Sea Green and Sapphire

A blog about a love of colour, addiction to fabrics and joy of crafting…


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A Year’s Labour

Naturally dyed wool

This week there’s been a hint of spring in the air and we haven’t even had a storm for a whole week, which makes a nice change. In the garden it is starting to feel like the beginning of a new season. But before I get too enthusiastic about making plans for a new dyeing season, I want to take a moment to show you what I achieved last year.

I had many ambitious dyeing plans for 2013. I wanted to try some plant-based mordants like rhubarb leaves and willow, I wanted to try dyeing new fibres like silk and cotton. And there was a very long list of dye plants that I was going to grow and dye with. Well, as so often happens in life, it didn’t quite work that way. After a serious relapse with my ME/CFS in the spring, for a while it looked like I might not be well enough to do any dyeing at all.

But by July, I had picked up sufficiently to make my way back to the dyeing shed again. Even so, doing the dyeing process the usual way over a day or two was still too strenuous for me to manage, so instead, I broke it down into lots of smaller steps, and did each step on a different day. For example, normally you would pick your plant material, chop it and then proceed to simmer it straight away, but I wouldn’t have the stamina to do both of them on the same day. Instead, I would pick and chop the plan stuff, put it in a pot and cover it with water, then wait for few days before continuing. This way the process might have been frustratingly slow, but with this illness you just need to learn to be patient. It’s either that or not do anything at all…

So with some very careful planning and lots of self-discipline (to stop myself  over-enthusiastically overdoing things and flattening myself as a result) I managed to have a couple of reasonably good months of dyeing before the autumn arrived and my energy levels collapsed again.  In the end I did not get to try rhubarb or willow mordants, or cotton dyeing for that matter, but I did get to try silk and several different dye plants that I hadn’t worked with before: purple basil, cutch, annatto, Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), dahlia, tagetes, black hollyhock, Japanese indigo as well as my first mushroom dyeing experiments with Cortinarious semisanguineus. Some of these I have already written about, the others are still on the To-Do List waiting for a spare moment.

Naturally dyed Finnsheep top

A year’s worth of dyeing experiments. Finnsheep top, all in naturally dyed colours.

My plan was to focus was on experimenting with as many different dye plants as I possibly could, and try to see how many colours I could get from each one of them. I would vary the colours by trying different mordants (alum and copper) and different modifiers (iron, acid and alkaline baths). I was very much in a sampling mode, and to keep the costs (as well as my stash) under control, I didn’t dye anything in large quantities. For sampling I used small pre-felt squares as they are quick and economical to prepare.

As I was focusing on small quantities, I also thought it would be an ideal year to dye some embroidery threads. So I spent the spring when I was too unwell to do anything that requires lots of brain power making lots and lots of mini skeins in both silk and wool that during the summer got thrown into the dye pot along with my usual Finnsheep top. The woollen yarn was intended as a Christmas present for my dad, who likes using wool in his needlework projects.

Given that I was trying to produce lots of different colour variations on several different types of materials, I had to devise a good system for keeping track of what exactly I was doing (especially since my memory is like a sieve, and I easily lose my concentration if I get overtired). But after a few weeks of dyeing I had established a method that worked for me. After a dye bath had been prepared, I would divide it into two lots: one for alum mordanted materials and another for copper mordanted ones. Into each alum pot I would throw in 5 pre-felt squares, 5 skeins of silk in two different weights, two skeins of wool and some Finnsheep top. The copper pot would get the same except the top (I chose not to mordant my top with copper, as I wanted to keep the copper mordanting quantities as small as possible, as it is more toxic than alum).

Then, after dyeing, I would set aside one alum mordanted piece of each type of material, and then modify the rest using acid, alkaline, iron and copper. The copper samples would get the same treatment (except the copper modification which would obviously be pointless). As a result, for each dye, I would get 5 different shades from alum and 4 from copper, both in silk and wool. And obviously the dye bath could be re-used a few times, which would get you another lot of colours but in a lighter value. To keep track of all these different versions I use numbered and coloured pegs (having said that, I did lose track quite a few times and ended up with random colours that I had no idea of how they had been produced).

My bathroom after a typical dyeing day. I use plastic pegs as labels to keep track of my samples.

My bathroom after a typical dyeing day. I use plastic pegs as labels to keep track of my samples.

