Natural Dyeing Final Thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot about why there are so many variations within natural dyeing. I never found two sources that gave the same times for any part of the process. I found a little more similarities when it came to the properties of mordants but really, it was hard to get a consensus on pretty much anything.

That’s a pretty high barrier of entry to someone new to the process! I know some people are very into experimenting and don’t care how a project turns out but my time is valuable to me as are all of the components needed to dye.

This was not a particularly cheap project despite trying to keep it as low cost as possible. I bought 2 skeins of yarn ($20), a stainless steel steamer ($40), alum ($13). Since I used edible flowers and walnuts and alum is also used in pickling I felt okay using my own cooking thermometer, stainless measuring spoons, measuring cup, stainless tongs and basin. Even using all that, I spent almost $75 on this project! I can use the pot and alum again for other projects but you can see why I’d want some guidance.

Besides the obvious reason of natural dyes being one of those things that is handed down so “this is how I do it” and “this works for me” is common, I think the cost does keep people from doing more experimentation.

Coming from the cookbook publishing world as an author I know that publishing pays authors very little and gives no budget for recipe testing. I can only imagine that’s equally true in the even more niche craft arena. These books and blogs are a labor of love, not a money maker. It takes time and money to take a scientific approach to figuring out natural dyeing methods. Lots and lots of yarn, time, and money. Most people don’t have that. Even bloggers who are not beholden to publishers have the pressure to churn out new content and new projects all the time.

Ideally, a dyer could say “this is what the scarf looks like at 30 minutes, at 60, at 90” and either decide what is best or present the info and leave it to the reader to decide. I don’t think they have the luxury of during this. Very very few people are paid to experiment in natural dyeing! I think it would be a fun project to make and publish if you were a textile student at a college or university but I can’t imagine many other people being able to do that.

Baring actually replicating their techniques and documenting variations, I do think these authors should either include how they came to the conclusion this was the best or correct way to do the project (bizarrely virtually none did) or simply say, “I can’t test all the variations but this is what works for me” (which a few did).

I read a book that I believe was a PhD thesis, Weaving Rag Rugs: A Women’s Craft in Western Maryland by folklorist Geraldine Niva Johnson, that was published in 1985 and sue mentions that there is talk of funding craftspeople who have skills that were once common or even that are regional and obscure to continue doing them and perhaps teach others. I know Maryland has a folklife grant that does this but it’s not enough to live on. I’m not sure if other states have this program but I do think it’s needed. That’s the kind of funding that could really solidify and advance something like natural dyeing.

I am very motivated but having to piece together information that contradicted each other on a subject I knew little about was very daunting. For most of my life I would not have had the funds to to spend on a “fun” project like this or even take up something like weaving at all. For something like natural dyeing where you can literally forage for the dye or grow it yourself, there should be as few barriers in place as possible.

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 5: The End?

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure if this is the end or if I might try to do something else with it. It’s been done for over a week and I keep going back and forth.

I don’t love brown or earth tones so I was hoping the eco printing would add some vibrancy to the walnut-dyed scarf. I used what I could find and while it did add color, it was mostly yellow and green shades. I left it wrapped up 24 hrs and the colors are really dark so that’s good at least!

This picture is it in really bright light and backlit. Indoors or worn it really looks more like a natural leopard or cheetah print and less like mold.

I can’t decide if it looks as bad as I think it does or is it just that I don’t like the colors.

I did “forage” some bright orange maple leaves the yesterday outside of the local Italian market. I was debating about eco printing it again with them it but the splotches from the flowers really are all over the scarf. Would the leaves make it look worse? It doesn’t seem like I’d have to mordant it again so it wouldn’t be a big project.

The big question is did I ruin it by the eco printing? I was hoping the red and gold flowers would add red, not just yellow. I wasn’t expecting clear flower outlines because I used squishy, fluffy marigolds and mums but some color variety would have been nice.

Maybe adding leaves would fill in the gaps and make it look more intentional?

As my guild reminded me when I mentioned I was working on it during our last meeting, it is supposed to be an experiment and learning experience but I also want it to look good!

