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Fibre in Focus – Muga Silk

Hello and welcome to this episode of Fibre in Focus!  This time, I’ll be talking about Muga silk, one of my favourite fibres to work with, to touch and to look at.  It’s just divine.

An Exhalted History

Muga silk, or Assam silk, is one of the rarest silks in the world. It is made only in Assam in eastern India by cultivation of the Assam silk moth (Anthaerea Assamensis).  It’s one of three types of silk that come from the region, the others being Pat silk and Eri silk, which I will talk about in another post.

There is no record of when Muga silk production began in India.  Kautiliya, a philosopher, economist, teacher and royal advisor  who lived between the fourth and third centuries BCE, mentioned the production of a golden silk in ancient Assam in his writings. It’s thought that the cultivation of different types of silk moths was introduced by Tibeto-Burman migrants centuries before he wrote about it. It’s during the Ahom dynasty, which ruled Assam for 600 years from 1228 that Muga silk really took off as a luxury commodity.

During the Ahom rule, Muga silk was reserved for royalty and for high ranking government officers and aristocrats. The silk is the most gorgeous soft golden colour, and it seems to be more durable than other silks. Its natural lustre also increases with wash and wear, making it perfect for heirloom fabrics.  The Ahom rulers used the appeal and desirability of Muga silk to help trade with other regions, and also overseas.  Visiting dignitaries were often gifted clothing made from Muga silk.  Royal looms were operated by female weavers within the palace, and the fabric woven on them was destined only for the royal family. Many of these weavers were personally trained in the art by some of the Ahom queens.

Its fame spread. Demand for the fabric even from within the upper echelons of society was hard to meet and so production was outsourced into the region.  Almost every woman and many men in the region were proficient in spinning and hand weaving. A girl was considered unfit for marriage if she could not operate a loom.

And then came the British…

Unfortunately for the industry, it did not thrive as it could have done during the British Colonial rule. Although the British did see some value in silk exports, they were more focused on trying to open up the markets for new cottons and wool fabrics produced in burgeoning mills of the industrial revolution.  The increase in tea plantations to satisfy tea export demands also put a strain on the labour market, reducing the number of people available to work in silk production. Don’t you just love learning even more about reprehensible stuff your country used to do?

The British occupation notwithstanding, production of silk was, and remains extremely important to the economy of Assam. In 2007, Muga silk received geographical indication (GI) protection, which means that genuine Muga silk can only be produced in Assam. Thanks to the increased demand for natural fibres, this is great news for Muga silk farmers who have accumulated centuries of experience in Assam silk moth sericulture.

What’s it like to work with?

Gorgeous!  It’s similar to Tussah silk, which is unsurprising as it comes from the same moth family. It has a staple length of around six inches, and it’s unbelievably lustrous and soft.  It’s not super long and shiny like mulberry silk, which can be tricky to spin, but has a slightly ‘catchy’ texture. I find this helps with spinning, because it doesn’t slip about or slub easily. It’s easy to make a very even thread with Muga, and it works well spun fine or chunky.

My preference is to spin it super fine because it’s such a pleasure to do. Sometimes lace spinning can be, shall we say, frustrating, but I could spin Muga silk into lace all day long and not get tired of it. It would work beautifully as an embroidery threat or as a fine lace in a lacy, drapey shawl.  I like using it in my weaving as it adds little shots of gold into the fabric.

Whichever way you spin it, you do need to make sure it has a fairly high twist. It doesn’t hold together as well as wool would with a low twist, so I’d use a fast spindle or a high ratio on your wheel. That said, there are no hard and fast rules. Experimentation is a joy.

I must have some. Where can I buy it?

Aha!  Well, I import Muga silk sliver directly from India from a supplier I trust. I also like to use it in some of my batts, particularly Renaissance, because the gold goes so beautifully with this kind of dusty blue.

Next up in Fibre in Focus will be silk hankies.  Woohoo!

