When I’m not knitting or genealogy-ing, I like to fix up vintage sewing machines and sew with them.

I spent some time, earlier this year, fixing up Victorian/Edwardian hand crank machines; £11 – £15 car-boot bargains;  a Singer 28K and a couple of Jones Family C.S machines.

Singer 66K

My 1910 Singer 66K

Vintage, metal machines have none of the built-in obsolescence of modern, electronic machines with their dodgy plastic gears and starting-frying-the-day-you-pick-it-up circuitry. In fact, they were intended to be serviced and even fixed by the owners if anything dropped off or went wrong. Mechanically, they are so well built, there is very little to drop off or go wrong. Most I have seen have just needed a new needle, a clean and oiling. My own old treadle machine which was stored badly, was another story. That took 18 months of jiggling, threatening, and soaking in a rust-freeing agent, to bring it back to life.

Our car boot machines were pretty, had no sentimental value, so were good to learn on. Now they’re cleaned and fixed, I’ve passed them on to my adult sons and one of my son’s friends.

1956 Singer 221K

1956 Singer 221K

Once I got the hang of how to strip down, clean and fix up machines, I started looking round for an ‘interesting’ and older machine to play with. Funds are limited – that’s a polite way of putting it – but I sold a couple of things on eBay to finance it and the same week, along came a 1956 Singer 221K and a 1885 Singer 12K. Sewing machine afficionados will know a 221K (“Featherweight”) is a much prized thing. They were made in several Singer factories from the 1930s-1960s. British ones were made in Kilbowie, Scotland. As was my 1885 Singer 12K.

Sewing machines were developed from around 1851. But the first truly popular Singer was the 12. Those made in Scotland are designated “12K”; the “K” for “Kilbowie”.

The 12K was patented in 1861, so although mine dates from 1885 it is essentially the same as one made during the American Civil War.

1885 Singer 12K BEFORE

1885 Singer 12K BEFORE


1885 Singer 12K AFTER

I got mine for a stupidly cheap price.

I thought if I could fix this machine up, I could even make some later 19thC living history kit, using it. Research online told me it took an unusual – and expensive at £5 a pop – needle. Also the shuttle is odd – you have to tension it by snaking the bobbin thread in and out through a series of holes and it’s very much trial and error which threading pattern works.

Manuals for old Singers can be downloaded online for free. The 12K manual is here.

The seller was not into sewing, so couldn’t even tell me if there was a bobbin in so he thought not. He said he couldn’t open the slide plates, to see. I just wanted a fiddle-base old sewing machine.   I knew a replacement shuttle and one bobbin might set me back almost as much as I paid for the machine, and the bobbin winder in the picture looked bizarre, so that might need replacing too… but I was happy with that bargain price.  It came in its original case with two rusty, ancient keys attached. The case alone is a piece of cabinet maker’s art; the machine, when it’s unlocked, slides out from the case. I was thrilled to get the case too, as research online told me it was original.

Mechanism inside face-plate

I expected this machine to have some bits missing and maybe the mechanics would be seized like this 12K’s. It looks distinctive compared to the later, more common vintage machines with its japanned face plate and balance wheel.

When it came, it took very little brute force to free up the throat plate and discover it not only had an immaculate shuttle inside, but one lone bobbin as well.  That was a few quid saved! I bought a spare needle and bobbin from Helen Howes , who sells old sewing machine parts at a very reasonable price and gives excellent advice, too.

All the bright-work was rusted – as you can see in the Before and After shots, I managed to get the worst of it off.

On the day the machine came, with a pair of keys tied to its rusty handle with a nasty piece of nylon twine, I wondered if the ancient lock would even work, and whether we’d even be able to get it out of the case. Even though the seller on eBay must have, as he’d photographed it. But with one turn of the key, it slid out of the box no problem.

Behind the faceplate...

Behind the faceplate…

Amazingly, the machine was not seized – just a bit sluggish. The feed dogs still moved; the presser bar still worked; the needlebar was not frozen in time like my own 66K had been. This is a machine so ‘obsolete’ – and ‘ugly’ by mid twentieth century standards if beautiful by our’s – that you can bet it has spent most of the past 70 years or so in an attic.  It was dirty, sure, and full of dusty cobwebs underneath – but the decals were in better condition than we’d expected, and a bit of mild, soapy water and some cotton wool buds followed by a gentle polish on the paintwork with sewing machine oil, soon had it looking clean again. I carefully dismantled enough of it to clean inside.

I always think of the people who used a machine decades ago, when I find the lint in the bobbin race, and the few remaining threads on the bobbin. In this case a rather fetching vivid purple silk seems to be the last thread ever used. I wonder what it made? This machine may have been quietly put aside as long ago as pre WW2.

I have cleaned up several old machines now and never had a receipt forgotten in a drawer, or any provenance so expected nothing to get my genealogical teeth into, with this.

But when we looked at the old case, with a view to cleaning up the wood, there was some writing, so heavily scored out we could barely decypher it, in black ink or paint on the back side of the case. It hadn’t shown up in the eBay photos. It appeared to be a name.

1885 case

1885 case

I used Maas metal polish on the machine’s bright-work and  Parker & Bailey’s Orange Oil Polish to clean up the wood. Both are US products, available for an arm and a leg at Lakeland, in the UK. I cleaned very gently over that writing, in case I damaged it. I didn’t. And out in the daylight there we saw, under all the crossing out, the name “E. SHOPPEE”. It took a while to figure it out. I wasn’t even sure “Shoppee” was a name.

“E. Shoppee”

Maybe s/he wasn’t the first owner, but the chances were, an “E Shoppee” owned the little 12K somewhere round the back end of the nineteenth century, as the machine was still new and valuable enough for her to want to emblazon her name all over it.  I will assume ‘her’ as professional tailors and seamstresses generally used other, more industrial machines like the Singer 13K: the 12K was the first big household sewing machine. The 12K remained in production for a long time, even though later, better machines superceded it. By 1910, a tailor  or seamstress might well want a Singer 66K with its larger harp space, but not the little 12K. So the chances are its earlier owner is likely to have been female, subsequent owners even more likely to have been women. The 12K was originally known as “The New Family” machine, because it was intended for domestic use.  Jones had the similarly named “Family C.S” (Cylindrical Shuttle) which was aimed at the same market.

A search of Ancestry brings up almost only one family group of people called “Shoppee” in and around London in the late 19thC. Thank the gods the owner wasn’t Elizabeth Smith! An obit in The Daily News for 1897, said that the family’s great grandfather was a Huguenot called “Chapuis”, which may explain the fact I could only find one family group with this name.

