I’m regularly asked to make hats or other items for re-enactment groups needing a specific match to a style or shade associated with their particular impression, and I’m always happy to help where I can. Usually, this is just a case of crunching a few numbers to create a pattern for them, swatching a few yarns to check texture and shade, and away we go. Even with these extra stages, I pride myself on being one of the fastest commission knitters on the historic circuit, and I can usually fill custom orders within a few weeks at the most. Once in a while though, it turns into rather more of a textile adventure than either myself or the client anticipated.
A year or so back I was approached by a Canadian Voltigeurs regiment needing a Kilmarnock style bonnet in a specific shade of very deep Rifle Green to match their uniforms. Structurally, not a problem, I already make a couple of variations on a Kilmarnock and it was a fairly simple matter to recalculate the numbers needed to match their proportions. Finding the right shade of Rifle Green yarn though, that was going to be a bit trickier.
I started off thinking I’d just dye the yarn as I went to the right shade or the finished hat after fulling, I’m a competent dyer and regularly do custom colour-ways, so I wasn’t expecting too much difficulty. Indeed, the sample hat I did them went really rather well, I’d been supplied with a fabric swatch, and after a couple of false starts including one really bizarre experiment where combining all the ‘usual’ components of deep olive green ended up with a strange muddy pink shade (I have no idea what I did wrong, and probably best if we never mention that particular hat again), I had a hat we were both happy with and a set of notes on re-creating the shade in case there were any future orders.
Roll on a few months, and the group were kind enough to commission a second batch of hats. Confident that I’d cracked the dye ‘code’ for this, I merrily knitted up, fulled, and dyed the bonnets. And got the colour wrong. Not hugely wrong, just too ‘brown’ for this particular order. Ok, chalk that one up to experience, adjust the dye notes, and redo them. This batch came out too ‘green’. The dye gremlins appear to have moved in on this one, and whatever I did came out just a whisker off the required shade. In the meantime, I was starting to stockpile some perfectly nice hats, but just not quite in the shades needed for this client. Fortunately, they are a lovely regiment and were being terribly patient with me whilst I gnashed my teeth and fretted about where the dye was going astray.
Here’s a few of the reject hats, all in an unfinished state. They will all eventually get finished and will probably find nice homes with re-enactors with slightly different shades of uniform, but that didn’t help here at this moment in time. The sample swatch is in the middle, it’s not easy to photograph the full range of colour differences but trust me, these hats aren’t nearly close enough.
I decided at this point that I really ought to have a good look at the commercially available yarns, maybe I just hadn’t spotted a perfect off the peg, repeatable yarn. With the wonders of internet shopping, it wasn’t even a problem if I had to order from abroad. So I made a vast pot of tea, and settled down to trawl the net for anything vaguely corresponding to very deep dark olive green.
Like many historic shades, it doesn’t seem to be possible to find exactly the shade I wanted in any of the brands of yarn that are known to full well. Added to that, historic style hats need a very specific type of yarn to be really successful. Some of the best known ‘felting wools’ out there are merino or similar, and which they make wonderful modern items, they have slightly too soft a drape and structure to hold up really well in historic hatting. Even so, after a couple of evening’s yarn browsing, I indulged in some shopping therapy and ordered in all the yarns that looked even remotely close on the computer monitor.
Here’s just a few of them and some of my own yarn experiments. All very different to each other aren’t they!
I set up sample swatches for the most promising, thinking that if the textures were good, then they might be good candidates for minor overdyeing to perfect the shades. Sadly, as I’d feared, the closest colour matches were too soft in texture to take the abuse I give them during fulling, and I wasn’t happy with the finish for my purposes in this project. I think I probably had twice this amount of dark green yarn at the height of the experimenting!
At this point, I felt the project was running embarrassingly late, so I called in the cavalry in the form of the very talented dyer Freyalyn, who has an excellent reputation for dyeing luscious fibre and yarn, and most important of all, is possibly even more obsessed with all the various shades of green than I am, and who I knew would understand exactly what we were trying to achieve. I felt very slightly comforted that she also found this shade a bit more complicated to achieve than expected, but she did it! Hooray for Freyalyn!
I’m currently just finishing off the hats, and I think we may just about be there this time. I’m actually starting to pester a few of my favourite yarn suppliers to ask if they might consider adding this shade to their range, after all, it’s a wearable, smart, useful shade, it’s just not currently out there, and I’d love to be able to bypass all the dyeing angst next time, and even more importantly, point other regiments and knitters at a good off the peg source, as I’m certain I’m not the only historic hat knitter out there getting asked for this form of Rifle Green bonnet.
All being well, I'll update this with a picture of the finished hats in a few days. For the moment, I'm turning my attention to a specific shade of bluey-grey needed for some forage caps. Guess what? This one also doesnt exist off the peg easily- thogh I'm testing a possible repeatable yarn and keeping my fingers crossed!