I spent yesterday in the gorgeous working space of Know How You (KHY) in Beckenham, with 10 enthusiastic students who had never felted before.
I’d brought along lots of felt samples and books to show the versatility of the medium and get people inspired, highlighted in this great photo from KHY’s Instagram feed.
We spent the morning working on a flat piece of felt to learn the principles of pulling wool tops, layering, wetting down and adding adornments.
It was tricky to get some of the bamboo and silk fibres to stick, but persistence paid off!
In the afternoon we worked with resists to make a 3D object. Most people made pots, but a couple tried their hand at a phone cover. Helped by the splendid Bakewell slices provided by Amanda, founder of KHY, time passed very quickly. Just managed to get a quick photo of the happy group!
And here’s Amanda with her lovely work (also from Instagram).
I’m hoping to run another workshop on felt corsages at KHY in a few weeks – watch this space for more details!
On day 2 we turned to red, looking at madder. Madder is very invasive, so Susan advised growing it in an enclosed area, like a tractor tyre. It also takes around three years before you can start harvesting the root, where the colour resides, and then after digging it up, washing it, drying it and snapping it into pieces she leaves it for another year in paper bags.
The root contains around over 15 different pigments, ranging from yellow and orange to coral, scarlet and brown. Some of these pigments emerge more quickly than others – for example, yellow and coral come out first, but alizarin, which gives the red colour, is not very soluble and is the last to emerge.
For this reason, despite traditional instructions that say madder should not be heated above 60°C, Susan and Ashley have found that working the bath quite hard for at least a week, cooling it and reheating it, produces the best reds. You can also add an alkali modifier to shift the colour from orange towards red.
The Liles recipe involves over three days of heating and straining to extract the best red pigments from the madder. The Ethel Mairet recipe by contrast is a very low effort method where the dye is extracted in the dyebath (no preparation required). They gave very different results.
Ashley and Susan had prepared the Liles method in advance and brought a madder dyebath which combined three days of extract. The Ethel Mairet bath was created by adding dry madder root to the dyebath (contained in an old paid of tights to prevent pieces getting caught in the wool and silk fibre).
In both recipes the wool was added to the dyebath at room temperature and heated to 82°C (simmering temperature) for 1.5 hours (Liles) or 1 hour (Mairet). Liles then instructed us to remove the wool, cool it and rinse it before putting it back in the bath at 70°C for 10-15 minutes. Then it was drained, cooled and gently rinsed. By contrast, after simmering the wool for an hour Mairet recommended boiling for the final five minutes before removing the wool, cooling it and rinsing.
In both dyebaths we resisted the temptation to agitate the fibre lest we felt it. We carefully turned the fibre over once in the Mairet bath.
We also used a dyebath created by vigorous boiling of the madder root left over after 3 days of the Liles madder extraction process. Ashley called this his surprise “4th extract”.
The results were interesting. The Liles recipe, extracted over days 1-3, gave the strongest colour (seen in the two samples on the right), followed by the Liles fourth extraction (sample bottom left). The Mairet recipe resulted in a very patchy sample that was much paler (top left).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, overdyeing with indigo some of the yellow samples dyed the previous day continued, and soon there was a splendid range of greens hanging outside.
The buttery mid yellows gave the brightest greens when overdyed; more orangey yellows gave a more olive green.
Ashley also demonstrated how multiple dips in woad helped get a deeper colour. The wool on the left has been dipped in woad five times while the wool on the right has been dipped only once.
Susan showed us a sample card of how acid and alkali modifiers after dyeing can change the colour, depending on the fibre and the mordant.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to overdye the madder samples with indigo to see if we could get purple shades, but we had quite a lot to take home already! We spent the last hour of the workshop splitting up all the samples so that everyone had a good collection to take home.
Suan and Ashley were very generous, offering us more weld, madder roots and all the leftover dye baths to take home. Many of us also bought seeds to start our own dye gardens!
There was just time to take a final photo of the beautiful rainbow of samples before heading back out into a grey January evening.
And here is the collection of plant-dyed wool and silk that I ended up with.
Huge thanks to Sally for her organisation and to Susan, Ashley and Brian for such a wonderful colourful weekend!
