Madder dyed this weekend for finishing the antependium.
This actually answered a question I’d had when I did the original batch of dyes for this project. You see, I got my best ever madder red, and wondered to what extent the colour was due to the quality of dye I’d used, and to what extent due to the thread itself. So, when I found I needed to try and match the colour I fished out the last two skiens of white wool that I’d left undyed for the background of the panels (I wanted the thread to match as well as the colour) as well as sorting out some skiens of the new wool I found at Texere in summer (the new stuff is a much nicer texture as it’s almost identical to Appletons crewel)
On the left is what remains of the original dye batch, and in the middle is a skein of the same thread from the new batch. As you can see the colour almost matches – I think the camera doesn’t quite show the discrepancy as much as the naked eye can see it, but its near enough as makes no difference in terms of Medieval embroidery, since the originals tend to have wide variations in shade due to the natural dyes used(although I’m sure it would be an absolute tragedy in terms of more modern work)
On the right is a skien of the new wool from Texere, which was dyed in the same bath for the same amount of time, and as you can see the colour variation is huge!
This really makes me curious. I’m fairly certain that the original antependium wool was lightly bleached, whereas the Texere stuff looks more of a natural unbleached sheepy sort of white. I’m now very tempted to try bleaching some of the Texere wool before I do my next big dye fest in spring so I can see how much of a difference it makes.
Several people have asked recently how difficult it is to dye your own wools, and the answer is, not very. I always say that if you can make soup you can dye. Ok, so I’m my usual slapdash self with dyeing, and I’m sure if Gareth was doing it he’d go all nerdy scientist and wiegh everything really precisely and keep a record book of times and quanitities, but I just can’t be faffed with all that.
The dyes I’m discussing here are natural, and the same holds true for all colours with the exception of blue, which is far more complicated, and a whole other article.
The only area where you really need to be precise about wieghts is when you mordant your yarn. The mordant is a type of chemical glue that allows the pigment to adhere to the dye, and it also influences the resulting colour – iron darkens, tin brightens.
The main mordants are tin, chrome, iron, copper and alum. I mainly use alum, partly becuase its the main historically used mordant, and partly because its whole lot less poisonous than the others. Also because I think it gives a cleaner colour that reflects the dye rather than the mordant.
All mordants need to be treated with care. Too little and your colour can be patchy, too much and the yarn can become sticky, hard, or even fall apart.
You can mordant at the end – often used when you want the mordant to change the colour, or during dyeing – useful if you want a quick result, or before dyeing.
I normally pre-mordant, as it allows me to mordant all the yarn evenly, then divide it up and use it with different dyes, rather than having to measure the mordant out individually for each dyepot. It’s basically the lazy option, and given the choice I will always take the lazy option because I’m an idle cow at heart.
You need to dedicate a large pot (preferably a nice big stock pot) and a stirring spoon (a metal one is best, as a wooden spoon can transfer colour to the next thing you use it on). You really don’t want to use anything you’re going to cook with. Rubber gloves are good. I use my kitchen, I eat takeaways when I’m dyeing and clean the kitchen thouroughly once I’m done, just to be on the safe side.
For one pound of wool(dry wieght), use 3oz alum and 1oz ordinary cream of tartar.
Wind the yarn into skeins. You might want to make sure if you’re dyeing a large batch to make all your skiens a roughly equal wieght so you can approximate the wieght of yarn once it’s wet – it can get complicated if they’re all different. You need to loosely secure each skein in several place to prevent tangling.
Soak the wool in lukewarm water. Yarn should always be wet as dry yarn can take colour patchily, the same with mordant.
In your pot dissolve the alum and tartar in a pint or so of boiling water, then fill the rest of the pot with cold water.
Add the damp wool. Make sure It’s fully submerged.
Bring it very very slowly to simmer, the slower the better. My usual approach is to leave a very large pot on a very low heat and check it every fifteen minutes or so. It’s ok if it takes more than an hour to start steaming.
Simmer it for at least an hour. I will stress that you want it to simmer, not boil. Many dye books reccomend you use an expensive thermometer, but this really isn’t necessary for most dyes (as I said blue is another story). As long as you don’t let it bubble it’s fine – this applies doubly to dye pots, as many colours are spoiled by too high a heat.
Do not stand over the pot stirring it like a cauldron of magic potion and cackling gleefully like the witches in Macbeth -this will result in a big pile of tangled yarn that you will not be able to use. Turn it over gently and with extreme caution about once every half hour. Poke it gently back under the water when necessary. I repeat – DO NOT BLOODY STIR IT OR I’LL COME ROUND AND RAP YOU OVER THE KNUCKLES WITH A VERY LARGE WOODEN SPOON
Let it cool in the pot. Keep it wet until you want to use it. (I tip mine into a large plastic container)
Alum doesn’t result in much of a colour change.
Dyeing is pretty much the same again. Some people like to simmer the dye first to extract colour then add the yarn, others swear by putting the dye in a muslin bag. I throw the dye in the pot with the wool because I’m lazy and because I think it gives the best colour. Yes, some of the dye does get tangled into the wool, but if you just wait until it’s dry and shake the skein vigorously it all falls off again.
Again, dye it as slowly as possible, cool it in the bath, then wash it gently in soap flakes and rinse it three times before hanging it to dry – preferably away from direct sunlight
With hedgerow dyes – things like onions and elderberries – you pretty much get one batch of dye per pot and then it’s exhausted.
Proportions vary a lot. With most of the hedgerow dyes its 1/1, but with the cultivated dyes (madder, weld, logwood, cochineal etc) it can go down to as much as 1/10.
I don’t bother much with hedgerow dyes apart from onion skins (I like that yellow) because the cultivated dyes give stronger, more lasting results and are more historically accurate (I think the reason so many re enactors will insist that hedgerow dyes were used by the peasantry is because so many re enactors are aging hippies who let thier ethics get in the way of research. Maybe I’m being a bitch, but the knit your own yogurt brigade get on my nerves when they transfer modern ethics to historical research.)
Another bonus of using proper cultivated dye is that you can often use it more than once…
Results from this weekend, from left to right – first wash madder on old thread, first wash madder on new thread, second wash madder, first wash cochineal, second wash cochineal. All mordanted with alum.