Friday, October 03, 2008

I swear I'm not really a dyer, Part 2: Walnuts and Cochineal

September through November is absolutely my favourite season of the year. The weather is comfy, light jacket weather - not too hot and not too cold. The air smells fresh and crisp, not filled with the pollen of spring or thick humidity of summer. The apple trees are loaded down. The leaves are starting to fall, and they smell divine as they make that crunching noise under my feet.

My neighbour's late summer-early fall flowers are incidious, the morning glories particularly so. While the yellow daisy-like things are perfectly happy spreading their sunny goodness into my yard just enough but not too much, the morning glories have long since scaled the fence and are now happily wrapping themselves around my pine trees, air conditioner, the yellow flowers, the drains... whatever they can reach. They're so lovely, I don't have the heart to evict them.

Last Monday, I think I finally figured out cochineal. We dyed the warp for the not-so-super-secret project using Lilies (1990: 132-33) modern cochineal scarlet recipe, and got the red we've been looking for all summer. Holy Crap, is it ever stunning. We got close to this with the last batch a few months ago, but that was using washed-but-otherwise-unprepped wool. There was undoubtably still some lanolin in it, which explains why sections of it came out very light, where the dye barely penetrated. This warp yarn is a commercially-prepared Shetland, probably chemically scoured and bleached. It sucked up the dye like a vampire.

In the meantime, another lady has been spinning up the weft yarn from the three batches we did over the last year, while still others keep her supplied with rolags. She gave me the first couple skeins, freshly plied. So here is our warp (bottom) and weft (top) for the not-so-super-secret-project (a pillow, 18" x 3ft):

Once I get the lozenge twill samples off my loom (need to finish weaving those! ack! only a couple more...), I can start doing tests with this. The final fabric will be weft-faced, since the weft is spinning up nearly twice as thick as the warp. That's fine with me - I have to wonder if the lighter, bluer-red colour of our weft yarn isn't close to what a pre-1600's European dyer would have gotten with cochineal, using alum or light acid solutions (vinegar, fruit juices), before the mid-1600's discovery of using tin to produce a brilliant red.

So the short story: if you're dying fleece with cochineal and you want that amazing scarlet, make sure there is not a trace of lanolin in the fleece. Wash it like you have never washed a fleece before. If you don't want to dye spun yarn, at least prep it into rovings, and dye those.

I tried a black walnut dyebath last night. I need a tiny bit of black for The Project, no more than a few yards. I took a handful of the teal, which was originally white Dorset dyed with weld, then put into the indigo vat for six hours. We put some of this into the last cochineal exhaust bath and got the following, which I guess I can say with authority is a colour found in nature:

Honestly, what colour is that?

I then put that into a "tea" of crushed black walnut husks that have been sitting in water for a week.

Not for drinking

I also added a couple locks of the dark blue. Lilies (1990: 184-85, 29) recommends mordanting with oxalic acid and ferrous (iron) sulfate to get a good black overdye with black walnuts. I do have powdered iron sulfate here, but neither DH or I relished the idea of the house smelling like rotten eggs last night, and I don't have oxalic acid.

After an hour in the dyebath, neither batch of wool was an acceptable black. I'm going to let them soak in the pot for a couple days, but I suspect the iron-oxalic acid thing is in my future. Examples that I've seen of unmordanted, black walnut-dyed wool are usually lovely golden browns, so I'm not surprised that we're not there yet. I have lots of black walnut soup, though, no worries.

The indigo vat, whose name is officially Audrey (as in, "Feed me, Seymour!"), has been fed several mushed-up bananas and a fresh dose of stale urine, and the heating pad is now on, since our night-time temps are going down to single digits. I'll add 1/4 oz. more indigo tomorrow, and hopefully a few days with the heating pad will get the fermentation going again for reducing more indigo. Audrey has a date with some friends of mine in a little over a week.

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