I can’t be sure which of the female Elizabeth, Emma or Emily Shoppees, over several generations, owned the 1885 Singer but there is a stronger candidate, given the ages and family occupations of some Shoppees, compared to others.  If I’m right she is unlikely to have been the first owner, but was an early one.

“My” E Shoppee could be a Shoppee by birth or by marriage.

Which begs the question – who would be likely to own a Singer 12K made in 1885?

The 12K hit the British market around 1866. It has been described as:

…the finest sewing machine the world had ever seen at the time and the pinnacle of inventive genius from the design team at Singers.

It became the world’s best selling sewing machine and kept that predominance til production ended in 1902.

In the early years, a 12K would cost an average year’s wages. Singer pioneered the Hire Purchase model of trading, so many people bought their 12K over a period of years. Which democratised the sewing machine as a household item but it still would have been out of the reach, financially, of many people.   A charwoman would have been less likely to own a sewing machine, in the early days, than a school teacher. For decades, the sewing machine was the single most expensive item in many a home. These old hand-cranks we can pick up for a tenner at a car boot were once someone’s most treasured possession – it’s easy to forget that. They revolutionised women’s lives, a bit like the washing machine was to do.

You can date your Singer machine using its serial number  here.   Singer numbered every part so if a part of your machine is shot, the chances are you will be able to replace it – and much more cheaply than a modern machine part would cost. The eBay seller had shown the serial number in close up, so I had known the date of the machine before I bought it. Mine has the most common Acanthus Leaves decals but some later ones have the spectacular, and more rare, Ottoman Carnations – which are probably my favourite Singer decals ever. There was also a gilt and mother of pearl  roses 12K. Identify your Singer decals here.

The Shoppees seem to have been exemplars of that mid nineteenth century urban phenomenon – social mobility. In the early part of the century, they were builders but by the latter end of the century, it was a family of architects and surveyors, doctors and other professionals. London offered more scope for this than most British cities.

My favourite candidate for “my” E Shoppee is Emma E. Shoppee, who on the 1901 Census was 26 and living in Hornsey, London with her husband, Joseph W. Shoppee, a London-born Commission Merchant’s Clerk.  As the machine dates to 1885, she would not be its first owner but maybe it was passed on to her. It may even have come from her family in York, or the Shoppees in London. As a hand-crank, she’d be able to travel with it. You would certainly want to pass on your sewing machine to a relative or friend. So this one may have come from either her York or her London family, if Emma was the owner.

Free BMD told me that Emma Elizabeth Hawkswell married Joseph W Shoppee in the second quarter of 1899 in York.

From gutenberg.org

The 1881 Census found Emma E Hawkswell living down the road from me, at 19, Stonegate, York – somewhere in the centre of Stonegate – it must have been re-numbered since – as the Census enumerator veers off down Coffee Yard straight after visiting the Hawkswells’ house.  In 1881, Emma lived with her parents, Ralph and Emma. Ralph was a lithographic printer with 3 employees.  The Hawkswells, like the Shoppees, were firmly middle class. In 1891, she was still at 19, Stonegate and now a Pupil Teacher, aged 16.

Emma married Joseph Shoppee at the Salem Congregational Church in York, June 14th, 1899.

On the last available census, 1911, Emma had two children and was living at 38 Womersley Rd with Joseph and her younger brother, Stanley, a jeweller’s shop assistant; still in Hornsey. By 1911, Emma’s father, Ralph was now retired from lithography, now working as an Antiques Dealer, still at 19, Stonegate.

It might be that my machine had an early owner who was a York woman, and it has ended up, 130 years later, very close to York! She won’t have been its original owner, though, as the machine was already 14 years old by the time Emma Hawkswell was Emma Shoppee…

I did find several other possible E. Shoppees but they looked less likely than Emma; elderly by 1885, or too young, or had married and lost the Shoppee surname prior to 1885…  It is very likely the machine belonged to one of this family. One of the better bets was Elsie Shoppee, a doctor’s daughter, who married Stacey Hammond in 1895. Which would mean she had ten years as E Shoppee from 1885 on. But she was only 6 when the machine was made.  Other E Shoppees seem to have been out of the country in the 1880s/90s.  One Elizabeth Shoppee died in 1886 – a year after the machine was made – in Uxbridge, aged 63.  She was another possibility but a remote one.

The machine is almost restored. I really have to bite the bullet now and try and thread up the shuttle and get the needle in the right position. Both of these variables will throw a machine out, so it may need a few hours’ experimentation to get it right. But I will post pictures if and when  I get it sewing!


This post is in memory of my very dear friend, the supreme living history needlewoman, and Dove Cottage’s own Dorothy Wordsworth,  Caro.  I never got to tell her the tale of E Shoppee and the Singer 12K. She’d have loved it, though, so this one is for you, Pretty Lady.

A dog show at Jeremy Shaw’s Queen’s Head Tavern, 1855. From an oil painting by R. Marshall, 1855.

Nothing to do with knitting, and very little to do with genealogy. Whilst I’m busy working on a piece for ‘Ply’ magazine, I thought I’d share with you this rather cool list of 19thC dog names I compiled a while back.

These were all found in The York Courant and The Birmingham Daily Post, so are the names of coursing hounds and bull terriers. I got the bull terrier names from dog show reports.

I missed a trick when we named our new pup back in November. Should have called her ‘Titsy’.

















Old Puss


















White Prince

Young Prince

Bee, our Staffy/Jack Russell cross.


Gansey needles, Filey Museum. CREDIT: David Hunt

From the Patients’ Disbursement Books, The Retreat, York. Ref: Ret  3/10/1/1  

Judith Robertson

1799 10 Sept, 1799

Knitting needle  3d

1800 8 June

Patent knitting needles  3d  Pasteboard 4d  – 7d

22 Sept

shrowd – 7-/ 6d coffin 42 -/

(Pasteboard = cardboard, used to make bonnet brims).


Straights. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May. CLICK on any of these to enlarge.

The casual – and all too frequent – “coffin” and “shrowd” at the end of the Retreat asylum patients’ accounts, gets me every time.

The patients’ private accounts for their personal, needful things,  are a brilliant resource for the clothing/textile historian. From them, we can see that ‘Patent’ (shiny steel?) needles cost 3d in 1799. This was probably a set of 4 or 5.


