Friday, March 1, 2013

Natural Dye Sample Project: Part 3

Over the past few days I've told you about our natural dye experiments, the process we used, the mordants and afterbaths and the fibers.    In this last part, I'm going to talk a bit about each of the dyes.     The photo shows the alpaca samples.   Refer to Part 2 for pics of other samples that turned out super well. 

From left to right, the dyes we used were:   indigo, comfrey, goldenrod, osage orange, walnut, apple twigs, madder, brazilwood, cochineal, logwood.

I've done posts of some of these before, so follow the links [red or purple] to more information.

Indigo:   This dye requires an oxygen poor environment in which to bind the dye to the fiber.   This means you have to create a 'reduction vat'.   There are several ways to do that.  We used Rit Dye Remover as the reducing agent.   Worked great!     In the past I have also used sheep urine to achieve a reduction vat.   It worked, but smelled awful.     Tradition has it that the best thing to use in indigo vats was the urine of adolescent boys.    We didn't go there.

Comfrey:  This is a mostly medicinal plant that was brought over from Europe and has now naturalized.    I found some on this place and planted it around [Extremely effective for bruising, scrapes, cuts, etc.].   One of the dye books mentioned that it gave a green dye so we tried it.   It did give a nice light olive dye, but it takes a lot of leaves.    The photos don't give it justice.

Goldenrod:  We have acres of goldenrod out here.  Gather the flower tops.  It's best to use just as the flowers are opening.   You can cut it and dry it and save it for later and it works just fine.

Osage Orange: This is a tree native to this part of the world. Maclura pomifera has large soft seed balls.  It is an extremely useful tree - good for bug repellent as well as gorgeous orange dyes.    We used sawdust for the dye. 

Walnut:  Black walnuts in the hull give great dyes.   I saved ours and we used them after they had turned black.   It takes a couple of days of boiling to get a lot of dye out, but it sure gives gorgeous browns.

Apple twigs:  We pruned our apple tree early one spring and a few hours later noticed bright orange staining on the wood.    I did a little research and sure enough, it has been used for dyeing, so we tried it.    I gathered smaller twigs - finger sized - cut them up and boiled them in a pot.   I loved the color.

Madder:   Plenty has been written on the use of madder in dyeing.   We purchased the dried roots and used those.    It takes an extra day of soaking to release the dye, so plan ahead.

Brazilwood This is hard to come by these days and has become very expensive.  If you can get some, do!   It gives gorgeous colors and the wood chips can be used multiple times until exhausted.   This was one of my favorite dyes to use because of the wide range of colors it yielded.

Cochineal:  This is an insect.   Also very expensive these days.    When you buy it, you'll get a packet of dried grayish bugs.   Grind the bugs up to release the dye.    A little goes a very long way - we thought we were going to get medium shades of red and we got very very very dark shades.   This is a dyebath that will yield many exhaust baths, so prep lots of yarn. 

Logwood:   Another tree Haematoxylum campechianum  yields great color.  We were shooting for lavenders, but got lots of gray.    It's possible that we were using too much dye or the pH was wrong.     The alpaca in the photo above showed the best color variation for this dye.

Where to buy natural dyes?   A lot of these dyes can be found near you - collect them from the wild.  Remember to ask permission before you go into someone's field or yard to gather something. 

For the more exotic dyes you can get great natural dye kits and extracts from Earthues and dry dyestuff from  Dharma Trading Company.  

A couple of things to remember:
  • Natural dyeing is not precise.    You won't get the same color twice.   That's why synthetic dyes were invented.   
  • Natural dyeing is not necessarily safe or organic.   Stick to alum and tartaric acid or cream of tartar if you want safe mordants.   Wear gloves.
  • Prep plenty of fiber so that you can exhaust the dyebath completely - you'll get a lot of shades that way. 
  • Natural dyeing is a long process.  Give yourself plenty of time. 
  • In order to get even color over your fiber, you'll need to stir.  However!  Stirring can cause felting with protein fibers so have a plan for gentle swishing and don't be surprised if the fibers come out streaky.   
Good luck!   And keep us posted on your own dye experiments.


  1. Robin, this was a fascinating series. I remember the posts where you started this adventure. I loved the colors you got and the alpaca and silk were beautiful in the photos but I bet breathtaking in person! Like the bees, this is something I'll never do myself, so I love that you do and share it with us! :-)

  2. I'm a fiber artist and professional seamstress, and I came across your blog while looking for instructions on using goldenrod for dye. I was recently given 14 lbs of raw cream colored alpaca that is now at the mill being being processed, and wanted to dye some of it using natural dye, but am so excited by everything else I see here! I may live in an urban environment in the wilds of Queens, NY (though i grew up in rural NJ), but I hope to bring a bit more rural into my tiny apartment. :-)

  3. Hi Lizziean! Welcome to the blog. We were thrilled at the great color that alpaca fiber took during these experiments. I wish you good luck in your own dyeing. I'm sure you'll come up with something beautiful!


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