Right fabric, wrong colour

Us makers of “historically accurate” clothing are inveterate bargain hunters. Appropriate fabrics are expensive, and sometimes that bargain is the right fibre and weight, but the wrong colour, so we are often also experimental dyers.

A note on historical accuracy: to be totally accurate, one would have to use fabrics that are hand-woven of hand-spun natural fibre, dyed with natural dyes and hand-finished. While this is theoretically possible, it would be nosebleed expensive, and beyond the time and/or money budgets of most historical costumers.

In my practice, I do my best, but there are many compromises. I try to use natural-fibre fabric, but occasionally a wool mixed with probably-synthetic “unknown fibre” creeps in. I burn test when shopping, but current textile treatments seem to be making burn tests less reliable, and bargain hunting makes taking a snip home & seeing if it dissolves in bleach impractical.

And dyes; I use natural dyes for small pieces and yarns, but fabric lengths need a big & complicated contraption to natural-dye evenly, which I don’t have & don’t have room for. So I dye lengths in the washing machine, using present-day dyes.

In the last week, I had a couple of surprises when I changed the colour of four fabrics!

The first is an elderly length rescued from the basement of King Textiles when they moved. The second is one my favourite salesperson at Archie Fine Wools dug out for me – again from the basement – a few days before the shop closed. The other two I bought at the Textile Museum of Canada’s marvellous Yardage Sale.

  • A burn test suggested that the King Textiles one is a wool/cellulose-fibre mixture, but diamond twill is a rare find in commercial fabrics, so I bought it in spite of the suspect fibre content. And in spite of the unfortunate colour, which was an anaemic salmon pink on a grubby cream background. Another compromise – right weave, semi-wrong fibre, wrong colour.
  • The bolt for the second one – a faint blue plaid on a tan background – was labelled “wool” (I don’t remember the mill name), and a burn test confirmed it.
  • The third – a bluish pistachio length – has “pure new wool” woven into the selvedge; a burn test suggested a wool/cellulose fibre blend.
  • The fourth one – a sad, dusty, plum-purple one – has “Kadylaine” woven into the selvedge. This might be a brand of pure wool (“laine” = wool, in French), but might also be a trademark for a wool blend. The burn test also suggested a wool/cellulose fibre blend.

With the apparent blends, I console myself that, at least, if they are actually blends rather than wool treated with something that misleads burn tests, rayon is the most probable cellulose fibre to be mixed with wool, and rayon isn’t reprocessed oil!

The diamond twill from King Textiles Pale blue & grey diamond twill

The bolt had been lurking in their storage, likely for a decade or three. Last year I tried dyeing it with “periwinkle” acid dye from G&S Dyes, and didn’t take a “before” picture. The diamonds (presumably the wool component) came out a pretty shade of pale blue on a silvery grey background (the “possibly rayon” component).

However, the colour was uneven, which I’ve never had happen before when dyeing in the washing machine. Not blotches, but broad stripes of deeper blue. I suspect that, in its long time on the shelf, either friction from being shuffled around, or absorption of the acid from the cardboard it was wrapped around, or both, made parts of the fabric more receptive to the dye. In those places, it took more heavily, hence the “stripes”.

I tried dyeing it again, but no luck. It just got a little darker, but the stripes didn’t budge. I was disappointed, and the fabric joined the UFO pile.

This week, since my washing machine was occupied by dyeing projects, I finally got some colour remover and had a go at removing the colour, hoping to take out enough to have another go at dyeing the length. And hoping that the chemical beating it took from the colour remover would make the whole piece more evenly dyeable.

The surprise? The colour didn’t shift much. It’s still the pretty pale blue – what I think the Elizabethan colour “watchet” may have been – on silver grey. BUT the “stripes” are mostly gone, and I can work around what’s left.

It looks like the colour remover selectively took out just the excess the dye!

The wool from Archie Fine Tan tweed overdyed with blue

Tan tweed, before dyeingThis one was feather-light, with a beautiful, butter-soft hand, and was ridiculously cheap for a  quality wool, ($3/yard, if I remember correctly), but the colour was unfortunate – the precise shade of tan that turns my skin sallow and blotchy. It’s possibly even older than the diamond twill – only 32″ wide, which is a width I haven’t seen new since the 1960s!

