Archive for the ‘Dyeing Tips & Recipes’ Category

Indigo Rub-off

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Recently I was looking through The Mulberry Dyer Debbie Bamford’s blog (  and read about the problem of rub-off from indigo-dyed yarns. I should add that Debbie was not experiencing the problem herself but had come across the comment in another blog. Debbie used this comment as an example of how poor dyeing techniques can harm the reputation of natural dyeing, leading to the belief that problems such as rub-off or fading are only to be expected from natural dyes. Like Debbie, I feel situations like this are a great shame, especially as natural dyes, when properly selected and applied, are as reliable as synthetic dyes, if not more so.

It can be very irritating to find one’s fingers becoming blue as one uses indigo-dyed yarn. In my experience there are two main reasons why this rub-off may happen. The first reason is that the yarns were not properly cleaned before dyeing, so the dye becomes attached to the dirt or grease, rather than to the fibres, and is then rubbed off as soon as the yarns are subjected to any friction. The other reason is that the yarns were allowed to dry before being rinsed. When indigo-dyed materials are aired, it is important to turn them round from time to time, so no sections dry out before the fibres are rinsed. This is because any loosely-attached indigo becomes more firmly attached once dried and is not removed by rinsing or washing. However, it will come off when used in any way that causes friction.

There are other precautionary measures I routinely take. Firstly, as soon as I take materials out of the indigo vat, I plunge them into a bucket of clear water and move them around under the surface for about 30 seconds to a minute. This removes some of the indigo that may be loosely attached to the fibres. As water contains oxygen, it is also possible to leave the fibres to oxidise in this clear water, although they must remain below the surface and it will take longer for the fibres to turn blue. In fact, if patchy indigo dyeing is a problem, this is one way of avoiding it. Also, after airing them, I usually put indigo-dyed materials through a washing-machine rinse cycle whenever possible. Of course, this can cause skeins to become hopelessly tangled if care is not taken, so to prevent this, I tie skeins firmly in a bag or pillow-case before rinsing them.

Whatever our preferred dyeing methods and techniques may be, I firmly believe that, as dyers, we are responsible for the reputation of natural dyes and it is up to us to make sure any naturally-dyed items offered for sale, or as gifts, meet the highest possible standards. Anyway, lecture over now!

Dyeing with Wood Shavings

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Last November, a comment from handweaver Sandra Rude ( about her methods for using wood shavings for dyeing led me to her blog, where she has recipes for preparing and using dyebaths from wood shavings. First, she soaks the shavings in alcohol (or methylated spirits) for several weeks to extract the colour. When the liquid has developed a strong colour, she strains off the liquid then adds the fibres, plus enough water as necessary to allow the fibres to move freely in the solution. The dyebath is then heated gently (but no higher than 140F) and the fibres are left to soak until they have taken up the colour. (For further details, look at Sandra’s blog using the link above.)

This method of colour extraction is not entirely new to me, as I have used it to extract the purple colour from alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria).  It is also recommended for use with the so-called “insoluble redwoods”. These include Sanderswood (Pterocarpus santalinus), Camwood (Baphia nitida), Padauk (Pterocarpus indicus) and Barwood (Pterocarpus soyauxii). Although these dyes can be used following the usual simmering process to extract some of the colour, much colour potential remains unused, as it is not soluble in water. This means that the colours obtained may be considerably paler than those achieved using the alcohol-soak method. So I decided to try out Sandra’s method with Sanderswood and with some Walnut and Redwood (Sequoia sp.) shavings I had been sent some time ago by a woodturner. I also remembered I had some Camwood, not in the form of wood shavings but as pressed wood dust, presumably also mixed with some sort of binder. These circular discs were sold to me some years ago by a Nigerian indigo dyer, who explained that they are used by Nigerians as a facial cosmetic, or decoration, rather than as a textile dye. (My husband also recalls that the same lady told us that camwood is rubbed on babies’ skins as an antiseptic, but I must admit that I can’t remember being told this.)


These are some discs of pressed camwood ready for crumbling up and soaking.





I started by putting a layer of shavings (or crumbled camwood discs) about 2 inches deep in the bottom of a glass jar & then I covered them with methylated spirits. I did this with each of the dyes I wanted to test. I then put the lids tightly on the jars and left the shavings to steep for several weeks until the liquid became strongly coloured. Incidentally, although meths is purple in colour, this purple doesn’t seem to affect the final dye colour. In addition to the dyes I tested, I also steeped shavings of birch in the same way but, as the liquid showed little evidence of colour change, there seemed no point in continuing with them any further. 

    a1884                                                                                                                                                          Here the dyestuffs are soaking in the methylated spirits and a considerable amount of colour has already been extracted. (Note: If you can read the labels, ignore the word “Barwood” under “Redwood” on the left hand jar, as it’s an error on my part!)