Needles, curved and straight. Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. CREDIT: Belinda May

What were nineteenth century needles like? Blunt? Pointy? Both? Neither? Or even – as has been mooted – “flat-ended”..? The answer is – knitters, as ever, had their personal preferences.

Surviving needles in museums across the North of England, show every variation; blunt and pointy, curved and straight. Although rarely, of course, flat ended.

In 1981, Kathleen Kinder interviewed Mrs Clara Sedgwick of Settle, who grew up in Dentdale; maiden name Clara Middleton. Aged 82 in 1981: “…. She still uses the steel needles, size 13, which she brought out of Dent…What is more, the Editor of The Dalesman and I were shown and allowed to handle the knitting stick, carved in the traditional goose-quill shape, which her grandfather, Thomas Allen, had made for her mother. The needles the Dales knitter used were often finer  than size 13. They were known as ‘wires’ and were frequently bent with usage…”


Curved needles. Blunter and pointier. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Some were bent with usage and some deliberately bent by the knitters who preferred them like this. Betty Hartley told interviewer Maurice Colbeck: “…I used to wonder how they found needles fine enough to make them. [Dales gloves] Then somebody told me that they used to knit them on the old long hatpins!”

decm need3

Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

ycm1Knitting sticks were used by knitters of all social classes and backgrounds – witnessed by the sticks in the collection at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. A couple of years ago, we documented some of the sticks in their reserve collection, and saw two knitting needles from a “work-basket belonging to one of the Bronte sisters”. [Ref #: HAOBP: H176:2 and 3]. The needles I examined had fine gauges, around 1mm, and one had a slight curve which would suggest it was used with a knitting stick.


Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Anyone who believes all needles used commercially – or by genteel ladies – were ‘blunt’ or, ‘flat ended’, only has to actually see the extant needles, to realise the error of their ways.

I leave you, Gentle reader, with these images of nineteenth century needles, to refute the bizarre theory that is playing out elsewhere on the internet.


Straights – nothing ‘flat-ended’ but again, a mix of blunter and pointier; glove/stocking size. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Sarah Impey 31 March 1808 2/6 Lambswool Yarn for Stockings’ Needles and [fillet?] 8d, … 3/3 shifts making 2-/

[Patients’ Disbursements, 1807 -16] Various Patients’ Disbursement Books, The Retreat, The Borthwick Institute, University of York

Gran Taught Her To Knit at the Age of Three, Maurice Colbeck, The Dalesman, Vol. 57, January 1996.

Knitting in the Dales Way, Kathleen Kinder, The Dalesman, Vol 42, February 1981 p.908

The Old Hand Knitters of The Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby.

…each Girl has the following articles given to her:

A Pair of Scissors          A Huswife

A Thimble                       A Work Box

A Knitting Sheath            A Work Bag

A Pincushion                   A Comb and Case

At Easter she is allowed to have her Scissors ground; a Pincushion and String, Huswif mended, Her Thimble changed… a new Comb if necessary; a knitting sheath…. Whatever she uses more than these, must be bought  out of her own money….

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General.

by Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard

3 Shillings


‘Knitter Asleep’, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1724–1805)

Today I thought we’d take a look inside the eighteenth century Spinning School Mistress’s closet and, whilst we’re at it, nose through the charity school girls’ possessions.

Most girls came to York’s charity schools, penniless and literally in rags so the above list of items given to the girls would represent an investment. Finally, to own something all your own!

Some girls on admission, were barely clothed at all: if they hadn’t made their own clothes in school,  the children would have been “…sent in such a state as would render their very superintendence…nearly impracticable…” [p. 9]

When the school started it was more a night school. Founder Catharine Cappe wrote: “…Our first thought, was to have them taught to read, knit and sew on an evening after they had finished their work at the Manufactory…”

Once a formal school was established, a School for Spinning Worsted which opened in late 1782,  the girls had a uniform but had to leave it at school during the weekends, returning to put it on before going to church of a Sunday. It wasn’t long before the school was a boarding school, obviating the need to leave school clothes behind at weekends.

The Knitting school catered for the youngest children – knitting was seen as less skilled than worsted spinning. A seven year old was thought perfectly capable of knitting a stocking without a pattern; shaping the leg, turning the heel, etc.

At Catharine Cappe’s York Knitting & Spinning School, and later York’s Grey Coat School;  girls rotated every six weeks through different tasks; learning skills that would make them employable as servants, or maybe make them ‘diligent’ wives.

Children were expected to work at everything, in rotation – “wool-spinners, line-spinners, sewers, knitters and house Girls…”[p.32]

Line spinners = spinning flax. House girls = learning to cook and clean. Two girls would be permanently on duty sewing and repairing the charity school clothes.  The girls who carded and spun the waste wool for the school’s own use, also had the job of “twisting” (plying) the line (flax yarn). It seems plying was seen as a separate thing to spinning and might not necessarily be done at the same time or by the same person who spun the singles.

Georgian thimble. The girls’ thimbles were probably brass, not silver like this one.

The idea was to make the girls employable, without being apprenticed as there had been some notorious cases of ex charity-children being abused when left in the homes of their masters/mistresses and apprenticed to trades.

York’s Grey Coat school ,which employed Catharine to overhaul its curriculum after the success of her own Knitting and Spinning School, took in “firstly, orphans, then if places remained, children of parents ‘in distress’, to save them from the parish Poor House “..or the houses of indigent Relatives”.  Some of the girls in the original school on  St Andrewgate, York, were rescued from a local hemp factory, because Catharine felt the adult employees were a bad influence. Other children were street kids, or had inattentive parents who let them go feral during the day. Some were, as Cappe put it, “miserable girls upon the town” (ie: child prostitutes),  Cappe characterised the children’s parents as frequently “dissolute” and “depraved”.

Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.

Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.

The Spinning & Knitting School grew to accommodate 30 girls. A girl might gain admission on being able to prove she could knit a stocking in a week.  Spinning also had to pick up some pace, as the girls were supplying an un-named ‘Manufacturer’ with their yarn, presumably to be woven into cloth.

By the 1780s, spinning was already largely mechanised in manufactories, but hand-spinners still contributed to the yarn required by a voracious industry. The Spinning School was giving the girls a skill that would soon be defunct, in the UK at least. If the hanks were the standard 560 yards, this was 2240 yds, per day, per child. To put that in perspective, it is marginally more yardage than some of the faster spinners in a competition like Spinzilla.  And they were spinning worsted, which is considerably slower than wool spun long draw. This fearsome pace had to be kept up for 6 weeks at a time. Girls could keep a quarter of the money their spinning earned. :

“…As soon as the children can spin four hanks of wool per day, they are decently clothed, and moreover…  they receive one fourth of their earnings in money…”  [p. 8]

The children made all the clothes needed for the school itself from “waste wool” left over from processing wool they sold to a manufacturer. The school was self sufficient, for clothing and only had to buy in stays, shoes and straw hats.

