Indigo: Can we talk?
For as long as people have been people, we have loved color. Our impulses to decorate and embellish are deeply ingrained in our DNA. In the immortal words of Clairee Belcher, from Steel Magnolias, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” And Accessorize we do! Part of that accessorizing is finding ways to alter the color of the materials we use to make things. Painting and dying have been around since people have been people.
For the first few millennia, we were dependent on colorful things in the natural world around us. Sometimes minerals or animal byproducts work to color things, but plants are plentiful, easier to catch and prepare, and have the widest range of color possibilities. Nut hulls; barks, twigs and roots from trees; flowers, leaves, stalks, skins, seeds and roots of smaller plants; lichens, mosses and fungi all have found their way into the dye pots of our ancestors. Then we discovered how to mimic these colors with human made substances and synthetics were born. (But synthetics are a conversation for another time.)
In recent years, or a couple of decades, there has been a rediscovery of those natural, mostly plant based dyes. Especially among DIY and back-to-the-land types, or those with an eco friendly bent, a whole hand dying industry has sprung up. The interest in “natural” dyes has spread and these labor intensive dye stuffs, and the fibers made with them, command respect and premium prices. Deservedly so. It’s harder work than you might think.
And the colors are so wonderful! These are some of the colors you can achieve with mushrooms.
When you start out with something that looks like this…
It’s easy to see how you could end up with something like this…
And that’s just for starters. (There’s a great pictorial article on mushroom dying here. I lifted the photos from there.) Madder root gives wonderful reds. Lichens can make some of the richest pinks and mauves. Onion skins and turmeric make a whole range of yellows. Walnut or butternut will yield browns from a light tan to a warm cocoa. And for blues? Well, indigo of course!
Indigo is not a single plant, but rather a chemical constituent of several plants. Indigofera tincoria, the plant we think of indigo; Isatis tinctoria also known as woad; Lonchocarpus cyanescens an African contender; Marsdenia, a type of milkweed; Nerium tinctorium, a type of oleander; Polygonum tinctorium , a kind of buckwheat, all have the right stuff to produce those vibrant blues we lump together as indigo and all have been used. The process to extract this magic substance is pretty much the same for all of these different plants; get some leaves, chop them up, let them ferment in some kind of liquid, use a solvent to extract the vital essence, dry it into powder…and Bob’s your uncle! In some cases it took our ancestors only a year or so to get the desired powder. (There’s a more extensive description here, if you really want to know more about how it’s done.)
And just in case you were hoping for a “natural” dye that is organic, non-toxic or earth friendly, that leaves a small footprint, please notice that the indigo powder used for dying is a highly processed substance and requires some pretty harsh chemicals to bring out the color and make that color stick to your fiber.
If you do a Google search for anything related to indigo, you’ll notice one phrase or concept popping up over and over again. Indigo does not dissolve in water. I can hear you saying, “So what?” So what, indeed. Well let me tell you. Reducing the concept of dying to its most basic form, there are two ways a color can be added to fiber. First, a colorant can chemically bond with the fiber itself, in which case the color is said to be “fast” as in “holding fast to your beliefs, your principles or your shade of blue.” It means it’s permanant…mostly. Sometimes bleach or other harsh chemicals can break the chemical bond between your fiber and your colorant and the colorant can be washed away, but it’s hard and you really have to work at it. Think for a moment about drawing with a Sharpie marker all over your favorite T-shirt. That sucker is pretty much never coming clean again. The magic Sharpie fluid has chemically bonded to the cotton fiber of your T-shirt. They’re married at an atomic level and they will never be torn asunder. Fiber reactive dyes work in this way.
Second, the colorant lies on the surface of the fibers and can be easily removed through friction. In this case, the color is not “fast,” and will fade as the colorant is wiped away, bit by bit. Imagine taking sidewalk chalk and grinding it deep into your favorite T-shirt. It may take a few washings, but eventually it will all come out. It’s not permanent.
In its dye ready, processed form, indigo looks like blue lumps of coal. (for more on how to use this magical powder, there’s a great tutorial here.) Indigo is like sidewalk chalk. It does not dissolve in water. So, what?…is that indigo does not chemically bond with the fiber. Like a fine chalk dust, it sits on top of the fibers and will rub off. For ever, until it’s all gone.
Let’s talk about blue jeans for a minute. When you get a new pair, do you wash them before you wear them? If you wear them brand new with a pair of white undies, what happens to the undies? Do they get a little blue-ey grey tint to them? Of course they do. The dye rubs off on them. If you wash the jeans first, what happens to that brand new looking blue? You know the answer; go ahead and say it. That’s right; they fade! The indigo dye is only sitting on top of the fibers and gets rubbed away with each washing. Eventually, after several washings, the fading process slows down and your jeans don’t shed as much color as they did in the beginning. But is there a lovely among you who would throw a white shirt in the washer with a load of jeans, even well worn jeans, and expect the shirt to stay white? If so, you might have to re-take Laundry 101.