See you next time.  Pip pip!

 

 

Sapient Pearwood socks

Making all the things

I love seeing what other people are making with yarn and fibre. There are just so many talented people out there, making breathtaking items with delicious yarns. I don’t claim to be making anything breathtaking – in fact, my knitting is a catalogue of errors, featuring tinking, frogging, fudging and occasionally dramatic hand wringing and cries of “Why, my God, why?’

I don’t know about you, but for me, knitting seems to be something that I’m compelled to do. It knocks me down, but I get back up again. One of my first projects was a little cardigan for my then one-year old daughter. I remember throwing it to the floor and jumping on it, because I’d completed two whole rows of moss stitch on a circular needle in the wrong direction.  Always remember people, the working yarn is on the right. Still, I did pick up that jumper, and I did finish it. It’s still being worn by babies in Melbourne’s western suburbs to this day.

“So, what are you up to?” I hear you all clamour. Well….

Sapient Pearwood socks by Rachel Coopey

Sapient Pearwood socksWhat’s your record for unsuccessful cast ons? This project is definitely mine. I cast on 10 times before I got it right. I used Judy’s Magic Cast on for DPNS and forgot to knit through the back loop on the second two needles the first two times. Then there were a couple of times when I just lost the plot. Then I knit the toe increase and realised I’d done the wrong size because my gauge swatch was wrong because I knitted it continental style. I couldn’t manage that consistently when doing the increases so stuck to throwing. Result: gauge madness. Then there were two more times when I didn’t do the back loop thingy. Then some other stuff happened. I may have cried.

However, perseverance is my middle name, apparently. I will not let a project beat me. Now that I’ve actually got it cast on and going strong, I’m really enjoying it. The yarn is dyed beautifully by my friend Clare, one half of Mr B’s Yarns, in Mother of Pearl. It’s a superwash merino/nylon blend, and I love it. If you haven’t come across their yarns before, check them out. They are really gorgeous.

The pattern is simple but interesting. It features single stitch cables and intermittent twisted rib sections. I haven’t decided which heel I’m doing yet.

Linum Tee by Bristol Ivy

Linum tee in handspun yarn

I’ve actually knitted this whole tee before but had to frog it because it was too small. Don’t ask me what happened – I did a gauge swatch and everything!  It’s supposed to have quite a bit of positive ease, and I can never tell whether that’s factored into the size or not with patterns, so it might be that I just chose my actual size, rather than my size plus ease.  Sigh.

I finished it in early spring last year, put it on, considered losing a couple of stone, and then frogged the whole thing.  It’s taken until now to get to the point where I felt ready to do it all over again a size larger. I love this yarn. It’s hand spun by me from some Hilltop Cloud fibre in Romney, silk and linen. It’s light and pleasingly textured. I love its slight roughness on my skin – it’s not at all itchy or scratchy though.

The pattern itself is lovely. It features quite a lot of stocking stitch in the round, which is great for TV knitting or if you’re in the pub trying to have a conversation. I’m trying to become a continental knitter, because it seems so much faster, and so far this whole project has been knit continental style, so I’m quite pleased. The rib was done mostly with my tongue sticking out and some swearing, but it’s there, and it looks good.

Jessica Jones Cowl by SMINE

Jessica Jones CowlThis is a lovely, super simple cowl pattern in linen stitch, which is divine. It’s quite a flat stitch, and almost looks woven. It’s beautifully drapey and easy peasy to knit. I say that, but I’ve somehow gone astray a couple of rows down and stopped knitting alternate stitches. I’m going to have to tink it back, which is tiresome, but I’ll probably do it on Sunday when I’m at Frome Independent market, where I have to be on my stall all day.

I’m knitting this in Cat & Sparrow Oh-So-Fine! Lace in Rock Pool.  It’s a heavy lace in Bluefaced Leicester and silk. I love this yarn so much. It’s so smooth and silky, and it drapes really nicely.