In 1785, Catharine reformed York’s main charity school for girls, the Grey Coat school. She appointed two Assistant teachers – one in the Wool Spinning room and the other to teach sewing, knitting and line-spinning. In April 1785,  the spinning mistress Mrs Lazenby, became “deranged” and her husband, the School’s Master, put her in a lunatic asylum. We only have to hope it was the Retreat, not York’s notoriously awful County asylum.

Catharine herself became Superintendent of Spinning at Grey Coats (alongside running her own school):

She had “…To superintend the wool-spinning; to see that it reaches the proper counts; that every pound is marked with the girl’s name who spun it; that it is reeled right; that the Mistress keeps her spinning closet in order, and spinning book with accuracy, to correspond with the manufacturer; keep all the accounts; receive the money earned by spinning;.. and to see every pound of yarn weighed before it is returned to the manufacturer…”

18thC scissors

She wrote a footnote on this page, giving us a fascinating peep into the contents of the Spinning Mistress’s Closet:

A  plain-ish 1790s’ work-box

“The Wool Spinning Mistress has a  Closet divided like the Clothes Closet and Reward Box, with the name of each girl upon the partition appropriated for the reception of her particular hanks, as soon as they are spun; the names being changed every six weeks when the new arrangements take place. This closet the Mistress examines every night, and she enters in a book what every Girl has spun in the course of the day. This book is shewn at the end of the week to the Lady who pays the rewards; and each Girl is separately commended or reproved, and her respective task raised or lowered accordingly as the circumstances  may require. A book is likewise kept by the assistant Mistress, with the particulars of the stockings knit, and line spun, in the course of the week. The same method is followed in the Spinning School.” [33]

Work bag.

The girls also had a Master to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic. No doubt a literate and numerate girl had more employment prospects: she’d be able to keep track of household accounts, etc. This literacy and numeracy was, in itself, a valuable gift as a quick survey of 18thC marriage records often shows that many working class women, if not most, could not sign their own name. The charity schools gave this level of ‘pragmatic’ formal education, on top of useful manual skills like knitting, spinning and sewing.

What happened to the Grey Coat girls? We find out in a footnote from p.41 of “Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendlly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee”, 1805:

The number of Girls, who have left the grey Coat School since it was new regulated in 1787, are 114. Of these, 23 are married; 47 are in service; 43 are dead; 2 are Mantua-makers; 1 is now assistant Mistress in the School; 7 are at home with their friends; 2 are at home in a bad state of health; 5 have turned out profligate; and 14, having left York, the Ladies lost sight of them…

Mantua-makers were dress-makers. The charity school must have given these two girls enough sewing skills for them to find employment, without any formal apprenticeship, on leaving.

Thanks to those blog readers/followers who came up and said lovely things about the blog at our Living History day at Armley Mills, on Saturday! Hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the Spinning Mistress’s closet.


A Yorkshire knitting stick. Credit: Belinda May. York Castle Museum.

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General, Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard, 1800

Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee, Catharine Cappe, York, pub. Blanchard, 1805.

My “aunty” Ethel Ledger (grandma’s cousin) with her angoras, pre 1920. This is the earliest known UK photo of angoras.

Angola. 1827. A corruption of ANGORA: the fabric made of angora wool”

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1983.

The Shorter OED has the first recorded incidence of “angola” as 1827, but I stumbled on an unpublished reference to it, in the 1807-16 Disbursement Book of The Retreat asylum, in York. (Held at the Borthwick Institute, University of York)

On September 30th, 1811, patient Richard Reynolds paid 18 shillings for:

3 Pr Stockings Angola Wellingbro 18-/

The minute I saw that “Angola Wellingbro”, I suspected it was a reference to “angora” wool, but wasn’t sure til I got home later and looked it up.

Wellingbro must have been a known source of angola or angora wool. The same records refer to “Irish linen” and “Knaresbro’ linen” – when a placename is included with a type of cloth, those must have been well known centres of production.

Most of the references to stockings in The Retreat records are to silk, cotton, “yarn” (woollen spun wool), “lambswool” and, commonest of all, “worsted”.  So a pair of “Angola Wellingbro” stockings at 6 shillings a pop, were not a common thing. Around these dates, the patients’ records show that “thread stockings” were 4 shillings a pair; ordinary woollen stockings might be around 1 shilling and 6 pence a pair; cotton thread enough to knit a pair of stockings was 2 shillings and 6d. In 1811, patient Mary Lloyd paid 2 shillings for “1 Pr Gause” stockings. Back in 1797, one patient paid three shillings and 7 pence for:

1 Pr stockings  ¾ silk

Evidently, angora stockings were top end.

It’s a fair assumption that the angora yarn was knitted for stockings.  Most of us who have angora bunnies or have spun angora can testify to the fibre’s felting ability! Which is something you could harness for good or for evil.

Sheep Street, Wellingborough, Northants.

There are several Wellingboroughs in England, but my money is on Wellingborough Northamptonshire, as being the place famous for its angola. Wool was produced there from the 14th century, and beyond that “wool remained an important factor in Wellingborough economy”. (British History Online). It’s possible any woven goods from Wellingborough, blended angora. If you blend down to around only 10 angora, you still get some of its halo and other characteristics. This cloth must have been smooth, and well milled.

Angora knitted stockings might sound fragile but I’m guessing the felting on the foot would make it hard-wearing.  Angora fibre is incredibly warm – many times warmer than sheep’s wool of the same kind of grist. As the patient was buying in September, with winter coming, he probably felt the cold!

There are newspaper advertisements from later in the century, for “woollen” cloth woven from angora – which may or may not have been blended with sheep’s wool. This advertisement makes it sound like angora was sometimes used for a sort of flannelette, ideal for night-clothes. In a world with no central heating,  and where even if you had fireplaces upstairs, you’d rarely use them, this would make sense for winter. In my 1960s’ childhood, I can remember we thought nothing of there being frost on the inside of the windows, some mornings.


