Gulp....A number of people have asked me questions about this dyeing lark and I thought maybe I ought to do a post (another one I hear you mutter) in a tutorial sort of way. I hesitate because I'm no expert but just a mad woman who got hooked over the summer. So what I would like to do is share some of the knowldge I've accumulated, the suppliers I've used (sorry no web link to Mother Nature yet) and to tell you about the colours I got.
First off, a WARNING. Natural dyeing is highly addictive. You will never look at a plant in the same way again and your friends and neighbours will start locking their garden gates.
The Raw Materials
I've been dyeing wool blanket, undyed knitting wool which came from Texere Yarns (search for Pure New Wool) and fleece. I was lucky to find two local supplies of a Blue Faced Leicester cross and - hold your breath - a prize winning Cotswold. It's so important to have good quality raw material and fleece that you can actually spin.
A mordant is something that helps fix the dye to the fibre and most dyers use Alum and Cream of Tartar. There are other mordants like copper and chrome but Alum is the safest. The recipe I've been using is 8% Alum, 7% Cream of Tartar to 100g of fibre. So for 500g you would take a pan of water and place it on your stove. Measure 40g of Alum into a cup and add boiling water. Stir and add to the pan on the stove. Measure 35g of CoT, add boiling water, stir and add to the pan too. Wet your fibres in the sink and add them to the pan on the stove before the water gets too warm. Bring up to a simmer and simmer for about an hour. Because my pan is usually stuffed full I tend to tip the whole lot out into the sink afterwards and leave for a few hours or overnight. That way I can make sure every inch is mordanted. If you take it out leave it to cool somewhere or it put straight into a hot dyepot. NEVER put the hot wool in cold water as it will shrink.
I bought some dyes from the lovely people at P&M Woolcraft and I used a lot of things from the fields and garden. The bought stuff was indigo, madder, weld, fustic, cutch and logwood. At this point I should mention that I used a couple of books as my guides and I urge you to do the same. Mine were Wild Colour by Jenny Dean and A Dyer's Manual by Jill Goodwin. The books will tell you how to use each dye and show you the range of colours you can get. Of the dyes from the hedgerows I used goldenrod, carrot tops, cherry bark and apple bark, walnuts, dahlias, almost dead hollyhocks, french marigolds, comfrey, blackberries and silver birch, and onion skins.
Some things were a huge success, others a dissapointment, some surprises. I loved never knowing how something would turn out - after all you don't have a Dylon lid to show you. Sometimes you'd have the most lovely ruby red liquid from purple dahlias in the pot and you'd put in your wool and it would come out a bronzey gold colour. I gave up trying to get a green. You'd think that with all the green in nature that's the first colour you'd get but no Mother Earth doesn't give that to us so easily. A good green can only be achieved by overdyeing a yellow with blue such as woad or indigo.
In a nutshell, you basically extract the dye from the dyestuff by simmering it in water. Some things like bark need soaking for a few days, madder overnight but flowers are generally fine to use straight away. So you put your dye stuff in a pan and bring it up to a simmer. Then I usually cool the dyebath before I add the fibres. Unless ofcourse you have just mordanted and the fibres are hot too. You should really strain the dyebath before you add the fibres but I'm pretty slapdash and I seem to prefer to extract the pieces of bark or flower from the wool afterwards! I don't advise it. So you've put your wool in the dyebath and you simmer the whole lot for anything from 30 mins to an hour. I sometimes leave the whole lot in the pot to cool, sometimes take it out and leave it to cool on the table outside. Once cooled you'll need to rinse out the excess dye. Some people recommend a bit of white vinegar in the rinsing water. Whatever you chose rinse the wool well and hang out to dry.
I'll just list some of the results because the pics can be found in previous posts and in my 'Natural Dyeing' photo album in the sidebar. I must point out that all the fibres I used took up the dyes differently eg a blanket in apple or cherry bark produced a lovely deep fawn colour but the fleece was very light and not impressive at all. By the way apologies for not stating quantities I hardly weigh anything.