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 4: Eco Printing

It took a few days but I got the scarf woven and off the loom. Man, that was tedious. The yarn was basically the same color as the loom, my hands and the table and it was really difficult to stay focused.

I did some simple fringe. As you may recall, I had some issues warping so one end was a little short but short fringe is fine!

When I was in Frederick I “foraged” some marigolds and a few mums to do the eco print. I stuck them in the fridge overnight so they didn’t dry out.

Sunday morning, I whisked together 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon alum and 1 cup water in my big pot. I brought it to a boil. I then added about 2 quarts of water, the scarf and 2 clean, new “flour sack” towels from Aldi I had on hand for craft purposes and simmered it at 180° for 20 minutes.

I pulled them out of the liquid and into a basin.

I took them right outside to my big table and laid out the scarf. I sprinkled it with flowers and topped it with the the towels, folding the towels to the width of the scarf.

I placed two skewers on the end (one would work but I only had shorter ones) and tightly rolled the towels/scarf around the skewers. I tied it shut with kitchen twine.

I dumped out the alum water and added fresh water to cover the bundle. I boiled it for 1 hr, turning it every 15 minutes.

I removed it from the pot and placed it in a basin for 24 hrs.

I did a lot of reading about eco printing. Like everything else with weaving and dyeing there was no real consensus on how long or how exactly to do anything. A manufacturer of alum had you soak the cloth cold, other sources said you had to heat it. Some had you steam or pressure cook the bundles, others had you boil it for 15 minutes, an hour, two hours, four hours, soaking overnight. Some used a mordant like alum (which I chose hoping it would be more colorfast and bright) some did not. Some used iron, some used nothing.

I decided just to do what made sense and hope for the best. I didn’t want to monitor a pot for hours so I didn’t. I couldn’t fit the bundle into the steamer compartment so I boiled it. I don’t know how people boiled or steamed larger bundles! This was a small scarf in a 8 qt pot and it was tight. I did see one example where they wrapped around hoses because that was what they had on hand and that seemed to work rather well because you could form it into a circle and fit it in the pot more easily.

Some sources had you keep the bundle wrapped up for a week! I don’t know where they live but that sounds like a recipe for a moldy project to me.

After I planned all this out and started executing the project a book I ordered from the library came in, The Modern Natural Dyer: A Comprehensive Guide to Dyeing Silk, Wool, Linen, and Cotton at Home by Kristine Vejar which has a similar project but eco printing on old wool fabric/blankets to turn into an a sewing kit of some sort. Her instructions were a bit different than what I ended up doing, timing-wise but it was good to see what I pieced together was on the right track.

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 3: Weaving

I am starting to wonder if the project is a little cursed! As I went to start to weave I realized I had warped it going the wrong way! I somehow didn’t realize that there were holes for the clamps (why is this?) on both sides. The loom is so tiny, there isn’t a huge amount of difference and I was trying to get it done and I guess not focusing enough? But when I went to weave in some scrap yarn for a header it was clear I was on the wrong end.

Luckily, I think it will be okay. I panicked then thought that I tie the warp on my floor looms on both ends and that’s secure enough. I rewound the warp on the end that I had tied off instead of the end I had wrapped with warp. I wove a thicker header than usual to give some length for fringe to make up for the length that normally I wouldn’t reach while weaving which is now in front of the loom. I will just have to cut the warp off rather than untie it when I’m done. Or I could machine hem it if it is a little a short. Hopefully that works? I’m already a little tired of this project.

It does look nice! I’m starting with the leftovers from the warp which is the skein that was a little less evenly dyed so I’m getting some pleasant variation. I’m not sure if that will end up being too much of a contrast with the next skein of weft when I get to that. The warp will still be pretty unevenly dyed so there still should be some variation.

I ordered some alum for the eco printing. Once again I see a lot of different suggestions about how to eco print fabric and about half suggest alum or iron. I think alum brightens colors so I’m going with that.

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 1: Dyeing

When we visited the Landis Valley Museum I foraged some black walnuts that were dropping (and rotting) all over the place. I figured of all places not to mind some low key foraging it would be a living history museum!