I overdyed it with “periwinkle” acid dye from G&S Dyes, which seems to be turning into my go-to dye for shifting unbecoming colours of wool. It came out a lovely, tweedy stone green, with the faint bluish plaid popping to a clear sapphire blue. It also shrank about 30%, which adds to my suspicion that it’s an old yardage – the two more recent wools that I dyed shrank maybe 5%!

The shrinkage also thickened it, so it’s no longer feather-light, and the hand is a little woolier, but that’s OK. I’m going to use it for a Viking apron dress, and the change has transitioned it from Mid-20th Century Men’s Lightweight Suiting to Plausibly Viking.

The bluish pistachio length 

The blueish pistachio length - original colourWith this one I was aiming at bright spring green, so I overdyed it with yellow. Since the burn test indicated a cellulose component and I had Dylon for cellulose on hand, I tried that. It improved the colour marginally, but not to the green I was aiming for.

Not too surprising; if it is actually wool, as the selvedge says, since the Dylon I used isn’t designed to work on wool. So I got some yellow acid dye & had another go. That bumped it up to a lively green.

I’m still not sure about the fibre content. From the way the acid dye took it from a barely-perceptible change to strong spring green, I suspect it actually is 100% wool – but with some kind of finish that confuses simple burn tests.

The sad, dusty plum purple one 

Purple wool, before washingThis one was another happy surprise: when I pre-washed it for dyeing – I was going to aim at a deep, deep blue – the sad, dusty look vanished and it lightened a couple of shades. It may have been under-rinsed in the original dyeing process, or just plain dirty.

Whatever the cause, washing left a lovely violet shade, which is just too pretty to change.

I’m going to make a kirtle out of it, and be damned to the idea that purple is for royalty only!





By | June 3rd, 2017|dyes, wool|Comments Off on Right fabric, wrong colour

A really, very, thoroughly, annoying mistake

I was in the home stretch of knitting the second Eleonora-style stocking, when I put it on to check whether the foot was long enough to start the final decreases.

And found I’d put the heel on the wrong side – the calf decreases were down the FRONT of my leg!!!!!


Much unraveling to do – complicated by the fact that for some reason, even though they were the same dye lot and dyed at the same time, two of the skeins had taken the madder slightly differently and were a shade browner.

Because I was down to half of the last brighter red ball and was concerned that I’d run out before finishing the stocking ( I would have), I was alternating rows of the brighter red with rows of the faintly browner red to avoid an abrupt transition.

This worked fine – but makes unraveling weirdly complicated because of the way I crossed the yarns at the end of each row to avoid gaps.

My only excuse is that I was working on the stocking while stuck in bed and on pain killers after foot surgery. That’ll teach me to knit while distracted!

By | March 29th, 2017|knitting, madder, madder, mistakes, wool|Comments Off on A really, very, thoroughly, annoying mistake

Indigo in progress

So, for the next step of the Great Wisteria Exploration, I’m aiming to make a smallish furoshiki (wrapping cloth) with a wisteria weft and a hemp warp, dyed with natural indigo.

And, as a small exploration of indigo in the Japanese mode, I wanted to grow some Polygonum Tinctorium, the plant traditionally used as an indigo source in Japan. (Most of the indigo on the market is derived from Indigofera Tinctoria, an entirely different plant).

The initial challenge was finding seed, and then getting it to sprout – as I grumbled about in my post on June 20th last year.

Image of a pot of Japanese indigo growingOnce it had finally sprouted, my tiny crop of PT grew slowly. Unlike its cousin, Japanese knotweed, it made no attempt to take over the garden; in fact, it seemed to be a little unhappy. I don’t know whether this was because of the weather, or the quality of the light or the soil – or just because it preferred to grow in crowds & was lonely for company.


However, it did grow, and late in the fall, when I had pretty much given up on having seed to save for next year, it flowered.

I held off harvesting until the first serious frost warning. Then I cut the plants at ground level, snipped off the (hopefully ripe) flower heads and winnowed them for seed, then stripped the leaves off the stems and put them to dry.