I decided against modifying my spinning wool in any way. This is because colours modified with acid and alkali are not always stable and they easily change in the wash. I know it is recommended that you use a pH neutral detergent, but I’ve never found a detergent so neutral it doesn’t affect the colours, especially the ones that have been modified with acid. To keep the acid-modified colours, you would need to rinse them with vinegar after every wash. But if you combine acid and alkaline colours in the same project, this obviously isn’t possible. When I spin wool,  I like blending different colours on my carder, so it would be waste of effort to create lots of tonal variation that you are just going to lose afterwards in a wash. Colours modified with iron are more stable, but I am slightly worried that if I combine iron-modified colours with plain alum ones, the residual iron might contaminate and sadden the alum colours (although I must say I have never tested if this really happens). But for all these reasons, I stuck to alum colours only with my spinning wool. It is always possible to use iron afterwards for specific projects if necessary.

Naturally Dyed Fibres

Another lot of dyeing results waiting to be photographed

After about two months of these experiments, I started getting a bit impatient and even bored of my method of trying one new dye plant after another. I seemed to be getting an endless amount of mustard yellows and golden browns – nothing wrong with these colours at all, but lets face it, there’s only so much you really need. And so I noticed my thinking was beginning to shift: I no longer wanted to tick off as many plants from my list as I possibly could, I felt that I had done enough of that. Rather than structure the process around plants, I realised it would be far more useful start focusing on colour families and the colour circle – blues, reds, yellows as well as all those colours that require over-dying like grassy greens and purples.

Wool yarn dyed for my dad's needlework projects

Wool yarn dyed for my dad’s needlework projects

But by the time my thinking had evolved to this point, it was late autumn, the weather was getting colder and wetter and it was not quite as much fun to hang around in the dyeing shed anymore. And my strength was beginning to diminish again, each dyeing session (especially the indigo ones) would leave flattened for days and I realised that it was probably best to stop for now and  wait for times when I have more stamina again.

naturally dyed blues, greens and yellows

Blues, greens and yellows (the greens are various yellows overdyed with indigo)

Muted tones

Muted tones

So all in all, it was a good year of dyeing and I learned lots. If and when I am well enough to start the process again, I will definitely be focusing on a smaller set of dye plants (perhaps those classic ones that are known to be colour-fast) and experimenting with producing more complex colours by over-dyeing. I already made a good start with over-dyeing yellows with indigo to produce bright greens, but learning to create purples with conchineal and indigo will be on my list too. And maybe I will get round to trying cotton dyeing too…

Embroidery Silks

Embroidery Silks

Embroidery silks in muted colours.  Many dyes turned out to be more muted in silk compared to wool (although in some cases it was quite the opposite - the silk picked up the colour much more strongly than wool).

Embroidery silks in muted colours.
Many dyes turned out to be more muted in silk compared to wool (although in some cases it was quite the opposite – the silk picked up the colour much more strongly than wool).

Indigo dyed blues and greens

Indigo dyed blues and greens on silk


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More Purple Basil Surprises

Some time ago I showed you the results of my purple basil experiments this summer. Well, that dye bath went quite a bit further and I was able to have several other experiments with it, all of which threw quite a few surprises into the process.

Given that purple basil seems to be better suited to dyeing silk than wool (wool just doesn’t seem to absorb much colour) I decided I won’t waste the dye on wool but try more experiments with silk instead. I had a dig around in my cupboards and found a cream coloured Thai silk scarf, a souvenir from a lovely holiday a long time ago. So in it went (after scouring and mordanting with alum), and after an hour of simmering, out it came very dark, almost black. As my hope had been a nice slate grey, a medium tone rather than a very dark shade, at first I kicked myself for not paying attention to dye rations and therefore for using way too much dye. Considering the scarf weighs only 45g one could have anticipated that not much dye is needed. A good lesson to learn, especially when dyeing finished items, rather than random amounts of economy wool…

But as I removed the scarf from the pot and the excess dye drained away, I realised the colour I had accidentally achieved was in fact truly beautiful, a sort of raven black: a very dark grey with a strong blue sheen or undercurrent to it.

And there were more surprises in store: as I washed the scarf, the alkalinity of the wash turned the colour into something else entirely: it was now a very dark jewel-like green, a regal green as my husband observed. It was a fantastic colour, but I wanted that raven blackish blue back so I soaked the scarf a vinegary water for a few hours.  I played around with different levels of acidity just to see how it affected the colour, and eventually, settled with a medium grey tone.