The liquid is then strained off into a dyepot, together with more water as necessary, and the fibres are added.

 Do not throw away the meths-soaked wood shavings as they need to be disposed of with care. Return them to their jars in the meantime. Details for disposing of the woodshavings and the used dyebaths are given  below.                                                                                           

The crucial thing to bear in mind is that alcohol/methylated spirits is highly flammable & can easily catch fire near a naked flame. So the dyebath should not be heated on a stove with a naked flame, such as gas or coal or wood, but only on an electric heater. If in any doubt, allow the materials to soak in the dyebath without applying heat

I followed Sandra’s instructions but, as I have an electric heater, I heated the dyebath gently & then allowed the fibres to steep to absorb the colour.                                                                                                                                                Below are the samples soaking in the dye solutions.



I was delighted with the results of the dyebaths made from camwood and sanderswood, as these produced really vivid reds not obtainable from the usual simmering method of colour extraction. However, the results from the other two dyebaths were less spectacular. The colours from the walnut shavings were even paler than those I achieved from similar walnut shavings using the usual method of colour extraction. The redwood which, according to the woodturner who supplied it, came from Sequoia sp., gave a rich red colour when soaked in meths but the dyebath produced greenish shades identical to those obtained from the redwood shavings using the usual dyeing method.








 This image shows on the left from top to bottom:  Sanderswood + no modifier, acid modifier, alkaline modifier and iron modifier; and Walnut + no modifer, acid, alkali, iron;  on the right from top to bottom: Redwood (Sequoia sp.) + no mod, acid, alkali, iron and Camwood + no mod, acid, alkali, iron. 

It is interesting that, with this method of colour extraction, the modifiers seem to make less difference in shade than I would have expected.

Although this method of colour extraction using alcohol/methylated spirits can produce really strong, bright colours with some wood shavings, there are several disadvantages to this method of dyeing. Firstly, the smell of the dyebath is very unpleasant if one uses methylated spirits, although the fumes do disappear after a while. Secondly, I found the methylated spirits left the wool fibres feeling a little harsh to the touch. Disposal of the used dyebaths may also present problems, as I would not recommend that they be poured down the drain. I poured mine on the gravel at the edge of my driveway, close to a brick wall. Disposal of the meths-soaked wood shavings might have been difficult, but my husband readily took them, still carefully stored in their glass containers, to use to start his garden fires. Otherwise, I would probably have dug a deep hole in the ground and burned them, then covered the ash with soil. Nevertheless, I was glad I did these experiments as they really illustrated very clearly the colour potential of the “insoluble redwoods” when used with the alcohol extraction method. For the first time, I was able to see some of the colours that were so popular with dyers in the past. So my thanks to Sandra Rude for suggesting these experiments to me. I think next time I will see if I can buy a bottle of cheap vodka to use instead of the meths, as I should imagine that might smell less unpleasant.

Colours for My Granddaughter

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

We have one grandchild, Milly, aged nearly 9 months, and I am privileged in that I am allowed to knit for her. Many of my friends have been told that their grandchildren do not require handknitted garments, so I consider myself fortunate that my daughter regularly asks me to knit something for Milly. This time the request was for a dress and the desired colour scheme is grey and purply pinks. I am so glad that today’s babies wear such a variety of colours and not just the pale blues, pinks and lemons so common in the past.

So, after mordanting the wool skeins in alum, I set to work with the dyepots, using natural dye extracts this time. For the greys I chose Earthues Logwood Grey and for the purple/pinks Earthues Cochineal used with an alkaline modifier. To get more colour variations I added a small amount of Earthues Logwood extract to each exhaust dyebath. Here are the results:


This shows all the dyed skeins – rather too jumbled up for identification.






This shows, on the left, alum-mordanted skeins dyed with Cochineal, and on the right, the alum-mordanted skeins dyed with Logwood Grey. The results of the exhausts + Logwood are at the bottom on each side.



This shows some of the skeins wound into balls.

On the left from top to bottom: Logwood Grey, Logwood Grey exhaust, Logwood Grey exhaust + Logwood

On the right from top to bottom: Cochineal + washing soda modifier, Cochineal exhaust + washing soda modifier, Cochineal exhaust + Logwood (2 skeins including the centre one)

Now I just have to knit the dress!

The Last of the Fungi?

