Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Know your onions

For me, the principle attraction of natural dyeing and eco-printing is the unpredictability of the results. Take the humble onion, the red variety in this case. Skins are widely and freely available. Go wherever they are sold and ask to root through the box for the loose skins. In no time at all, you will have a bag full, for free. The shopkeeper will probably even by grateful that you have tidied them away. Take them home, put them in a pan with some water, bring up to simmer for an hour or so and the water turns a wonderful ruby red.

Red onion skins simmering in a slow cooker

I do not claim to be an expert, I have been playing with natural dyeing for a little over a year so I am still very much a novice. I read a lot, research, follow other natural and eco dyers on social media but above all, I experiment. I did some dyeing with onion skins right at the beginning of my natural dyeing career early last year and unsurprisingly, I got a reddish brown colour from red onion and a golden brown colour from brown onions on silk habotai and noil. (Silk habotai is a fine silk and is what most people think of as 'silk' whereas noil is a coarse, slubby fabric woven from the shorter fibres left after the longer fibres have been removed to make the fine silk. I discovered silk noil in a sample pack I bought to try different kinds and loved it. It is reminiscent of linen but is great for natural dyeing as it is a protein fibre. Protein or 'animal' fibres such as silk and wool take natural dyes in general without the need for an additive or 'mordant'. Cellulose or plant-based fibres such as cotton, linen or hemp in general do need a mordant such as soy or alum to enable the dye to 'bite' into the fabric and be fixed. But as I said, I am no expert and I would refer you to Wild Colours UK or the Maiwa website for comprehensive information).

Anyway, huge digression, back to the matter in hand, my onion dyed and printed silk, gold and reddish brown colours, as you would expect. Silk noil on the left. habotai on the right.

After that I became so wrapped up (pun intended!) in eco printing that I left the humble onion skin behind, except for occasionally throwing a few torn up bits of skin into a bundle to enhance the leaf prints.

Then a few weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who has also recently been seduced by natural dyeing and she was showing me her collection of natural dyed samples. She is aiming to dye a range of greens and browns for a series of landscape inspired work and I was particularly struck by a little stack of olive green cotton and linen pieces. They had been mordanted in alum then dyed in red onion. No other additives. So I went home, went foraging in my local supermarket and set to. I alum mordanted some linen and cotton scraps. I simmered my onions to extract the dye. I added my pre-mordanted cloth as well as some noil and some old wool blanket.

 And I got shades of reddish brown on the linen and cotton. Nice enough but not the olive green I was hoping for.

 On the unmordanted silk noil, habotai and wool, I got a beautiful shade of gold - old gold or antique gold I would call it. The top is the wool followed by noil then habotai. All the reddish brown pieces are the various cotton, linen and hemp scraps, all pre-mordanted with alum.

So I messaged my friend, perhaps she had added iron or something else to the dye bath? No she hadn't. So I did some research and read that the chemicals in onion skins are very complex and can yield all colours from dark red through browns, oranges and terracottas to golds and the elusive olive green. What colours they decide to give you and when depends on a whole range of factors, relating to the onions themselves such as how and where they were grown, and lots of other factors depending on your dyeing conditions, acidity or alkalinity of the water, temperature and duration of simmering and so on. Fascinating, I hope you will agree. I read a paper by Jenny Dean which seemed to suggest that alkalinity would more likely result in greens.

So yesterday, I went back to the same supermarket and tidied up the red onion basket for them again. (They love me!) I had some left over alum mordanted cotton sheet and also some noil and some old wool blanket so I repeated the exercise. Only this time, I ground up a few indigestion tablets (calcium carbonate = alkali) in my pestle and mortar and added them to the dye bath. I had read somewhere (not sure where) that doing this, the dye bath turned green before your eyes. Mine stayed defiantly red.  A very experienced natural dyer had told me on Instagram that adding iron to the dye bath gave olive green. Now I know this isn't how my friend got that colour. But I wanted insurance. So I divided my dye bath in two pans and to one half, I added a good slosh (natural dyer's standard measure) of my 'clean' iron water. I have two kinds of iron water. The 'dirty' kind is simply rusty rain water bailed out of one of the buckets in the garden that house my rust collection (such as the one in my previous post). The 'clean' kind is made by putting a fist sized piece of steel wool into a large jar and topping up with a third white vinegar to two thirds water (ish). When the liquid turns brown it is iron water. Here are the two pans.

This is the un-ironed one, as you can see, it's reddish brown. The length of white stick has some alum mordanted cotton thread wrapped round it.

The ironed one - much more promising, though at this stage it looked almost black and I was wondering if I had overdone my slosh of iron water. It has that lovely iron bloom on the top of it.

So I simmered both for around an hour I think. I am not very accurate in my time keeping but it was about that. Usually, I would leave dyebaths to cool overnight but I couldn't wait, so I fished the cloths out with tongs into the sink until they were cool enough to touch then I squeezed the excess dye back into the pots. I did the unironed cloths first, then the ironed ones.