And once it dried, the grey in fact had a beautiful midnight-blue undertone and  a wonderful depth to it. The colour seems to change depending on the light, and it was very hard to capture the colour correctly on my camera, in the picture below it looks perhaps a bit lighter and bluer than it is in real life.

A Thai silk scarf, dyed midnight blue with purple basil

A Thai silk scarf, mordanted with alum and dyed mid-night blue with purple basil

Next I wanted to find out what would happen if I used the exhaust bath to dye some wool-silk blend yarn. After all, if wool gives you pale greyish green, and you get darker greys with silk, surely the result would be a nice heathery mixture of darker and lighter shades? Well, it didn’t quite work that way.

The skein I used was a mixture of 55% Blue Faced Leicester wool and 45% silk (undyed Decadence Heavy Lace yarn from the Stash Fine yarns). Unfortunately, the bit I didn’t really think through properly in advance was that the BFL wool was superwash, which absorbs colour differently compared to non-treated wool. So in the end both types of fibres absorbed the colour very strongly and I ended up with quite a darkish shade of medium grey.

As I thought this colour was a bit dull, I washed the skein and hoped it would turn a nice dark greeny grey, but no, it was still just a dull grey colour, just a little undercurrent of greenness in it. Then I tried a soak in vinegary water to try to turn it purple, but again, it wasn’t really co-operating, there was a slight change, but when dried, the colour had reverted to medium grey. And when, some time later, I photographed the skein, I noticed that in the outdoor light there was a distinct green tinge to it again, so I am now wondering if the colour shifts slightly even when dry. Obviously this is the colour it wants to be, so I left it for a moment (although I am still not too keen on it – it looks better on the picture than in real life – so I may give the skein a dip in an indigo vat next).

Another surprise dyeing result from purple basil

Another surprise dyeing result from purple basil

Even after all these experiments there was still quite a bit of dye in the bath left, so I decided to throw a bit more wool into the pot, but again there was a surprise in store. Rather than getting greenish grey, I just got plain straight-forward fawn, never the most exciting colour to get, but at least in this case there was the surprise factor, as I really don’t know why I suddenly started getting an entirely different colour compared to what had happened before. I even threw a few bits of silk fabric into the bath and they too came out more fawn than before, although it was more like a greyish fawn mixture, a bit like the colour of wood smoke. I’d love to know why this happened: was it that a particular pigment was now used up, or was it just the age of the dye bath, after all it had been stored, and occasionally simmered, for several weeks now?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I suppose it is just another reason why natural dyeing is such an endlessly fascinating subject.

fawn: a surprise result when dyeing alum-mordanted wool with purple basil

I certainly wasn’t expecting fawn…


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Rosy Reds from Surprise Webcap Mushrooms

Finland, my home country, is a land mostly covered with forests and lakes, and in the late summer and autumn those forests are full of berries and mushrooms, so it is not surprising that foraging is deeply embedded in the Finnish genes, and berry picking and mushroom hunting are pretty much a national hobby at the autumn time. Although I have been happily settled here in the UK for a pretty long time, at this time of the year I always miss the Finnish forests and wish I could go there, pick wild berries and enjoy the wind in the trees and the damp mossy smell of an autumn forest.

And this year the urge to go foraging is even stronger than usual – I have just had my first go at mushroom dyeing, with the wonderfully named “Surprise Webcap” (Cortinarious semisanguineus, verihelttaseitikki in Finnish) and I managed to get the most beautiful rosy red colour from it. It’s by far my favourite red that I have ever managed create by dyeing so obviously now I just want to go and pick as many of these little mushrooms as I can possibly find.

Fibres dyed with cortinarius semisanguineus

Wool and silk dyed with Surprise Webcap, Cortinarious semisanguineus (the small skeins at the front are silk, the rest is wool)

Well unfortunately I can’t do that, at least not this year, but luckily I have a few mushroom agents (=my dad and my sister) scouting in the forests of Finland who have promised to be on the look out for some dyeing mushrooms for me. We are armed with a new mushroom dyeing book – Sienivärjäys by Anna-Karoliina Tetri, which is the first ever Finnish language mushroom dyeing book published (until now Finnish dyers have had to rely on Swedish sources). It’s an excellent book, I would warmly recommend it but I know the Finnish language might be a bit of a barrier for most of you.

