Some things you eagerly do and others you have a hard time getting started. You have the desire and the interest, but something always stops you from moving forward.
That’s how it’s been for me with natural dyeing. I’m obsessed with it as long as I’m sitting on my ass. I follow folks on Instagram who make beautiful prints on fabric using marigolds. I watch long videos on YouTube and buy books about natural dyeing with eucalyptus.
Occasionally I do move towards learning the craft. I’ve taken classes on fiber reactive dyeing on fabric as well as how to dye with indigo and fancy wrapping techniques called Shibori. And of course, living in Vermont, I’ve tie dyed socks and t-shirts when the kids were little.
But lately what really floats my boat is the idea of dyeing yarn with the invasive plants found right in my yard.
I went out recently and collected a bunch of pokeweed after seeing what Melanie Falick, whom I met at a class I took this year at Harrisville, dyed, a beautiful deep, red orange. She mentioned this site, which became another obsession.
Part of my problem is that I have dyed both cotton fabric and wool yarn, which take two different types of dyes as well as different chemicals to “fix” the dye. Cotton uses fiber reactive dyes in cold water with soda ash. Wool uses acid dyes in heat, with citric acid or vinegar.
And natural dyeing uses altogether different chemicals. This is the stuff they should be teaching in schools because it’s fabulous, hands-on chemistry!
So I knew I had some pokeweed growing out in the yard. I collected it and was gung ho to dye, but did nothing. The berries sat outside in a blue plastic container for weeks. I felt kinda bad that I wasn’t using them, but it was starting to get cold out and I was still unclear on the whole pokeberry dyeing process.
Then Richard noticed that my bin of collected pokeweed had filled with about four inches of water ~ and it had turned my favorite color of magenta!
Seeing that color, and the fact that it was a warm, sunny day, helped me to finally move forward with this project to natural dye some yarn.
First, I wondered if it was possible to throw the yarn in the bin and have it absorb the color if I added some chemicals, but which one to add? I had tried an experiment a few years ago, where I wrapped cotton with pokeberries, leaves and metals, wrapped it up tight and let it sit for days, but the colors all washed out because I didn’t treat the fabric first with a “mordant.”
Frankly, the word mordant scares me and I never quite understand how or which one to use. Mordants basically prepare the fiber to accept the dye so that it won’t wash out.
I vaguely thought I needed alum and cream of tartar as mordants for natural dyeing, but the more I read on pokeweed, it seems the fixative is vinegar. And almost every blog post that told their story about dyeing with pokeweed mentioned Carol Leigh’s website: http://www.hillcreekfiberstudio.com/CL-PokeberryRec.html
Carol Leigh writes: “However, the best color, and color retention, was discovered toward the end of a dye workshop with author and dye master Jim Lyles at the Campbell Folk School in 1995. A fellow student, Jeri Forkner, and I couldn’t resist picking buckets of pokeberries after dark on the evening before the last day of class. We set up the dye baths late at night, and, having run out of vinegar, dumped in some 56% acetic acid and left the dye bath, and fibers in the mordant bath, overnight. The bright magenta colors on the wool skeins and raw silk fabric samples were impressive, even to Dr. Lyles. And to this day, years later, there’s no sign of fading, whereas a similar skein, mordanted in vinegar only, is showing signs of yellowing.”
My problem with reading this is that I didn’t know what acetic acid is or where to get it. More research showed me that pokeweed is not as colorfast (fades or turns brown) if you use a vinegar mordant with a low PH dye pot.
One thing to point out is that poke weed is toxic if you ingest it, and also can cause irritation to the skin, so if you decide to collect some and dye with it, be sure to use gloves. Here is more info on the toxicity of pokeweed, which I did simmer inside my house with the windows open.
I found directions from Timber Creek Farmer to be the most helpful, and I made my own variations.
First I prepared three 50 g skeins of superwash wool in:
- 2 quarts of water
- 1 cup vinegar
- 1 tsp alum
I slowly brought this to almost a simmer for an hour – I don’t think the temp ever got over 155 degrees.
Meanwhile I grabbed the bin with the berries and stems I had collected, which already had rainwater in it. I poured this into a giant steel pan and mashed it down the best I could. Please note that anything you use for dyeing can never be used in the kitchen again, so I have old wooden spoons I use for this, as well as old pans.
I added one cup of vinegar to the large steel pot – so, sorry, no solid measurements here.
I brought this to an almost simmer as well, at about 155 degrees. It never bubbled. I had read that if the water gets too hot, the color turns more brown, so I was trying to keep the magenta color intact.
I turned the heat on and off for both pots since our gas stove burns hot. I didn’t test for PH.
After approximately two hours, I poured a quart of the water from the yarn into a measuring glass and left whatever water was in the yarn in the pot. Then I poured the dye water, trying not to let any sticks or berries pour out, into the yarn. It was still a beautiful magenta, literally my favorite color.
I kept this heating (off and one to keep temp low) at between 150-155 degrees for probably 90 minutes to two hours. Then I turned the heat off and let it sit in the dye all night. (This is different than my experience with acid dyeing yarn, where the dye bath is exhausted and fully taken up by the yarn, resulting in clear water.)
The next day, while wearing rubber gloves, I pulled out the dyed yarn, squeezing out the excess dye (gently) as much as possible, but I did not rinse for at least two hours to allow it to “oxidize”.
After a few hours, I then rinsed the yarn. I would say I rinsed it for maybe 25 pots full of water, over and over, a huge amount of water, and still, there was a faint magenta tinge to the water. I didn’t keep going until it was completely clear as it seemed like it might never happen!
I hung up the yarn to dry, and made sure to keep it out of the sun. The vinegar will help the pokeweed-dyed yarn to be colorfast (not fade), but apparently it is still lightfast and will fade over time if exposed to sunlight.
Did I get my magenta color?
It’s pretty close, not sure if it’s magenta, but I do like it and am happy I finally made the effort.
Would I do it again?
Not sure, it was a lot of work. I still have some dye leftover, so I may dye some more from this years collection, we’ll see.