The unironed ones were much the same colours as my previous efforts without the indigestion tablets, except the gold on the wool and silk is darker. I also got a lovely gold on a piece of alum mordanted cotton sheet.

From top to bottom: this time's cotton sheet, last time's noil, last time's habotai, last time's wool blanket, this time's wool blanket.

I didn't take a photo of the other pieces but they were all that same reddish brown in various shades. When I squeezed out the ironed cloths, I could see straight away that I had olive green. Yeaayyy! So I mixed both left over dye baths together and chucked in all the disappointing reddish brown cloths and simmered them for another half hour. I know! Reasonably sccientific up to that point (well, perhaps not!) and at the end, I revert to type, mix things up and chuck things in. But..... look at all the lovely olive greens! The darker pieces are from the first ironed dye bath and the lighter pieces are from the 'chucking it in' stage of the proceedings. I also chucked in some other scraps that were hanging about, the bottom two scraps are bits of flannel that had been tea dyed but not mordanted with alum (as far as I remember). I love doing this, especially with repurposed cloth because I often get lovely marks appearing as you can see here. I also deliberately don't spin my mordanted cloth or rinse it very thoroughly or wring it out properly because I actually prefer patchy results. Neither do I scour anything which means prewashing it on hot in a special detergent to ensure even take up of the dye. I like things uneven. And I don't like to use lots of heat and water if I don't have to.

Green from red - finally! With the help of a little iron.
So in conclusion, do I know my onions? Hardly! But I got the results I wanted in the end, just not by the means I planned. And that's why natural dyeing fascinates me. My next plan is to go to my friend's house and try again there, using her water and the onion skins from her supermarket. It can never be a completely controlled scientific process as there are way too many variables, but it's a lot of fun!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

For the love of rust

To the unenlightened, rust is nasty stuff, evidence of decay and neglect and to be avoided. These days, items are made from metals chosen because they do not rust, or they are treated to prevent it. Folk are loathe to sit on old garden furniture in their pastel summer finery because the rust will stain and be impossible to remove. But to those of us awakened to the beauty of rust, we see something more. Here is a photo of my  favourite rusty pieces. Some are parts from my old land rover, others are my 'ploughshares' gathered from local fields after the plough has passed, and identified for me by my farmer friend as 'the tine off a bailer' or 'a suspension spring' or 'that's just a rusty ol' bit of iron'.

One woman's trash is another's treasure

My Instagram feed is littered with photos taken by other like-minded souls of rusty pieces found on the beach, in the street, in the fields and we drool and make envious comments. We also share photos of rusty things that we can't take home. Here is an old manhole cover seen on a beach in Wales. It was no longer serving any purpose so was junk. But was way too heavy for me to take. Sadly. So I just took a photo to remind me of its beauty.

If I had been staying longer, I would have wrapped it in cloth and left it a few days
 to take a print but I only found it on our last day
Rusty panel on a beach - too large to carry

Rusty chain and ring at Stackpole Quay, Pembrokeshire

Recently on Instagram, a fellow artist posted a photo of an elaborate rusty drain cover and stated that she had been tempted to lay down on it in her cream wool jumper. Many of us posted that we would have too. She was heartened by our understanding. 'I KNEW you all would get it!' she said.

Pile of my own rust and eco printed work. The piece along the bottom of the photo is called 'Trapped'
 and is a folded length of repurposed flannel sheet with found rusty items stitched into it
 and left hanging in a tree in my garden for several months.

I was first awakened to the beauty of rust by an exhibition at the Festival of Quilts a few years ago by the artist Regina Benson. Beautiful expansive cloths draped, hung and folded in pleats that you could walk among and experience the play of light and shadows through the rust dyed glow. Now I collect it like a magpie collects shiny things. I walk the pavement alert to the telltale browny-orange colour of a bottle top or a nail. I swoop and in my pocket it goes.

I know it doesn't do it for everyone so what is the appeal to those of us who acquire the obsession? Is it merely the beauty of the colours and the textures in the rusty things themselves?

Rusty old plough half-hidden by nettles.
I wrapped a metre of silk around this for a few weeks last summer.

Ploughshares - the piece of silk dyed by the plough
Backed with rust-printed linen and hand stitched

Details of rust-printed silk

Is it the potential that we know exists for transferring those beautiful hues to paper and cloth? Is it the knowledge for those of us addicted to eco-dyeing and printing that the inclusion of a few rusty bits or the addition of some rusty water to a bundle will change the colours, the patterns, give of itself generously and work with the chemicals released by our plant materials?

Rusty bits on paper

The resulting prints

Whatever the reasons, I find it beautiful and endlessly fascinating. Just let me rust....