Special show of flannels. T.B and W. Cockayne Ltd, will make their first show of woollen goods…

36 IN unshrinkable unions shirtings and angola cloths, for night shirts and night dresses, etc…. 6 ½ d per yard…

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield, England), Saturday, September 2nd, 1899

There is also some evidence for woven angora being used for sturdy outerwear:

…Edward Goldsmith, tailor, clothier, and hatter, respectfully announces his Removal… to Clumber Street

… Black or coloured Doeskins, or Angola Trowsers, in the newest style of cut from 18s to 21s….

Nottinghamshire Guardian (London, England), Tuesday, March 30th, 1854

Aside from the glaring Hollywood costume dept inaccuracy/hideousity of this creation… the question that’s been asked on Ravelry: was it angora?  My money’s on yes. Or a blend. Whilst ‘fleecy’ (probably some kind of blended Leicester wool) and ‘superfine’ are mentioned for shawls in the mid 19thC, angora was clearly available and A Thing.  The fact this is such a poke-yer-eyes out optical white suggests angora, too. You can see the typical angora halo on her shoulders but not as much as you might get with handspun angora (millspun tends to bloom less).

So there is evidence for knitted and woven angora/angora blends, in the nineteenth century. As well as evidence for hokey Hollywood ‘history’ (you can always tell when an ‘historical’ movie was made from the lipstick/hair-dos!) Searching for the term “angola” may give more results than “angora”.

I always loved the photo of my aunty Ethel with her bunnies. She lived at the mill at South Duffield, quite near where, 100 years on from that photo, I have three angoras, too. One is English, two Continentals.

I have a limited amount of angora fibre – excess from my own bunnies, Nigel, Elsie and Charlie – for sale on eBay, right now. It is hard for non bunny owners to get hold of, and the commercial rovings sometimes may come from questionable sources. Commercial tops also don’t spin up the same as your own bunny fluff.  I only have small amounts that I haven’t spun up, myself and decided to sell rather than hold onto – and it’s been stored in a cedarwood chest so be warned – it smells of cedarwood but this should wash out after spinning! But take a look if you’re interested. Even 25g blended into say 200g of wool would give you angora softness and silkiness. Pure angora tends to be too warm to wear! Cotton cards work well for blending, or do what I do and spin 1 ply angora, 1 ply silk or wool.

I will leave you with this picture of my beautiful girls, Elsie and Charlotte. Today they are out in their run, in the sunshine, eating grass and lemon balm. Buns like to live in bonded pairs – these sisters are inseparable!

Useful Sources

Completely Angora, Sharon Kilfoyle and Leslie B Samson, Samson Angoras, 1988

Angora: A Handbook for Spinners, Erica Lynne, Interweave, 1992

The Nervous New Owner’s Guide to Angora Rabbits, Suzie Sugrue,2011

On the day we got our (catastrophic) election results, I thought I’d hoist the red flag (well, red petticoat) and talk about living history then and now, and the random thoughts I had whilst re-modelling a piece of ‘costume’ from the 1980s. Comrades, the Red Flag is at half mast today. But the red petticoat will live on, survive change, and emerge re-made a-new.


(On a piece of art by E. PENNY, R.A –  ‘Lavinia’):

… The beautiful Lavinia he has made a homely country girl, sweating in August under a red flannel petticoat. Happy choice of drapery!…

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Saturday, May 12th, 1781

CHARITABLE DONATIONS. …. Ninety-four women, residents of Great Bolton, were furnished each with two shifts,  a pair of stockings, a red flannel petticoat, and a shilling loaf…”

The Morning Post, Friday, December 24th, 1830

THE WORKING CLASSES AND THE CORN LAWS   … by his side lay three children, and one sat by the embers of a dying fire, mending an old red flannel petticoat…

The Charter, Sunday, December 8TH, 1839

Hollar engraving of a servant

Thirty three years ago, I made a couple of petticoats for re-enactment/living history, in the English Civil War Society. We wanted to copy those double petticoats seen in the Wencelas Hollar engraving.  I read somewhere, that red flannel had been a common choice for women’s petticoats. So one was red, one yellow – not bad, as more luck than judgement, madder (red) and acid yellow (weld) were indeed cheap and common dyestuffs.

In those days, most female 17thC re-enactors’ clothing consisted of neatly matching waistcoats (we then called them ‘bodices’) and skirts, a la Margaret Thatcher. My instinct from the start was, surely most of the common people were wearing secondhand clothes and handmedowns, or things adapted and altered from older clothing; most everyday clothing was unlikely to ‘match’. I was Glad to be Garish.

At that time, women in re-enactment, if they wanted to portray women, were restricted to being water carriers on the battlefield. I found that boring. This led to me looking for a craft to learn, so I could do something ‘authentic’ – which was right at the start of living history.

In those days, living history was just getting going. I had been one of the handful of people in a little tent at an event at Ulverston – roughly half of us Blackwells (Royalists), and half of us Montagus (Parliamentarians), who were in at the start of living history.  Only two of us were female.  I have since seen on a forum, people claiming to have been there who most definitely were not – I think that fabled tent must have held 50 people, if everyone who claims to be there was there! I do think that is where living history started in UK re-enactment. The White Company came along months after, if I remember it right – one of their founders was our old regiment’s commanding officer – which left a vacancy for CO filled by my then 23 year old worser half.

These days we take living history for granted. But it started with a small group of ‘levellers’ or ‘diggers’, probably long forgotten. The ECWS had a very small but vociferous minority who were starting to push around 1979 or 1980 for what we then called ‘non combatant’ roles. The “non combatants” were even, at one point, threatened with ejection from the ECWS  if they didn’t take to the battlefield – or at least, several I knew, were. But they persisted. Eventually they got the Baggage Trayne and that gave a place for people to take on other roles.  Now, many regiments also have their own living history folk – we started doing LH within our own regiment, Foxe’s. “Re-enactment” was eventually more than infiltrated by what we now call “living history”. These days, the public probably come more for the living history than the battle. Some living history folk get sniffy at the word “re-enactment” but I use the terms interchangeably as whether it is civilian or martial, we’re all re-enacting something.

1910 Singer 66K treadle sewing machine. One of my babies.

1910 Singer 66K treadle sewing machine. One of my babies.

Which brings me to last week. One of the things I do in my love for all things textile, is tinker with old sewing machines. One way we used to pay for going to events all over the country, was to make clothing for our own friends, our own regiment, and sometimes, people beyond. We usually did this on my husband’s great grandmother’s 1890s’  Pfaff sewing machine. Sometimes, we used vintage Singers or my mum’s 1970 Brother machine. This was in the time before anyone considered hand-stitching historical ‘costume’. Although everything was usually hand-finished, we’d do most of our sewing on elderly machines, so were used to them. A Singer 66 isn’t going to complain if you ask it to sew leather, or layers of thick wool. These old workhorses were demonstrated by reps sewing through successively thicker fabrics, finishing the demo with the machine sewing through a tin can.

