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Natural dyeing day

November 1, 2011

Seven members of the North Herts Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers gathered together to try out a variety of natural dyes. We were fortunate that it was a glorious (if slightly chilly) Autumnal day, so we were able to work outside.

Members had each prepared a dyebath to use and brought premordanted (using either alum, or sumac) and unmordanted fibres and yarns including Teeswater fleece, Wensleydale roving and commercial sock yarns.

set up

Beginning our endeavours in a relatively scientific manner, we set up our first selection of dyebaths and each added a small test skein. These were heated according to the individual dyestuffs.

sumac test skeins

sloe bathsumac bath

They produced a glorious range of colours:

dye samples

From left to right: Sumac (ends then dipped for 10sec into the madder liquor); Walnut; Black bean (heated); Sloe; Madder; Sumac + Sloe (on silk); Goldenrod; Madder (liquor removed from original bath and diluted); Walnut (added later in the day); Buckthorn

Discoveries were made about the nature of each liquor, for example, the sloes failed to dye any of the wool, but dyed the string used to restrain the samples very nicely, suggesting that plant fibres would take the dye better. As silk can be classed as either vegetable or animal, we tried dyeing some silk fibre in the sloe liquor, with very pretty results.

silk dyed with sloe berries

The sample on the left has been first added to sumac liquor, and then to the sloes, and gave an “antique rose” type colour, rather than the brighter pink on the right.

Unfortunately, the fabulously blue skein of yarn that had been left in the black bean juice overnight
first dyeing samples

proved the point that dyebaths are often “one-shot”, giving up their best colours to the first thing put in them, as yarn or fibre left in the remaining juice with or without heating only produced very pale (albeit very beautiful) pastel blues, and only in well mordanted fibres.

As the day went on the dyed fibres added up and we were very glad of the October sunshine to dry our spoils.

dyed fleece

Further experimentation went on later in the day as we got bolder with the process, and changing the pH of the dye baths (or soaking the dyed fibre in hot white vinegar or washing soda solution) produced some interesting results

black bean samples

An iron bath was also tried to deepen the (really only vaguely) pink wool achieved via the sloe berries. This produced a not really quite so pretty muddy green colour that I will not share.


Walnut (browns)

Approximately 400g of the outer (green) husks of fresh walnuts were left to go black.

Then soaked in water for 3 weeks (no heat) and strained through old tights.

Liquor warmed to 80 degrees, kept thereafter in a haybox.

Yarns/fibres added for about an hour.

No need for mordant – the tannin in the husks makes this a substantive dye.

Buckthorn bark (golden yellows)

200g crumbled bark from P&M Woolcraft

3 kettles of hot water poured on to the bark in a large pan, then left in a haybox.

Yarn/fibre left in for an hour.

No need for mordant due to tannin in the bark.

Madder (reds, oranges, bricks)

Home grown in Hitchin. Plant dug up when at least 3 years old. Roots dried and kept for over 3 years.

Broken into small pieces by hand. 250g in total.

Bath prepared 3 days in advance.

Boiling water poured onto the root to  make a total volume of 5L. Left for 5-10 min. then strained and liquid discarded (can be used for a yellow/brown bath)

Madder root returned tot he stock pot (ensure no rust, or reds will turn to mauve)

Add cold water and reheat slowly to 60c. Held at that temp. for an hour. Cooled overnight. Next day, brought up to boiling and simmered for 5 min. Cooled overnight. Next day repeated process.

On day of use – liquor strained to make one dyebath, water added to roots to make a second dyebath of 5L.

Bring to 60 deg C and keep roots in the dyebath. Add wetted out, mordanted fleece in nets or mordanted yarn for 45mins or longer. Try and return any pieces of root which come out on the yarn to the dyebath.

There are many dye pigments in madder. At some stages of the process the colours are more orange/red and at others more pinky red. You can also put the dyed fibres/yarns in an afterbath of alkali to make them pinker or citric or acetic acid to make them more orange. Rinse well afterwards.

Black (turtle) beans (blue)

Approx. 550g dried black beans soaked in 5L of cold water for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

Liquid was ladled off into a container (beans can then be used for cooking!).

First skein was soaked in the dyebath for 10-12 hours.

Half of the remaining liquid was heated at 70c for 1 hour, half was left unheated.

Some pale blue colour was obtained on well-mordanted fibre but looking at the liquid it was clear that the dyebath had been exhausted (the liquid was no longer black, but turning red, the other pigment in the beans).

Sumac (yellows)

200g mixture of leaves and chopped up twigs soaked then simmered for just over an hour then cooled.

Care taken not to breath in fumes!

Used cold as mordant – not that effective

Used hot as mordant – more effective

Used hot as dye on non-mordanted fibre – not very effective

Used hot as dye on allum mordanted fibre – effective

Goldenrod (yellows)

Material 650g dried golden rod flowers and leaves, this was a couple of years old.

Poured boiling water onto dried matter, enough to cover.

Simmered for 2 hours and left to cool overnight.

Strained plant matter from liquor.

Added approx 150g of alum mordanted wool to cold liquor.

Gradually bring liquor upto simmering point.

Simmer for 1 hour

Note: This is a one shot bath, the dye tends to be totally absorbed in the first dip.  We tried dyeing a small amount of wool in the liquor after the first wool was removed but this resulted in a very poor take-up.

Sloe berries (pinks)

2kg of sloe berries were collected and frozen. These were then pressure cooked until soft and passed through a sieve to produce a liquor.

Although the dyebath looked very strongly coloured, no wool added took any dye of significance. However, the garden string used to tie the samples did take the dye, as did alum mordanted silk fibre.

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