I did study the techniques of dyeing and printing during my degree course, but that was industrial printing and dyeing, on a vast scale and using chemical dyes. Using natural dyes and working on a smaller scale will be a whole new adventure. It isn’t as consistent, but then that is the charm of it.
So off I went, rummaging through the interwebs for an introduction to natural dyeing and finally found it via Twitter, in a workshop entitled “Twenty Five Shades Of Madder” in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens given by Julia Billings of Woollenflower. It was fascinating, and gave me much to think about.
Mind you, I might have given Julia and all the other lovely ladies on the course something to think about as well, because I had my quotation from Pliny in my notebook to explain what an embroiderer was doing at a workshop, run by a knitter and attended largely by knitters.
It did more than explain – everyone’s imagination went into overdrive! The idea of multicoloured fabric coming out of a single dyebath clearly enchants everyone, not just me!
We even had a walk through the Gardens looking for plants that yield dyes. There are a lot of them – more than you might think!, and mordants (pre-dyebath treatments) and modifiers (post-dyebath treatments) make a lot of difference as well.
So now, I have a list of books and DVDs to look at, and suggestions of other people to get in contact with or research – and someone to ask for help if it all gets too much (thanks, Jules!)
When I was working on my Master’s Degree, I came across this reference to dyeing in Egypt, as described by Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History”:
In Egypt, too, they employ a very remarkable process for the colouring of tissues. After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not with colours, but with mordants that are calculated to absorb colour. This done, the tissues, still unchanged in appearance, are plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye, and are removed the next moment fully coloured.
It is a singular fact, too, that although the dye in the pan is of one uniform colour, the material when taken out of it is of various colours, according to the nature of the mordants that have been respectively applied to it: these colours, too, will never wash out.
Thus the dye-pan, which under ordinary circumstances, no doubt, would have made but one colour of several, if coloured tissues had been put into it, is here made to yield several colours from a single dye. At the same moment that it dyes the tissues, it boils in the colour; and it is the fact, that material which has been thus submitted to the action of fire becomes stouter and more serviceable for wear, than it would have been if it had not been subjected to the process.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 35, Chap.42
Now, Pliny the Elder was writing long after Akhenaten’s time, indeed after Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, but plant dyes were already known in 18th Dynasty Egypt, so I am going to assume that mordanting was also known.
I simply have to try this!
I’m not going to try to use Egyptian plant dyes – I think it will be quite challenging enough as it is – but I need to do some research to discover what colours can be obtained by different mordants from a single dyestuff, then work out how to apply the mordant in patterns in such a way as to ensure that it works.
And then do it. It would make a fabulous video, wouldn’t it, dipping a white cloth into a vat and getting multicoloured cloth out again!
I’ve been hit by a fit of the tidy-ups and spent a couple of days rifling through some shelves to try to make more sense of them, and I’ve found a couple of things I’ve not seen in years…
This little cornucopia of flowers is rather cute. I found it in a nineteen seventies book about needlecrafts, which is rather a surprise because I don’t think it is a very nineteen-seventies sort of design – and some of the others really were! I’ll try to find the book to tell you what it was called. It’s the same book that I found the girl and her doll described in this post about another forgotten project.
In a fit of masochism (I can’t think of any other reason!) I worked it on watered silk, which is very closely woven and was a severe trial. I had to use sharps rather than my usual embroidery needles! The flowers are satin stitch (I was gradually getting over my aversion!), the leaves lazy daisy, and the sections of the cornucopia itself are in Roumanian stitch, which creates just enough roughness of texture to be interesting.
I think that now I have found it again I shall mount it on a round or oval card (like the Glittering Snail) and add it to the winter decoration corner.
I wrote about this woolwork experiment in 2011, and the last time you saw it, the metal template was still in place. I found it in a box of fabrics that might make good backgrounds, but clearly all I had done was to fill in the centre, add a desultory stem, and sit back and stare at it. Unfortunately, I’m none the wiser as to what to do with the completed piece, or what I might do with the technique…
Well, I decided in the end to unpick the silk pearl purl. I was extremely disappointed about that, because the whole idea of this project was to provide an underlayer for the pearl purl.
On the other hand, I do think it turned out rather well. The gold and viscose gimp makes a beautifully tangled, almost “fluffy” head – there’s something like 10 metres in that head, an entire skein of thread, uncut, and twisted back on itself in little one-inch fronds.
Even if I did feel as though I was using my pins more like a windlass!
The three shades of green wool break up the otherwise rather monolithic leaves and I’m very pleased with my fishbone stitch variation. I took care to make sure the two strands I was using lay side-by-side rather than twisting up, but in truth that wasn’t much of a problem.
The stem I worked in raised stem stitch band, incorporating rather more of the dark thread, and trying to make sure that I didn’t catch any odd bits of the felt – harder than it looks!