1902-ish Jones Family CS machine

1902-ish Jones Family CS machine

I spent a bit of last week restoring a 1910 Jones sewing machine, and to run it in, did a few projects. Whilst doing this, I remembered I’d bought some really nice red flannel to make a new petticoat for our 1800-ish living history forays. And I was about to cut into the nice new red flannel when I remembered I had that red flannel petticoat made on some old machine or other, back around 1981 or so. Why not adapt that?

Red Flannel petticoat, made early 1980s

Red Flannel petticoat, made early 1980s

In 1981, a machine sewn petticoat was fine. To be honest, I sometimes think it would be fine today too. As whenever I look at extant clothing in museums, it strikes me that they look machine sewn, whether 17thC or early 19thC or anything inbetween.  The technical difference being that most sewing machines make a lockstitch, not a straight running stitch but to the uneducated eye it looks similar. The average sewing machine could sew more like a competent, 1800 home-seamstress, than I could, is the truth. But still – I decided to take my old petticoat apart and remodel it; my wonky handstitching notwithstanding.

Extant 18thC petticoats rarely have the original waistband. We all expand (or decrease) and change and in the past, clothes were handed down in wills, or given to friends and family, or sold on, or pawned, or…. altered for another person or another incarnation of yourself. So we have to be wary extrapolating info about waistbands on petticoats, more than most garments a re-enactor might want to make.

I knew the original waistband that fitted me in 1981 when I had a 22″ waist if I breathed out, would be no use now all these years, decades of insulin resistance and 5 kids on. Looking through Linda Baumgarten’s ‘Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790’ ,  I realised I could even use another material for a waistband, such as linen or silk as I knew I would have no hope of matching this 30 year old  flannel, made at a mill that has probably been long torn down. So I set to ripping apart the petticoat we first made all those years ago.  Not just because I am fatter (I had already adapted the waistband, moving a hook and eye to its furthest extremity), but because I wanted to re-use old material. Let’s face it: some living history people spend ages distressing and ageing up new fabric to look old and worn. Here I had a genuinely faded, elderly piece of cloth to work with.

When I work on a vintage sewing machine, especially when cleaning out the accumulation of lint, I wonder who owned the machine before me, and what they sewed on it.  My tiny herd of vintage machines – all common models of Jones and Singers – date between the 1890s and 1916. Like spinning, I suppose, we textile folk are intrigued by continuing the threads once held by other hands. This time, I knew whose hands had done the sewing, long ago.

I got a strange feeling, unpicking the old flannel petticoat. Back in 1981, I hadn’t even bothered to match the colour of thread to the red flannel. You see this in extant historical garments as well – sometimes the sewing thread will be a different colour to the fabric, or change colours as and when they ran out of something.  Also, I had sewn it originally  using cotton, not linen thread which is fine for my 1800 re-modelling, but totally wrong for the 1640s!

A proper selvedge

A proper selvedge

That red flannel came from a stall on Birmingham’s outdoors market, run by a lovely gentleman called Mr Sharman. He’d get bolts of cloth fresh from Yorkshire (and elsewhere) and many Mondays we’d go and see what he had. He had all types of wool; often broadcloth of a stunning quality.  We financed our hobby by making clothing for other re-enactors so our finds there became our friends’ clothing.  One time, he had the red flannel. It was old fashioned flannel and had a proper selvedge – not like you get on modern cloth. But, being flannel, it was not heavily fulled so would unravel a bit when cut into. As I prized the waistband from the skirt, I was surprised to see how well it had stood up to the ravages of time.  I also realised that the petticoat was pilled, and the original colour dulled on the outside. So I made an executive decision to turn my petticoat the other way. For the next thirty years of its life, it will be the other way out!  This is utterly in keeping with what our ancestors would have done. It still looks distressed enough and is a shade of red I haven’t seen in a long time.

Original machine stitching and tacking stitches on waistband.

Original machine stitching and tacking stitches on waistband.

I soon unpicked the waistband and the long seam. The original white tacking stitches were still intact under the waistband: I must have figured no-one would ever see them holding the pleats in place and in any case, they’d give it more strength if left in situ. Interestingly, in ‘Costume Close-Up’ several garments that look fancy on the exterior, are shockingly finished on the inside, and tacking (basting) stitches did indeed get retained. Maybe  I was a mantua maker in a former life!  Somehow, unpicking my two rows of brown stitching and the white tacking stitches was poignant. I was  another person, the last time my hands did this work. I lived in another world. I hadn’t realised I needed to shape the upper edge of a petticoat if I was wearing a bum roll under it. That kind of thing didn’t occur to us in 1981. Luckily there are no crinolines or bustles or bum rolls for 1800 so the unshaped petticoat skirt could stay unshaped.

Back in the 80s, we didn’t get to see the incredible clothing in museums’ reserve collections, I could now go and study at the drop of a hat. We only had a handful of sources, like Hollar and Dutch genre paintings, and a couple of books like Norah Waugh’s  ‘The Cut of Women’s Clothes’ and C and P Cunnington’s ‘Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century’. We had to figure things out from them. Now there are many good resources, more appearing all the time, and the internet. Researching then, with no transport or money to get to other museums, we had to piece together whatever we could, with the limited information out there. My husband figured out the first ever montero cap, with the help of his mother who came from a long line of Luton hatters. He also made the first Scottish bonnets for sale. A friend’s mother knitted the first ever thrum cap I saw, after we showed her an engraving. Interesting how so many memories flood back when your hands are working with a piece of your past.

Sewing an 18thC/early 19thC petticoat, you have a few fundamental decisions to take. You can machine the first pass down a long seam if you are flat felling it by hand afterwards. Similarly, you can use a sewing machine to attach the waistband to the skirt, on the first pass along it, as when you fold the waistband over, it will be hidden forever, anyway. Depends how anal/pragmatic you are.

I have entire ensembles where every stitch is hand sewn. But I am coming to the conclusion my hand-sewing is equivalent to an 1800 four year old’s. So if it is going to be forever hidden, I will machine sew a long seam. I see no virtue in doing otherwise – especially as this is faster and more durable (in my case). If, however, you feel the need to fess up under fellow LH interrogation, you’d better hand sew every stitch.

