Here in the UK ragwort is classified as a noxious weed. Around here there’s a huge abundance of this plant, it just gets everywhere. And I must admit, I rather like it. If you ignore all the things that make it so notorious (it spreads like wild fire, it is poisonous, particularly to horses), I think it is rather pretty.
Although it is a plant that even people with a very relaxed attitude to weeds should really get rid, it can be used for dyeing, so I have allowed some of them to grow in my garden. My logic was that if you pick it before it sets seed, there can be no harm (although this nearly caused a neighbourly dispute as my neighbour gets palpitations every time he sees them in my garden).
So as much for good neighbourly relations as for the sake of a dyeing experiment, a few weeks ago I finally picked all the ragwort plants I could find in my garden. This was quite a few large plants, perhaps a kilo in total. I separated the flowers from the stems and boiled them separately for about an hour.
I mordanted wool with alum and copper, and then after dyeing modified the results with acid, alkali and iron. I don’t use copper modifiers because this creates too many problems with disposing of the dye liquid (however, when I mordant with copper I keep reusing the same liquid over and over again, just adding more copper and vinegar when it is exhausted, so disposal is not such an issue).
Sadly, the results weren’t hugely exciting. Regardless of the method, all I got was different shades of beige. With the ragwort flowers I got lighter, more yellowy sort of beige and with the stems I got slightly darker sort of beige, more like a light brown, particularly with a copper mordant.
The acid and alkaline modifiers did not make much of a difference, so I wouldn’t say they’re worth the effort. However, an iron modifier did make the colours darker, as expected.
I’m sure no dyer gets hugely excited by producing endless skeins of beige yarn, but I don’t want to be a colour snob, so I am going to set myself a challenge of thinking a good use for these yarns. Just to put a positive spin on it, I can see these sorts of sandy neutral colours might come in handy in colour work of some kind.
I am thinking if I combined these with some stronger golden yellows and browns, I could use some of these mini-skeins to knit a pair of fair-isle mittens. And the rest can always be overdyed with something…