Dyeing with Natural Sources

Dyeing with plants and flowers and natural sources is a fascinating hobby. My first attempts years ago were with onion skins and dandelion flowers using wool I had spun myself and I achieved a golden ochre and a delicate lemon yellow. With the move to Norfolk, meeting my new neighbour with her sheep and suddenly having lots of fantastic cream Romney Kent wool to play with as I describe in my weaving blog along with a new and developing garden I started to learn more about the natural dyes on my doorstep.

This blog is a brief overview of some of the dyes I have used up to now and will give you an idea of the fantastic colours that can be found in the natural world around us. In future blogs I will give a more detailed description of mordants and each individual dyeing process and any modification used on the dyed yarn.

The joy of natural dyeing for me is in the experimentation and never quite knowing exactly what colour will be achieved. The colours have a subtlety which is hard to describe. With most dyes a strong colour is achieved with the first dyebath and paler shades with subsequent dips.

Ivy is abundant on the trees in the hedgerows here in Congham and is easy to gather, the dark green leaves make a really good green when simmered for a couple of hours and a little iron modifier added.

I grew madder (Rubia tinctorum) from seed a few years ago, the roots have a red dye, mainly one called Alizarin, that can be extracted when the plants are three or four years old.

I used one of the plants last summer, and was fairly pleased with the deep pink colour, but I didn’t get the red I was hoping for.

I’ve since read that there are many factors that affect the colour extracted such as grinding the roots rather than chopping them, making sure the temperature doesn’t go too high and using calcium carbonate (chalk) in the dyebath to harden the water. So I’ll be doing a few more trials this summer as I really want to achieve a bright red on my yarn.

One of the most exciting dyes |I’ve used to date is woad. This dye is found in the leaves of the plant Isatis tinctoria which I’ve grown from seed for several years. The leaves are best picked from first year plants in late July and August to extract the most amount of dye.

Extraction is quite a complicated process. The later stages involve keeping oxygen out of the dye vat and immersing the yarn very carefully to avoid introducing oxygen. The pigment then attaches to the yarn in just a few minutes and when brought out it then reacts with the oxygen in the air and the blue colour develops before your eyes.

The blue is a lovely sky colour, not as dark as that achieved with indigo. I used it to knit a jumper for my daughter (a Rowan pattern) along with a soft grey from elderberry dye and natural cream.

Because gathering woad for dyeing is over such a short period it is possible to prepare the dye and store it in sealed bottles to use at other times of the year. I have four bottles made from 1kg of leaves in my dyeing shed which I plan to use in the next month, it will be interesting to see whether this works! If it does I can then grow more plants and store the dye for next winter.

As I already mentioned onion skins were one of the first dyes I tried. It gives a really deep orange from simply simmering in water. We grow most of our own vegetables here at Bramble Cottage (and we eat a lot of onions) so there are always plenty of skins to collect.

These three balls of wool were dyed with onion skins (top) eucalyptus leaves (left) and alder twigs (bottom) and the colours look so good together.

I grow eucalyptus for use in bouquets and flower arrangements, the blue-silver rounded leaves are very popular. Once a year the shrubs have to be given a good haircut to maintain this leaf shape otherwise the shrub will rapidly become a large tree and the leaves become narrow and long, not so good for adding to bouquets. Anyway, the prunings don’t go to waste. The leaves when simmered give a good peachy-orange which when modified with a little iron produces a delicious dark olive green. 

We planted an alder and crabapple hedge a few years ago and when it was time to trim it last autumn I kept the alder twigs to one side to use as a dye. Chopped up and soaked for a couple of weeks before simmering, the wood produced a medium tan colour with the first dyebath and a pale beige/peach with the second dyeing. This is what I enjoy so much about natural dyeing, nothing can be rushed and the colours achieved are like a voyage of discovery.

I have a bed of chamomile in my dyeing garden, the plants are very easy to grow and seed themselves readily. The flowers are easy to collect and the yellow dye they contain gives a really bright and fresh colour. I dried some of the flowers for later use, they worked just as well as the fresh ones which means I can store them for use in the winter months, always a bonus when there are very few plants and flowers available for dyeing.

And now we come to indigo, a colour which I really love. I’ve tried to grow Indigofera tinctoria from seed with no success, I have some fresh seeds for this year and will try again. In the meantime I used some indigo powder to try dyeing with and it took me three attempts before I had any success. I had help and advice from a more experienced friend and finally third time lucky I produced a lovely deep blue. I was so delighted and carried on dipping, using the dyebath to ‘overdye’ the yellow of chamomile on wool for a rich green.

I’ve also tried dyeing a silk yarn which needs a little more care than wool in its preparation. These samples in the photos below are a range of colours from all of the dyes mentioned above.

These colours have a coastal feel about them with the muted blues, peaches, grey and green and I am excited to think what I will weave with them, The yarn is beautifully soft so maybe a shawl for cool summer evenings.

Apart from the plants and flowers I grow in my dye garden there are other dyes from other parts of the world that can be used. I was given some brazilwood chips and logwood powder and I used these for deep rich pinks, purples and black.

Every time I dye a yarn I keep a record of the mordant, dye and any modifier used. This is useful for me for future reference and it also shows how reproducible natural dyes are. I was surprised to see just how many different colours I’d produced since I started dyeing a couple of years ago.

There will always be a slight colour variation between batches but I think this adds an individuality and uniqueness to any project I make. Producing all these lovely colours is what then started me on my weaving journey which you can read about on my Weaving blogs…    

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