My original petticoat had a centre seam (hidden by a judiciously placed pleat), then a 6″ slit at the centre back, where there was a fastening. It is more ‘authentic’ to leave slits at either side for use of a pocket which meant I changed the orientation of my 2 skirt pieces so the seams in the new petticoat are now at each side. Luckily, the seams were selvedges.

Re-modelling an old Red Flannel Petticoat

1. Unpick original stitching – waistband, hem, seams.

2. I decided to turn pieces the other way out, and then put the two skirt pieces with the new right sides together. Iron out creases, try and steam out creases from old pleats, in particular, as far as it’s possible.

3. Sew up each seam, leaving 6 – 9″ slit open at the top, on both sides. At the slits, you can fold back selvedge/edge of skirt about 1cm to wrong side, and hand sew flat.

Seam showing 2 rows handstitching on right side.

Seam showing 2 rows handstitching on right side.

4. Now, if your petticoat fabric is thin enough, eg: linen,  flat fell seam, working stitches by hand on right side. I found it useful to make a row of tacking stitches as a guideline as you will be working on right side of fabric, and want to make sure you catch the seam edges under. I tacked close to the edge of the flattened seam, on the wrong side then when I flipped work to flat fell up the seam, only had to sew on the inside of the line of tacking stitches, to be sure I caught everything down. When working on the right side of fabric, I used a back stitch.

My flannel was too bulky to do a true flat fell, so instead I pressed down the two sides of the seam flat, and then felled down the right side on first one, then the other.

Do this for both seams, leaving the pocket slit on both sides. Even if you don’t want to make a pocket, it is a more typical way to make this, and the slits are there if you change your mind, later!

5. Find waistband material. I used a length of linen cut from a red linen petticoat I made too long! Make two waistband pieces, each the length of 1/2 your waist measurement, plus 12″ either side. Find centre of waistband, and mark or stick a pin in to mark where it is. Now mark 12″ from either end of waistband.

6. Find centre of skirt front. Mark or mark with pin. Use your waistband as a guide as to where you want to place pleats.

7. Pin pleats skirt Front and Back.  According to “Costume Close Up” many extant petticoats have a large-ish centrally placed box pleat, and then small single pleats either side of it, facing the pockets on each side. Pin pleats in place for Front and Back.

Blanket stitching edges. An overcast stitch would probably be more 'authentic'.

Blanket stitching edges. An overcast stitch would probably be more ‘authentic’.

8. Now overcast or blanket stitch along top of skirt, to keep pleats in place. This will prevent a bit of fraying but also make it easier when you come to mount the skirt on waistband.

9. Attach waistbands to Front and Back of skirt, right sides together. Sew at least twice. This has to be strong! Fold over and whipstitch in place on wrong side.

10: Finish ends of waistband. See those 12″ of waistband dangling either side of Front and Back waist? Turn up the bottom by around 1cm. Press. Fold down top and turn under to cover raw edges. Press. Pin together and sew.

11. Hem your skirt. I use whipstich again.

This might not be the most authentic 1800-ish petticoat in the world, but will be serviceable and is made broadly similar to extant examples. A red flannel petticoat was seen as a rather rustic item of clothing. It is hard to infer too much from the extant petticoats in museums tend to be made from more high status materials, such as silk and may have been treasured and kept as they were beautifully quilted, as well as very expensive in an age when every yard of fabric cost dear.

Back stitches are common because they made a seam strong and durable. Often seams were sewn with a quick running stitch punctuated every so many inches by a few back stitches, to add strength: easier to unpick for future alterations in a world where cloth was a special, finite resource. Whipstitch is commonly found on linings and hems. The eighteenth century mantua maker sometimes left her workings-out: the inside of a piece of clothing may have looked more hastily done and sketchy than the public face of the piece.

Several years back, at an ECWS event I recognised someone who bought a doublet my husband made around 1981. I was amazed to see he was still wearing it. I was always terrified anything we made might fall apart.

To finish here are some interesting newspaper quotes, mentioning red petticoats.:

“Before” pic of original waistband. Place material on ground – puppy will sit on it.

“….She is small in stature, and had on a black gown, black chip bonnet, a plain buff kerseymere shawl, and some say a dirty red petticoat. It is suspected the imposter may be a man in a woman’s dress…”

[Description of a conman/woman, at Malton, Yorkshire, The Leeds Mercury, Saturday, November 27th, 1824]

On Saturday evening, at about eight o’clock, a woman was found lying dead on the road… She is a big woman, with a red cloak, a stamped gown, and red petticoat, and had two shillings and three-pence hapenny in her pocket, and a small whisky bottle. There are no marks of violence about her and therefore it is supposed she had been the worse for liquor, and died with cold…”

[Whitehall Evening Post (1770), January 26th, 1788)

Friday morning, a woman in a short Jacket, with a Red Petticoat, was found drowned in a pond near Whitechapel Mount.

Penny London Post or The Morning Advertiser, August 1st, 1746

Hastily photographed the finished item (just before dog sat on it again).

Hastily photographed the finished item (just before dog sat on it again).

Sloes in flower, Yorkshire Museum of Farming, April, 2015

Sloes in flower, Yorkshire Museum of Farming, April, 2015

Last year, we tried and failed to establish a dye garden at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.  Our main problem was slugs. Big slugs. Lots of slugs. Nuclear bombproof mutant slug pellet-survivor slugs.

I’ve been an organic gardener all my gardening life, after stumbling on a dog-eared copy of Laurence D. Hill’s ‘Organic Gardening’ that unaccountably was amongst my dad’s books.

The organic way to deal with slugs are beer traps.  AKA ‘slug pubs’. I have done this and found it works, in the past. But last year’s slugs were the leviathans,  behemoths and juggernauts of the slug world and not actually living at the Museum meant we couldn’t be on guard, at dusk – when the slugs come out…

Although I continued gardening organically at home, at the dye garden in the Museum of Farming, it was more like all out war with the monster slugs. They ate everything in their path – our weld, woad and flax. All we were left with were some transplanted, already large madder and goldenrod plants, kindly donated by a member of the York Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers. Every single thing we planted  from seed, ended up in a slug.

Same with my plants at home. As belt and braces, simultaneously with planting woad, weld and flax at the Farming Museum, we planted it here in our garden. Everything here was eaten too. It was the worst year for slugs I have ever known.


Madder – almost the only survivor of Slugmageddon 2014!

I have grown woad, in particular, for years but on and off and not recently so was starting from scratch. We got seeds from Kings Seeds and Teresinha at woad.org.uk. Both reliable sources of good seed.