I’m holding it double because the pattern calls for a sock yarn. It’s perfect, because even though I’m using lace weight yarn, I’m using 5mm needles and it’s growing pretty quickly. I don’t think it’ll take me long to undo my mistake, particularly as half the stitches are slipped on each row anyway. I just love how the colours are working together. That bronze is one of my favourite colours to dye at the moment. I’m yet to find something it doesn’t go with.

The project of which we shall not speak

We all have one of these, don’t we? Good. Move along. Nothing to see here.

On the wheel

Cat & Sparrow Fibre ClubI have only one spinning project on the go at the moment, which is very rare for me. It’s Cat & Sparrow’s Fibre Club instalment for May 2018, which was based on African wild dogs. It’s the most beautifully soft alpaca top from John Arbon. I dyed it a mix of deep wine red, rust and chocolate brown, and I love how it’s coming out.

I’m spinning it into a low-twist single, and I think I’ll weave it into something soft and snuggly. It will be a treat to wear – it’s like spinning a baby cloud (if clouds weren’t wet).

I’ll be doing a post every month about a previous fibre club. I always make one for myself as well, and I really enjoy spinning with them.  There won’t be any spoilers though! I’ll make sure everyone has time to receive the package and squish the contents first.

 

So, that’s it for me this month. I’ll post some pics of the projects as they grow.

Pip Pip!

Midi Turkish spindle lime lilac

Turkish Spindle Tips

Crikey! I’m on fire this week. I’ve been meaning to make a video for people who’d like a simple guide to getting started on a drop spindle, and specifically on a Turkish spindle. I’ve met loads of you at shows who have said you’d like something like this, but I’ve been afraid to step out of my comfort zone and actually get in front of the camera until now.  I enjoyed it so much I’m planning a series!  You’ll never get rid of me now, mwahahahahaaaaa.

If you’d like to see a few tips and tricks on how to spin your own leader to get started on a drop spindle, how to do a half hitch easily every time and tips for winding on to make a nice neat turtle, check me out below, and you can also subscribe to my new channel (I know, right? Hollywood beckons).

I’m the European distributor for Turtlemade spindles, which makes me happy, because I love them, and love sharing them with other people.  They’re so well balanced and light, and they come in fab colours. What’s more, they’re sustainable and biodegradable!  What’s not to love? You can find the spindles here.

Happy spinning!

Fibre in Focus – Seacell

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts about fibres I love to work with for absolutely ages, so I’m planning on this becoming a regular feature.  Hit me in the comments with any fibres you’re interested in that you’d like to know more about.

This week’s focus is Seacell, which is a pretty fabulous fibre in so many ways. It’s plant-based, sustainable, has low environmental impact, is soft, strong and absorbent (but not in a loo-paper type of way) and it’s completely biodegradable.

Production and Environmental Credentials

I could get into a very long-winded explanation of how Seacell is produced, but if you really want to know more about that in detail, you can go here. In short, Seacell fibre is a blend of wood-based cellulose and seaweed, specifically knotted wrack, which anyone in the UK will be familiar with from trips to the seaside. The wrack is harvested sustainably once every four years, which allows the wrack beds to regenerate. The drying and cutting process is natural and doesn’t involve any chemical additives.

The seaweed is then added as an active ingredient to wood cellulose and is processed using the Lyocell method, which works on a closed loop processing system. With Lyocell, this means that caustic soda, the usual solvent used to extract the cellulose, is replaced by a non-toxic organic compound called NMMO. The water in which the cellulose is processed can then be filtered and reused, reducing the amount of water used and eliminating toxic waste from the process. Even better, the wood used in the production of Lyocell is harvested from sustainable eucalyptus forests.

There are some health giving properties ascribed to Seacell that sound almost magical, and of which I am healthily sceptical, Manufacturers claim that because the health-giving minerals and vitamins found in seaweed transfer through our skin into our systems, we benefit from wearing Seacell in more ways than just our comfort. For more information on this controversy, go here and here. I’m remaining on the fence until more scientific evidence is available!