To process the leaves, I’m using Dorothy Miller’s fermentation technique, as described in her Indigo from seed to dye. It’s going to be a challenge, as my “crop” is tiny – just enough to plump out a snack-size Ziploc bag.

One of the nice things about her method is that, once the leaves are dry,  the next step can wait if Life intervenes!

Which it did, for a while. When I finally got back to it last week, I promptly ran into a couple of challenges; two of the materials took a bit of finding – some hay and a plastic “burlap” bag (the woven kind that rice, beans, nuts etc. are often shipped in).

Luckily, a community garden near my brother’s had a few handfuls of hay to spare, and one of the local merchants, who sells nuts, beans and grains in bulk, kindly saved one for me.

It was from cranberry beans, and there were three left in the bottom. You can see them above on top of the small bag I made for the indigo.

Now that I’ve assembled the materials, cut & sewn a tiny “burlap” bag, and made the obligatory mess in the kitchen, here goes.

  • put the dried leaves into the miniature plastic “burlap” bag




  • wet it thoroughly





  • nest the bag in a bed of hay





  • cover it with plastic and weigh it down with a stone, or a brick, or a log. Since even a brick is too big for this little indigo, I used a bag of pebbles from the local dollar store
  • put it someplace warm, with good air circulation
  • stir at 5 days & 10 days
  • if it isn’t done at 100 days, stir & keep checking periodically

I have no idea how long this small a mass of indigo will take to ferment. Actually, I’ll be very happy if it turns out to be big enough to achieve critical mass for fermentation!

In any case, it won’t be enough to dye the furoshiki – though there may be enough to dye one of the samples from my initial wisteria experiments!

Next: spinning more wisteria fibre










By | January 28th, 2017|dyes, indigo, Japan, wisteria|Comments Off on Indigo in progress

Wisteria textile – round 3


As I suspected, this lot of wisteria is woodier than the lot I harvested in May last year. Even after cooking it for most of a day, I still wasn’t able to split the fibres consistently, so I left it to soak in the ash/water mixture for most of a week.

It got a bit funky, so I rinsed it out & continued to soak it in clean water. Yesterday I was finally able to start separating the fibres. Not much to say. It’s a long, picky process:

  • pull a length out of the pot
  • untangle it
  • if it’s got bark on it, scrape the bark off (it’s not mandatory to scrape with an expired ROM membership card, but more fun than using a chipped kitchen knife)
  • pick out a fibre end
  • pull
  • if the strip is too wide to spin into usable fibre, split it & pull again
  • rinse
  • repeat

longAndShortIMG_3942The results are four categories of fibre: short, long, “needsAnotherBoilIMG_3945wasteIMG_3946needs another boil”, and waste – plus chunks that are obviously too woody to make fibre of any kind. Once I finish processing this lot, I’ll put the strips that are fibrous, but won’t separate, in to boil with wood ash for a few more hours & see whether they’re usable.

For some reason I had a lot less waste than last year; maybe July fibre is stronger than May fibre, and less brittle than the October harvest. Or, with practice, I’ve gotten better at processing it. Or both.

This lot of wisteria is darker than the previous batches –  I don’t know whether it’s because I harvested it during the middle of growing season, or because I left it in the ash bath longer, or that this summer is much drier than last summer. Once it’s woven, I’m planning to piece-dye it with indigo, and I’m curious about how the darker fibre affects the colour. I’ve got enough from my initial experiment to weave a sample for dyeing, and I’ll be interested to see how the two batches compare when dyed in the same bath!






By | July 25th, 2016|dyes, fibers, indigo, wisteria|Comments Off on Wisteria textile – round 3

Eleonora stockings – progress!

My latest attempt at the Eleonora stockings!

This is actually my third go at these stockings. Between my first attempt and this one, a lot more information had come out about them, the best being the images in the Medici archive.

The first time I tackled the stockings was from a pattern I downloaded from the internet, and knit with commercially-dyed red wool fingering. I stopped knitting & discarded this test as soon as I realized that the pattern was for a stocking with a present-day shape, only using the surface patterns from the originals, and that the gauge was way too big – more of a sport sock than an elegant lady’s stocking. The pattern doesn’t seem to be on the internet any more.

