Saturday, July 25, 2015

Umbilicaria and Cochineal ...

I was given a nice quantity and variety of natural dyestuffs recently (thank you!) and decided not to sit around waiting to use them! I found a few ounces of Falkland wool in my stash that goes back to my Brooklyn days: I'd purchased it at The Yarn Tree when it was on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. (That's where I first did natural dyeing and where I learned to spin. It was a beautiful place, full of natural fibers of every kind.) So with wool in hand and dried Cochineal bugs heated to just below boiling and then simmered for an hour--twice, to make 2 extractions of color, I set about imparting the beautiful bug red to the wool.

I used alum to mordant the wool, a process that helps the wool absorb the dyestuff. Simmered in an alum bath for an hour and left overnight, I then squeezed out the excess water and carefully lowered the wool into the dilution of dye with water and let it simmer for an hour. I left it in the dye pot overnight.

My water is hard and I knew that would have some sort of effect on the results. Maybe at some point I'll try the exact same proportions of mordant, water, and dye using distilled water to explore the differences.

I'm very happy with the resulting color, a clear, light magenta. I think I used a tad too much alum as the wool has a very slightly sticky feel. I used 10% of the weight of the wool in alum. I'll try 7% next time; I've read it's best to err with too little rather than too much. I'll wash the yarn when I've done spinning it in hot soapy water, it'll be overplyed anyway so the wet finish will be good. (I've been overplying and subsequently steaming balance into the yarn, which is not my usual process. Usually, I ply a balanced yarn. But I'm currently quite fond of these slightly undertwisted singles, overplyed. Barber pole and all that!)

The cochineal dyed wool is on the right. The wool on the left was dyed with umbilicaria--I'll get to that shortly.

It's spinning up all nice and pretty!

Notice my 'lazy kate'? I discovered recently that these glass flower frogs make the best lazy kates for my spindles! I use it when winding off and it works a charm! The deeper ones are best for this purpose. And they're cheap in junk shops.

Umbilicaria is the second dyestuff I worked with last week. It is commonly known as "rock tripe", a type of lichen I believe. It needs to be harvested carefully so as not to deplete the source. I worked with an extraction that had already been done (although there is a bag of dried umblilicaria amongst the goods I recently received, so I will have the experience of doing the extraction myself at some point): The raw material is fermented in ammonia for a goodly amount of time to extract it's dyes. I diluted the extraction with water and followed the same procedure as for the cochineal. I'm a little nonplused by the color since I was expecting something brighter. Again, the results could be due to my water, the mordant I used (alum) and the fact that I did not use any assists or modifiers (cream of tartar, vinegar, salt, soda, etc.). Experimentation is the ticket when natural dyeing. I think there is much experimentation in my future.

While the Falkland wool was undergoing color changes, I spun up this small skein; it's Wellington Fibers (thank you!).


  1. LOTS of excitement here over your spindle spinning, Bernard. I also spend more time with the spindle than with the wheel. You spin a wonderful yarn.... ;)
    Even MORE excitement over your natural dyeing. What a gift to get all those dyestuffs!!! I can see you experimenting for many months to come. It's something I really miss doing. I had a brilliant red cochineal dye bath once that I was able to exhaust several times into the softest of pinks. All the best with your dyeing adventures.
    Your WF yarn.....glows....... ;)

    1. Thanks, jak. I think of you both whenever I set eyes on those beautiful tops from Wellington. :) My spindle style right now is quite different from my Navajo plied days; I spinning "soft" singles and over plying them. A subsequent steam bath relaxes the fibers into balance. I can't wait to get knitting with it! :) Any recollection on how you achieved the brilliant red? I'm thinking of ordering tin and chrome to experiment with.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Bernard..... ;). It was a very long time ago when I used cochineal. I know we used alum and cream of tartar as mordants and likely more bugs than the recipe called for ....... ;). When I returned to natural dyes after starting rug hooking I stuck mainly to A and C of T. Found tin and chrome a bit too harsh but they can wield some lovely results.

  3. OOOPS..........I mean of course, "yield"!!!!!
    Have fun with your dye adventures!!!!!


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