The goal: Enough red wool to spin 1400 yards of singles in a good, strong scarlet, to then ply into 700 yards of 8-12 wpi yarn for the weft thread of a not-really-super-secret-anymore-but-I'm-still-not-advertising project that will be woven on my rigid heddle loom later this year. Since we can get a good 500 yards of singles out of a pound of raw fleece, that's 3 pounds of wool to be dyed. We have to do it in 1-pound batches, which has advantages and disadvantages.
We've done four, yes four, batches of cochineal since last October. Below, from L to R, are batch 2, 3 and 4 drying in my friend's pine trees. I don't have a picture of the first pound, which we did last fall, but for that first attempt we used alum-mordanted wool and a dash of tin added mid-dye to the cochineal bath. Half of that batch had previously been dyed slightly yellow with spinach, the rest not. The spinach portion is a little nicer, but both came out a beautiful scarlet, nicer than even the rightmost (closest) batch here.
Christmas in July? The colours are a little more neon pink here than in-person
As you can see, our dye batches are varying in colour dramatically. We won't be using batch 2, the furthest left, because, ugh. It was our first attempt at tin-mordanted cochineal, which is supposed to give the best scarlets. We tried a version of Lilies cochineal scarlet #1 recipe (Lilies 1990: 131-2), and it was going flame orange. When we added the recommended alum, perhaps not as "carefully" as recommended, the dyebath turned a mucky brown, and the wool a dirty, blue-red.
That experience scared us off the tin a little, so we returned to the alum mordanting for batch three. That's middle batch, above, which came out more raspberry than scarlet. The right batch, dyebath #4, is scarlet (despite this picture showing as bright pink), but lighter than we want, because the dye didn't take to parts of the fleece (perhaps it wasn't scoured enough? Hmmm.).
I pulled a couple sample tufts out of batch 3 and 4 to try a test spin after they dried.
L (batch 3) alum-mordanted cochineal, with 1/2 oz. tin and a dash of tumeric (for yellow) added late in the bath. R (batch 4): Tin and cochineal, one-pot method (Lilies 1990: 132-33), with probably a touch of alum from the previous dyebath still hanging around on the pot and stir-stick
In total, we have a pound of deep raspberry and two pounds of light-mid scarlet that are usable. The plan is to blend together the different dye batches when carding it to get a colour something between both. The two test tufts above give this:
Still not quite the red we're looking for, but this is a 50-50 blend of raspberry and scarlet, and I think we'll be blending it more 33-67% in the end
We'll also need warp thread. I've made the decision, after much deliberation and agonizing, that our handspun DorsetX is simply not going to be suitable to use as warp thread for this project - at least, not the way we'll be spinning it. It will mostly be prepped using cards, not combs (necessary because several people are involved, and handcards are the more common item amongst them), giving a woollen, not worsted yarn. This will make a fuzzy, sticky warp. I also can't confirm that the 2-ply will be strong enough for warp, even on a rigid heddle loom. The test singles definitely weren't.
So in late August, we'll be dyeing another 900 yards of white commercial yarn with cochineal for the warp. It might or might not work: varying colour is one thing when we'll be carding together the different dye batches. But when we dye the skeins, they have to be the colour we want, the first time. Precedent says that we simply don't have that kind of control over the cochineal. So, we'll try it, and if it doesn't work, we'll buy a cone of scarlet warp thread.
In preparation for a weaving frenzy this fall, I've warped up the loom to get some badly needed weaving practice. It seemed a good way to use up the Brown Sheep Cotton Fleece that's been in my stash for years:
The necessities for warping a loom: loom, yarn, coffee, chocolate and yarn
Finally, an indigo vat update. Throughout the unseasonably cool and wet Southern Ontario June, no fermentation has been detected in my vat, although it's still mighty stinky. After consulting with an experienced vat-maker, our guess is that although we had a couple weeks of toasty warm temps in early-mid June, the evening temps around here still go down to 14-17C (in the 50s-60sF), which is causing the vat to cool off too much in the evening and is preventing fermentation. The recommended solution (since I lack a 24/7 firepit):
A double-boiler setup using a fishtank heater. Interesting note: fishtank heaters, even saltwater ones, are not rated for urine, and putting the heater directly into the vat would kill it in short order. Hence the double-boiler. Thank you SharonAnn for that hard-won bit of wisdom, and for being a great indigo vat consultant.
After a couple weeks of this, and several consistent warm and sunny days out of the last seven lacking light rain, thunderstorms and hail, I am starting to smell the unmistakable - and surprisingly pleasant - barnyard-like smell of fermentation under the ever-present stench of stale urine. It's still far from ready, and I'm not entirely convinced that the heater, which has a max temp of 85F (something about not wanting to cook fish?), is warming up the water as much as it needs to be to really encourage things to grow. But it is encouraging. I stir it gently every day or two to get the indigo powder off the bottom of the vat and encourage the chemistry to start. If nothing happens after a week of it staying warm 24/7, then I'll feed it a couple dates.
I still want to believe
I'm not certain how long I can hold on the illusion that I am not really a dyer. I still maintain that this is all about the educational experience, and a single goal. Let's forget about the fact that I'm still contemplating collecting chicory from the roadside, I have weld seeds about to be planted, and that failed attempt to get green from carrot tops a couple months ago... stop laughing. I'm not a dyer. I'm a spinner and weaver who dyes out of necessity. And I am learning quite a lot.
I mean, seriously - did you know that saltwater fishtank heaters weren't rated for urine?