Rust printed fragment of old linen stitched into a scrap of vintage woolen blanket

Monday, 13 March 2017

Cigar-shaped buds

Fifteen years ago, I went to horticultural college. I had always been something of a botanical binomial nomenclature geek (illustrated right there by my use of that phrase). Our weekly 'plant ident tests' ingrained this geekness deep into my psyche. I had a running battle (friendly) with 'the other Catherine' on my course. (Same name as me, different spelling). We were both the only students with 100% on the idents for ages. We both sailed through conifers, perennials not in flower, evergreen shrubs, even deciduous trees in bud. Hence my post title. I will never forget Fagus sylvatica, the common beech, in bud because it has buds shaped like little cigars and its name starts with 'fag' - English slang for cigarette. Tortuous perhaps, but it has worked for me all these years.

Fagus sylvatica - cigar shaped buds

So beech trees always remind me of plant idents at college, and 'the other Catherine'. And the day she missed an 'i' in 'drummondii' and lost half a percent. Leaving me plant ident champion with my 100% record intact. I think I am perhaps a little prouder of that than I should be.

On my walk today, I made a bundle.Two rusty nails from the pavement on my way to the fields. A handful of buckthorn berries picked up from the path. I trampled my cloth in some patches of green algae on the way across a muddy field.

When I reached the top of the hill, some primroses caught my eye, growing among the brambles.
Of course I wouldn't pick the primroses, but I gathered a few of the deep purple bramble leaves for my bundle.

Bundle ready to roll
You will see by my feet in the last photo that I am perched on a log with my knees in a less than ladylike position. But it was a handy perch alongside a flat patch of bare ground on which to lay out my cloth, so decorum (as if I have any?!) went by the board.

And the beautiful old beech, by the stile has an exposed network of roots where the bank has eroded. A perfect spot to hold this little bundle, firm and contained but in the full face of the wind and rain when it comes, as it surely will if the lion in March has not yet given way to the lamb.

Can you see the bundle?

This bundle is the latest in my ClothCache project. This is the footpath running along the top of Pretwood Hill just outside Ilminster, Somerset. If you are passing and you spot it and have an urge to take it, you are welcome. Leave me something in return if the spirit moves you. Tell me on this blog or via Instagram with the #clothcache if you will. 

And the final photo goes to little Stella who is always up for a photo bomb and is here doing it in stile! Thank you for reading, your interest is greatly appreciated. k3n xx

Friday, 10 March 2017

Slow Stitch

The second Friday morning of every month, I lead a slow stitching session at my local Arts Centre in Ilminster. So rewarding, so inspiring and so convivial. I feel the threads unraveling back through the ages, binding us together with unknown and countless groups of women who have sat together and stitched.

such different styles

spectacular colours!


so absorbed

don't press out the creases, they are part of the story

sometimes no colour is necessary

My pojagi in natural dyed repurposed linen
Each session we look at a different traditional technique, as well as working on a slow stitch project. Today was the turn of (b)pojagi. A beautiful way to create a double sided cloth.

They were too absorbed in their stitch journal book wraps to stop today! Each took a few squares of my hand dyed rainbow fabrics to pojagi with at home. Or not as the spirit moves. .  Perhaps next time, there will be some little pojagi rainbows for show and tell. 

Thank you to all my slow stitchers, for your enthusiasm, your company and your willingness to go with the flow. 

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The ClothCache project

Making little bundles of cloth, found objects and plant materials and leaving them hidden as I go about the place.
Can you spot the bundle? 

Leaving the imprint of my boots on the cloth

I nearly took this one, but it seemed so at home, it didn't seem right. So I dunked it in a puddle and replaced it.

Back into its home in the hollow oak it went

There is a bundle in the stonework of this beautiful bridge

Can you see it?

There it is

I found this one in plain sight last week - the work of Storm Doris. I tucked it back among the foliage at the base of the Tuppence Tree

Those I have placed to date are places I go regularly so as I pass, I can check on them. I say they are hidden, but I have posted their locations on Instagram and invited others to take them if they pass. And leave bundles of their own. Or not. My bundles are little gifts. Perhaps even to myself one day, perhaps not. They are all natural materials so if they remain, they will gently biodegrade as time passes. I will continue to plant my bundles and see what grows from them. What fruit they may bear.

If the inspiration takes you, why not leave bundles of your own? If you are an Instagrammer, you could #clothcache and perhaps one day I may retrieve one of yours.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

ClothCache Part Two

When I went back to retrieve my bundle, I could see from a distance that the large rock I had covered it with  had moved.

  As I got closer, scrambling over the  rocks, I could see the end of the bundle sticking out.

And I could see marks... good marks

I wanted to open it on the spot, but I took it home and waited a week. It smelt of the sea and the marks grew stronger.

Opening it was an event. If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen the video. Here are some close ups.

These sea mordanted cloths will definitely become a 'thing'. They haven't yet told me exactly what they are destined to be. That part of the story has not yet been written. But this whole happening has inspired my ClothCache project, more about that tomorrow...