The advantage of the International Feltmakers Association’s regional groups is that they all organise their own workshops and activities to bring local felters together. But members of other groups are equally welcome if they are willing to travel.
So it was that I found myself heading for Ipswich a couple of weekends ago to attend a workshop on plant dyeing for felters, organised by Sally Sparrow of region 7. My god daughter lives in Manningtree, not far from Ipswich, and was willing to put me up for the weekend as well as drive me back and forth.
The workshop was run by Susan Dye (how’s that for nominative determinism?) of Nature’s Rainbow, ably assisted by her partner Ashley Walker and weaver and knitter Brian Bond. As inspiration, they brought along samples of yarns, fabrics and fleece, plus knitted and woven pieces in a whole spectrum of strong, bright colours.
Susan and Ashley grow their own dye plants on their allotment in Hitchin, specialising in grand teint – the medieval dyer’s guild term for the most light-fast and wash-fast colours. These include dyer’s weld (yellow), woad (blue) and madder (red).
As well as these, they also brought along other plants they had grown – dyer’s chamomile (yellow) and dyer’s coreopsis (yellowy orange) – for us to play with.
Although I have dabbled with natural dyes, it’s been mostly on silk, so I wanted to get some tips on the tricky problem of dyeing wool without felting. However, I learnt so much more that can be applied to all natural dyeing , whatever the fabric or fibre.
Susan provided a very comprehensive handout on mordanting, including lots of safety information. There was lots of useful detail here – for example:
Dyer’s cream of tartar, often used with alum to help it dissolve, is different from baking cream of tartar, which has additives like anti-caking agents. If you can’t get dyer’s cream of tartar, it’s better not to use any at all.
Soak silk for at least 24 hours before mordanting – it is very resistant to wetting out.
After mordanting in alum, do not rinse the items immediately but store them damp for about a week. This is called ripening and really helps the mordanting. Then rinse thoroughly in cold water before use.
A hay box is a non-electric version of a slow cooker, where you bring the food to the boil initially on a stove and then put it in a box insulated with hay, which preserves the heat and allows it to carry on cooking. It was a cooking method encouraged during the Second World War to save on rationed cooking fuel.
For dyeing, when you have to bring a pot of dye up to a certain temperature and then keep it there for an hour or so, a hay box can help save energy as well as on heating appliances.
There are various sites that explain how to build one, but Susan and Ashley have improvised with cardboard boxes and old cool bags, lining them with old blankets, duvets, fleece jackets and the like. It’s particularly important to insulate the top of the dye pot, as this is where most of the heat escapes.
We started with the yellows, setting up baths of dyer’s weld, dyer’s chamomile and dyer’s coreopsis. Chamomile and coreopsis give different shades of yellow, but they are less light fast than weld, so anything dyed with them should be kept out of the sun.
We poured boiling water onto the plants and then put the pots in hay boxes for an hour. Because only the chamomile and coreopsis flower heads are used for the clearest, brightest colours when dyeing, they also release their colour more quickly than weld, where the whole plant is chopped up. Then we strained out the plant material (using old tights!), and let the bath cool.
The alum-mordanted wool (mostly organic merino from the Falklands) had already been separated into 50g hanks and wetted out well, so we put 50g in each dye pot and reheated to 70°C.
To get clearer, brighter colours from weld it needs to be kept below 70°C – at higher temperatures you get more of a straw colour. Then it was back in the hay box, gently flipping the wool once to minimise felting, until we were happy with the colour.
This was the basic method used throughout, with wool and silk repeatedly added to the dye baths until they were exhausted. Susan had brought along record cards to note the type of fibre, temperatures, times, and mordants, and was very insistent that the card stayed with each sample so that we knew exactly how each one had been treated.
After cooling and rinsing, the wool was hung up to dry – we soon had a fine range of yellows!
Indigo and woad
In the afternoon the blues were introduced, with Ashley making up three baths: one from natural indigo stock solution, one from woad stock solution and one from woad powder. At home Ashley creates an indigo bath from leaves grown in his dye garden. The plants are harvested before they flower and the leaves are stripped off.
