Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life


#1Year1Outfit – Dyeing with Walnut Shells

It’s nearly November and I’ve realised I haven’t made much for #1Year1Outfit. I had really been hoping to have some Bristol cloth by now, but it isn’t in production yet. So I’ve decided to have another look at knitting. I’m really hoping I can remember how to knit – it’s been such an age since I picked up my knitting needles.

Knitting is still mostly a mystery to me. For this reason, I have made some unadventurous choices for my second make. I’ve bought some more Blue-faced Leicester wool, which I used previously for my scarf. The wool is 100% British and I bought it at Wool in Bath, which is a great shop for browsing, advice and general wool-fondling. I bought two skeins (200g wool in total), which Laura in Wool reckoned I needed for my project.

For the dye bath, I collected walnut shells. The Natural Dyeing book from the library (an ancient tome from the 1970s), just mentions dyeing with walnut husks for a deep brown, but I only had the shells. However, a little look on the internet, confirmed that others had experimented with walnut shells and got a pleasing coffee colour. Walnuts contain tannin, nature’s own mordant, so I didn’t need to mordant the wool before dyeing.

Walnut Shells

First of all, I boiled the shells for about an hour. With relief, I noticed that walnuts give off a very pleasant smell, much better than the disgusting dock leaves. To dye the wool, I just added it to the dye bath and boiled for another hour. There was a little too much wool for one saucepan, so I had to split the dye and wool between two saucepans. I think the two skeins are slightly different shades, but I’m not sure it is that noticeable.

Walnut dyed wool

I’m planning to make a shrug with the wool from this Circular Shrug pattern I found on Ravelry. I hope this is a suitable next step as far as knitting is concerned. I’m keen to make an item of clothing, rather than an accessory and the pattern seems quite simple. There are a few projects that have been made with this pattern and one poster comments about “how boring it was to knit”. This sounds good to me; if it was boring for an experienced knitter, it might be easy for a beginner! The pattern though does extend my knitting repertoire, requiring both rib stitch and mock rib stitch. I decided to make up a swatch to calculate my gauge and get familiar with mock rib stitch. There seem to be some variations with mock rib stitch and I decided to use this, which seemed the simplest:

Row 1: *K1 P1*, repeat from *

Row 2: P across all stitches


Now on with the serious knitting……

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#1Year1Outfit – A tentative toe dipped into the world of knitting

I’m sure if you are a follower of Seamwork you will have noticed that the April edition (yes, I’m a month behind here!) includes an article called Finding Local by Nicki from thisismoonlight. It charts Nicki’s journey from initial thoughts (I wonder whether I can make a locally sourced garment?) through to the completion of a complete outfit. It’s amazing what she has achieved without resorting to any recycled components or “cheating” like I did for some of my notions and tailoring supplies. There is also a photo round-up that shows all the participants in all their fantastic outfits (me included!)

The same month’s Seamwork also has information about sourcing naturally and locally with an article about the Fibershed project and Spinning. Both worth a look, if you are considering how to source your yarn and textiles.

Onion Scarf

When I last wrote about #1Year1Outfit I mentioned that I was hoping to take a closer look at wool this year. I have been working my way through the KnitLab Craftsy class. I think I have the basics sussed and I’ve started on some real knitting! The first Craftsy course I looked at was Classic Tailoring: The Blazer by Stefani Lycecum. I very much enjoyed this course and found that it was pitched at just the right level for me. The KnitLab course though has been a little more challenging. I am a complete beginner as a knitter and I really struggled to get the hang of casting-on from the lessons. The video was just too quick (or I’m too slow). The handy “repeat last 30 seconds” feature was getting very heavy use.

I think the problem with watching while replicating, is that you have to look down and by the time you look up again at the video it is too far ahead. As for trying to pause the lesson whilst trying to knit, forget it, that would require three hands! Altogether it took me several days to get off the ground with casting-on and I had to look at some youtube videos too. However, one thing that the course does very well, is to introduce concepts in a sensible sequence, so that by lesson 4 you’re knitting your first garment and you can see your skills growing.

