Cambrian Wool Challenge
April 29, 2015 at 12:01 PM
Early in 2015 we were asked to submit a design proposal and then a finished piece for the Cambrian Wool Challenge.
Cambrian Mountains Wool wanted to showcase the incredible flexibility of wool as a material - and also the high quality of the product. We got just over 1.5kg of lovely, soft Welsh mule wool in its natural white colour. Our plan was to dye the yarn with traditional plant derived colours, and knit it up into a classic pullover.
We started with...
the Woad vat
We use a modern procedure using soda ash and sodium dithionite to reduce dried woad pigment on the stove-top.* This concoction was left to reduce for a couple of hours.
The first lot of wool was brought up to temperature in a separate pot of clean water, then wrung out and added to the vat for a few minutes. The yarn was removed to oxygenate for a few minutes, then returned to the pot. The second lot was dyed by the same procedure, but achieved a paler colour as the bath was partially exhausted. The skeins were rinsed, dried, and then wound up for knitting.
* The blue pigment in woad isn’t water soluble, and requires a chemical reaction (oxidation-reduction) to go into solution for use as a dye. The traditional method makes use of the rich chemical stew found in stale urine. While fascinating, this method isn’t terribly appealing as most recipes recommend ‘maturing’ large quantities for up to two weeks.
For a one off commission like this, we knitted up the garment in panels on the studio Brother KH-891 with ribber attachment. All of the stitch patterns were swatched, washed and dried to determine gauge. We used two punch card tuck-stitch patterns, one for the sleeves and another for the body.
The sleeves are knitted in two colours (medium and pale blue) with the aid of a colour changing attachment. The body panels are knitted in three colours (medium, pale and natural). Using the purl side gives a more complex textured fabric. The collar is knit in 2x2 rib in two pieces, seamed at centre back.
The assembled garment was washed and blocked. At this point all of the panels change shape, the stitches and patterns relax into place and the garment takes form.
To paraphrase: ‘no plan survives contact with reality’. As natural dyes can differ from batch to batch, we weren't able to achieve the colours we wanted from the dyestuffs originally proposed. After trying some other substances, we chose two that seemed to get closest to producing the colours we wanted.
Two dye baths were made up. The first used alum and chlorophyllin to give greens and teals. The second used pomegranates and iron liquor for grey.
After the last dye bath, the garment was dried and washed before final blocking.
The final piece will be touring the UK, with the rest of the Cambrian Wool collection, for the rest of the year. Current dates and locations are:
21st – 31st May: Hay Festival
18th – 25th September: London Welsh Centre, Gray’s Inn Road, London
26th – 27th September: Llandovery Sheep Festival
30th Oct – 1st Nov Made by Hand Wales