What’s it like to spin?

Some people compare Seacell to silk when it comes to spinning, but I don’t find them particularly similar. They are both beautifully lustrous, but Seacell is smooth and much more slippery, and its fibres are shorter than silk fibres tend to be – it has a staple length of around 3-5 inches. The fibres slide over each other easily and, like bamboo, it can be tricky to control the consistency of the yarn. I haven’t tried spinning it into single ply yarn but I have heard that Seacell singles can come apart quite easily thanks to its slippery qualities. That suggests to me that it needs a pretty high amount of twist, and probably does much better as a plied yarn as a result.

It does make an exceptionally smooth and drapey two ply yarn, which is lovely to handle and feels very soft to the touch. It lacks natural elasticity, so blending it with other fibres works really well, especially if you want to make something like socks with it.

Where can I get hold of this magical stuff?

Well, it’s funny you should ask that… One of the first ever blends I designed uses Seacell, and I love it. It’s a mix of alpaca, Seacell and silk, and it’s beautifully soft, fluffy and drapey while being warm, light and breathable. Alpaca takes dye in a soft and muted way, silk with brilliance and Seacell not at all, so it’s lovely to spin with in terms of depth and complexity of colour too.  You can find it here in some deliciously sumptuous colourways.

If you want to try Seacell in its unblended form, you can get it from World of Wool or Adelaide Walker.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little in depth look into one of my favourite fibres. Next up – Muga silk.


Zen Garden
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Zen Garden
Orchid
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Orchid
Tequila Sunrise
Alpaca/Seacell/Silk – Tequila Sunrise

 

 

 

 

The 20-day Sustainable Fashion Challenge

Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash

A Single Step

Since beginning my journey from novice knitter through to spinner, dyer and sometime weaver, I’ve started to think differently about the clothes I wear and the materials I use. I never used to be one to think overly about the environment. I knew that I should conserve energy and water where possible, and I recycled, mostly, and worried about global warming a bit, but that was it.

When I was living in Australia, I fell in with a dangerous group of permaculturalists and craftivists. Before long I was thinking about organic gardening, companion planting instead of pesticides and using crocheted vaginas as a way to express my feminist agenda, such as it was (thanks Rayna Fahey!). Those friendships opened my eyes, and I’ve been gradually awakened to the effect that my choices have on the world around me. I’m not perfect, obviously. I haven’t given up plastic, although I do avoid unnecessary packaging. I occasionally buy a plastic bottle full of water or iced tea, and then hate myself for it. I often always forget to take my Keep Cup to the coffee shop.

Perfection is overrated.

In my opinion, it’s better to do anything than to do nothing at all, because doing something, no matter how small, might lead you to doing other, greater things.  I also want to set a good example to my children, who are distressed by sea creatures suffocating on plastic bags and the fact that in 30 years time there will be more people, but fewer areas of the world that can produce food.

Also, my work as a dyer has opened my eyes to the environmental impact of the materials I choose to use and to sell. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the sustainability and environmental impact of certain fibres, and I want to be able to make informed choices about what I’m putting out there. I need to put my money where my mouth is, and so I’ve decided to learn more, and try to put this learning to practical use by taking part in the 20-day Sustainable Fashion Challenge, started by Summer Edwards in 2015.

The task for day 1 is to rate your sustainable fashion knowledge out of 5.  I’d say I’m a 2. I think I know quite a lot, but it’s very likely much less than I think I know. Such is my experience with just about everything. Let’s see if I can get to a 5 by May.

Join me

I’m going to try to document this challenge as much as possible on Instragram and here on the blog. It won’t be a daily update, because heck, I’m snowed under as it is, and blog post writing is a fairly time-consuming effort for me. I write something thoughtful and then have to check it obsessively for grammatical errors and over-use of commas. However, I think it’ll be quite interesting. Hopefully you will too. I’ll be using the hashtag #20dayssustfash.