The second test was from the pattern by Anne DesMoines published on Ravelry. This one I knit with a silk yarn finer than the wool of the first test. Initially, the silk was white, and I dyed it with cochineal. It had some issues – the dye insisted on being a fuchsia pink instead of red, and the gauge was still too big, with fewer pattern panels than the originals. Also, I found the silk very unpleasant to knit with, and abandoned the attempt.

knittngWidgetClosedFor the current stocking I bought white laceweight wool yarn. This time I dyed it with madder overdyed with cochineal, and got a very satisfying brick red.

This yarn knits up at a finer, more period gauge – approximately 14 stitches to the inch on 1mm needles. None of the documentation I’ve seen to date gives the gauge of the actual Eleonora stockings. However, because of the number of stitches in the pattern panels and the number of repeats, it must be very fine.

As far as I can tell from the available images, this edition of the stockings has same number of patterned panels as the originals, and the stitch count is very close.

I changed a few details – I didn’t like the second zigzag and the eyelets in the cuff or the “ladder” effect of the double garter stitch in one of the panels, so I eliminated the zigzag, and substituted a purl square for the eyelets and a chequerboard pattern for the “ladder” effect, all of which are consistent with late 16th century knitting techniques. Cuff of stocking inspired by Eleanora of Toledo's

Since I plan to wear the stockings, I changed the shaping. The original Eleonora stockings are baggy in the calf and foot – the decreases for the calf are far too low on the leg to fit me and the feet are too thick. Perhaps, after at least eleven pregnancies, Eleonora’s feet and ankles were somewhat the worse for wear.

Instead of designing the foot following the the Medici archive images, I used the foot shaping for 16th century stockings shown in Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting.  The soles of the originals are mostly moss stitch or seed stitch; instead, I picked up and continued the band pattern just for the fun of it.


One stocking is done and the second is in progress. With luck & a following wind, it’ll be done by Pennsic!

(The little *blip* at the back of the heel is historically accurate. I’ve been assured that it wears in fast and is comfortable..)

I’ve just been reminded of another change that I forgot about – and this one’s a biggie! Virgin Mary knitting in the roundThe Eleonora stockings were knitted flat and sewn up the back; mine are knitted in the round. I couldn’t bring myself to knit them flat. The technique was known by Eleonora’s time – Bertram von Minden’s Knitting Madonna, painted ca 1400-1410, is knitting in the round!



















By | June 26th, 2016|cochineal, dyes, knitting, madder, Renaissance, silk, wool|Comments Off on Eleonora stockings – progress!

Japanese indigo finally sprouts!

After many weeks, and on the third attempt, my Japanese indigo has finally sprouted!

Now that I’ve managed to make a textile sample out of the wisteria vine that’s trying to eat my house, I’m on to a more ambitious project: a wisteria-fibre & hemp furoshiki (wrapping cloth), block-resist dyed with indigo.

Since I’ve got a limited amount of wisteria to work with, I’m planning to use commercial hemp thread as the warp.

And, to explore Japanese dyeing techniques, I’m working on growing Japanese indigo – Polygonum tinctorium.

It’s a cousin of Japanese Knotweed – which I’ve been battling for years – and I was dubious about letting it into my garden, but it looks like I needn’t have worried; it’s amazingly slow to germinate! Or at least, amazingly slow to germinate here in Toronto.

To start with, the seed is hard to find. My usual sources – Richter’s and Humber Nurseries – don’t have it, and most of the few suppliers on the web were out of stock by the time I tried to order it last winter. I finally found some on Etsy.

My first attempt to start the seeds was a dismal failure; nothing happened. It needs to be “evenly moist”, and after three weeks or so of nothing happening, I got less careful with the watering.

The second attempt was scuttled by squirrels. They decided the nice, well-tilled raised bed I used was the perfect place to dig.

Finally, I filled a big, self-watering pot with fresh organic soil mix, sprinkled the rest of the seeds on top (they need light to germinate), tied bird netting over the top, and kept a careful eye on the moisture level.

Nothing kept happening. For at least three weeks. Maybe four – I’ve lost track. Finally yesterday, long after I had pretty much give up hope, a bunch of tiny sprouts popped up.


Now I have a big flower pot studded with pairs of  baby leaves. Maybe now it’ll pick up speed and behave more like a knotweed – I’m not sure whether to cheer or worry!

