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

The Apron and the Scoggers – an unexpected project

I’m going to be taking a potentially messy pigments class at Fruits of our Labours (better known as FOOL) a Society for Creative Anachronism event on the May long weekend.

As I’ll be wearing 16th century garb, it struck me that I’ll seriously want to protect my clothes. Which raised the question of aprons.

Almost all the many aprons in 16th century art – and earlier, for that matter – start at the waist and cover the front of the skirt. That’s always puzzled me. I’ve never noticed that splatters and splashes conscientiously restrain themselves to landing below the waist. Surely “women’s work” was just as messy in the middle ages & renaissance as it is now, so where are the full frontal coverage aprons?

I had a faint tickle of memory that I had seen at least one image of such an apron, but I couldn’t pin it down, so I sent out a plea on themedieval washerwoman wearing apron marvelous Elizabethan Costume facebook page. The membership came to my rescue with a number of images, including this one.

Then one of the members had the brilliant suggestion that a pair of scoggers (sleeve protectors) might be a good idea as well. A good idea indeed! Thank you, Tracie!

The construction of the apron is guesswork. From the images, it looks like the aprons were made from two rectangles, and the necklines range from a simple casing with a strap threaded through it to many fine gathers anchored down somehow, with a separate strip sewn on as a casing. I suspect the gathers are the back side of smocking. Even using a very sturdy thread, unsupported gathering lines would eventually break, which would make for a truly annoying mending job.

With the width of fabric needed to cover my skirt & leave enough room to walk freely, the simple-casing design Detail of reverse-smocked yokewould have been ridiculously bunchy & ugly, so I went with the reverse side of smocking. It’s still a serious volume of fabric, but at least it behaves itself!

The scoggers are just sewn & hemmed tubes, with a pair of eyelets at each end for a drawstring.scoggers - eyelets & drawstring

I did cheat a little with the drawstrings – the visible parts are linen tape, but I spliced a piece of elastic into each one blue "this way up" stitchesso that I could get the scoggers on & off by myself. With just the linen tape, I’d have to have had someone tie me into them each time!

I also added a few stitches in blue linen embroidery floss on the inside top so that I wouldn’t have to figure out which way is up each time I put them on!

The is is probably the shortest garb project I’ve ever made. Even with doing everything but the long seams by hand – including felling down the apron seam allowances – I got it done in the few odd corners of time available in two very busy weeks!

Yay rectangles, straight seams and one-size-fits-most!


By | May 10th, 2017|costume, linen, smocking|2 Comments

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

The trials & tribulations of establishing the grain on linen

In a long thread on the Elizabethan Costume Facebook page, Co-Moderator Noel Gieleghem posted an excellent suggestion regarding the challenges of straightening grain in linen – plus a dire warning as to the perils of attempting to tear linen!

The thread is long; I’ve given a link to the whole exchange at the end of this post. It includes a lot of discussion about tearing vs. pull-a-thread-and-cut in various fabrics. Noel chimes in around the middle, passing on a really, really, REALLY good technique for straightening the grain on linen.

Linen does NOT like to be torn; tearing it distorts the grain, and, even with pressing, it stays distorted. The images above are a piece of handkerchief linen that’s been torn (it rippled like mad), then pressed carefully and thoroughly. Even after pressing, the torn threads are still off grain. Also, the first dozen or so lines of weft next to the torn edge are packed together. This may look minor, but it makes the edge behave differently from the body of the fabric, and can distort what’s being sewn.

So the preferred way of establishing the grain on linen is the old, tried-and-true “pull a thread” technique. Which is tedious.

But despair not! Noel wrote: “A tip I learned from Joy Shillaker in England is scribing your draw line with a bar of soap. It lubricates the thread you’ll be drawing and makes pulling it out much, much easier.”

Having spent many hours pulling threads that inevitably break, fishing the broken end out, and going through the cycle way too many times, I decided to test the technique. I’d already spent a serious chunk of time and patience straightening the grain on one end of my test subject, and that was a pain – the thread did not like to be pulled and broke at every opportunity.

In contrast, the soap line worked beautifully! It was orders of magnitude easier and faster than straightening the first end had been – and much, much less frustrating.