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

My own searches for fungi haven’t proved very fruitful as far as dyebaths are concerned but, thanks again to Leena, I still had some stalks of Cortinarius semisanguineus waiting to be used and recently I managed to get round to using them. The earlier samples of colours from Cortinarius semisanguineus were from the caps only and I had been told that the colours from the stalks were usually more orange in tone. I know from past experience that different parts of the same plant may give different shades, so it’s often a good idea to separate flowers, leaves and stems when testing plants for the first time and prepare a different dyebath for each. It therefore came as no surprise to me that the same holds true for fungi.

img_17861This image shows a range of shades from the stalks.

The two skeins on the left are unmordanted and the other skeins are mordanted with alum.

 The unmordanted samples are pretty, reasonably rich shades but they will probably be less fast to light & washing than those mordanted with alum. Time will tell.


The skeins are now in balls, making it easier to identify them.

Top (all alum mordant) left to right: (i) no modifier (ii) + acid (clear vinegar) (iii) + alkali (washing soda)

Bottom left to right:      (i) no mordant, no modifier (ii) no mordant  + alkali & iron modifiers (variegated skein) and (iii) alum mordant + alkali & iron modifiers (variegated skein)

In these experiments, a relatively small amount of dyestuff seemed to go a long way. I had 60gms of mushroom stalks and managed to dye a total of about 250gms of wool the shades shown above. I simmered the stalks for about 2 hours then strained off the dye liquid for the dyebath. I then simmered the stalks again to extract every last bit of colour and added that to the dyebath. I dyed the single-coloured skeins first and modified two of them as above. I then dyed the two variegated skeins. To do this, I first dyed the skeins in the dyebath then removed them and gently squeezed out some of the excess dye. I then added modifiers to the end sections of each skein as follows: I dipped one end of each skein in a solution of washing soda and the other end of each skein in an iron solution, leaving the centre section unmodified. I left the skeins to soak in each modifier until there was a clear variation of shades on each skein, then removed them & rinsed them very carefully so there was no iron contamination.

Note: When modifying sections of skeins, rather than the whole skein, it is important to make sure the areas to remain unmodified do not hang below the sections being modified, otherwise the modifer will leech into the rest of the skein. I used to tie the skein to a hook screwed into a beam above the work surface where I have my heat source. However, since my workroom has been re-roofed this beam is no longer available, so I now put a weighted saucepan on top of some bricks & fasten the skein to the handle of the saucepan. Much will depend on the length of the skein but it is often possible to put the two modifier pans next to one another, leaving only a small gap between, and then both ends can be modified simultaneously.

P.S. A final fungus dyebath:

img_1847This photo shows the shades from a small sample dyebath of, I think, Trametes versicolor. The dyebath appeared very pale in colour so I was surprised to achieve what is a rather attractive cinnamon brown. The sample on the left is unmordanted and the sample on the right is alum-mordanted. Next to the samples are the used pieces from the dyebath. The pieces came from one of the fungi I found on my walks in the woods & which has been identified by several readers as probably Trametes versicolor. Perhaps the dyed samples above will help to confirm this identification?

PS to Fungi in the Garden

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Following some helpful comments from a mushroom expert, I think I have wrongly identified the second mushroom. As it was not growing on the ground, it is almost certainly not Giant Club Fungus but more likely a polypore, perhaps Polyporus floccipes?

Dyes from the Woods

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

January is not the best month for harvesting plants for dyeing but it always seems to be possible to find something with dye potential, no matter what the time of year may be. During my recent walk in the woods, I collected some fallen fir branches & some brown oak leaves & birch bark from the woodland floor. The birch bark is waiting for me to strip off the useful sections & soak them in water, but the fir leaves & oak leaves have already found their way into my dye pots. Although they didn’t produce remarkable colours, they make a pleasant reminder of a delightful afternoon spent foraging at leisure for woodland treasures. 

This shows an alum-mordanted skein dyed in a dye bath made from the fir leaves on which the skein is sitting.



                                                                                                                                            This shows the results of a dye bath made from the fallen oak leaves on the left of the picture. From top to bottom the skeins are: alum mordant, no mordant, no mordant plus iron modifier.

Although these brown & grey shades may not have the “wow” factor of more brilliant colours, they provide useful contrasts to set off brighter, more vivid shades.

P.S. to Eucalyptus Tests

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

I have now managed to try out the acidic modifier on skeins from the Eucalyptus gunnii bark dyebath. The skeins on the left were mordanted with alum & those on the right were unmordanted. The acidic modified samples are second from the top in each case.

It would appear that this species of eucalyptus follows the usual pattern of modifiers & the acidic modifier has lightened the shade. But it was worth doing the test just to make sure.

