Felted fan case

Time to start experimenting properly with felt at home – so I ordered a 500g mixed pack of merino in nine colours, plus 100g of undyed merino, from Adelaide Walker in Otley, Yorkshire. They are very helpful and friendly:  you discuss over the phone what colours you’re interested in, they calculate the postage based on weight – and you don’t have to send a cheque until you receive the wool with an invoice (they don’t take credit or debit cards). The wool arrived the day after I placed the order – excellent service.

Merino wool
Merino tops from Adelaide Walker

For my first project, I thought I’d try making a fan case. I dance Argentine tango and often get quite hot, so I usually take a fan with me. The fans are made from carved sandalwood and are quite delicate, so bits break off as they get bashed about in my bag. (They come in a cardboard box, but this is also quite fragile and falls apart after a few outings.)

Broken fan
Broken fan

So, following the instructions in Lizzie Houghton’s Creative Felting, I cut out a template from bubble wrap and covered it with two layers of wool on either side – the first layer was a mix of burgundy and purple, while the second layer was straight purple.

Felting it was remarkably straightforward and quick. But it didn’t shrink as much as I expected – only about 15% lengthwise and hardly at all widthwise – even though I kept on felting until there was no stretch left.

Felted fan case and template
Fan case on top of template, showing how little it shrank

The fan case has pronounced ridges along the sides, where the wool joined on each side of the template. This also makes the shape irregular. I wonder whether this was because the outer layer was laid vertically, so some of the wool at the edges moved and joined up at the side. The bottom, where the vertical layers wrapped round to the other side, has no ridge, and neither does the inner layer, which was laid horizontally. Next time I’ll either lay the first layer vertically and the second horizontally, or use three layers so that the last layer is horizontal.

Fan case
The inner layer of wool was laid horizontally

Finally, I added a some  embroidery for a bit of texture.

Embroidered fan case

Embroidered fan case


Crocheted coasters

My experiments with ironing knitted swatches of plastic yarn (plarn) showed that they lost their elasticity. So I thought I could use this to advantage by ironing some crocheted coasters.

The photo below shows a crocheted circle before ironing. It’s a bit difficult to see, but the different types of plastic make the texture quite uneven, and the coaster doesn’t sit quite flat.

Crocheted coaster before ironing
Crocheted coaster before ironing

The photo below shows the coaster after ironing – interestingly, it doesn’t shrink very much.

Crocheted coaster after ironing
Crocheted coaster after ironing

And below is a collection of coasters in different colours. Again, the various plastics all behave slightly differently, leading to varying sizes and irregularities in texture, but I think this is part of their charm.

Four crocheted coasters
Different plastics result in variations in size and texture

Sea urchin hat

Well, I got my wish for another cold snap so I could wear the felted rose hat, which is growing on me, despite the fuzziness. So I thought I’d have a go at another hat, as they’re so quick to knit.

This time I went for a pattern by Scottish designer Ysolda Teague, based on a sea urchin’s shell (left). I’d bought a few balls of Gedifra Baldini Colori in the sale at John Lewis because I loved the colours, but wasn’t sure what to do with them. The yarn is a bulky bouclé with very thick slubs (55% acrylic, 45% wool). The recommended needle size is 9mm, but after knitting a tension square (I do learn from my mistakes!) I used the 7mm needles listed in the pattern.

The pattern introduced two techniques that I hadn’t used before. The first was provisional casting on using waste yarn. This is undone at the end and the ‘live’ stitches are grafted on to the last row, resulting in a seamless appearance. I followed the method recommended in the pattern, which uses a crochet hook, and it worked very successfully.

The other new challenge was wrapping. The hat is knitted sideways in garter stitch as a series of wedges, so the length of the rows needs to decrease to shape the wedges. When you knit a shorter row and turn, leaving the remaining stitches on the needle, you have to wrap the yarn around the stitch where you turn to avoid large holes appearing.

Ysolda doesn’t include instructions for how to wrap in the pattern, but I found a clear explanation here, with diagrams. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and it’s an interesting and effective way of shaping. The final result is shown below.

knitted hat

Relief printing

When I was on holiday in Rajasthan in India a few years ago, I visited some workshops where they printed fabrics with woodblocks. It was a fascinating process, so I thought I’d sign up for a two-day relief printing course at Morley College to learn the basics. The course synopsis said that we would learn about lino and woodblock printing on ink and paper, but I thought I might be able to learn enough to adapt the techniques to fabric.