As with dye plants, there are many mushrooms that will give your various shades of yellow, orange, fawn and brown. Beautiful as those colours are, you can easily get these colours from many plants, so dyers will get mostly excited about the rarer colours of reds, blues and even purples. The blues you get from mushrooms look particularly beautiful, some of them are more greeny blue, others bluey grey, all my favourite colours.

But on this occasion, I focused on the colour red as I had bought,  from Anna-Karoliina Tetri’s shop, some dried surprise webcap mushrooms.

yarn dyed with cortinarious semisanguineus (

Anticlockwise from the front (alum, alum+iron, copper+iron, copper)

I poured boiling water over the dried mushrooms, added some washing soda to the liquid to help the dye extraction process, a tip from Leena Riihelä of the Riihivilla blog (always a great resource on natural dyeing, and,  being a fellow Finn, she writes a lot about mushroom dyeing too). The stems of this mushroom give yellow colour and the cap deep reds, but my dried mushrooms had been dried whole and I didn’t bother separating the stems and the caps so it all went into the same pot. I let them soak properly for about a week, then simmered the pot for an hour, strained away all the bits and then was ready to go.

Finnsheep top dyed with cortinarius semisanguineus

I love the rosy red colour this mushroom gives on alum mordanted wool

silk didn't absorb the colour quite as strongly as wool so most of my silk skeins look quite pink. The copper mordanted silk  looked more like grey, so it's not really a combination I will try and repeat in the future.

silk didn’t absorb the colour quite as strongly as wool so most of my silk skeins look quite pink. The copper mordanted silk looked more like grey than red.
From the bottom: alum, alum+iron, copper, copper+iron and then above these, the same combinations again in a thicker yarn.

A ratio of 2 parts of dried surprise webcap to 3 parts of alum mordanted wool will give you a nice rosy red with a slightly brownish hint. Acid modification washes out the colour a little bit but an alkaline bath intensifies it. Wool mordanted with copper produced more brown shades with a hint of purple in them.

Dyes samples Cortinarius semisanguineus

Alum on wool gives you the stronger reds, copper slightly duller shades. The colours were much less strong on silk, more pink than proper red (the bottom 4 yarn samples on the right)

After my first dyeing session I noticed there was a lot of dye left in the pot, so I kept using the exhaust baths over and over again, getting increasingly light peachy pinks until after the 5th go, the yarn was barely off-white and so I declared the dye bath exhausted.

It took about 5 dyeing sessions to exhaust the dye bath

It took about 5 dyeing sessions to exhaust the dye bath

I had simmered my alum and copper mordanted yarns in separate pots to avoid cross-contamination. As I decided not to use any more copper-mordanted wool after the first bath, I chucked some alum-mordanted wool into the pot that had previously been used for copper-mordanted wool. And this was a happy serendipitous thing to do, because I discovered that this way, the reds I produced had a much bluer undertone that the “non-contaminated” alum yarns. I don’t often use copper as a modifier (to reduce the amount of liquids containing copper I am having to find a way to dispose of) but in this case, just by accident, I discovered a nice colour that I may well want to recreate in the future.

yarn dyed in surprise webcap exhaust baths

The grey yarn at the top left is copper mordanted, the yarns on the right are alum-mordanted yarns dyed in a dye bath that had previously contained copper mordanted yarn (the middle yarns are alum only)

One thing I will want to try in the future is modifying dark red alum-mordanted wool with copper, just to see what that blue/purple shift from copper would look like on darker red yarn. Luckily, I have one more 50g bag of this mushroom left so I can have another go soon.

And, my trusted mushroom agent has already sent an interesting looking parcel containing various little bags of dried dye mushrooms so I will be able to continue my experiments a bit longer. Mushrooms also keep popping up around here at the moment, so I may need to do some research on the dyeing potential of mushrooms growing around here.


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Moody and Unstable Colours from Purple Basil

Purple basil leaf

With its sharply serrated leaves that are an ominous shade of very dark blood red, purple basil is a plant that exudes gothic drama. Its sombre and gloomy looks are in contrast with its delightful anise-seed scent and unexpectedly pretty lilac coloured flowers. For such a dramatic looking herb, it is perhaps fitting that, when used for dyeing, it gives moody, unstable and entirely unexpected colours.