See you there!  Pip pip!

Hannah Ryggen – Woven Histories Exhibition

Last month, my friend Stephanie and I drove the 70 miles to Oxford and back to see an exhibition.  I love a good exhibition, but I don’t usually travel quite so far to see something. This one was important to me though, and I didn’t know whether I’d get another chance to see the artist’s work first hand.

Hannah Ryggen – a brief history

Hannah and her family at dinner (part of a much larger work). She is unable to face eating the animals she has raised.

When I first read about Hannah Ryggen’s art, I was so excited. A spinner, dyer and weaver who made all her work from scratch.  Born in Sweden in 1894, she left home to study painting, which she did for six years. After meeting her husband in Dresden in 1922 she moved with him to a remote part of northern Norway surrounded by fjords and ocean. She spent the next decade teaching herself the skills she needed to be able to use tapestry as her medium. She often said that she regarded herself as a painter and that the warp was her canvas.

To create her huge woven works she collected, dyed, spun and wove each piece from scratch on a loom made by her husband.  I’m a spinner, dyer and weaver and have a vague idea of the persistence and patience that must have involved. She used wool from local sheep, which she carded and spun.  She made dyes from local plants, using urine of her family and house guests as a mordant. I guess all artists suffer for their art in some way or another.

When you look at the tapestries that hang on the walls of the exhibition, it’s impossible not to wonder at the time and effort spent in making them. Even before I was able to look at the symbolism in each piece, I was just agog because I could see in every weft thread the many levels on which Hannah Ryggen was an artist.  It’s really extraordinary that she managed to make so many pieces of art. Over the 37 years of her tapestry career, from 1933 to her death in 1970, she created over 100 pieces.  T

hat’s three a year, on average.  Many thousands of yards of wool and linen, gathered, processed, spun, dyed and woven. You can probably tell I’m having trouble processing it. It takes me a month to dye, spin and weave a scarf.

Amazingly, she worked directly on to the tapestry, making no preliminary sketches. Sometimes she incorporated imagery on the fly – something she heard on the radio would make an impression and appear in the tapestry she was working on at the time.

A woven voice

This depicts the day in 1942 when several prominent townspeople in Trondheim were murdered by the Nazis.

The tapestries are very powerful. I wanted so badly to reach out and touch one of them, to feel her work beneath my fingers, and so to feel a physical connection with the artist. The images she created are so alive with meaning.  Shekept in touch with the world from her remote home by listening to the radio and reading communist newspapers, and stitched her passion and outrage into the work, whether it was about the rise of fascism, the creation of NATO, nuclear armament, money lenders, or the the fierce love she felt for her family.

I am always in awe of people who can use their talent for fibre arts to say things that need to be said. Craftivism is a movement that I feel very passionately about – we use what we have to try to change the world for the better.  I felt close to the tapestries in this exhibition because I understand and share the skills used to create it, and I deeply admire the way she used those skills to make powerful statements about the state of the world and how she felt about it.

Art or craft?

Hannah Ryggen’s work really brought home to me the schism between what is considered art and what is considered craft. Rozsika Parker’s book, The Subversive Stitch, examines this in fascinating detail for those who are interested. The gap in perception between art and craft is subtle, insidious and extremely deep rooted.  Parker defines art as ‘a cultural practice involving iconography, style and a social function’, which Hannah Ryggen’s work undoubtedly is. However, the processing, dyeing, spinning and preparation of the yarn required would seem to fall under the craft umbrella.  I felt that Hannah Ryggen’s work does so much more than bridge the gap between the two. It intertwines them to the point where they are no longer two separate things.

I’m not sure when Hannah’s tapestries will be making a return visit. The very nature of them makes them susceptible to damage, so they don’t travel often.  I might have to take a trip to Norway to see some of her work in situ.  Any excuse to travel!