A New Obsession: Natural Dyes

Yes, I am now behind again on my 52 portraits plight.  I don’t care.  I had to spend the entire weekend dyeing wool with plants.  I HAD to!

Previously, I had only dyed with black walnut which requires no mordant or special treatment.

I started with marigolds.  I did a little research online about how to dye with marigolds and my friend showed me some notes and samples from a class she took at John Campbell Folk School.  I bought some alum from the crankiest yarn store employee I’ve ever met, and headed out to Echoview Fiber Mill to check out their yarn.  They didn’t have the weight I was looking for, but I found a really lovely worsted weight un-dyed wool that was soft and beautiful.  I didn’t take the time to, but you’re able to look down into their mill to see how they do their thing.  There are also lots of dogs that ‘work’ there in “customer service”.

Then I went out to the yard and picked every single marigold in bloom.

yarn marigoldI pre-mordanted the yarn according to a recipe I found online using alum and cream of tartar.  Then I boiled the marigolds in water for over an hour, strained out the flower heads and dunked the yarn into the marigold water.  I let that simmer for over an hour.  I threw in a few onesies, too, for all those wonderful new babies coming into the world through my beloved friends.  I think I rinsed it all out, too, but I honestly don’t remember.   Then I hung them to dry.

yarn marigold 2

I wasn’t smart enough to figure out a way to loosely tie them so the 3 skeins would stay separate while it simmered so it came out a huge mess.

yarn marigold 3

It looks like a lovely buttery yellow in these pictures but when it was finally dry, it was an intensely bright yellow.  Think Big Bird.  I’m just not into wearing bright canary yellow so I think will over dye it with other plant material.  I might try jewel weed which is supposed to give a soft orange yellow, or maybe sumac which dyes kind of a khaki to cool down the yellow.   It would be a great color for children’s clothing, though!

Then Saturday I got crazy about some poke berry dyes.  I went to the library and got a book to help me along since Poke is notorious for being absolutely vivid and stunning initially, only to fade to brown or leave the fiber completely.

harvesting color

This is an amazing book which I am sure I will buy after I have to grudgingly return it to the library, nicely spattered with fuchsia sprays of poke juice of course.  (That lovely color on the cover that was made by zinnia flowers is more what I imagined for my marigold dye).  About half of her plants are only native to the West Coast or Southwest, but there are plenty featured in the book that grow around me.

Kurt’s old buddy was visiting from out of state.  Luckily, he’s a huge plant nerd, too, so he was more than happy to spend an afternoon scouring the neighborhood with me and Kurt, driving slowly down streets on poke watch, pulling over and wading through tall grasses for the plump, dark berry clusters.  We found poke paradise near our favorite taco shop and filled our bags to the brim!

poke berries

I really  have no pictures of the picking or processing since my hands were constantly covered with sticky fuchsia juice from the time we started picking until the yarn finally went into the dye bath.  Basically it went like this: I had to wash the wool with a ph neutral soap since I used wool from a big box store and didn’t know how it was treated.  Then I had to mordant it in vinegar to fix the color.  I bought a ph reader but foolishly bought one for soil testing and it didn’t seem to work with liquid.  Since I couldn’t be sure of the ph, I just followed the recipe from the book.  While the yarn was in the vinegar bath, I cooked the berries in water and vinegar, following the recipe.  When it was finally ready and strained, I took the yarn out of the mordant bath, placed it in the dye bath and left it on low for 2 hours.  The recipe says it’s very important not to bring the berries to a boil or the red dyes will be destroyed, but I accidentally did.  After 2 hours of gentle heat (and sometimes boiling accidentally), I covered the pot and left it to sit over night.  At this point, it was 4 AM.  I told you, I got crazy!  I slept for a while and set my alarm to go off when it was time to turn the burner off.  The next day I rinsed in water until the yarn ran clear then hung to dry.

yarn pokeThe color looks more hot pink in this photo than it does in real life.  There is some really beautiful variation in color from crimson to hot pink to purple pink.  It’s completely dry and will hopefully retain its beautiful color.  I couldn’t be happier with the results.  This dye process was INCREDIBLY time consuming (especially since I only had 2 pots) but, if the color holds, absolutely worth the time.  I am considering re-dying them again following the same process to be sure that the colors will stay- this time with a real ph reading.  But I might just see how it fares over time.  I could always re-dye the sweater next year if I needed to.  See the photo from the book below for the color she achieved and says has stayed vivid:

poke-berry harvesting colorThere are definitely spots of that color in my yarn, but a lot of it is much pinker.  I am a little worried that the pinker parts might fade.

I plan to make this pattern by Katie Davies with the yarn.

owlI’m also trying out a vinegar extraction for the racemes and might do a cold dye bath of several weeks with that once it’s ready.

I am thinking I might have to plant my garden according to my dyeing whims.  Amazingly, I learned the type of holly hock I planted this year is the variety used to dye a beautiful pale sage green color.  Huzzah!  I know I’ll be dyeing holly hock bloom greens like mad come next summer!

Have any of you tried dyeing with plant material?   Was it successful?  Favorite plants to dye with?



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Shirley says:

    What a delightful article. I found myself laughing and nodding. When you find a new obsession, there is nothing else for it, you HAVE to spend all your spare time – and more, immersed in it. I have used walnut husks and onion skins, in the past. I am going to have another go soon, and try avocado stones for a rose pink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s