Finally, having decided that my planned embellishments (the silk pearl purl) were blemishes rather than embellishments, I took them out (cautiously) and signed with my usual Morse Code initials…
I didn’t have any plan for this piece, but I’m so pleased (in spite of my disappointment!) that I’m quite seriously considering framing it up.
The whole idea of the sampler on the case is to have a few reminders of stitches I haven’t done before, or use only rarely…
The first row was Fishbone Stitch in navy blue pearl cotton. I wanted something definite to create the edge of the panel. It was a little tricky to stitch on the soft pre-felt, but as I soon remembered – that would be true of all of them!
Next, Mountmellick Thorn Stitch in reddish-pink cotton. I’ve only used this once before, on the Jacobean Work Panel, largely because I have not found a suitable application. I enjoyed it, though, and now the stitch will be before my eyes more regularly, maybe I will find one…
Open Chain Stitch is an awkward stitch. In Barbara Snook’s “Embroidery Stitches”, she says it is best used as the basis for further ornamentation, such as single chain stitches across the bars. and I think you can see why. I used a pale yellow pearl cotton. I like the thread, but the stitch is one that needs more work!
Next, Sorbello Stitch, worked in overdyed blue mercerised cotton. I’ve used this stitch before, to work the modern villages on the Map of Amarna, but at this larger scale the form and texture of the stitch is easier to see.
Hungarian Braided Chain Stitch has become one of my favourite stitches since I used it for the Silken Crane and the Antelope Frieze. This version uses an overdyed pink/red pearl cotton. It does show colour variations nicely!
Bonnet Stitch is a new one for me. I am absolutely sure that yellow rayon is not what the stitch was developed for, but it worked rather well, and I enjoyed it.
I chose Feathered Chain Stitch next because I wanted something fairly wide, and fairly open. The navy stranded cotton makes a strong central axis for the panel.
Petty Chain Stitch is a new one for me. I found it in one of the books by Edith John that I have. She named it after the student who created it by accident when she confused the instructions for two stitches – immortality of a sort, I suppose! I’ve used a pinkish wool slub, doubled to even out the thickness. I’ll try to remember to use this again, in a less textural thread. I think it could prove useful.
The Herringbone Stitch, I chose because I wanted something narrow. You will have noticed I’ve tried to create a rhythm of stitch widths, although it isn’t a repeating pattern as such. The golden pearl cotton has a lovely shine.
Up and Down Buttonhole Stitch is another old friend. The challenge with this blue overdyed rayon floss was not in the stitching, but in wrangling the fifty or so metres that joyously tangled themselves as soon as I untied the skein!
I’ve never used Butterfly Stitch before, either. I’m not sure that the textured pinkish cotton does it the best service, but it creates an interesting effect.
Feather Stitch is harder to stitch well than you might think. The de-twisted gold rayon cord certainly didn’t make life easy, but it helps create an emphatic stop at the end of the panel.
Here is something else I completed while I was recovering from Loading The Felucca, pictured with the two gifts from Alison that inspired my colour choices, a pincushion and a needlecase in English Paper Piecing. Considering that I selected my colours from stash, I think they have a surprisingly similar “feel”.
Some of you will recall that a couple of years ago I made a case to hold a wooden stiletto and mellor as a gift for my cousin. I’ve finally got around to making a case for three bone stilettos and a wooden mellor for myself!
I’ve included several stitches I haven’t done before, or use only rarely and I’ll write about those later.
It was a little tricky to find a suitable layout for the tools, but I finally decided I liked this one. I’ve blanket stitched the edges together, now, and I intend to needlefelt the layers together, just as I did with the other one.
When I find my needlefelting tool, which has gone Absent Without Leave!
I rather like the texture of the layers and layers of viscose gimp, in this photo. Every now and then an oblique view is exactly the right one, and it’s a gorgeously over-the-top effect, isn’t it!
I did find myself beginning to feel rather tied in knots by all the twisting and turning, and progress slowed noticeably as the number of layers increased and the difficulty of holding the strands just firmly enough also increased.
Worth it, though, I think!
The leaves required some slightly careful management. I wanted to use fishbone stitch, because I wanted a simple leaf so as not to detract too much from the flower. However, fishbone stitch does use rather a lot of thread, and I was just a little nervous about whether I would have enough of my lovely wool to do the job.
So I thought, first of all, that I would use the light and medium shades together. They aren’t flat, solid colour; they shade a little either side of the main colour, and this brings a little variation to what might otherwise have been a somewhat monolithic element.
Then, secondly, instead of taking the thread across the back from side to side, I devised a variation which changed slightly the pattern of the crossing in the centre. You can see in the detail in the top right hand corner, that there are two sets of threads in each section. There are only small back stitches running down the outside edges, and down the vein in the middle, so the amount of thread on the back has been minimised.
I originally hoped to use the layers and layers of viscose gimp as the base for another layer, of silk wrapped pearl purl, and of coloured wire purl.