Onion Scarf

So, after a shaky start I have now completed the lace scarf, which is the first garment in the course. I’ve chosen to knit this with the 100% wool from that I previously dyed with onion skins. I did have to re-knit some bits and it’s a mystery how I got so many stitches cast-on during the lace process (too many according to the pattern). Still overall, I think the scarf is quite acceptable as a first garment. I’ve not decided what to make next, I’ve still scanning Ravelry for ideas, but I’m feeling quite enthusiastic about my new skill.

Onion Scarf


#1Year1Outfit – Dyeing with onion skins

I’m sure if you are a follower of Seamwork you will have noticed that the April edition includes an article called Finding Local by Nicki from thisismoonlight. It charts Nicki’s journey from initial thoughts (I wonder whether I can make a locally sourced garment?) through to the completion of a complete outfit. It’s amazing what she has achieved without resorting to any recycled components or “cheating” like I did for some of my notions and tailoring supplies. There is also a photo round-up that shows all the participants in their fantastic outfits (me included!)

This month’s Seamwork also has information about sourcing naturally and locally with articles about the Fibershed project and Spinning. Both worth a look, if you are considering how you to source your own yarn and textiles.

Returning to the subject of this post, I’ve been collecting onion skins at home for about a year for dyeing purposes. To be honest I really should have got round to using them a while back because the bags of onion skins were literally were taking over the kitchen. I’d collected both yellow skins and red skins.

Weighing onion skins

There are so many yellow skins that I had more than would fit into my dye bath, but I used about 80g of skins for the recipe below, dyeing 100g of wool yarn. This gave a very vibrant orangey-red to my yarn.

Onion Dye Recipe:

  • Onion skins
  • Water to cover
  • Large saucepan
  • Yarn or textile


The yarn I used was 100% Superwashed Bluefaced Leicester wool from I’m not sure this actual wool is on the website, as it was bought at Wool in Bath. (I think it may be this one – S Wash BFL DK Type 49212).

  1. Collect onion skins.
  2. Place the onion skins in a large saucepan and cover with water.
  3. Bring to the boil and simmer for one hour.
  4. Remove the onion skins from the pot.
  5. Soak your yarn or textile in warm water for half an hour
  6. Place the yarn or textile into the dyebath and stir to submerge the fibres
  7. Heat the dyebath and simmer for one hour
  8. Let the fibres cool in the dyebath
  9. Remove the textile or yarn from the dyebath and rinse with cold water until the water runs clear.
  10. Dry the yarn or textile


Fortunately, the whole process didn’t smell bad at all (unlike the dock leaves I used before, that had gone a bit mouldy and whiffy). I couldn’t get out of my head the feeling that I was cooking orange noodles though!

For further reading about dyeing with onion skins, I found this post really interesting. It shows the range of colours you can achieve with different mordants. Onion skins are a substantive dye anyway, but I think trying mordants would be good especially as they can modify the resulting colour.

I also like the idea of placing the onion skins in old tights, perhaps that is a way of cramming more onion skins into my pot? Although I’m not sure that I needed to get my dyeing any more vibrant.

I don’t know how fast this dye will be. I suppose it won’t matter too much if the colour softens over time with washing and exposure to sunlight. Given that it is going to be made into a scarf it probably won’t be washed too often anyway, perhaps a couple of washes in the winter.


Library of Dressmaking from the Interwar Period Part 1

One of my finds recently in a charity shop is a book from the 1920s called “The Care of Clothing”. It’s a pretty detailed manual published by the Women’s Institute. The chapters include advice on laundering, dyeing, remodeling and mending clothes. It is very thorough and just goes to show just how much care people used to take with their wardrobes. Sewing is one of those eternal skills and I found a lot of practical tips in this manual. There is a well-meaning, but slightly condescending tone to the whole book, but for its age I think that’s what you have to expect! It reminds me a little of Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondley-Warner.

Mr Cholmondley-Warner

Is that too complex for my little brain, Mr Cholmondley-Warner?

With no further ado, I’ll take you through the chapter on dyeing. In the words of the book, “There is nothing experimental or difficult about it [dyeing], as many seem to think … it is a simple matter to grasp the few points that must be known to apply the art of dyeing in a practical way”. It starts with some really handy uses for dyeing – renovating old clothes,  rejuvenating faded household items such as curtains and cushions and matching trims with fabric.

