There is a slippery slope when you fall hard for plants: your list of hobbies & activities can increase significantly! Dyeing with plants is the latest exploration that has engaged my curiosity.
First things first: using plants to dye fiber is not for the practical person who likes a speedy, reliable and reproducible process that delivers a consistent color each time. Synthetic dyes are better suited to those desires.
Dyeing with plants is for the curious learner who is unafraid of the occasional disappointment, who delights in the gathering and steeping of plant material and who believes in the power of adventure, awe and wonder. In fact, it’s similar to cooking and trying new recipes; if you can cook, you can dye with plants.
Dyeing fibers is chemistry: synthetic chemical dyes have eliminated the mordanting process and overrides environmental and chemical factors that play into the more experimental processes of dyeing with plants.
Another common complaint about plant dyed fiber is that the colors fade. This is true of specific plants, plant parts like berries and the environment that the fiber will most often be exposed to. A person enchanted with plant dyeing may not view this as a complaint but rather as an opportunity to dye again!
One of my first attempts with dyeing with plant materials involved collecting onion skins and dyeing wool with them. This project is a terrific way to introduce children to some basic chemistry so gather the family for a lesson in botanical dyeing. Once dried, the yarn can be used to introduce knitting or crocheting to children.
The outer skin of onions is one of the most useful and readily available dyestuffs. It reliably produces shades of orange, yellow, rust and brown...as seen here.
To understand the process, it helps to learn a few simple facts and some dye terminology.
- The first uses of color were mineral based included iron, colored clays, malachite (a green mineral) and lapis lazuli (a rock that produces blue pigment). These pigments were applied to the surface of the fiber rather than dyed in a solution.
- Dyes have been extracted from a variety of natural sources: insects, minerals, lichens, mushrooms, mollusks, peat bogs and plants. Different parts of the plants (e.g., bark, leaves, roots, buds, flowers, fruit and seeds) offer a variety of colors and related hues.
- Dyes consist of dissolved color particles in a solution (usually water) and the color is absorbed by the fiber particles. Synthetic fibers like acrylic, polyester, nylon etc. do not absorb botanical dyes. Natural fibers from animals and plants are highly receptive to botanical dyes.
Most plants give shades of yellow, tan, brass or gold and a few offer orange, brown and dull olive green. Only a few plants offer red and blue is limited to couple of plants. Note: You cannot predict the dye color by the color of the plant part you are using i.e., green leaves do not indicate green dye.
Chemical compounds called pigments found in natural materials like flowers, bark, leaves, fruit, seeds, lichens, and mushrooms
Protein — fiber produced by an animal: silk, wool, alpaca, mohair
Cellulose — fiber produced by plants: cotton, flax
Wood — basketry materials & handmade paper
The word mordant comes from the Latin word modere which means “to bite or fasten.” Mordants are used to permanently fix color to the fibers. Most commonly used mordants are metallic compounds like alum, tin, chrome and copper. Some of these compounds are toxic and need special handling considerations if used. Traditionally, human urine is used with indigo and woad dyeing. Plant mordants include rhubarb leaves, staghorn sumac leaves and oak galls.
A chemical like vinegar or household ammonia that is added to or after the dye pot and extends the range of colors.
The ability of a fiber or dye to retain its color without fading or washing out
The acidity or alkalinity of the water used for dyeing will influence color results.
Other factors that influence dyeing with plants:
- Geographical and climatic conditions
- Chemicals in the air and water
- Quality of the soil the plant was grown in
- Part and condition of plant when used (fresh, dried)
- Method of processing (hot, cold, fast, slow)
- Use or absence of mordant
MATERIALS & TOOLS FOR DYEING
To do a small amount of yarn as beginner’s project you will need a large amount of saved brown skins, the papery layer on an onion that generally falls off. I saved all of my brown onion skins for about 4 months — ask friends and family to do the same until you have at least 6 ounces of skins. Don’t be surprised to find yourself looking at the bottom of the grocery store's onion bin for skins…
Use 100% unbleached or white wool yarn. (Note: wool comes from sheep so it is a protein-based fiber.) For most plant dyeing projects, you match the weight of the yarn with the weight of the plant material. (EX: 6 oz of plant material will dye approx. 6 oz of wool) But with onion skins you will get more color saturation when you reduce the weight of fibers to dye stuff by half.
The yarn should be loosely wound with a couple of strings tied loosely around the skein. If the yarn is tightly wound, the color will not evenly saturate and you’ll have more of tie-dye effect...which is not necessarily a bad thing!