I picked up about 8 green pods and double wrapped them in some plastic bags we had in the car. I let them sit, bagged, on our enclosed porch until today.

They were starting to get soft so I just stepped on the bag and cracked them open a bit.

I added them to the large steamer pot that I ordered from Amazon. My idea had been to thrift a pot but I really didn’t think I had the time to do that and still have time to complete my project before the walnuts really rotted.

At our guild zoom meeting on Monday I volunteered to present a dye project in December (dyeing yarn and then making something with it is the guild project from now until May) so I wanted to get on this project while I could still do some foraging in case it didn’t work out.

I had the idea for using a steamer pot with a deep insert because the insert acted like a sieve and I didn’t need a strainer or to use a mesh bag. It also has a shallow strainer basket that would be good for steaming yarn.

As soon as I added water to the pot it turned dark brown. I think this is because the husk/pod is where most of the dye comes from, not the actual shell or nut.

I brought it to a low boil and boiled it for about an hour. I know other sources say to boil it for many hours but this water was already very dark and if I’m honest, I don’t really like brown and didn’t want to make the yarn too dark. My plan is to weave up the yarn and then do some eco printing on the finished product using flowers and leaves from my yard so I need a lighter shade.

I strained out the walnuts. I soaked the yarn (to make this easy on me, I used white super wash sock yarn) in warm water about the same temperature as the dye. That seems to be important? I didn’t actually want to soak the yarn so I used stainless steel tongs to dip the yarn in the dye about three times. It really soaked up the dye!

I then put the yarn in a basin and rinsed it in our bathtub until the water ran clear.

Then I hung it on my new collapsible drying rack. I was excited about this one because it folds into a pole and not only has arms but the arms have holes I could hang hooks from for more yarn.

I only dyed two skeins—one for the warp and one for the weft. I’m going to make the scarf on my 15 inch Cricket rigid heddle so the sock yarn isn’t under too much tension and there will be a lot less loom waste. I don’t want to invest too much into an experiment! I don’t have the yarn stash so many weavers have.

I picked black walnuts because they are easy to find, don’t need a mordant and are color fast. I like the idea of natural dyes but so many fade so quickly! Some recipes tell you to redye your project yearly depending on the materials used. Who has time for that? I like to complete a project and move on.

The directions I found online were mostly on these blogs clogged with ads that are written in that robotic, repetitive SEO way that I find boring and difficult to follow. Some had you heating and cooling the yarn and heating and cooling the dye and then heating it together. Others had you heat the yarn and put it in hot dye. Some had you dip and some had you soak for anywhere from 15 minutes to literal months. It was really all over the place. Many directions had you using the dried shells which might explain some of it. I was using the very dye rich whole pod.

I just did what made sense to me and I have brown yarn now so I think it must be good enough. I had more than enough dye to dye many, many more skeins of yarn.

Harvesting Color, which I checked out of the library, had you fermenting the walnuts (in the husks) for three weeks. She does not explain why you are to do that. Then she has you boil it an hour, strain and then soak your yarn for 60-90 minutes. She also points out that you could add the husks back into the dye to darken it again as desired. I don’t find that a lot of books and blogs give you a lot of the “why” I am looking for. Why does she have you ferment when others don’t at all or like in Wild Color, only have you soak overnight? She talks about getting the same dye from the husk or the shell but other books imply there is some difference in color and state that the husk is where the majority of the “dye” is found. It’s all a little confusing. I guess the longer you soak or boil the walnuts the more concentrated the dye is so you can use it for more batches?

Guild Meeting: Natural Dyes

One of the members did a little experiment with using a variety of 4/2 and 8/2 cotton or cottolin, soy milk as the “mordant” with alder cones, rhubarb leaves and avocado skin for color. She dyed the warp with blackberry tea. She also used some commercially dyed yarn for contrasting stripes. I thought it came out really well! I liked the brighter parts because the natural dye is pretty subtle.

She used the technique from Rebecca Desnos’
Botanical Colour at your Fingertips.

And one exciting thing—one of the members offered to help me learn to spin!