The end of the linen was so badly distorted – and crookedly cut – that it was hard to see where to put the soap line. So, I snipped along a thread, eyeballed where it led to, and started with a short (~30cm/1’) line:

Second try at making a soap line

Then I started to scoot the fabric along the pulled thread, drawing more sections of the soap line when I could see where it should go:


The whole process went fast and was super-easy; in fact, it went so well that I got across the whole width without the thread breaking!

linen scooted along pulled thread across full width of linen

In record time, I had an established grain line – and an offcut that’s a graphic illustration of why it’s so important to establish that grain line!

All done - the grain line established; the fabric cut - and the wonky offcut

Thank you, Noel, for passing on that amazingly effective tip!

I’ve pasted a link to the whole conversation on the Elizabethan Costuming page here.

By | December 6th, 2016|damage, fibers, linen|Comments Off on The trials & tribulations of establishing the grain on linen

Fabricland closing at Honest Ed’s – opens at Galleria Mall

This is the second time I’ve stocked up on thread at a downtown Toronto Fabricland that’s closing, and it looks like it may turn into a tradition. Along with my receipt, the cashier handed me a 50% off coupon for their new store – in the Galleria Mall at Dufferin & Dupont.

Another location that’s slated to be demolished in the not-too-distant future! I don’t get it! Is it really good business practice to rent, staff, and stock a store, then close it, and sell off the stock at a serious discount after a year or two? Or even three?

So it looks like I may be making another thread-buying expedition soonish. (Thread is expensive; a 40% discount is not to be sneezed at!)

As for the 50% off coupon, I’ll have to be lucky to find a fabric I want. Since I prefer natural fibres, most of Fabricland’s stock is not something I would usually buy. Amidst the polyester, polyester blends, polar fleeces, etc, they do carry some natural fabrics, but they’re mostly kiddy-print flanelettes, craft cottons, or pricey. The pure linens they had today were $40 a meter before the discount – hair-raising for someone used to Fabric-store.com or Carolina Calicos, both of whom sell linen at less than $10 yard!

But who knows? As well as thread, this time I was looking for a printed cotton in shades of denim blue, and found one that worked. It’s the one in the background of the image, and it’s 100% cotton. It originally was $24 a meter – more than I would be willing to pay for a workaday cotton print – but at $8, I cheerfully added it to my basket.

(And in case you’re wondering why most of the threads I bought are grey – one of the oddities of colour is that, if a grey thread matches a fabric on the light/dark spectrum, it will happily blend in with pretty much any colour!  The red is because I’ve got a bunch of red sewing planned, and I like the colour.)


By | November 12th, 2016|cotton, fabric stores, linen|Comments Off on Fabricland closing at Honest Ed’s – opens at Galleria Mall

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

Wisteria textile – round 2

The house-eating wisteria had a very bad day yesterday; my daughter and I attacked it.

Not just to harvest a few vines for making fibre, but to cut it back seriously. It was starting to infiltrate the roof, and, frankly, I’m very tired of its “house with a bad hair day” effect.

Plus the fact that it was so fat and happy that it didn’t bother to bloom this year!

woody wisteria vinesSo we gave it a severe pruning, separated the leaves & stems wisteria leaves & stemsfrom the woody vines, and today I started processing the vines for fiber.

This is my second wisteria project; the first was an experiment to see whether I could make any wisteria textile at all, which I posted on facebook

This time I’m aiming to produce enough wisteria fibre to weave a furoshiki with a hemp warp and a wisteria weft.

The processing is very low-tech – but hard work. It goes like this:

  • pound the stems with a sledge hammer
  • pull the cambium & bark off the heartwood
  • peel and/or slice the bark off the cambium
  • mix the cambium with water & wood ash & put on to boil

Which is as far as I’ve gotten today. The Very Big Pot is on the stove, full of long strips of wisteria and dirty water.Very Big Pot boiling wisteria

I don’t know how long this lot will take to process. The ideal time to harvest the wisteria is May, but tackling it is a two-person job, and between busy-ness and uncooperative weather, we didn’t get to it until yesterday.

With the extra growing time, some of the stringy, fibrous layer is getting woody, and I suspect I’ll have to pick it out and give it and extra-long boil to loosen it up enough to separate the fibres.

With this huge pot on the stove for the next few days, cooking food is going to be interesting!












By | July 10th, 2016|fibers, wisteria|Comments Off on Wisteria textile – round 2

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!