(This was a kerchief found in King Tut’s tomb and is still discernibly indigo blue.)
Or the Bayeux Tapestries
(This is a detail section of that famous textile with blues that are still brilliant.)
But when was the last time either of these puppies was tossed in the wash, or even handled or exposed to sunlight? If we treat indigo dyed fibers with care, washing them gently and infrequently, we can preserve the color we love so much. But for as long as the indigo color stays precariously perched on top of the fibers, it will continue to rub off on whatever it gets next to, and it will continue to fade. Eventually it will be so small an amount as to seem almost nonexistent, but I promise you, it’s still happening.
Why does this matter to you as a knitter or crocheter? Well, my lovelies, I want you to be prepared. Indigo dyed yarn is beautiful. And while you are working with it, the indigo will rub off on your hands…and your shirt, and the sofa cushion you set it down on and the inside of your project bag. It will also rub off on your needles, most especially if they are wood or bamboo, and the indigo can even get carried from your needles to your next project, leaving its characteristic, tell-tale blue tint on everything it touches. Like with blue jeans, the amount of indigo that your yarn will shed decreases over time, but you should be careful. If you use wood or bamboo needles or hooks, dedicate some for use with indigo only. If you use metal needles or hooks, wash and dry them carefully before transferring to another project. Keep your indigo dyed yarn away from other textiles you don’t want blue streaks or shadows on. And wash your hands!
If you don’t want to have to take all the precautions, you might give more than a passing thought to using yarns dyed with synthetic blues that are color fast. If you’re determined to use indigo…well, forewarned is forearmed. Read the labels and follow the care instruction precisely.
Among natural dyes, indigo makes the most beautiful blues known to our color loving species and that’s the best reason we make the trade off. If you treat it carefully, indigo dyed yarn will delight your soul. Just know what you’re getting into and be prepared to work with what you have to get what you want.
Measure Twice, Knit Once
The boiled wool sweater is coming along and it’s time for me to clue you all in on the next step in our process. You remember we did our swatches, measured them for stitch and row gauge, fulled (not felted) them and measured again, right? It looked like this?
All that is essential information, and you could start casting on right now if you wanted to. But I’m going to suggest that knowing what size sweater you plan to make is the most important part. If you’re going on a road trip, you need a map. And your trip will be better, more trouble free, if your map is highly detailed and accurate, right? It’s also true for knitting. Highly detailed and accurate measurements will be the road map for our sweater.
Start with one sweater recipient. In our case, we’ll use Daniel as a guinea pig.
This is Daniel. He has graciously agreed to be measured, even thought the sweater is not for him, so you can see how it is done.
First and foremost, you want to know how big around the chest of your sweater should be. For both men and women, this number will be the baseline for all the other numbers.
Have your subject raise his arms and find the widest part of the chest (or bust, in the case of a woman.)
Then have them drop their arms and relax. The chest will be stretched up and down, and therefore smaller when the arms are raised, and you want the measurement to be as wide as it’s going to get. So, ams down and relaxed, please.
Make sure your measuring tape is parallel with the floor. If it dips down in the back, or droops on one side, or any other distortion, you will be adding inches you don’t need.
Have your subject breathe normally. No need to take deep breaths or hold anything in or out. We’re going to build in the proper ease later. The measuring tape should be about as tight as a form fitting undershirt. Don’t pull it until it cuts into the flesh, and don’t let it droop in loose festoons around your subject’s body. With all that in mind, bring the end of the tape to where it overlaps and write down what it says. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. This measurement is going to be what we’re going to call 100%.
Now that we know how wide to make our sweater, we need to know how long to make it. We want to know two numbers associated with length. First over all length. measure this from the nape of the neck to where you want to hem to fall.
Then measure from the underarm to the same hem length. You don’t want to put the end of your measuring tape all the way up into your subject’s pit. Start from where you or your subject believe a comfortable arm hole on a comfortable sweater would begin and go down from there.
Now that you know the general coordinates on your road sweater road map, length and width, you’ll need a couple more details to make the sweater of your dreams.
The cross back measurement goes from sleeve hole to sleeve hole and helps determine how much to decrease at the armholes. Measure from where a sleeve hole would be to where a sleeve hole would be. Or…if you can imagine drawing line from the crease between the upper arm and the back straight up to the shoulder on each side, measure between these imaginary lines.
You also want to know how long to make the sleeves. For this you can take two measurement, though you may not actually need both. First measure from the middle of the back, out across the lower part of the shoulder, down the gently bent are, around the elbow and on down to the wrist. If you’ve ever looked at men’s dress shirts, you will have noticed that they are sized with two numbers. They might have tags that read “15 1/2 – 33″ or “16 – 35.” The first number is the neck circumference, and the second is this center back to wrist measurement. It can help make sure that, in comparison with the actual sleeve length, the back is not too big…in which case the shoulders will droop…nor to small…in which case the seams will pull and, possible tear. Since most boiled wool sweaters are going to be drop shoulder, we may not use this measurement. Though, if something goes wrong, it can help us figure out if we’ve botched the back or the sleeve.
