Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Double, double...

I've discovered a new hobby: natural dyeing.  Spurred on by re-reading "Niccolo Rising" by Dorothy Dunnett, in which the dye-yards of Bruges, and the availablity of alum get more than a mention, I think to recreate the scene in my own kitchen.  Alum is still not readily available so I have to improvise.

I have a small stock of natural cream yarn, from the Falkland Islands by way of a charity shop.  I decide to dye small samples and a slightly larger skein of each for use.  As what remains to be seen.

First up is rhubarb leaf, of which we still have a fair quantity.  This is full of oxalic acid, so is poisonous, but needs no mordant for the wool to accept the dye.  This is my first attempt, and I am rather unimpressed by the muted greeny-yellow. However, it grows on me as I grasp that natural dyes tend to be muted.

Later, I excavate an old rhubarb plant to find masses of orange root, rotted from the centre.  Soaked and boiled, this produces a really strong orange.  It also seems more like cauldron boiling than just the leaf did.  I leave both kitchen doors open and stand well clear.

Next, I try strong coffee and tea, both of which produce robust results. 

Vinegar and salt were often used as mordants and prove useful with sloes, which give a lovely shade of pink.  Carrot tops yield  a strong lime green.

Rose-hips and beetroot, so brightly coloured themselves, produce only pallid tints.

Most interesting and informative, in a scientific sense, is red cabbage.  By itself it is as faint as beetroot, but adding vinegar makes it stronger.  However, adding baking-powder to the juice instead of vinegar produces quite a violent chemical reaction, turning the liquid to a jade green.  This dyes to rather a strong colour, although there were also some brown streaks there.  The fumes from this process seemed quite noxious and reminiscent of old-fashioned perm lotion - so probably ammonia?  This seems odd when red cabbage is surely just cabbage and baking powder must be an edible substance. 

As usual, much can be learned from the endeavours of others as published in their blogs.  Red cabbage even merited a scientific study as to whether it could be used as an indicator to determine acids and alkalis.

We'll see where this goes.  A trader in alum is visiting our Guild later in the month.  Whether I can assemble all the dye-stuffs again remains to be seen.

Tea, coffee, rhubarb root, tea, beetroot, rose-hip, carrot-tops, red cabbage green and pink, and sloes.


Monday, October 01, 2012


And so to Cartmel.  South of the Lake District, between the Furness peninsula and the M6, is the Cartmel peninsula.  This was at once very familiar and totally unknown to me, because for about twenty years my elder sister and her family farmed there.  So I would call in for tea as I drove North to stay with my parents in West Cumbria, but never spent any time exploring the immediate area.  This seems incomprehensible now, but it is so.  After all, I would have driven three hundred miles from Essex by that point, so sightseeing was not on my mind.

Now, though, we took a little holiday cottage in order to explore the southern lakes.  In fact, we spent the whole week in the peninsula itself.

Cartmel has an absolutely glorious priory dating from 1289.  The original founder fortuitously inserted a clause about it being really a parish church, so it was spared the ruination it might have had in the sixteenth century.  The first view of the great window certainly induces awe. 

Around the priory the village has the full complement of teashops, excellent restaurants and a shop specialising in the sticky toffee pudding.  What more can one ask?

We took walks out along the coast, where stretches of salt-marsh lead to Morecambe Bay.  Over Humphrey Head we realised that we were walking on limestone pavement, and that the flora was that special kind only seen on this terrain.

As we sat eating lunch my husband spotted egrets and a heron.  We saw peregrines feeding.

Passing through Flookburgh, we stopped to buy shrimp and flooks (a flat fish, like plaice) from the home of a fishing family who take their tractor out into the bay and cast their nets.  Everywhere there was a sense of a more ancient way of life still being lived. 

Another day we visited Holker Hall, a charming property still lived in by the Cavendish family.  Very interesting to see somewhere presented without the somewhat uniform manner of the National Trust, much as we love that organisation.  Holker burned down in the late Victorian period and was rebuilt within four years.  Everywhere there is evidence of the woodworking skills of the Simpsons of Kendal.

The gardens are magical, with many eye-catching features such as this fountain.

Another perfect day started with a trip on a steam railway.

From there we walked to Stott Park Bobbin Mill where we learned about the once thriving industry producing cotton spools for the textile indusry, using locally coppiced wood and water power.  It was fascinating to see the original techniques demonstrated, and to see how those wooden cotton reels were turned.

  From there we took a hike up Gummer's How, at the end of Windermere, where the views and the ascent are breath-taking.  Very evident here are the autumn colours of the bracken.

We were sorry to leave.