal's job, you might say. But when we realized early on that we were getting this lovely purple without even trying, no one complained all that much. It went a bit like this: "Oh dear! What a lovely purple! Um, does anyone care? I mean, we could put some tin in here and make it redder, but really, look at this stunning purple! Oh, drat, twist our arms..." I suspect the result was in part due to the pH of the local water, but we didn't test it at the time, so we may never know. And replicating it? Yeah, good luck with that. But far be it from me to look a gift kick-butt purple in the mouth. Especially when it combs up into roving like that.

Finally, we picked some berries from the 1 & 2 year-old madder (the plant roots are used to dye orange-red, but they aren't ready for use until their third year), boiled the crap out of them and dyed things... um... grey? -ish? Sortof? Well, no experiment is really ever a failure if we learned something.

A little skein of the same dorset fleece I've been working through, straight off the spindle and into the dyepot.

There have been a couple more dyeing adventures in the intervening weeks, but they are part of the super-secret-squirrel project. But I can say that 1) boiled spinach dyes a very pale yellow, not green, and 2) we have conquered The Red. We have one pound, and if the weather holds out this weekend, there will be several pounds of bright red wool. I hope pictures will be forthcoming, but honestly, when one is up to one's elbows in a hot dyepot full of saturated wool and crushed bugs, the camera always seems to be the last thing on my mind.

As for my concerns about the eminent stash expansion? Well, it's still a justifiable concern, but so far, I'm not totally out of control:

I should also disclose that there are several ounces each of alum, tin, copper and iron mordants on their way to me. Um.

Although for those in the know, the jar of indigo powder should raise a couple eyebrows. There are plans to unleash it on the weld-dyed yellow wool above, as we begin a quest for a Good Green by way of a Brilliant Blue (having finally conquered Really Red). Perhaps in the spring. I don't think I'll start collecting urine for the indigo vat quite yet, though. In fact, I'm very tempted to try a yeast vat instead - it has to smell better, right?

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