I read the section called “Considering Nature of Fabric” and realised that in the 1920s there were no care labels in clothing, to let you know what the fabric was made from. Therefore, before dyeing you would have to perform a burn test on a small piece of the fabric to work out what it was. You definitely needed dedication in that era!

There’s lots precautionary advice too. The author recommends using lots of water and a large receptacle. Perhaps I should invest in a larger saucepan? My last  dyeing attempt was with 2 metres of fabric and I was struggling to cover that with the dye in the saucepan. To prevent streaked or spotted dyeing, it advises squeezing out excess moisture from the dyed fabric so that it doesn’t drip as it dries and never hanging dyed fabrics in the sun. Perhaps this is how I managed to get streaked dyeing in this garment?


There is extensive detail on the different makes of dye, which is somewhat obsolete since most of the manufacturers are long gone. There is also a listing of the finished colours you can get when over-dyeing fabric that has already been dyed. This section reminds me a little of mixing paint as it seems to follow the same rules.

The most interesting part for me is the treatment of special dyeing processes at the end of the chapter. The instructions are quite simple, and I think it may be possible to use them to reproduce the bunch of grapes motif using the batik technique. Sadly there are no colour photos, but it is described as being in three colours – light purple, bottle green and deep blue-purple.  The original colour, light purple is in the grapes, so this was covered with the wax from the outset. The fabric was then dyed green. Next, wax was applied to the leaves and stems of the pattern and dyed in a deep purple bath.


I’m particularly keen to try the border design scarf below. I’ve tried a little shibori / tie-dyeing before , but this involves more than just folding and securing in place before dyeing. A tacking thread is run around the square. The thread is then drawn up and before it is too tight a cotton reel (or something similar) is inserted and the thread is wound around the reel to hold it in place. The dye will dye the scarf without penetrating the gathers. It looks very effective.


I only noticed today, since the cover is rather worn and faded, that the book is Volume 3 in a set of books published by the Women’s Institute called “Library of Dressmaking”. It would be interesting to find the other books. They are there on ebay… at a price! Think I got a bargain in the charity shop!


#1year1outfit – The Hacking Jacket Part 4

The slow progress with my jacket continues. In the last two weeks I have finally got to the stage where my jacket is looking like a jacket. It is now hanging up on a door in the living room on a hanger.


Jacket on hanger

Sadly didn’t have enough twill tape to do both sides in the same colour – it’s inside, no one will know!

My next steps are a departure from the pattern instructions. I am constructing a lining for the jacket. I’ve also been following Steffani Lincecum’s Craftsy course on tailoring and I’m therefore using this as a guide for sewing the lining.

For the lining fabric I bought some silk fabric from Majestic Silk. This is organic, peace silk and made in Hertfordshire. I have used it previously to make this Sew Liberated Myla Tank.

Myla Tank

Since the silk fabric is white (and there is no way I wear this amount of white as I’m too accident prone) I dyed fabric. Some while ago in the summer I collected dock leaves. For those who aren’t familiar with this plant, it’s very common in the UK and tends to grow on waste ground or at the sides of the road. I found our local park was a good source.


Dock leaves

To create the dye I boiled the dock leaves for an hour to produce a brown-ish gloop and stored this in a glass jar on the window sill. Babs from Botanical Inks (where I did a dyeing workshop) suggested that dyestuffs could be left in the sun to produce a stronger colour.

Dock leaf dyestuff

Dock leaf dyestuff (aka the smelly gloop!) in a chilli con carne sauce jar.

I created a dye bath by tipping my dock leaf brew (complete with leaves) into a large saucepan and topping it up with water to cover the fabric. I don’t think that my saucepan is really big enough to dye this quantity of fabric, and unsure whether I would be able to evenly dye my silk, I decided to shibori tie-dye it. At least this way, my dyeing would be intentionally uneven!

