What’s on My Bobbin? – Natural Dyeing over the Weekend

Henna, Cutch, and Madder
Henna, Cutch, and Madder – the three natural dyes we used this past weekend. (Please ignore the horrible spinning. These were my very first skeins from Loki, my spinning wheel.)

Natural dyeing was not something I thought I would have more than passing interest.  However, I failed to realized that it taps strongly into my love of foraging.  I love finding plants for the bun sisters to nibble on so they have a varied diet.  But foraging to dye fiber or yarn?  Ehh…  Not so much.

Then came last Sunday.  I spent the afternoon using plant-based dyes with my spinner’s group.  Wow!  That was incredibly fun!  Though the yarn was not as intense as what I dyed in the past using acid dyes, the colors are …well …natural.

That’s not to say that colors from natural dyes won’t ever rival other dyes.  I’ve seen a shade of green that made me drool.  And the one skein of yarn looked to my untrained eye like it was commercially dyed with it’s sharp rainbow hues.  So the possibility is there for the colors I really like.

You Need to Be a Chemical Engineer

Skein dyed with cutch
Skein dyed with cutch, a dye that comes from the Acacia tree.

As opposed to the commercially available dyes, using natural dyes requires more thinking and experimentation.  With something like Jacquard Acid Dyes you just need to know to mix X amount of dye with X amount of another dye to get X color.  Sure you need to know the recipe if you want to repeat that color in the future but the steps used to dye fiber and yarn are rather simplistic.

On the other hand, with natural plant dyes things get a bit more tricky.  Not only do you need to know the correct mordant (what gets the dye to be absorbed into the fiber or yarn and stay there) to get that color once again, you also need to (if you are using foraged or grown plants) make sure that the plant material is harvested at the correct time of the plant’s growth cycle.

Skein dyed with Madder
Skein dyed with Madder – using one of the layers of the plant’s root

To top the whole thing off, you need to process the plant matter in the correct way and using the correct part of the plant to obtain the color you want.  Sometimes processing the dye is complicated.  What part of the plant do you use?  Do you dry the leaves or use them fresh?  Do you grind them into a powder or soak them in a liquid?

Most of the research has been done previously, though it can be fun to experiment on your own.  Do make sure that you have the basics down first.  Though these are “natural” dyes, they can still be toxic so make sure you practice proper safety measures.

Natural Dyeing isn’t Just about Plants

Cochineal, which can give you beautiful reds, is actually an insect used since ancient times by the Maya and Aztec.  Vermillion is actually from the cinnabar mineral and gives you another shade of red.  Red Dirt Shirts dye their iconic shirts using the volcanic dirt found in Hawaii which yields a deep orange.

Mordants Further Complicate the Dyeing Process

Skein dyed using Henna
Skein dyed using Henna – a well-known dye used for temporary tattoos and hair dye

Mordants further add to the complexity that is known as natural dyeing.  They are simply what is used to make the dye color stick to what you are dyeing.  Without a mordant the dye will fade and wash away.  Depending on which mordant you use, the end result of dyeing can be different shades and even different colors entirely. Check out this post from Sheepy Hollow Farm to get an idea of what effects different mordants have on different dyes.

One important thing to be aware of is that even though some mordants seem to be safe, such as food grade alum (used for pickling), others are incredible toxic, such as chrome and lead.  So do make sure you keep yourself safe when dyeing.

Oh, but Wait!  There’s More!

Similar, but different
Similar, but different – Henna on the left and Cutch on the right

If what I wrote above isn’t making your head spin, let me tell you that there is so much more that is involved when you are using natural dyes.  For example, the pH of the water you are using, the fiber content of what you are dyeing, the temperature of the dye bath water.  And that just a few variations.

But all in all, dyeing with natural dyes is fun.  Not only is it a colorful way to learn something new; it is a good educational experience.  History, math, science, and literature are some of the subjects that will cross my path as I walk down this road.

Have an excellent day!

Nose Bumps
Nose bumps from the Bun Sisters

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