Alum & Cream of Tartar
For this small project use the safest and most common mordant: alum. You may be able to find both of these compounds in small quantities in the spice section of your larger grocery stores. If you can’t find them there, you can order online from a variety of dye and fiber businesses.
Use the following measurements to mordant 3-4 oz of yarn (dry weight):
- 1 tablespoon Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (potassium acid tartrate)
Do not use your cooking pots and tools for dye projects. Use or find an older pot and tools and dedicate them for dyeing purposes only. Older stainless steel pots, a set of long tongs, a large metal spoon and strainer can be found at thrift stores. A couple of plastic buckets or dish tubs are handy for soaking, rinsing and washing the yarn.
Scale & measuring tools
A simple or digital scale to measure weights of fiber, plant material and mordant. Remember this is chemistry so measuring and weighing are key to the project's success.
Old clothes, apron, plastic gloves & safety glasses
You can’t avoid splashing dye solution when removing yarn to rinse, wash and dry.
Like any other kind of science project you’ll want to keep notes of your progress: start with the weight of your yarn when dry and the weight of your skins.
Dyeing is often done outside because many plants can produce strong odors. This beginner’s project can be done on the kitchen stove since the skins do not produce a strong odor. You will need a place to hang the yarn to dry and it will drip so outside on a clothesline or tree branch is best.
NOTE: Onion skins will dye fiber that has not been mordanted but may not offer the range of colors and will not offer colorfastness. But if you are eager to dye, then skip the mordanting process.
Fill a bowl or dish tub with cool water and submerge your loosely wound yarn into it. Let soak for at least two hours or even better, overnight.
Prepare your mordant solution:
1) Submerge your loosely wound yarn in a dish tub of tepid water. Soak at least 2 hours or overnight.
2) Dissolve your alum crystals in boiling water. Stir until completely dissolved.
- Dissolve the cream of tartar in boiling water in a separate container.
- In a stainless steel pot, add 2 - 3 gallons of cool water.
- Add the dissolved alum and cream of tartar to the pot and stir.
3) Remove your wet fibers from the dish tub and place in the mordant pot. (No need to wring out the fiber.)
4) Starting with low heat, bring the water to just simmering. Push down (do not stir) the fiber frequently to ensure that all the yarn is saturated. DO NOT RAISE THE HEAT. Heat and movement will result in fibers connecting to each other, creating what you and I call felt.
5) Simmer for one hour, occasionally (pushing down the fiber and checking to make sure it has not started to felt) then turn off heat and leave the fibers to cool in the liquid overnight.
6) Wearing gloves, apron and safety glasses, remove the fibers from the mordant solution and rinse them thoroughly in cool water. You can hang to try and use at a later date or dye immediately. Mordanted yarn can be stored indefinitely and many dyers mordant their yarns first, dry and store them, making the process of dyeing more immediate and faster.
PREPARING THE DYE POT & DYEING
Dyeing can be done using a cool method (unheated water) or with a hot method.
Step 1: Submerge your onion skins into a bowl or pot and pour boiling water onto the skins. Let sit overnight or longer; check for color. Strain dye solution and return to bowl or pot.
Step 2: Add the wetted yarn (if dried after the mordanting process, soak yarn for several hours in cool water) to dye solution.
Let sit overnight or longer; check color until desired shade is achieved. The yarn depicted here in this post actually spent 5 days in the dye! Note: wet yarn looks darker than dried yarn.
Wearing gloves, apron and safety glasses, remove yarn, squeezing out as much of the liquid as possible over the dyepot (you can try doing another batch of yarn to see how much color remains). Place yarn in a dish tub with warm water and a small squirt of liquid dishwashing detergent and gently wash the yarn. Remove and rinse yarn until the water is clear of color.
Wring yarn to remove as much water as possible and then hang on a plastic hanger or clothesline to dry.
Do steps 1 and 2 of the cool method. Add more hot water if the yarn is not covered. Rather than let it sit overnight, transfer the pot to your stove.
Step 3: Raise the heat to just barely a simmer and push (do not stir) fiber down as it pops up. Simmer for a minimum of 15 minutes; check color until desired shade is achieved. You can also remove the dyepot from the heat and let it sit overnight or longer.
Complete steps 4 & 5 from the Cold Method.
Notebook: Remember to record the weights of the fiber (dry) and the plant material, the type of mordant and amount used, amount of time steeping and/or simmering, location of dye process (inside or outside), and a quick review of the process you followed your botanical dye notebook, clipping a small portion of the yarn and attaching it to the entry.
This project is a wonderful educational opportunity to introduce some basic chemistry to learners of all ages. Remember that slippery slope I mentioned earlier? This is what happens...in the beginning.
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