Unfortunately, despite sterilising the glass jar, the dye had fermented a little and I got a distinctly bacterial whiff when I opened the jar. Undeterred I still decided to used it, but boiling the fabric in the dye bath on the hob for an hour, was a very stinky business and not to be recommended. Actually, that doesn’t come anywhere near describing how bad it was. I had to open all the windows in the kitchen and hold my jumper over my nose to stop myself gagging each time I entered the room! In the future, I’ll try to use my dyestuff before it starts to go off!

Notwithstanding the stench, the dye worked very well and gave rather lovely light brown or ecru. More importantly a quick wash after taking it out of the dye bath and it doesn’t smell either.

Tie-dyed silk

The next stage will be cutting the lining pieces an constructing my lining. The question is whether I will have a jacket before the new year?


In wolf’s clothing

The Peter and the Wolf pattern by Papercut patterns is a design that I’ve admired for a long time. I haven’t seen another pair of trousers quite like them; they are certainly a unique design. In fact, I don’t see many interesting trouser patterns out there, possibly this is because so few home sewing enthusiasts are also enthusiastic about trousers. Having just finished MMM ’15, I’ve  noted that I do spend a lot of time in my ready-to-wear jeans. And before any of these jeans bite the dust (some are getting quite threadbare), I’d really like to make a few more pairs of trousers.

Peter and the Wolf Trousers

By rights, this pair of trousers should have been a disaster, and I’m amazed that it got to the stage where I am actually wearing them to work! There were some firsts for me with this make. I have been vigorously sewing for nearly two years now, so the firsts don’t come thick and fast anymore, but I was contending with my new overlocker and stretchy denim.

I chose a stretch denim in beige from Minerva Crafts.  I did want to make the yokes in a contrasting colour and I decided that the easiest way to do this was to dye some of my beige fabric in the desired contrasting shade. I chose a dark brown from Dylon to do the dyeing. I’m quite pleased with the results of this and there is a good contrast between the yoke and the rest of the trousers. It also saved me from worrying about finding another fabric of similar weight.

In the construction stage, the first problem I needed to tackle was to make a custom-fit pattern (I don’t make toiles – I’m too lazy and the one time I made a toile, it told me nothing that doing the maths didn’t tell me). I decided to go with making the S (small) size, but made a few adjustments on my custom pattern. I made the leg length 3 centimetres longer and made the waist a little more accommodating (about 4 centimetres). My main problem was that I had very little idea about working with fabric which is stretchy and I didn’t know how much ease I would need. So I just sewed the trousers up and hoped for the best!

It was at this point that I was a little too enthusiastic with the overlocker and made a nasty hole in one of the legs (oops!) After throwing a mini tantrum (yes, the trousers did get thrown across the room!), I thought I could salvage the situation. I thought I had enough unneeded ease that I could manage to place the hole in the seam allowance, provided that I moved the side seam allowance slightly. This means that the side seam allowance is not quite at the side, but about 1 centimetre nearer the front. No-one will know! I did think that I might have needed to do something more drastic. I didn’t have enough fabric to make another leg piece, but I could have made a half-leg piece and made a dramatic curved seam just above the leg. Fortunately, in the end I didn’t need to go with this solution, although it could have worked quite nicely.


Drama over, I sewed up the rest of the trousers. To get the final fit I just tacked the leg seams and tried the trousers on. They did need a little tweaking and I took in the legs by about 1 centimetre and the front crotch seam, by about the same. I think that possibly the size smaller would have been a better fit all round, but I’ll make the necessary changes to the custom pattern and hopefully it will mean I won’t need to make any fit changes next time I make a pair.

Peter and the Wolf Trousers

I did make another mistake with this project. Not quite as serious, but nonetheless just as difficult to resolve. I forgot to read the instructions at one point and missed out the top-stitching on the front yoke. Strange really, I don’t usually miss an opportunity to top-stitch! It isn’t the end of the world, but it does mean that there is top-stitching on the back yoke and none on the front, which to my mind looks a little odd. I’m debating whether the take out the top-stitching on the back yoke, just to even things up a bit.

