Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Gathering

Well, folks, I’m back and I now live in Virginia. The packing, moving, unpacking, painting, plumbing repairs, closet remodeling, curtain buying and hanging, and (blessedly) fiber and quilting guild meetings, have been all consuming leaving very little time for contributing to this blog. Additionally, unless you have a strong interest in home improvement, I really have had little to share.

This week one of my fiber guilds held a natural dyeing workshop at a local farm and it seems appropriate forthis to mark my return to blogging. It was like an old country gathering - women arriving (in cars instead of wagons) carrying their folding chairs, dyepots, gas burners, yarn and fiber for dyeing, and the products of nature with which they wished to dye. We set up outside on a beautiful sunny day and everyone worked to get the dyepots going.

The gathering

Dyestuff for the pots

Cate watches the pots

Until this experience, I have been a chemical dye girl - obtaining predictable, reproducible colors. Natural dyeing is anything but predictable and reproducible. I contributed a black walnut dye made from the walnut trees in my yard. We ended up with a great variety of dyes with which to experiment:

  • black walnut
  • onion skins
  • cochenille
  • hops
  • tumeric
  • indigo
  • safflower
  • pokeberry
  • pecan

I made little sample skeins of my handspun Finn and mordanted two sets - one set with alum and one with copper sulfate. I also cut 4 inch squares of cotton fiber which were treated with the same to mordants. I was interested to see how well the dyes would work on cotton. So, into each pot I put and alum skein and square and a copper sulfate skein and square. I have some interesting results to show you.

Black walnut

I love the two colors produced by the two mordants. I have a sweater pattern which I think will look great with these colors. Although the mordants produced two very different colors when dyeing wool, the cotton samples are almost identical. That proved to be the case with all of the cotton samples.

Onion skins

Even though I was aware of onion skins as a natural dye, I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of color obtained by the use of something I’ve been throwing in the garbage - a beautiful light gold with the alum and a darker gold with copper sulfate. As with the walnut, the mordants made no difference with the cotton squares.


We were told that the cochenille bath had been used before and I suspect it was nearly exhausted. Where I should have gotten crimson with alum and burgundy with copper, I only got paler versions of those colors. I’ll have to buy some cochenille and try it. Again, no difference on the cotton.


suspect most of us have a bottle of tumeric in our spice cabinet that we bought for a specific recipe and never used again. Well, if you want to use it for dyeing, it yields a lovely clear yellow with alum and a light olive with copper, and a clear yellow on cotton with both mordants.


The indigo pot had also been used before and was close to exhaustion by the time I got my samples in but I still got a lovely light blue. It’s like magic to dip in the indigo bath and then watch the blue develop as the sample is exposed to air.


The pecan husks yielded two browns similar to the walnut but with a green undertone. The difference is very evident in the cotton squares although the two mordants are still identical.


One of guild members who couldn’t come sent a huge bag of safflowers. The color obtained was a tone somewhere between the gold of the onion skins and the yellow of the tumeric. The cotton squares, however, are a pale peach.

My introductory foray into natural dyeing was a huge success. I may actually be a convert from chemical dyes - at least occasionally. At least as successful as the dyeing was the gathering itself. This was a lovely day spent outside with friends, dyepots, and sunshine. I couldn’t have asked for more.

1 comment:

labfish said...

I loved reading this and seeing the comparisons! And, it was, indeed, a wonderful way to spent a beautiful fall day!