By | June 20th, 2016|dyes, fibers, hemp, indigo, wisteria|Comments Off on Japanese indigo finally sprouts!

Dye tests – calibrating the PH meter

PH is important to dye results – particularly with reds – and I never did get the hang of reading PH test strips that I’d just dipped in a dyebath,

As far as I can see, the strips turn the colour of the dye, which isn’t much help in figuring out the PH. Also, they come in packages of 100 or more, and are good for about a year from the time the package is open. I don’t do dye runs often enough to use the test strips up by their best before date, so I’d have to toss most of them and order new each year, which is a pain.

So I bit the bullet & ordered a PH meter on Amazon.

It needed to be calibrated; though the directions were in instructionese, they were reasonably idiot proof. The meter came with two little packets of powder and a tiny screwdriver. The powders, plus distilled water, provided the required acid & alkaline test solutions and the tiny screwdriver fit an equally tiny screw that let me adjust readings up or down.

So, now I’ve got scoured fabrics & yarns, and a working PH meter – preparing the sample swatches is next!

By | February 8th, 2016|dyes, equipment, ph testing|Comments Off on Dye tests – calibrating the PH meter

Dye tests – scouring linen

This linen will be red. What shades of red, I don’t know yet – a series of tests with madder, cochineal and brazilwood is my current dye project.

Playing with the colours is fun&exciting, but much as I’d like to get right into weighing out the madder and grinding up the cochineals, I first need to scour the fabrics & yarns. Less entertaining, but necessary – before the colour goes in, whatever is inhabiting the fibre has to come out, and there’s a surprising amount of gunk on even the newest, cleanest, whitest textile!

Of the three fibres I scoured – silk, wool, and linen – the most dramatic was the linen. Though the yardage was new and clean and very white, the water turned this dirty yellow from the waxes and pectins from the linen, plus whatever was added in the processing.

In this case, I suspect there were optical brighteners – the fabric started out bright white. Now it’s still white, but with a more “natural” tone.

The PH meter I ordered just arrived in the mail! Now to calibrate it…


By | February 3rd, 2016|dyes, fibers, linen, scouring, silk, wool|Comments Off on Dye tests – scouring linen

Knitted silk stockings, first attempt

Raspberry-mousse coloured knit silk stockings - first attempt

My first attempt at knitting the Eleonora stockings in silk was an education! (My first-first attempt was in wool, which I’ve had lots of experience with – and the gauge was way too big, so I abandoned it.)

To get back to the silk: I wanted to dye the yarn a true red with cochineal.

Since cochineal is sensitive to ph – an acidic dyebath pushes it toward red and a basic one towards purple – I used neutral ph distilled water for the dyebath and added vinegar in an attempt to shift the colour towards red.

Though I’ve gotten bright reds with cochineal & vinegar on wool, for some reason the yarn refused to become red no matter how much vinegar I added.

It settled to a raspberry mousse shade and refused to budge, so I worked with that.

When I started to knit the cuff, I discovered that it knit up to significantly fewer rows per vertical inch than the swatch I’d made. This squashed the detail so badly that I could hardly see it, which surprised and puzzled me.

I asked a friend who had knitted in the round with silk, and apparently this was due to the fact that, unlike wool, silk has no “memory”. Wool springs back to its original size; silk stays stretched.

To make the pattern look right, I knit each pattern row twice. This made the pattern a little longer, but that was better than squashed.

For the swatch, I just knit on the needle part of a circular needle, back&forth with very little pulling, so it didn’t stretch. Working in the round on the stocking, I was pulling the piece around the whole needle, so it did stretch.

The other disappointment was that the surface of the yarn scuffed, spawning little balls of purple fluff. If this happened during the knitting, the finished stockings would probably get scuffed & covered with purple fluff when worn, obscuring the pattern.

Which would make knitting so much complicated detail kind of pointless.

So my next attempt will either be in wool or a wool/silk blend, depending on budget & availability, and if it comes out on the purple end of the scale when I dye it, I’ll try overdying it with madder to get a true red.









By | December 3rd, 2014|costume, dyes, knitting, silk|Comments Off on Knitted silk stockings, first attempt