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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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…