D’oh! It turns out that relief printing usually results in a negative print – that is, if you cut away bits of the lino or woodblock in the pattern that you want and ink up the block, it’s the background that prints, leaving your pattern in the un-inked areas. To get a positive print, you’d have to cut away an awful lot of the block. Apparently, in Japanese woodblock prints, this is what happens to produce a key block. Not surprisingly, it takes a great deal of time and skill to produce such fine outlines, so it’s not something we tackled in our two-day course!

It takes a great deal of time and skill to produce a Japanese key block

So unless I want to use a lot of fabric paint, the lino and woodblock techniques I learned on the course are likely to be of little use for printing textiles. However, now I have a set of carving tools, there’s nothing to stop me carving simpler shapes on a woodblock and printing with that (like potato printing).

Anyway, I thought I might as well summarise some of the techniques we learned. Starting with lino, which is the easiest to cut, we used the reduction method to produce a three-colour print. So we first printed a yellow square using an uncut lino block (just lightly sanded with wet-and-dry paper).

First colour: uncut lino block in yellow

Then we cut away some of the block and inked it up in red before printing on top of the yellow.

Part of block cut away and inked in red over yellow

We completed the series by cutting more block away and printing in blue on top of the red and yellow. I didn’t get the registration quite right, so it’s a bit like looking at a 3D picture without the specs…

Three-colour lino print - slightly out of registration

Finally, we experimented with spreading a mixture of caustic soda and wallpaper paste onto parts of the block. This eats away at the lino, giving an interesting half-tone effect.

Caustic soda was added to the clouds and the edges of the sea

Another way to get a positive rather than negative image is to ink up with an opaque white ink and print on black or dark paper.  The example below also uses the Chine collé technique, where you print on to a smaller, thinner sheet of paper sandwiched between the press and the main paper. The press helps bond the two papers together.

Chine collé lino cut tiger

We also had a go at embossing, using lino blocks. Here’s the same tiger lino cut as an embossed print.

Embossed tiger
Embossed lino cut tiger

All the prints above were produced using presses. For our final work, a woodblock print, we used a baren, or hand-held disc, to rub the surface of the paper against the block to transfer the ink. The wood absorbs a fair amount of ink, so you need to add more ink than on lino. And apparently the prints get darker after two or three presses.

Tango woodblock print
Shall we dance?


Imperial Chinese robes

I finally got round to visiting the exhibition of imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City in Beijing at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s located in the part where they usually have the fashion exhibits, so the light is quite dim and you need to get up close to the cases to admire the detail.

The emperor had five categories of formal wear: official, festive, regular, travelling and military. Of course, the embroidery and craftsmanship is exquisite, with traditional Chinese motifs of waves, clouds and dragons in goldwork and hues of ever paler pink, blue and green on imperial yellow silk. The emperor even had a pair of yellow silk embroidered riding trousers resembling dungarees!

The robes of the empress and imperial concubines featured a wider range of patterns and colours, including the purple and gold robe embroidered with cranes and golden clouds that adorns the posters and publicity for the exhibition (see above), peonies, and a beautiful simple pattern called cracked ice and plum blossom. Annoyingly, I can’t find a photo of it on the V&A website, but Portland Classical Chinese Garden has a stone walkway in this pattern. Also, to my eye it looked quite Japanese, so it’s interesting to see that it also features on Japanese porcelain.

Imperial dragon robeBut what was most astonishing was the condition of the fabrics in the exhibition. The dragon robe shown above is nearly 280 years old, but it looked absolutely pristine. According to the V&A blog, “The well-being of the robes was the duty of the Imperial Household Department staff. In days before the invention of air-conditioners and humidifiers the robes were protected from fluctuating temperature by sturdy wooden cupboards and chests. Insect-repelling incense was placed inside the furniture, and palace eunuchs regularly aired the clothes to prevent the build-up of mildew.”

I could do with some of those eunuchs around here.