Colours from Eucalyptus gunnii

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

This image shows some colours from Eucalyptus gunnii leaves. The wool on the left has been mordanted with alum, the wool on the right was unmordanted. From top to bottom, the samples are: no modifier, plus alkaline modifier, plus iron modifier.

NOTE: As it’s usually the alkaline & iron modifiers that give the most interesting results, I limited these tests to these 2 modifiers only. However, I have just read that some eucalyptus dyes react better in an acidic solution, so I may have made the wrong choices. 

NOTE TO SELF: Do not try to take short cuts by not testing samples across the full range of modifiers. The modifiers omitted might be the ones that give the most interesting results.


 This image shows the results of a dyebath of Eucalyptus gunnii bark on alum-mordanted wool (left) & unmordanted wool (right) From top to bottom the samples are: no modifier, plus alkaline modifier, plus iron modifier.

 The same comments on not missing out modifiers apply here.



This image shows all the skeins dyed as in the photos above. Any variations in shade between the photos is because this last photo was taken outdoors, while the other 2 photos were taken indoors. I think the colours in this photo, rather than in the photos taken indoors, are closer to the actual colours of the skeins

I’m afraid I’m still working on my skills as a photographer!

Dyeing with Fungi

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

This lovely photo, kindly supplied by Leena in Finland, shows the fungus Cortinarius semisanguineus. I love this image – I can almost smell the musky aromas of the earth & the woods as I look at it. Thanks to Leena, who sent me some of this mushroom dried  & ready for dyeing, I’ve been able to experience the delights of fungi dyeing for the first time, apart from some very primitive efforts many years ago.

 This photo shows the results of my experiments. The skeins on the right were mordanted with alum & those on the left were unmordanted. The uppermost skein on the left was dyed in the same dyebath as the skeins on the right. Otherwise, all the left-hand skeins were dyed in the exhaust dyebath. From top to bottom, the skeins on both sides show no modifer, acidic modifier, alkaline modifer, copper modifier & iron modifier. I simmered the mushrooms for about 1 hour to make the first dyebath, then simmered  them again for a second batch of fibres.The dyestuff went a long way & I was able to dye about 400gms of wool with only 100gms of dye. 

 This photo shows some more of the skeins I dyed using Cortinarius semisanguineus. Some skeins were mordanted with alum & others were left unmordanted. I was amazed at the lovely rich colours from this mushroom, which contains similar pigments to those in madder.

 I am certainly a convert to dyeing with fungi & will now keep my eyes open for any I can harvest. When the season is right, I’m sure I’ll find something worth trying, especially as we occasionally have various kinds of fungi appearing in our garden. All I need now is a good reference book to help me identify whatever I may find.

More about extracts

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

This photo shows the results of my most recent tests using sorghum extract, this time on unmordanted wool. Unfortunately, the telephone called me away from the dyebath, which boiled too vigorously for too long, resulting in much darker shades than I had intended. However, I think it’s just about possible to see the results of the colour modifiers.

From top to bottom: No modifier, acidic modifer (clear vinegar), alkaline modifier (washing soda), copper modifer, iron modifier.

I think sorghum could prove an interesting dye source & I must try it again – but next time without boiling the dyebath to within an inch of its life!

This photo shows some shades, on alum mordanted wool, from Lac Red on the left & from Lac Purple on the right. (Both available from Pure Tinctoria). I was interested to see how separating the red & purple pigments would influence the resulting shades.

Colour modifiers resulted in pleasing variations in shade. Both copper & iron made the colours more purple in tone &, as usual with Lac dye, an acid modifier intensified the colour & an alkaline modifier made it considerably paler. This is interesting, as with most other dyes the results are reversed & the alkali intensifies the colour. In fact, the only other dye I can recall where this effect is noticeable is walnut hulls. Here, too, a vinegar after-bath deepens the shade.

This photo shows the results of another test I carried out on the Lac dyes. This time, before adding the alum-mordanted fibres,  I added clear vinegar to the prepared dyebath to bring it to pH 4. I then added the fibres & simmered the dyebath for about 30 minutes as usual.

The top 2 skeins are from Lac Red (dyebath & exhaust dyebath) & the lower 2 skeins are from Lac Purple (dyebath & exhaust dyebath).

The addition of an acid, either citric acid granules or clear vinegar, is a useful way of extracting the maximum dye pigment from insect dyes & works with Cochineal as well as with Lac. However, it tends to produce shades that are redder or more orange in tone, rather than pinker or more purple & if too much acid is added the colour can easily become too orange in tone.