In the case of Japanese indigo, the leaves are put in cold water and slowly heated to 90C. Then they are left for an hour to cool to around 60C – the liquid is a greyish tan colour. After removing the leaves, alkali is added and the liquid is oxygenated by whisking or decanting it between containers. Once it has turned green it can be stored indefinitely in this form. (For woad, boiling water is poured onto the leaves instead of putting them in cold water and heating.)
To make the dye bath we added the reducing agent and checked the pH (for wool pH 8-9 is best).
The woad bath was rather weak – it turned out that the stock solution had been over reduced because the woad powder contained much less indigo than estimated.
However, overdyeing some of the yellow wool with the weak woad gave a fantastic lime green colour that was almost fluorescent!
Ashley explained that to get good greens the indigo or woad bath mustn’t be too strong, or the blue will overwhelm the yellow.
Coming soon in part 2 – We complete the rainbow with madder.
In my Introduction to felting workshop you will start by making a flat piece of felt to learn the basic technique. You can decorate it with yarn, silk and other embellishments.
In the afternoon you will make a 3D object by felting around a resist. This could be a small bowl or a phone case. Again, you can decorate this in various ways.
All materials will be provided, but please bring an old towel and a waterproof bag to take your work home in (it will still be damp).
The workshop is on Sunday 18 February, 10am-4pm and costs £55. You can bring your own lunch or there is a cafe in the building. You can book here.
If you already know how to felt, or you’re interested in other textile techniques, here are some other workshops coming up, in the UK, elsewhere, and online. They are all run by tutors I know and would recommend (I don’t get any commission or other perks from this!).
Caroline Bartlett: Caroline is running various workshops at both Morley College and West Dean (and the Netherlands!) – full details on her website. You can read here about a previous workshop I did with Caroline at Morley College.
Maria Friese: Maria sculpts wonderful organic forms and textures from felt and is running various workshops in Europe (Netherlands, Austria, France and Germany) – full details on her website. You can read here about a previous workshop I did with Maria in France.
Dagmar Binder: Runs workshops in Berlin – full details on her website. Click here to read about a workshop I did with Dagmar in London.
Lisa Klakulak: Lisa takes a very scientific approach to felt for maximum control and is running workshops around the US and South America – details on her website. Here’s an account of a workshop I did with Lisa in the Netherlands.
If you can’t travel, the Felting and Fiber Studio offers various online classes, from wet felting for beginners to hats, bags and combining felt with mixed media.
Pam de Groot: Based in Australia, Pam offers both face-to-face and online workshops – details on her website. You can read here about an online workshop I did with Pam last year.
Bobby discovered barkcloth when she was visiting southern Uganda and has used it in much of her recent textile work. She and her husband also set up a charity, Hands Up for Uganda, drilling a borehole for water, helping establish a model working farm and developing and selling traditional local crafts.
Bobby explained that barkcloth comes from the mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis), is 100% organic fibre and the first non-woven textile. While we got on with the first exercise, practising running stitch on some printed barkcloth, she described how it was harvested and processed, passing round some grooved wooden mallets used for pounding the cloth – these were lighter than they looked!
We did further exercises, attaching strips and then squares of barkcloth to backing pieces, experimenting with different stitches and thread, including raffia.
On the piece with squares, above, I stitched the squares to the reverse side of the backing piece to provide a contrast of colour and texture.
But barkcloth doesn’t just come in terracotta. Black barkcloth is produced by burying the cloth for several days, while a different species of the mutuba tree produces a cream bark cloth. This can be successfully dyed – and Bobby had brought along some lovely examples to show us.
We also had a go at piecing two different coloured barkcloths together, using insertion stitch (which was new to me).
In the piece above you can see an extra row of stitching (not mine!) in the dark barkcloth. This is quite typical – the pounding process often results in small holes or openings in the cloth, which are patched using handmade sisal thread.
We also experimented with punching holes in the cloth and sanding the surface to create a different texture. This was rather more to ESP’s taste, having been horrified that the workshop was largely based on stitch! He also had a go at weaving thread through the barkcloth fibres, which produced a really interesting effect.
As usual, it was fascinating to see the variety of samples produced by different people from the same materials.
All in all, a great workshop with a fascinatingly tactile material.
Even better, now that ESP has learnt how to handle a needle and thread, he’ll be able to sew on his own buttons when they come off! 😉