Wolf 1

Peter and the Wolf Trousers

I’ve now worn these trousers to work and they are definitely a hit. They are very comfortable, but I still feel smart in them, or perhaps that’s just because they are new! The pockets are deep and even though I was concerned with the comfort of a seam running directly down the front of the trousers over the knee, that doesn’t bother me at all. I even like the scalloped hem, although it is a fiddly detail just at the end of the project, when I was impatient to get on and wear the trousers.

I can imagine myself making another pair of Wolfie trousers. I could probably make them a little tighter even, because I’m not 100% sure about the fit. I like the gold / black pair sported on the Papercut website and also Kat’s denim / blue pair. I’m also wondering whether I could make a front fly zipped version instead. I’ve seen a few versions using patterned fabric, but I personally feel that they look rather too busy, although this version looks great!

I’m not that happy with the photos I took in the park above, mostly as I tried to keep the tops short so you could see the trouser yokes. I’m not too fond of my waist so I usually wear longer tops, so here’s a photo of a more usual ensemble:

Wolf 8


#1year1outfit – Natural Dyes Workshop

I signed up for the One Year One Outfit challenge at the start of the year, but so far I had just been doing my research. At the end of last month I attended a natural dyeing workshop run by Botanical Inks. They are based in South-West and they are running workshops both in Gloucestershire and Bristol at the moment. The workshop was attended by seven other people and I found myself the only sewing enthusiast in the group, which surprised me. There were quite a few students from the nearby UWE campus and also a couple of people whose crafting background was paper crafts and they wanted to be able to make fabric covers for their hand-crafted work-books. It was good to have such a mixture of experiences within the group.

I took along a couple of scraps from my stash. The remainder of some white cotton lawn and also some cotton jersey (which I think my other half had been using as motorcycle polishing rags). I also bought a metre of organic silk fabric at the workshop. This fabric is peace silk and is 100% organic. It is grown in Hertfordshire. I know that isn’t very local, by English standards. The town of Hertford is 137 miles away, but to the best of my knowledge this is the only place in the UK that grows its own silk. Before I attended this workshop I had really excluded silk from my list of fabric possibilities, but I’m glad I can include it again. It certainly opens up the door to more long-term possibilities. I like the idea of applying the local and ethical into my wardrobe on a more long-term basis and would like to use a diverse range of fabrics.

At the start of the workshop we dropped our textiles into a large bucket of water to pre-soak them and sat down for a cup of tea. Babs, our tutor had brought along some herbs from the garden and I drank a tea made from her deliciously fresh mint. While the fabric was soaking, Babs, talked, very knowledgeably to us about the shibori tie-dyeing process and the dyes we would be using. I selected to dye my silk with dock.


For those that are not familiar with this plant, it is very common in the UK and it is well-known plant even to children. Dock leaves are a traditional remedy for the sting of nettles. After landing in some stinging nettles, I remember as a child, being sent off to find some dock leaves to place on the nettle stings. Whether this actually works or not I have no idea, but it certainly takes your mind off the stinging, which is probably the only treatment anyone with nettle sting needs! For my cotton scraps I chose baths of rosemary and of avocado skins.

After our fabric had finished soaking, we set about doing our shibori. Shibori is a technique whereby fabric is bound, stitched, folded, twisted, or compressed to result in a dyeing pattern where the dye is excluded by the folds or twists from certain areas of the fabric. For the silk fabric I just folded the fabric in concertina-fashion and tied it in place with curtain rings and elastic bands. For the cotton lawn I just twisted the fabric over a wooden stick and secured with string. The cotton jersey was also folded in a concertina fashion and tied with elastic bands.

Shibori Dyeing

The fabric was then dropped into the cold dye baths. These were then placed on the stove to heat up and simmer for the remainder of the workshop.

While our fabric was dyeing, Babs continued with her discussion of dyeing techniques and introduced the concept of mordants. The dyes that we used in the workshop were all substantive dyes i.e. colour-fast and do not need mordanting. These plants often have high concentrations of tannin in them, or as in the case of dock, oxalic acid, which are naturally occurring mordants.


After about an hour in the simmering dye bath, we removed our textiles from the baths, unwrapped them and placed them in a bath containing soapy water to wash them. The soap was a pH-neutral soap, which is best to use when handling naturally dyed fabrics.