The colour of the dye bath – a suitably gothic shade of purple black – may get you excited but the eventual colour you get is completely different. And the dye reacts to pH, so it gives you plenty of opportunities for playing around with colour modifications, but even this process can lead to some frustrating surprises.

Purple basil flower

Growing purple basil is very easy, the only complication for those of us living in colder climates is that it is a tender plant, needing somewhere warm to grow until the frosts are over. I propagated mine in a heated propagator in an unheated greenhouse, but a warm window sill would be perfectly adequate. The seeds germinated well and I got plenty of plants which were growing fast. Although I had intended to transplant them into a flower bed in June, this year it was very chilly even at that point so I ended up leaving them in the greenhouse, where they grew perfectly happily in one litre pots.

Purple basil is of course edible too. It has a distinct anise seed taste, so it is closer to Thai basil than the usual green variety, although I have seen a recipe for a purple basil pesto which I definitely want to try to make one day.

I picked my first harvest in the middle of July, and by now – early September- the plants are pretty large again, ready for a second harvest. I placed the stems and leaves in a pot, poured boiling water over them and simmered for about an hour. The dye bath was a wonderfully dark purple, and I was getting very excited anticipating the colours I imagined I would get.

A few days later I put some alum mordanted wool and silk in the pot, and simmered them for about an hour. Watching the fibres in the pot, I quickly realised, with slight disappointment, that they looked very dark grey, not purple at all.  The biggest surprise, however, came as I lifted the fibres up – the dark colour was just an illusion: as the dye liquid drained away from the fibres, my wool top was very very insipid light grey colour, it was as if the dye was not sticking to the wool at all. Having said that, my silk skeins absorbed the colour very well and were by now very dark steely grey.

In fact, I had been warned about the fact that the dye does not stick to wool very easily, so I just left the fibres in the pot in the sun for a week or so, might even have been two, before proceeding with the modifications. I had also put some of the dye liquid and wool in a solar dyeing jar for the same amount of time, and this seemed to work just as well as the pot that had been simmered, so with this dye it is definitely time that is the important factor, not high heat.

After a few weeks of solar dyeing, my wool skeins and top were light-ish stormy grey, with a hint of blue if you looked very closely. I then did my usual colour modifications with acid, alkali and iron. The acid made wool very slightly greyer but with silk came the most pleasant surprise of all – I got a wonderfully plummy purple colour. Alkaline after-bath turned both fibres greener, the wool in particular became a nice light soft green. Iron on the other hand just made wool even murkier and gloomier, so it wasn’t really worth the effort. With silk iron darkened the grey in a nicer way, so that may well be an effect that one might want to achieve. I didn’t rinse my fibres at this point, as I had read it’s better to leave them to dry unrinsed, and then rinse and wash them a few weeks later.

Alum mordanted Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil

Alum mordanted Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil

I had also dyed some copper-mordanted felt samples, but these became very dull grey, more or less the colour your paint brush rinsing water ends up after a water colour painting session, so it is not really worth bothering with.

Perhaps because this was the first dyeing session of the year, I didn’t label my samples, I really do not know what I was thinking (if anything…).  I think it must have been that at the time I thought I’ll be able to tell the difference (usually a big mistake). Well, after about two weeks, when I got back to my dried samples, the colour differences were not nearly as prominent as they had been straight after dyeing, my little felt sample squares had all become the same slightly murky grey, really could not tell them apart.

And the colours on the other sample fibres did not prove to be very stable either: the lovely purple silk skein was no longer purple, it had become a mottled mixture of grey and fawn. The bluey-grey wool top was no longer very blue, that too had become a slightly murkier grey colour. Only the wool that had received the alkaline treatment was still noticeably light green.

All my sample colours, regardless of the treatment they had had, somehow ended up the same shade of very gloomy and dull grey.

All my sample colours, regardless of the treatment they had had, somehow ended up the same shade of very gloomy and dull grey. And no amount of playing with the white balance setting on my camera made it possible to reproduce those colours accurately.

Unlike wool, silk absorbs purple basil dye easily, giving you some nice steely greys. The purple colour from the acid treatment proved unstable, it is the skein right at the bottom.

Unlike wool, silk absorbs purple basil dye easily, giving you some very nice steely blue-greys. The purple colour from the acid treatment proved unstable, it is the skein right at the bottom which became a slightly mottled mixture of grey and fawn.

Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil. The wool in front - a pale bluey grey - is the unmodified colour on alum mordanted wool. In a wash this lost some of its blueness, and became a bit more green. The two at the back are the more greener versions from an alkaline bath. The light green colour.

Finnsheep top dyed with purple basil. The wool in front – a pale bluey grey – is the unmodified colour on alum mordanted wool. In a wash this lost some of its blueness, and became a bit more green. The two at the back are the more greener versions from an alkaline bath.

The final surprise came as I washed the samples. The grey top, the one that had started blue-grey, became greener, obviously reacting to the pH of the washing detergent. I know dyers are meant to wash their fibres in a “pH neutral detergent”, but I have not yet come across a detergent that is so pH neutral that my natural dye samples wouldn’t react to it (even Synthrapol, the specialist textile detergent dyers use, in my experience shifts dye colours slightly towards the alkaline direction). To balance the alkaline pH of soapy water, it is often recommended that you should add some vinegar to the final rinse of wool. I rarely bother with this, but in the case of purple basil it might be necessary if you want to stop the colour turning green. Having said that, the colours on the whole do not seem very stable and the nice shades I got with acidic baths seemed to disappear by themselves over time.

My yarn skeins ended up various shades of green, although I had not specifically modified them in any way. The one in the front is alum, the darker one at the back has been modified with iron and the lightest yarn is from a second/exhaust bath.

My yarn skeins ended up various shades of green. The one in the front is alum, the darker one at the back has been modified with iron and the lightest yarn is from a second/exhaust bath.

So, all in all, if you want an interesting dyeing session, try purple basil. With wool you will not get dark colours you might initially expect from the colour of the dye bath, but if you, like me, are fond of pale mossy greens and light versions of stormy grey shades, it is definitely worth having a go.

But the best results of all you will get with silk. I am still intrigued by that beautiful plum purple that so quickly disappeared and I am wondering if there is a way of making that colour stick. Given that my plants are ready for a second harvest, I may need to have another go to find out…


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Dyeing with Alchemilla Mollis

Alchemilla mollis

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…).

Finnsheep top dyed with Alchemilla mollis

Finnsheep top dyed with Alchemilla mollis. With alum you get a lovely soft yellow, with a slight mustardy hint to it.

dye samples - Alchemilla mollis

Alchemilla mollis gives you soft mustardy yellows with alum and not very exciting browns when you mordant with copper. It doesn’t respond much to pH, acid makes it slightly paler and alkali slightly more intense, but the difference is not so great I’d bother using these modifications in the future. My alum+iron+alkali sample mysteriously got lost in the process.

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.

embroidery silk dyed with alchemilla mollis. From bottom left: alum, alum, alum+iron, copper, copper+ iron.

embroidery silk dyed with alchemilla mollis. From bottom left: alum, alum, alum+iron, copper, copper+ iron.

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.

Wool yarn dyed with Alchemilla mollis. Clockwise from left: copper, copper+iron, alum+iron, alum.

Yarn dyed with Alchemilla mollis. Clockwise from left: copper, copper+iron, alum+iron, alum.

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.


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Harvest Time

dahlias and chamomile pickedAh, harvest – that time of the year when the hard work earlier on is finally beginning to pay off. That time of the year when the greenhouse is full of cucumbers and tomatoes, and after a month of eating courgette with every meal you frantically search around the internet for any new exciting courgette recipes that you haven’t already tried (note to self: five courgette plants in a household of only two people is definitely way too many!). That time of the year, when you are just about ready to start picking all those gooseberries that you have so anticipated being able to eat, just to notice that they have suddenly been eaten by some mysterious nocturnal beastie – just like that – over night – with not a single one left.

drying flowers for dyeing

I dry many of my dye plants for later use. My netting tower is completely stuffed at the moment.

Despite some of the challenges in my dye garden that I wrote about in my last post, there is plenty of material there to be getting on with. If I am planning on using flowers for dyeing, I rarely use them fresh as I don’t often have enough at any given point for a decent batch, so I dry them and use them once I have accumulated enough. So flower harvesting has been the number one hobby this month.

After a cold first half of the year, the weather has finally realised it has some catching up to do so we have been having an unusually long heatwave here in the UK. As lovely as it would be to spend the warm evenings lounging around in a deck chair, enjoying a glass of wine, the reality hasn’t been quite like that (I suppose it never is).