For our purposes, measuring from the under arm to the wrist is probably a more useful number. Again, you don’t want to jam the thing up into your subject’s pit. Just a comfortable in between place where a comfortable sleeve would fall.
And you wrote all that down, right? Now, go do it all again and write it won again. In carpentry there is a saying; “Measure twice. Cut once.” In carpentry, once you cut the board you can’t put it back together so you should be sure you are being precise before you actually take the saw to anything. In knitting we can almost always take some thing back and re-work it. But do we really want to? Measure twice; knit once.
When you have everything properly measured and correctly recorded. We’ll begin calculating how many stitches to cast on and how long to knit. Tune in next time!
Did you get all that?
Once upon a time, knitting was something of an oral tradition. You learned from your mother or grandmother. Or, if you took it up as a profession, maybe from your guild master. And there was no such thing as a pattern. Let me say that again. There was no such thing as a pattern. You learned the basics, then you freestyled. Mostly, you made it all up as you went along. If you saw something you wanted to duplicate exactly, you either figured it out on your own, or you went to the person who made it and asked how it was done.
The history experts tell us that knitting was invented…probably by men, probably in the middle east…a little over a thousand years ago. The earliest known written patterns didn’t come along until more than 500 years later. Even then, the instructions were not anywhere near what we think of as a pattern. Look at this lovely things from Godey’s Ladies Book from mid 1800′s. Can you figure out what they’re talking about?
I had a first class lecture on the evolution of pattern writing and how you can learn so much from reading contemporary books and magazines. But WordPress ate it. It was a little convoluted and hectoring anyway. So I think I will just content myself..and hopefully you…by giving you a few more “patterns” from Godey’s and seeing what you make of them.
Princess Royal would be one of Victoria’s daughters. Wonder if her mother or her nanny knit if for her.
It’s not you; this one is incomplete. The rest explains how to drop stitches in the cast off and pull them back to the cast on. Kins of like the Princess Royal scarf. It make s a kin of cheaters lace. In the shop we call it The Surprise Scarf.
This one doesn’t even have a picture to help you out. Flying blind? Apparently no problem for those mid-19th century gals.
I think I might actually try one of these to see if I am as clever as I think I am about figuring this stuff out. Want to join me?
It’s not a pattern; it’s a process
I really wish I could just read a pattern…or write one for that matter…for a boiled wool sweater. But this is where the rubber hits the road with gauge, both of the stitch and row varieties. You really do have to start with swatching. And I don’t mean a wimpy little 3 inch dealy. You want a good big 8-10 inch square whopper. I started by casting on 60 stitches. I gave it a good garter border all around, then knit until it was square. I actually knit two of them so we can compare them as we get further along.
Then we need to know how many stitches per inch. That sounds like a simple thing, and it is…sort of. It has been said by many a sad knitter that swatches lie. Like a good interrogator, I make them repeat their story over and over looking for any inconsistency that might give me a clue about when my swatch is lying and when it is telling the truth. When I measure my gauge, I count the stitches per four inches, the stitches per two inches, and the stitches per inch. Then I do the division. I do this at three or four different places in the middle of my really big swatch. If I’m coming up with a consistent number, I feel reasonably confident that my swatch is telling the truth.
In my case, I came up, pretty consistently, with 5 stitches and 6 rows per inch. Then I measured the over all dimensions of the stockinette portion of my swatch. Why the stockinette section? Because garter and stockinette have different gauge, and will shrink differently. I’ll be knitting my sweater in stockinette so it is the stockinette I want to focus on. My swatches measured 10 inches wide by 9.25 inches tall. Make a note of these numbers. You’re going to need them more than once as you figure things out.
After you’ve precisely measured your stitch and row gauge, it’s time to shrink your swatch. I did mine by hand, though you can throw it in a top load washer with a bath towel if you prefer.
A little hot water, some soap and lots and lots of agitation.
You actually want to be kind of rough with it. Swish it around in the water, squeeze it, knead it like bread dough. When the water starts to get cold, add more hot and keep going.
You want to aim for agitating it until it has gotten as small as it is ever going to get, and you can’t readily see individual stitches or rows any more.
When you’ve achieved maximum shrinkage, measure the stockinette portion of your swatch and recalculate your stitch and row gauges. Since you won’t be able to see your individual stitches or rows, you’ll have to do this by simple division. Measure the stockinette portion of your swatch, and divide by the original stitch and row counts of the stockinette portion of your swatch.
Make note of these new gauge numbers. Then, just for fun, calculate the percentage of shrinkage. In my case 9 inches wide by 7.5 inches tall, which means 10% shrinkage side to side and 19% shrinkage top to bottom.
Once you have all these numbers swimming in your head, go take a nap. You’ve earned it. We’ll talk about casting on next time.