Finally, we all ironed and blow-dried our creations to try to get them as dry as possible before our trips home.

Silk dyed

Silk dyed with Dock leaves

Cotton Lawn dyed with Avocado Skins

Cotton Lawn dyed with Avocado Skins

Cotton Lawn dyed with Avocado Skins

Cotton jersey dyed with Rosemary

Cotton jersey dyed with Rosemary

I was very pleased with my silk fabric dyed with dock. For my scraps I think that the dyeing was quick subtle. Obviously in a dyeing workshop there are time limits and I think, particular the rosemary dyed cotton jersey would have benefitted from longer in the dye bath. Babs recommended that after an hour-long simmer in the dye bath to leave the fabric overnight in the dye. She also mentioned that additional dips in the dye bath might be required to get more vibrant shades.

I’ve finally got off the ground with my One Year One Outfit project. I  have fabric for my first garment and the know-how to do some future natural dyeing. To tie in with the Indie Sewing Pattern month at The Monthly Stitch, I’m planning to make the silk into a Myla tunic from Sew Liberated, so watch this space!

As for my cotton scraps, I think I may well use them again and re-dye them. I was hoping they would be a more vibrant colour. They are only scraps but I think I could make some sleeves or shoulder panels or some part of a garment from them, so they may crop up again in the future.


Colour to dye for

This month I’ve been doing some investigation into dyeing for the One Outfit One Year challenge.

I’ve decided to take a similar approach to that used in my earlier post Wool in the West Country, looking at what the people in England used traditionally. I’m hoping that will lead me in an interesting direction for the challenge.

European dyeing dates back to about 1400BC. International trade in dyestuffs and dyed cloth in Europe dates from around the 9th century.

A dye with a particularly a long history in this country is Woad, a blue  from the Isatis tinctoria plant. It was associated with the Iceni tribe and its leader Boudicca who used woad to colour their faces before going into battle. Vegetative remains of woad plants were found in Viking age York dating from the 9th/10th century.

I couldn’t resist putting in a picture from the ridiculous and historical inaccurate Brave Heart, with Mel Gibson painted with woad (1,000 years too late) in a tartan kilt (500 years too early), see wikipedia for the complete slating.

Brave Heart

Get with the times, blue just isn’t in at the moment!

Surprisingly, despite the long association with the British Isles, woad is not even an indigenous plant. It is native to the steppe and desert zones of the Caucasus and Siberia. It has been cultivated in Europe though since ancient times. In medieval times, Glastonbury, in Somerset was a centre of woad cultivation in the West Country, although a great deal was still imported. The port records in Bristol show that 255,360 lb of woad was imported in 1613.

Another dye with a long history in this country is madder, a red dye produced from the roots of the Rubia tinctorum plant. The plant is native to Mediterranean Europe, but was later grown in Northern Europe. The Roman Army battledress is supposed to have been dyed with madder.

Weld was also a core dyestuff in Europe and is said to give the most beautiful colour on wool and silk. It grows in the wild in most European countries and was grown as a crop from the early medieval times in England. Yellow can be obtained from dyeing with weld, but it can also be used to create green when overdyed with woad. This process was used to create “Lincoln Green”, the colour of dyed woollen cloth associated with Robin Hood and his merry men in Sherwood Forest.

Dyeing Wool Cloth

Dyeing wool cloth (1482)

I have found a few places that supply these traditional dyes:

The Mulberry Dyer

Based in Leek, Staffordshire. Specialises in historically accurate dyes, cloths and embroidery supplies.

All About Woad

Based in Birmingham. Supplies specifically woad and woad-dyed products.

The Woad Centre

Based in Norfolk. They have dyeing workshops as well as woad dye kits.

Nearer to home in Bristol, I discovered that Botanical Inks are running a workshop on Shibori tie-dyeing using natural dyes. The dyes are all made from locally foraged wild dye plants. Of course, I signed up for this workshop straight away! I noted that you could bring along your own yarn or fabric to dye. Alternatively, they have British silk available for use in the workshop. I’m curious about this British silk, since silk production is not normally associated with  England! Can’t wait!