The hotter it has been the more work there has been in the evenings, trying keep all my new plants watered and alive. So I have been spending my summer evenings rushing around with a garden hose, then with legs already seriously wobbly, picking up all the flowers that are past their best and trying to find a flat surface for them in the outbuilding that is not already covered with flowers.

Actually, despite the element of franticness in trying to get everything done before collapsing completely, I really do like that bit. On a sunny evening there is definitely a moment of serenity there, with the sun going down, the air cooling and my plastic crate being filled up with wonderful colours. That’s my favourite part of it all.

A month or two ago I was slightly worried that I might not have the stamina to do any dyeing this summer at all, but luckily my energy levels have picked up a little bit (perhaps it is all that sun and vitamin D) and now, after all the essential house and garden jobs (and all that plant watering) are done, there is just enough energy left over to do a bit of dyeing.

picking flowers for dyeing

picking flowers for dyeing

I love solar dyeing, just chuck stuff into a jar and leave them until you are ready to continue with the process. In this case I have pre-boiled the plant material though, as I find that decomposing plant bits can stick to unspun wool easily if you leave it for too long (as I often do).

I love solar dyeing, just chuck stuff into a jar and leave them until you are ready to continue with the process. In this case I have pre-boiled the plant material and discarded the plant bits before placing the dye liquid in the jar, as I find that decomposing plant bits can stick to unspun wool easily if you leave it for too long (as I often do).

It is going slowly, and it feels quite strenuous at the moment, so the materials are often left in dye pots for days before I have the energy for the next stage, but that doesn’t matter. That’s the thing I like about natural dyeing, it’s pretty flexible in that you can stop the process in many places and wait for a few days (or even weeks as the case may be) before you continue.

Given that it is going so slowly, I haven’t quite got to the stage where I am ready to show any actual results, but meanwhile I thought I’d give you another quick tour of the harvesting activities that have been going on.

Tagetes erecta

Tagetes erecta – as a plant not one of my favourites, looking as it does slightly stiff and pompous, but I am hoping to get some cheerful colours from it

Dahlias

I don’t know yet how good dahlias are as dye plants, but they are certainly looking very jolly at the moment

dahlias

I grow my dahlias in pots, as it makes it easier to protect them in the winter

my black hollyhocks

Of the different-coloured hollyhocks, the black one seems to be the one that makes the most interesting dye colours. This is my first ever batch, so I am so looking forward to giving it a go!

black hollyhock

Black hollyhock, Alcea rosea nigra

Japanese indigo needs a long warm season to make seeds, so I am growing one of my plants in a pot so that in the spring and autumn it can be kept in the greenhouse.

Japanese indigo needs a long warm season to make seeds, so I am growing one of my plants in a pot so that in the spring and autumn it can be kept in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse treatment seems to be working as this one is beginning to flower already

The greenhouse treatment seems to be working as this one is beginning to flower already

You can tell a Japanese indigo is ready for harvesting when you can start seeing little blue spots in the leaves, especially where they have been bruised or damaged.

You can tell a Japanese indigo is ready for harvesting when you can start seeing little blue spots in the leaves, especially where they have been bruised or damaged. I have harvested some of the leaves of this one already, but that’s a subject of another post…

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). I am not picking the flowers of these, they are far too pretty, but I'll use the whole plant in the end of the season

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). I am not picking the flowers of these, they are far too pretty, but I’ll use the whole plant in the end of the season

Eucalyptus gunnii is supposedly hardy in the UK, but I am growing it in a pot just in case so that I can take it to the greenhouse in the autumn

Eucalyptus gunnii is supposedly hardy in the UK, but I am growing it in a pot just in case so that I can take it to the greenhouse in the autumn


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It’s an Addiction

And this dyeing season, I'm going to need approximately 10 000 sample-size skeins

And this dyeing season, I’m going to need approximately 10 000 sample-sized skeins

Given that this spring has been the second coldest on record, and so far there’s no sign of the weather getting any warmer or sunnier (it’s snowing here even today), my dyeing season hasn’t really got started yet. I dye in an unheated outbuilding which has no window, so it’s not really a place where I fancy hanging around in cold and damp weather. But my dyeing fingers are definitely getting very itchy by now, so I have been using this seasonal delay in getting super organised and prepared.