Unfortunately, when I’d done it, I decided that I really didn’t like it at all.
It adds nothing to the design, and in fact, it even detracts from it. Out, out, out!
So having taken it out, rather grumpily, I sat back to consider whether or not I have finished the piece at all….
After I’d (mostly) finished Loading The Felucca, I found myself temporarily lacking inspiration for the Dreams of Amarna, so I thought I’d have a go at an idea that has been burbling around in the back of my mind for a while. I’m hoping a change of scene, as it were, will “reboot” my imagination.
The background fabric is a silk brocade, and I’ve padded the thistle itself with wool felt, in several layers (three under the topmost green circle, in fact).
I drew the whole thing freehand, and I think I will remove and replace the lefthand leaf with a reversed version of the righthand leaf. It will look more balanced and altogether happier if I do.
I’m intending to use silk purl and coloured wire purl for the thistle flower, but I wanted something for those to be embedded in. I’ve chosen to use a gold and viscose gimp, and I’m couching it down in a series of fringes zigzagging across the flower.
Each fringe is twisted back on itself – I used a pin as a sort of handle – and held down with small stitches at each end. As each additional layer went on, the “free” ends were held down a little less firmly. It’s a delicate balance between controlling the thread sufficiently (and remember gimps are very stiff and have a mind of their own!) and leaving it looking free and springy!
You could be forgiven for thinking that I had finally lost all common sense. We’re all interested in fibre, fabric, and stitch, but even so, expecting you to take an interest in a photograph of a plain piece of felt seems a little extreme.
Especially a very ordinary, single-colour, and entirely unadorned piece of felt.
So what am I up to?
Mischief, of course!
Does it help if I tell you that it’s really quite a thick piece of felt?
Or does it help if I tell you that this is the front?
I bought an “inspiration pack” of threads, and this thick square of felt at “Sewing For Pleasure” a while back, with absolutely no idea of what I expected or intended to do with it.
While I was wondering about it, I remembered reading about a medieval satchel that had been made by sewing the pieces together within the thickness of the leather. I didn’t feel quite willing to attempt something structural, but it gave me the idea of trying to work a sampler of stitches without the back showing.
I even managed to work some of my favourite stitches.
I originally began with a wavy line of Shell Chain stitch, and then built up the design from there. Some of the threads were too heavy to use in this context, and there was a wonderful heavy slub that I couldn’t find a use for (never fear, I will!) but I had great fun alternating texture and shine, space-filling and line, and just playing.
I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’m rather pleased with how it turned out!
There were so many intrigued comments about my Marudai and the braids it made, that I thought I would show you some more of the braids I’ve made.
Kumihimo is a traditional Japanese technique. The braids have a lot of traditional uses in Japan – in fact, an opera singer friend of mine tells me his Samurai costume for his part in a brand-new opera about a crucial part of Japanese history was correct down to properly made kumihimo braids in all the right places!
If you search for Kumihimo on eBay, what you will find, by and large, are bracelets. Now, I’m really not a bracelet sort of girl. I have a few chunky, “statement” bangles, which are worn specifically, explicitly and only when I’m planning nothing more strenuous than lifting a knife and fork. Cord bracelets – no.
However, I do have a lot of heavy, dramatic pendants, and the idea of making cords to point up the colours in the pendants – yes, definitely. I’ve found that sewing machine thread makes a wonderful material for these purposes – it comes in a huge range of colours, and it’s fine, supple and strong. It also lends itself well to heathering – combining several colours in a single strand – and best of all, it’s relatively inexpensive.
The fine green and gold cord is silk, made using some of the thread from the Tudor Rose kit – I used it to trim the Tudor Rose panel.
The next three, and the top, chunky pinky-maroon, are all necklace cords made using sewing machine cotton, although the maroon mookaite pendant I made the two maroon ones for has spurned both of them with scorn. I’ll try again, because I enjoy kumihimo.
The white one is silk, to go with a pearl-mounted enamelled cross pendant given to me by an old family friend, and which I wore on my wedding day. The cord I used then has become grubby over the years, so this one will see me through a few more. The cream and peach usually carries a glass pendant. It’s one of two I’ve tried for that pendant, in fact – but this “making things match” is never quite as easy as we hope, is it!
The round apricot rope is huge – about for or five times the size of the other round cords I’ve done. I might mount it with cord ends and turn it into a choker one of these days..
The stripy one is a fairly fine flat braid in filament silk. I worked this one as an experiment, changing the tension (more or less weight on the end) to see what effect it would have. In the end I came to the conclusion I wasn’t being dramatic enough with my experiments!
These flat braids were given extra texture with saree silk knitting yarns. Again, they tell me that some of my experimentation needs to be a bit more dramatic. I was hoping to emphasize the different textures, but used too many strands of the cotton yarn, so there wasn’t enough difference between the strands.
There’s scope for endless experimentation here – and I haven’t shown you the miles of gold braid I’ve made…