Alchemilla mollis is one of the star plants in my garden. Not because it is a prima donna-showstopper, but because it is such a good doer, an easy-going plant that seems to be happy anywhere. It may not be a attention-grabber like a more showy plant like a rose would be, but it is a trustworthy filler plant with its lime green frothy flowers that look great with anything.
In our heavy clay soil that is frequently either water-logged or dry as concrete it is the most reliable plant that I have, surviving in conditions (like dry shade) where other plants just give up. And as it self-seeds quite readily, I have little Alchemilla plants popping up everywhere, which I am more than happy about because I just move them wherever I happen to have a gap in my flower beds. And I love the way it looks like in a vase, so natural and pretty, and it lasts easily for two weeks. A most useful garden plant, in other words.
Given that I have Alchemilla everywhere in my garden, I was delighted to learn from Colour Cottage that you can also dye with it (thank you Pia for the tip!). So when the time came to cut it back after flowering, I had lots of material to use in my dyeing experiments.
I simmered a pot full of Achemilla leaves and flowers for about an hour. Once the dye liquid had cooled, I added some wool and silk into the pot. I didn’t have the time to simmer them at this point, so I just left the pot for a week (well, actually it could have been more like two before I got round to dealing with it, it was beginning to have some mould on top if I am completely honest with you…).
This year, to control the costs (as well as the size of my yarn stash) I decided to try all the different colour modifications (ie. after-baths with acid, alkaline or iron) on little pieces of felt rather than yarn. Given that not all dyes respond to pH for example, you can end up with lots of wool of very similar colour and I felt using large quantities of yarn for these experiments was a bit too yarn- and money-consuming. And I got fed up with making lots of little sample skeins, as I would need so many of them (8-12 for each plant) and it’s tedious and time consuming process to be make. Felt samples are quick to prepare, and if the experiment results in dull colours it doesn’t really matter too much.
For similarly frugal reasons, my main dyeing material at the moment is Finnsheep top, using unspun wool is more versatile than yarn as I can either spin it into yarn of any thickness I like or I can felt it. I do dye some yarn too, but only small quantities for specific purposes.
Despite all that I still couldn’t avoid having to make some little sample skeins though, as this year I wanted to try dyeing some silk and I though building a naturally dyed embroidery silk collection would be a great way of experimenting with silk dyeing. Not that I am a big embroiderer at the moment, but it is something I’d like to do more of (one of these days when I have the time and energy) and obviously this gives me an excuse to build (yet) another stash.
I haven’t dyed silk before, so I was delighted to discover how it just soaks up colour, the colours somehow look more intense compared to wool (and it’s interesting to note they are not always the same as with wool). And the complex colours of natural dyes go beautifully with the luxurious lustre of silk, I just love the results. To mordant silk I use exactly the same method I use with wool. I cold mordant it with alum formate or simmer it with copper and citric acid.
The colours you get with Alchemilla mollis are not necessarily that remarkable – after all you get yellows from so many plants. And the copper mordant gives you slightly uninteresting browns. But I particularly like the softness of the yellow you get with alum, it is not bright and brash at all, slightly mustardy just to make it look a bit more interesting than a standard bright yellow. A wonderfully complex colour so typical of natural dyes. And if you go easy on the iron (not like in my felt samples that went nearly black), alum mordanted wool becomes a nice soft olive green. I am thinking one day I’d quite fancy a jumper or a cardi in one of these colours, which is quite doable as I have so much of this plant around.