Last year was my first dyeing year, and I started like every does, full of enthusiasm and no idea what I was doing, and improvising as I went along. But towards the end of the season, I had established a way of working that suits me and was naturally getting more organised about it. I also learned that natural dyeing definitely brings out the inner scientist in me, I like trying to get as many colours from a particular plant as I can, and enjoy experimenting with different mordants and modifiers. And as I am still very much a beginner, there are so many dye plants that I haven’t tried yet, so this year I am trying to grow an even longer list of plants to try, as I wrote here (well as long as my seeds just agree to co-operate and germinate in this cold weather).

This year, having learned the basics, I also want to take my dyeing experiments even further. I want to try new types of materials,  such as silk and cotton, and cotton being a plant fibre of course requires learning about how to mordant it. I also want to try making my own mordants from plants such as willow and rhubarb leaves. So this season, if all goes to plan, in any given dyeing session there will be a lot of more fibre types and several different mordants to take into account.

Although systematic experimentation is a great method for learning about natural dyes, it also does require quite a bit of organisation, not least because you need to have lots of skeins  and those skeins need to be labelled carefully, otherwise you lose track of them very fast.  With wool, if I am trying a new dye plant I normally try to get at least 6 colours per dye and mordant combination: for example when using alum, I’d need skeins for the following combinations

  • plain dye colour just using alum
  • alum with iron modifier
  • alum with acid modifier
  • alum with alkaline modifier
  • alum, acid and iron
  • alum, alkaline and iron

So that’s 6 skeins per mordant, and if I want to try willow and rhubarb mordants, as well as the usual alum and copper, then for any given dye, I’d need at least 24 different skeins. As you can see the amount of skeins you need for this approach can get out of hand very quickly. The only way to make it manageable from a cost point of view would be to use either very small skeins (which take a lot of time to make), or perhaps use small squares of fabric just for sampling purposes. I may well end up using fabric rather than yarn samples as they take less time to prepare, but since I promised my dad I’d dye a nice range of colours for his needlework this year and I also would like some naturally dyed embroidery silks for myself, then I won’t be able to avoid having to make lots and lots of mini skeins.

Last year I remember reading about a dyer who would get all her mordanting done in the early summer while waiting for her dye garden to start producing materials to dye with. I remember thinking, wow, that’s so organised, but I would never be able to manage that, I’d never think of it on time. But obviously this idea has been percolating in my head as recently I have started thinking it might actually be a good idea, especially as some people believe that doing mordanting several weeks if not months ahead of the actual dyeing will improve the results.

So this year I am going to have a go at separating the mordanting process from the dyeing process, which makes sense if I will be working with at least 4 types of mordant for wool and perhaps a few more for the cotton fabrics. And since I am mainly growing my own dyes, then mordanting early in the season definitely fits well into the natural seasonal rhythm of things. It may be a bit dull first, but by the time your garden is bursting with plants, you can just concentrate on dyeing.

And being well prepared may well be the only way I can manage carrying out these grand experimental plans, especially since the dyeing process is physically quite strenuous for me (because of my ME/CFS) even if I keep it simple with using just one mordant and one type of fibre . A long day at the dying workshop just isn’t an option for me, so I need to break down the process into smaller steps and being organised is the only way I can reconcile such grand plans with a limited amount of energy.

But I’m not entirely convinced that I’ll be able to pull it off being so organised and systematic all summer, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in the end I just ended up chucking random materials into my dye pots, not bother with labelling anything and instantly forgetting what exactly I had been doing.

It’s a bit like gardening. Early in the season you have great plans, and as the season progresses you get more and more overwhelmed with all the seedlings and plants and the amount of work and watering they need. By July, each year I make a solemn vow not to make such big plans ever again. And all winter, I keep thinking “I will resist making big plans, I will resist making big plans, I will resist… “.

Yet, by the time spring comes,  first I get the grand new ideas, then the delusion that this year it will be different, of course I will be able to do all those wonderful things,  because this year I am going to be so much more organised than I have ever managed before. There will be no problems whatsoever…

And so, every single year I end up with plans even grander than the year before. I don’t what it is about me and making over-ambitious plans, I just feel compelled to make them even if I know I already try to do much more than I can possibly manage. Focus and prioritisation just seem way beyond me. And this year, I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch with my ME, and yet, here I am, completely unable to resist planning for some great new achievements.

And who knows, perhaps this year I will actually succeed.