Madder - I used 300g of madder to 400g of knitting wool. The books all said not to take the dyebath over 80C so I simmered the dye at that heat for an hour, strained the mixture, added the wool, simmered, took out the wool and added the dye again, simmered it again, added the wool again, simmered again. I repeated this about 4 times. I got a deep orangey colour but never the red I wanted. I've ordered some more dye to try again. After all this pallaver I added a tablespoon of citric acid granules (leftover from Elderflower Cordial making) and I dyed some fleece. It came out BRIGHT orange.
Indigo - my favourite colour but you need a book to tell you what to do. Don't be put off by the instructions it's not difficult and definately worth it.
Weld - produced a nice lemony yellow.
Fustic - nice yellow.
Safflower - a deeper yellow.
Cutch - a deep tan colour on blanket which went a gorgeous nutbrown after we added iron. However, the iron made the blanket quite rough to the touch - grrrr.
Logwood - gorgeous deep purple colour on blankets and wool.
Goldenrod - I used fresh flowers on fleece and blanket. Very nice yellow. Hoping to over dye with indigo to get green.
Apple and Cherry barks- soaked for about 5 days and then boiled up. Lovely fawn shade on blanket but dissapointing on fleece.
Silver Birch leaves- very light greeny yellow.
Comfrey- supposed to make a green according to the books but mine did nothing - just beige.
Blackberries - boiled up in a pan and added fleece. Produced various shades of purple but apparently it will all fade to grey eventually.
Carrot tops - very nice lemony yellow.
French Marigolds - I only had about eight. Produced a lovely fresh yellow.
Dahlias - used purple ones but they gave a bronzey gold colour.
Hollyhocks - found lots on the ground, slightly shrivelled but with some colour in them. I boiled them up (horrid smell) and put in my fleece and I got a light metallic green.*
Walnuts - don't need a mordant . I couldn't wait for them to drop so I picked about 8 off a tree. Chopped them up and soaked them for a few days. Boiled up last night and added some fleece. I put the pan in the Aga (slow oven) and forgot all about it. Four hours later when I did remember I rescued the poor fleece and it was fine. Infact it was fine AND a beautiful deep brown colour the sort I wish my hair was. Will I be able to repeat this experiment....
Onion skins - no mordant needed for these. Produced a bright, orangey yellow.
Turmeric needs no mordant and produces a golden yellow and lovely green when overdyed with indigo. However, the books suggest mixing the turmeric with pomegranate rind to make it colour fast.
Pomegranate. I just peeled it and boiled the rind. Turned the fleece a light yellow.
Cochineal needs a mordant and mine produced a deep pink. I dipped it briefly in logwood and it turned a lovely purpley colour.
Brazilwood needs a mordant and it dyed my fleece a lovely deep pink. As it's also ph sensitive I put some wasjing soda in the pot and the fleece went purple.
Must just share an experiment with you. I had a big dyeing mistake on some skeins of wool and I found a website telling me how to remove the colour from wool. So I followed the instructions using Thiox and washing soda - colour disappeared. Then I was supposed to neutralize the wool by soaking it in water and white vinegar. As the wool was hot and I was impatient I put the vinegar in hot, hot water and added my wool. It went a light greeny, aqua colour - eeek. Took it out quickly and hung it out. Then me gets thinking and I puts in my greeny fleece dyed with hollyhocks and it goes a nice sage green. I'm sure the thiox must have been spent by now so was it the washing soda that did it? Any chemists out there who can tell me?
Apologies for such a lengthy post... I could have gone on longer. Please do ask if something doesn't make sense and I'd love to see your results if you try any natural dyeing. Maybe one day we'll have our own group on flickr...........
* It seems that Hollyhocks are ph sensitive and the washing soda is alkaline which means? I wish I'd paid more attention in Chemistry.