This one is embarrassing. About a year or so ago I received a box of heirloom cotton. The project was to gin it, spin, and do something. It sat on my desk for way to long while I’d occasionally get some of the ginning done, comb, roll some punis, spin a bit and that was about it.
Since I’ve been working from home – the faux cubicle with a view – I got on a roll hand ginning all the cotton. Unlike my backyard Pima this cotton didn’t peel easily off the seeds. I ginned through Zoom meetings, breaks, the occasional netflix movie and about two weeks into quarantine that part was finished.
Originally I learned how to spin cotton on a book charkha from Eileen Hallman / New World Textiles (https://newworldtextiles.com/). She’s a fabulous teacher and if you have the chance to take one of her workshops do so.
Over time my cotton spinning preference has been the Ashford Charkha. I’m able to spin in a chair with the weel in my lap. Wheel base is less than a foot in length and very portable.
About the Woad. I haven’t written much about Woad since there hasn’t been any for awhile. Woad is not a desert plant. (Pause for a moment of duh.) My area of southern California is what some may call “reclaimed desert”. Something you can forget until the car breaks down in the San Fernando Valley in July and there is your reminder.
Two years of drought wiped out whatever Woad I still had growing. But, I still have seeds from the last plant so I’m going to try again this year. Nothing of course can wipe out Oxalis. And the bees like it.
My other on-going project will be mordanting cotton following the method described in John Liles ‘Art and craft of natural dyeing”. Lots of scouring, soaking and then mordanting, more steeping, more soaking and then you get to the actual dying.
Earlier this week I picked the first Oxalis of it’s – the Oxalis’ season. I don’t think that this really qualifies as a “season” but what I’ve observed locally is: Fennel blooms and continues more-or-less to late Spring to Fall and Oxalis blooms late in Fall and continues to Spring. (Glove on the hand because I am a total weather-wimp.)
And since I’m writing this on the (United States) Thanksgiving Day holiday, I will note that one can always be thankful for a consistant, reliable dye plant that dyes wool, cotton and probably things I haven’t tried yet. (And the bees like it too!)
Not the most exotic sounding dye material but don’t underestimate the onions or the onion skin. For me it has been a reliable, versatile dye that I can use on both protein and plant fiber. So far I’ve dyed wool, cotton, and soy silk.
Above, pre-alumed wool dyed with onion skins. The green is indigo over-dyed in the same batch. The plant:fiber ratio was .5:1 but I believe that I could have used considerably less dye stuff. The onion skins and fiber had been simmered for an hour and left to soak over night. The next day the dye still wasn’t exhausted so I over-dyed some previously indigo-dyed wool.
Copper and Iron after-baths darkened the color but ended up with similar shades. The Ammonia after-bath brightened a bit.
Onion skins are easy to save up and store. When I am shopping produce I sometimes tidy up around the onion bin.
Today we had the kind of weather that inspired my parents to pull up stakes from Ohio and move to California. It may start raining sometime tonight but for today it was quite lovely. Becides the cats and bees I heard then saw a humming bird in the Orange tree. Also a couple of ladybugs.
My cotton shrub (below) kept going all through what passes out here for winter and is currently surrronded by the Oxalis that may dye some of it.
This last rather poorly lit picture is the Charkha I use for spinning cotton. That, and a portable Akha-style spindle. I was able to take a class from Eileen Hallman (New World Textiles) and purchased a Charkha from her. (Good instructor, good class.)
I have always loved weaving with cotton, done some dyeing and wanted to learn to spin it. Growing it also seemed to fit in there someplace. With my usual cart-before-the-horseness I started growing cotton before I was actually able to manage the spinning part. Brown grew ok, the green kept dying off but the white, aparantly Pima cotton took off enthuastically.
2008 cotton, a 2nd year plant.
Rita Buchanan’s Weavers Garden lists 150–180 frost-days and 80’-100’ F as required for cotton growing, which is pretty well covered in southern California. Any bolls that don’t finish opening I bring in the house and leave out on the stove or someplace warm and they open up a few days later.
I’ve frequently heard the question about wheter cotton is an annual or bi-annual. I don’t know the official answer on this one. Some years ago the Fall 1966 (vol. XX, no.3) issue of Spin-off published an article by Mary Frances Eves, “All from one plant” which among other things describes cotton plants she let continue from year to year until they became trees that she “had to harvest with a laddar” (Spin-off, p.49). This sounded interesting so I let some plants go to see what would happen.
What happened was the “shrubs” became trees, had to be harvested by laddar, overgrew the clothes line and a good chunk of the garden before they had to be chopped down (by my long suffering partner who kept making references to some or other episode of Dr. Who that involved a town-eating plant that was the “size of a cathedral” or something along those lines). I’m still not sure of the official answer to the annual/bi-annual question but left to themselves my own plants seem to be able to coninue from year to year.
About twenty years ago I was taking a “commuter flight” – that is a really small plane, brown bag carry-on lunches – from New York City to Washington DC. The two guys in the seats in front of me were swapping air plane stories which always seemed to end with “and then we landed in a field”. This is somewhat like my Indigo vat dyeing experience except that my stories would end with “and then the vat didn’t work”.
After my beginners luck Fennel experience Indigo put me in my place. I’ve taken enough extension anthropology and archaeology classses to be aware that textile technology goes really far back in human history. Indigo is one of the more technologically complicated processes – reduction – and I frankly can’t imagine how we came up with it.
(As an aside see Elizabeth Barber’s “Prehistoric Textiles: the development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages”. Interesting quotes from angry Sumerian business women proving that freelances have never been paid on time since the dawn of history. And, we have spend alot of time either killing each other or dyeing cloth.)
Two major mistakes which hopefully will save someone else time and tears.
First: use the right chemicals. I misktanly used Urea instead of Spectralite. (Vat doesn’t work.)
Second: DON’T get the vat too hot. Wierd scum on top of vat. (Vat sort of works.)
Cotton samples, 50% and 25% DRIED plant to fiber, and then on the far right extra samples tossed into the 50% and 25% dye soup to exhaust the dye. The extra samples (in order) were wool, soy silk and cotton.
So far my most successful cotton processing has been derived from Jill Goodwin’s “A Dyer’s Manual” – a book both beautiful and useful.
Jill Goodwin method: soak the cotton at least an hour (overnight in this case); “mordant 8 oz of cotton, dissolve 2 oz of alum (60 grams) and half an oz (4 tsp or 20 ml) of washing soda in a pot of boiling water” – ok ounces make my head ache, I use metric for dye work so I calculated this to alum 25% (.25 x weight of fiber) and washing soda 6% (.06 x weight of fiber); boil cotton in alum and washing soda for half an hour, stir occasionally.
I simmered the dried oxalis (contained in a pantyhose foot) and the cotton for about an hour and cooled overnight, around 24 hours.
Goodwin suggests that you use 2x the weight of the material to be dyed. however I have found that dried dye material is quite a bit stronger (concentrated?) then fresh. The color on the photo I have posted here is definately not perfect but gives a general idea of the color. The fiber is darker in the dye liquid but even after the washout I had a decent medium and deep yellow. I plan to try a 10% for a lighter yellow.
The surprise was the amount of color left in the dye liquid that was picked up by the wool, soy silk and 2nd cotton samples. The light yellow samples I will probably over dye with indigo.