I bought my first ever woad seed 30 years ago from Suffolk Herbs, who are now part of Kings Seeds, when I first read  ‘A Dyer’s Manual’, by Jill Goodwin. This remains my favourite book on dyeing, ever and despite dyeing since the 1980s, I still refer to it constantly. Somewhere, in a garden in California, South Birmingham, where we lived in my early woad-growing career; they must wonder what that weird ‘weed’ is or maybe it became a garden escape in the nature reserve behind our house. Two hundred years from now, archaeologists will find woad pollen in the ground and wonder if there was a woad industry there.

It didn’t help that we had started the Museum garden, digging a bit of waste ground that is heavily sheltered, and previously covered in couch grass and nettles – so Slug Nirvana. It was never going to be easy but the site is lovely, and has the afternoon sun.

Dye garden "Before"

Dye garden “Before”

We call it the ‘dye garden’ rather optimistically. It is, in fact, more of a dye border.  I like to think of it as analogous to medieval strip farming. We hope to end up with a long strip of dye garden, and if we can manage to hold down the couch grass and slug attacks, this year, we hope to keep expanding it til we can be self-sufficient in woad and weld.

We will keep digging up couch grass that returned over the winter, and reclaiming garden well into May, as and when we can. We are growing the woad and weld at home in biodegradable newspaper pots – because with its tap root, woad really doesn’t like being transplanted, but we think it may stand a better chance against the slugs if grown to a decent size then transplanted. I’ll blog our progress (or the slugs’ victory) over the next few months…

Last week, I was at the Museum, starting to reclaim our dye garden. We will sink some substantial planks of wood all round the edges, when complete, to help keep out the couch grass as it re-invaded totally after slugmageddon.

Dye garden "After" (well, "So far"!)

Dye garden “After” (well, “So far”!)

There won’t be much to look at – apart from the madder and goldenrod, for a couple of months. But we hope by summer to have an interesting garden; growing a few of the commoner dye plants like weld, woad, madder, dyers’ greenweed and some later ones like goldenrod and coreopsis, inspired by the beautiful dye garden at Armley Mills, in Leeds.

Whilst I was clearing the weeds, it occurred to me that the small patch of goosegrass (cleavers, or galium aparine) might be worth exploiting. Whilst some weeds yield decent enough dyes, they were usually not used on any large scale because better dyes existed. Anything with the suffix tinctoria is usually your clue. But that’s not to say that folk didn’t dye at home using what was to hand, small scale. Your soil would be needed for food so too valuable a space, for most people, to use it for colours for your clothing. But who’s to say that “weeds” weren’t exploited?  Poorer people wore nettle fibre instead of linen from flax. There are 19thC accounts of Dalesfolk dyeing their own stockings, buying logwood from the mills in small quantities.

Very few dyestuffs give a true red. The hated weed, goosegrass, happens to be in the same family of plants as madder (rubia tinctoria), the only source of true reds in Europe, for more than a couple of thousand years, til some New World dyes came along. Other related plants include Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) and Hedge Bedstraw (Galium molugo).  Only madder was commercially viable as it has much bigger roots than the others. But chemically, the colour you get is similar.

Cleavers (galium aparine) and their roots

Cleavers (galium aparine) and their roots

Like madder, the bedstraws and cleavers, need to be left in the ground several years because what you are after are not the fine, hair-like roots immediately under the soil but the deeper, red or brown coloured, woody roots that look a bit like twisty worms. This is where the colour is.  In the case of goosegrass, these are few and far between and hard to find. After half an hour trying to find as many dye-bearing roots as I could, I had the princely amount of 5g of root  – which hints why madder, and not goosegrass or the bedstraws, were commercially viable.  But 5g is enough to do a test dye of 5g of silk and 5g of silk goes a long way…

With unknown dyestuffs it is a rule of thumb to work with a 1:1 weight ratio.

It is not worth using electricity to dye with 5g of dyestuff the fast/usual way. So this is what I have done. It’s a good method for testing small amounts of unknown dyestuff and not risking much fibre. It is also low impact on the environment.

I used chalk here as you do that with madder. It can be omitted for other weed roots, like docks, nettles, brambles, etc – unless you are experimenting with pH levels and their effect on colour. In which case – fill your boots. I have got decent dyes from nettle and dock roots, in the past. But would only bother if I had a patch of nettles or docks to clear.

I used to use this method of dyeing a lot with my classes of primary aged kids – our classroom must have stank like the Science Experiment From Hell, sometimes!  But the kids enjoyed predicting what colours they’d get.

Goosegrass in a corner of the dye-plant bed

Goosegrass in a corner of the dye-plant bed

Low Impact Test Dyeing

Use this method with other weeds/roots.

Hedgerow Red (Goosegrass, Lady’s or Hedge Bedstraw)

You Need…

Kilner Jar (or any wide-mouthed glass/ceramic vessel)

Pinch of alum

Ground up uncoloured chalk (I used half a piece of tailor’s chalk as that was what I had to hand)

5g (or whatever you dig up) weed roots (in this case, goosegrass)

Same weight as above of silk or wool

Hard water


Dig up roots. Leave to dry, if possible, whilst outside so you can get as much mud off as possible.

Rinse roots thoroughly. Dry on a sunny windowsill, or wherever works best for you.  When dry, weigh.  Now weigh out equal amount of fibre. I’m using silk as it takes dye well. If you have pre-mordanted fibre, leave out the pinch of alum. If not, a surprisingly small amount of alum should be enough to fix dye.

Chop up roots into small pieces, so the colour can bleed out easier.

Grind up chalk and dissolve, with alum, in hot water.  Place in vessel.

Bring up level of water to about 2/3rds. Shake again.

Drop in roots.  Shake or stir a la James Bond.

Drop in thoroughly wetted-out fibre.

Cover, but don’t fasten lid down tight (it could ferment and explode!)

Re-visit your experiment daily over the next few days/week; turning over the fibre, and giving things a bit of a stir to distribute the colour evenly.  When desired depth of colour is reached – voila. Take out, wash and rinse.  I have found in the past that this pinch of alum is usually enough to fix the colour if dyeing such minescule amounts.  You have dyed a small amount of fibre, without using much fuel and without risking a colour you dislike on a lot of fibre.  If you like the results, you can dye more of it, conventionally. If you hate it – you have only lost a few grammes of fibre, a bit of time and you can always over-dye later, with a strong dye pot.

Goosegrass roots soaking (Fibre not yet added)

Goosegrass roots soaking (Fibre not yet added)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 944 other followers

%d bloggers like this: