Archive for the ‘General Dye Information’ Category

More Skeins for Ditchling Museum

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I dyed a final set of samples for the Ethel Mairet project at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, following recipes in the 1916 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”.

Below are the details of the recipes and the results.

Samples of wool and silk were dyed following the instructions on p 103 Recipe no. 7 for MADDER Red for silk

A cold 25% alum mordant was applied and the fibres were allowed to soak in the cold alum mordant solution for 24 hours. 50% madder was placed in the dye pot, together with a handful of bran tied into a muslin bag, and water was added. The fibres were rinsed and then added to the madder dye bath. The temperature was raised gradually to just below a simmer, the heat was turned off and the fibres were then left to steep in the dye bath without further application of heat. When the dye bath was getting cool, heat was again applied until a simmer was reached. The heat was then turned off and the fibres left to steep overnight. They were then removed, rinsed and washed.

Further samples of wool and silk were mordanted with 2% copperas (iron) and dyed as above, as suggested in the above recipe for brown shades.

From the left: wool, silk, wool for brown, silk for brown

Samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions on p110 Recipe no. 1 for WELD  Yellow for Silk

Wool and silk fibres were mordanted with 25% alum sulphate and the cotton and linen fibres were mordanted with 5% alum acetate. 200% weld was simmered for 15 minutes then the dye liquid was strained off into a dye pot and left to cool. When it had cooled a little, the silk and wool fibres were added and left to steep in the dye solution. They were then removed. The weld was simmered again with the addition of 2 teaspoons of soda ash and this solution was then strained and added to the first dye solution. The dyed fibres were added to this solution and allowed to steep until they had achieved a suitable depth of colour.

From the top: wool, silk, cotton, linen

Samples of wool and silk were dyed following the instructions on p121 for DYER’S BROOM

The fibres were mordanted with 25% alum sulphate. The dyer’s broom was simmered for 45 minutes to extract the colour, then strained. The fibres were gently simmered in the strained dye solution for 45 minutes and left to cool in the dye liquid. They were then removed, rinsed and washed.

From the left: wool, silk

Samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions on p125 Recipe no. 9 for CUTCH Brown for Wool

The fibres were not mordanted. 15% cutch extract was dissolved in boiling water then gently stirred into a dye pot of water. The fibres were added and simmered in the solution for about an hour, then left to cool for a while.  2% iron (ferrous sulphate) was dissolved in boiling water then added to a pot of water. The cutch-dyed fibres were added to the iron solution and simmered for 15 minutes. They were allowed to cool, then rinsed and washed.

From the left: wool, silk, cotton, linen

Samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions on p139 Recipe no. 8 for GREEN WITH INDIGO EXTRACT & WELD FOR WOOL.

Wool and silk fibres were mordanted with 25% alum sulphate and the cotton and linen fibres were mordanted with 5% alum acetate. They were first dyed blue using indigo extract (Saxon Blue). The fibres were simmered in this indigo solution for about 45 minutes then allowed to cool a little. The weld dye bath was prepared by simmering 100% weld to extract the colour. The solution was strained off and the indigo-dyed fibres were added to the weld dye bath and simmered for about 45 minutes. They were left to cool in the dye bath, then rinsed and washed.

NOTE: Although this recipe is specifically for wool, it was used on this occasion to dye all four fibre types. However, as noted by Ethel Mairet, indigo extract is less suitable for cotton and linen and these fibres did not take up much blue dye. The silk reacted better but the depth of blue on the silk was still less than that on the wool. This meant that the greens achieved were less blue and more yellow in tone.

From the left: wool, silk, cotton, linen

Dyeing with bracken

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

It was interesting to read that one of the dyes used most frequently by Ethel Mairet was bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). In my garden I have several bracken or common fern plants which need to be cut back, so I decided to experiment with them.

I started with the old pruned leaves (see photo below) and was pleased with the results, especially from the alkali (washing soda) modifier.

Below are the results from this dye bath. From the top: no modifier, washing soda modifier, iron modifier, exhaust dye bath no modifier (All 10% alum mordant on wool)

For comparison, I decided to also make a dye bath from the new fiddle-heads (see photo below.)

Below are the results which rather surprised me, as I had been expecting the colours from the fiddle heads to be more yellow in tone.

From the left: alum mordant, alum + washing soda modifier, alum + iron modifier

I then decided to try a cool dye bath with the old leaves. I left the samples to steep in the dye liquid for about 12 hours and this cold soak produced the colours shown below.

Upper skein: no modifier, lower skein: washing soda modifier (Both alum mordant)

I then re-simmered the old leaves, strained off the dye liquid and added more skeins, this time unmordanted. The results are below.

From the left: no modifier, washing soda modifier, no modifier but skein simmered in the dye bath for a longer period of time.

Although the skeins are browner in tone than the photo suggests, these results were quite surprising, as I hadn’t expected to get deeper colours from the re-simmered leaves.

These experiments gave some interesting shades and I am not surprised that bracken was a dyestuff frequently used by Ethel Mairet.

Contact Printing on Fabric and Paper

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

Contact printing using plant materials is often called eco-printing, which is a term coined (in her book “Eco Colour”) by India Flint, who developed this technique initially from her work with eucalyptus leaves. Inherent in the philosophy behind the eco-print as practised by India Flint is the acceptance of the changing conditions of life and therefore also of the printed cloth, which is the result of patterns made from living plants.

The technique seems deceptively simple and indeed, if used in its most basic form, by wrapping leaves and other plant materials tightly into a fabric bundle, which is then steamed or simmered in a dye pot, it is relatively easy to produce prints of varying degrees of attractiveness. Some of these basic prints can be pretty but at other times the final results just look like amorphous blobs and stains, which can appear dirty and messy.

However, in the hands of skilled practitioners this technique becomes much more complex and is a method of creating clear imprints of leaves and achieving other beautiful decorative effects on fabrics, clothing and papers.

Some traditional natural dyers have expressed fears that the results of eco-printing may not be light- and wash-fast and that this could bring natural dyeing into disrepute. I must admit that initially this was my concern, especially as some of the plant materials that may be used for this technique are known to have poor fastness properties. However, as I learn more about the contact printing technique it becomes clear that, if properly and carefully carried out using appropriate materials, this method of patterning fabrics can produce light and wash-fast designs, which can be very beautiful. It is also apparent that many of the more experienced eco-printers use their knowledge of traditional natural dyeing methods as the basis for successful contact printing.

Contact printing is not the same process as traditional natural dyeing and in each process the same colours will not necessarily be achieved, even when the same plant materials are used.  For example, some red and pink flowers, such as those of pelargoniums or fuchsias, tend to give rather disappointing yellow or brownish colours if used in the traditional simmering method of dyeing, but may give pinks and reds when used in contact printing.

In general, the best results from contact printing tend to be achieved if the fabric is mordanted first, usually with alum or tannin, or treated beforehand with soy milk, and if the cloth is wrapped around pieces of iron, tin cans or copper piping and then bound round very tightly. The tighter the bundle is tied and the longer one allows the bundle to mature before opening it, the better the results are likely to be. This is not a technique that can be rushed if one wants really good, clear results. The more time that is allowed between each step, the better and the faster the results will be. Time is of the essence and an intrinsic part of the process.

Recently, I was lucky enough to meet Fabienne Dorsman Rey, who is a talented and highly skilled creative textile artist, renowned for her work in the field of eco-printing and for her beautiful stitched pieces and delicate folded paper books. Fabienne is an inspirational and generous teacher and, after talking with her and looking at examples of her work, it soon became clear that I am merely a novice with rather limited experience in this approach. Indeed, the more I learn about the different contact printing techniques, the more I realise how much I still have to learn. Fabienne is also an experienced natural dyer and her work builds on and develops from her knowledge and expertise as a traditional dyer. In addition to gathered leaves and flowers and other plant materials, she also uses the more traditional natural dyes in her work, which is further enhanced by the subtle use of stitching and embroidery, giving her pieces added texture, depth and meaning.

Below are some images showing some of Fabienne’s work, including some prints on papers



blog-dsc_1039_edited-1 “Pods of Tenderness”




More about Fabienne and her beautiful work can be found on Facebook (Fabienne Dorsman-Rey) and here:

After meeting Fabienne I was inspired to experiment further with the contact printing technique on fabrics and papers.

I used silk scarves, pieces of cotton and wool fabrics which I first  mordanted with alum. I spread out the leaves and other plant materials on one half only of the fabric, added some iron nails or similar metal pieces, sprayed the fabric with clear vinegar then carefully folded the other half of the fabric over the top. I then rolled each bundle very tightly around either a piece of wooden dowelling, a section of copper piping or a large iron bolt and tied the bundles firmly with string. I decided to experiment with papers too, so I spread leaves and flowers between layers of various kinds of paper and then placed these papers between very stiff card, before tying them round tightly. I steamed the fabric and paper bundles for about an hour in a bamboo vegetable steamer, purchased specifically for this purpose, and then allowed them to mature for about a week before opening them up. Thicker bundles may need a longer simmering period and it is important to experiment to find appropriate steaming times for each type of material.

The photos below give some idea of what I have achieved so far. Many of the leaf prints are still not clearly enough defined and there is certainly room for improvement in this area. I think I also added too many plant pieces to some of the fabrics and this has made the designs too cluttered and “busy”. For my next experiments I will try adding some of the bundles to different dye baths, rather than steaming them.


Two bundles ready for the steamer

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Bundles of steamed fabrics maturing before being opened

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Contact print on wool fabric using mainly rose leaves and wrapped round an iron bolt

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Contact print on cotton using eucalyptus and blackberry leaves with some iron nails added

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Three silk scarves drying on the line

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Silk scarves printed with eucalyptus leaves

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Silk scarf printed with wisteria and eucalyptus leaves

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The design on this silk scarf reminds me of a lion’s head but I can’t remember which plant materials I used

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Silk scarf printed with ivy and hypericum leaves (I think)

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Some printed papers




Solar Dye Pots

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

This summer, as usual, I set up some solar dye pots with my granddaughter, who is now 8 years old and becoming quite an experienced natural dyer.

In a way, I feel the term “solar dyeing” is a little misleading, because many dyes, particularly leaves and flowers, will give their colours quite well without heat, including heat from the sun. Indeed, in many British summers the sun rarely appears and when it does it often gives very little heat, but the dye pots still produce colour. I have even had good results from pots set up with dye and fibres in the depths of winter, including those winters when some of the solutions have frozen during the process.

For these dye pots, I simply put the dyestuff and an alum-mordanted skein in the jars and filled them up with water. For colour variations, I added iron nails to some of the jars and then made sure all the ingredients in each jar were below the surface of the liquid. As the weather was warm, I used cold water but adding hot water to start with will speed up the process if the weather is cool. I checked the development of colour on the skeins at regular  intervals and removed the skeins when I was satisfied with the depth of colour achieved. I then added a second skein and repeated the process. The water may occasionally need topping up but otherwise all one has to do is wait for the results.

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The above pots contain, from left to right: orange cosmos and coreopsis flowers, deep red hollyhock flowers and aster flowers

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These pots contain, from left to right: tomato leaves, calendula flowers with iron nails and mugwort leaves with iron nails.

Some of the pots (eg. cosmos and aster) had already produced bright colours in a week or so, while others (eg. helenium dead heads and tomato leaves) took longer to develop a reasonable depth of colour.

Below are some of the results on alum-mordanted wool .

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From left to right: aster flowers (1 week), orange cosmos & coreopsis flowers, helenium dead heads

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From left to right: deep pink hollyhock flowers, orange cosmos & coreopsis flowers (exhaust), calendula flowers + iron nails, aster flowers (2 weeks), mugwort + iron nails, tomato leaves

Note: Although I am reluctant to reveal the disappointing colour from the hollyhocks, I feel I must do so, as I suspect I will not be the only one to have had disappointing results from deep red hollyhock flowers. In general, I tend to use mainly the traditional, reliable dyes, with good fastness properties, especially if I am producing items for sale. I don’t include hollyhock flowers among these reliable dyes, as they can be very fickle in the dye pot; sometimes they give pink and purple shades, sometimes they give soft greens and then at other times they yield only beige and dirty lemon tones. I have tried various methods: freezing them, drying them, applying heat and cool dyeing and it seems no method can be guaranteed to regularly produce pinks or purples. So the colours from hollyhock flowers shown in my book, “Wild Colour”, are sadly not the end of the story and I apologise if they have led too many dyers down the road of disappointment. If it is any consolation, it is a road I have also sometimes traversed!


Dyeing with safflower petals

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

Recently I was asked to dye some samples using safflower petals from Nepal. The dyed samples are to be exhibited at Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden as part of an exhibition highlighting the flora of Nepal.

Safflower is a thistle-like plant and nowadays it is grown mainly for the oil from its seeds, which is used in salad oils and margarine. It is also occasionally referred to as “bastard saffron” because it is sometimes used as a substitute for the true saffron from the stigmas of an autumn-flowering crocus. Stems of safflower are often sold for dried flower arrangements.

Safflower has been used by dyers for centuries. It was one of the dyes identified on early Egyptian textiles and in the East it was also used to make pigments and cosmetics. Safflower is remarkable because both a yellow and a red dye can be extracted from its petals.

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The photo above shows a range of yellows and reds from safflower petals.

The red dye was used from early times in India and Japan to dye cotton and silk shades of vibrant pinks and orange-red, which tend to fade with the passage of time and frequent exposure to light. The yellow dye, although deep and brilliant at first, also has relatively poor fastness. The red dye from safflower was used to dye the tapes tied around legal documents – hence the term “Red Tape”.

To dye with safflower, use at least equal weights of dyestuff and fibres. (Stronger colours will result if you use twice the weight of the fibres to be dyed.) No mordant is required for pinks and reds. Although no mordant is necessary for yellows, using an alum mordant will improve fastness.

Note: the same petals can be used for both yellow and red.

The yellow dye can be applied to animal and vegetable fibres. The red dye, which is applied at room temperature, is suitable for cotton, linen and silk, but not for wool, which does not take up the red colour.

Dyeing reds with safflower is not straightforward, so below are some details.

First of all the yellow dye must be extracted from the petals. It is advisable to wear rubber gloves or your hands will become stained. Tie the petals up in a piece of muslin or old net curtaining and immerse this bag of petals in a bucket or bowl of cool water and leave to soak for a while. Then start to press and squeeze the bag to extract the yellow dye. Remove the bag from time to time to check how much colour is still running out. When the water in the bucket is strongly coloured and the petals no longer yield much yellow dye, squeeze out the excess water from the bag. Remove the petals and put them into a pan or plastic container and reserve the yellow dye for a dye bath later.

To extract and then apply the red dye,  first cover the petals in your container with enough cold water for your subsequent dye bath. Then add enough washing soda to bring the solution to pH 11 and turn the petals reddish-brown. Leave for about 1 hour, then squeeze the petals well and strain off the liquid. Don’t throw away the petals because the same petals can be used again for paler pinks, following the same processes.

Then add enough clear vinegar or lemon juice to the strained-off liquid to bring the solution to pH 6. It should now be bright red and ready for use.

Do not heat the dye liquid, but add the fibres and leave them to soak for several hours or overnight. Rinse well and dry away from direct sunlight.

Silk treated in the red dye bath becomes coral or orange, rather than pink. This is because the acidic dye liquid that contains the red dye also contains a second yellow dye, which is taken up by silk but not by cotton.

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The photo above shows from the top: coral/orange on silk and red on cotton

To produce pink shades on silk an extra procedure must be followed. First add some cotton fibres to the red dye liquid as above and leave them for several hours or overnight to absorb the red dye.

Then discharge this red dye from the cotton fibres back into a solution by placing the dyed cotton into an alkaline solution of water and washing soda at pH11. Soak the cotton in this solution for about 30 minutes or until the solution becomes red.

Then remove the cotton, acidify the solution to pH6 as described above and add the silk fibres. Leave them to soak until they have become pink.

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The photo above shows pinks on silk after the extra step.

Dyeing yellow with safflower petals is much simpler. Put the dye liquid into a dye pot, add the fibres to be dyed and heat to simmering point. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes then turn off the heat & allow the fibres to cool down in the dye bath. Then remove them and wash and rinse them.

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This photo shows a range of yellows from safflower on wool (top), silk (centre) and cotton (bottom)



Dyeing large quantities of woollen skeins

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

A friend asked for help as she wanted to dye one kilo of handspun woollen skeins all the same colour. Dyeing such a large quantity of fibre is not easy, unless one has suitable equipment. I don’t have a pot large enough which could be heated and I no longer have a large Burco boiler, so the only option seemed to be to use a plastic container and opt for cool dyeing. Cool mordanting with alum is not a problem, as long as the fibres remain in the cool mordant bath for at least 24 hours and preferably longer. However, cool dyeing limits to some extent the dyes which can be used, as not all dyes can be successfully applied without heat.

The colour my friend chose was the pale green/yellow shown in the top sample below:

greens blog article

To achieve this colour, I decided to apply an alum mordant and then dye with weld extract, followed by indigo. I already have a large plastic container I keep for alum mordanting and fortunately it was just large enough for the quantity of wool, so I filled the container with cool water, added the alum mordant and left the yarn in the mordant bath for a couple of days.

I decided to use a large plastic garden trug as my dye pot, so I dissolved the weld extract in boiling water and added it to the cool water in the plastic trug.  I stirred well and then added the wetted-out yarn and allowed it to steep in the dye bath for about 24 hours, by which time it had become a suitable shade of yellow and was evenly dyed.

The final step was to make an indigo vat, also in the large plastic garden trug. The wool was then over-dyed in the indigo vat.

Although the trug seemed large enough for the quantity of wool being dyed with weld, I think the wool probably needed even more space in the indigo vat, as the results were somewhat variegated. However, the colour on the sample was also variegated and my friend was pleased with the results of our labours, so all was well.

The photo below shows the dyed skeins:


I then decided to dye a further kilo of wool, this time Romney Marsh fleece from local sheep, processed into yarn at Diamond Fibres in East Sussex. I wanted a colour suitable for a jacket that I could wear with most things and as I would have to dye without heat I chose to use buckthorn bark, which responds well to cool dyeing and which would, I hoped, give a caramel colour.

I simmered up about 200gms of buckthorn bark and then strained the dye liquid into the water in the trug. I added about 1 teaspoon of walnut hull extract in the hope that this might make the shade slightly browner in tone. (However, my initial feeling that walnut might not dye well without heat probably proved correct, as there is little evidence of any walnut influence in the final colour.) I added the wool skeins, which absorbed the dye more quickly than I had expected and I removed them after about one hour, rinsed and washed them and then left them to dry. These skeins also appear variegated but not this time because the trug was too small for the yarn. Buckthorn bark tends to change colour a little when left to dry in the light and it is important to open up the skeins and move them around, so they dry evenly. However, because the skeins were so dense and thick it was more difficult to open them up, so the final colour effect is variegated. Fortunately, I like this effect anyway and, although I had been aiming for a more caramel tone, I am also pleased with the colour.

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The final results.

Further alkaline extraction method tests and some puzzling results

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Following on from my recent alkaline extraction method experiments, I decided to try the method used by Krista Vajanto in her dissertation and described in my post of March 8th. So before adding a further set of samples, I left the dye baths to become acidic. This proved more difficult than I had expected, as the pH decreased a little and then remained stubbornly at around pH9 and refused to become more acidic. After a couple of weeks, I decided to add another set of samples anyway, which I left to steep for about 4 weeks. The dye baths looked very strongly coloured and I was hoping for well-dyed samples. Indeed, on removal from the dye baths the samples appeared deep in colour but most of the colour washed off, leaving the samples considerably paler than the first set, which had been in the alkaline dye bath for only 2 weeks.

I really don’t know how to interpret these surprising results. If the dye baths had been pH7 or below, I would have assumed that the acidic conditions had made the samples paler. This would have been in line with results from acidic modifiers which often result in the samples becoming paler. But in this case the dye baths were still alkaline, although less so than for the first samples. However, the dye baths had become slimy and viscous and I wonder if this is a sign that fermentation was taking place and the fermentation caused the colours to become paler?

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This photo shows, from the top: birch bark, alder bark, white willow bark, tormentil root, with 4 samples for each. For each dye, the pair of samples on the left is from the first dye bath (2 weeks) and the pair on the right is from the second dye bath (4 weeks). In each pair, the top sample is alum-mordanted and the lower sample is unmordanted. The photo quite clearly shows how much paler the samples are from the second dye bath. Very puzzling!

More experiments with the alkaline extraction method

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

I am very interested in the dyeing techniques of the past and recently I read Krista Vajanto’s dissertation on Dyes & Dyeing Methods in Late Iron Age Finland,, which contains some interesting details about dyes and possible methods for achieving reds (or reddish colours) in areas where madder and madder-related plants were not available. I corresponded with Krista before her dissertation was published and conducted some of my own tests, which I wrote about in my book  A Heritage of Colour. Since then, I have been able to obtain some more information from reading Krista’s dissertation and I have started to experiment further.

One method that would seem to have been used in the Iron Age in northern Europe is what Krista calls “the fermentation of tannins”. Apparently tannin-rich plant materials such as barks and the roots of tormentil (Potentilla erecta) will give red or rust colours if treated in wood ash water or a similar source of alkali. This is very similar to what I call the alkaline extraction method, which I use mainly with madder root and buckthorn bark. In my method, the barks or roots are soaked in wood ash water with no application of heat and the fibres are dyed in this alkaline solution, usually without application of heat or occasionally at a very low temperature. After some time, fermentation will begin and the dye solution will start to become neutral and then acidic.

From my experiments using this method with madder root and buckthorn bark, I have found that if the pH becomes too acidic the red colours become more orange or rust in tone so, in order to obtain true reds, it is important to keep adding alkali to maintain a pH of at least 9. The method Krista used for her experiments with the tannin fermentation method differs somewhat from mine; she fermented the plant materials before adding the fibres, rather than adding the fibres to the wood ash water at the same time as the plant materials. In her dissertation Krista describes how, in her tests, the plant materials were steeped for four weeks in the wood ash water, which started off at about pH10, and then as the time passed the pH values decreased from alkaline to neutral and then to acidic and pH6 as the plant materials fermented.  The fibres were then added to the dye liquid and steeped for two weeks at room temperature. So the main difference between the two methods is that Krista does not add the fibres to the dye solution until it has fermented and become acidic, whereas I add the fibres together with the dyestuff and maintain an alkaline pH while the fibres are steeping in the dye pot and I do not allow the solution to become acidic if I am aiming for reds.

For my latest experiments I decided to first try my method and then the one described by Krista. So I set up some dye baths in glass jars, using alder bark, birch bark, white willow bark and tormentil root. For comparison, I also conducted the same test with buckthorn bark, which I have already used in several tests using the alkaline extraction method. (See my 2013 post Buckthorn Bark)

I half-filled the jars with wood ash water and then added the dye material and wool samples.

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The dye liquid became deep red after a day or so and I checked the pH of the solutions every day and added more alkali (wood ash water or soda ash) as necessary to maintain a pH of between 10 and 11.

The samples were finally removed after two weeks. Although they appeared deep red/pink as they were removed from the dye pot, the red colour gradually disappeared as the samples were rinsed and washed, leaving much softer, paler shades. This was interesting, as the colour remains red when using this method with buckthorn bark and does not rinse out.

Below is a photo of the colours achieved. (I would not describe any of the colours as “red”.) There are 2 skeins for each dye; the first skein in each pair is alum mordanted and the second skein is unmordanted.

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From left to right: birch bark, tormentil root, white willow bark, alder bark.

I will now leave the dye solutions to become acidic and ferment before I add a further set of samples to each dye pot.  Once my next tests are completed, I will write a further post on this topic.

For interest, below is a photo of skeins dyed in an alkaline solution of buckthorn bark, following the same method as described in the tests above. The dye bath was kept at around pH10 to pH11 and these skeins are definitely red.

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South Downs Yarn & colours from fungi

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

Part of the ethos underpinning South Downs Yarn, Louise Spong’s wool company, is a belief in the importance of making use of locally-available fleece, which can be traced back to the flocks from which it came and sometimes even to the individual sheep. The wool for Louise’s yarn comes from Southdown sheep and is sustainably sourced, single-flock wool from smallholders and farmers from the South Downs locality.

The same ethos determines the sources of the plants used to dye South Downs Yarn, so wherever possible the plants used are grown or harvested locally. This can sometimes be challenging, especially where plant sources of pinks and purples are concerned. Whilst virtually all other  colours can be readily produced from locally grown or harvested dyes, pinks and purples are more elusive. Pinks (and also purple) come mainly from the insect dyes, cochineal (found predominantly in parts of Central and South America) and sticklac (from India and South-East Asia). Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) and buckthorn bark (Rhamnus spp.) can sometimes give pinks in the coral range but will rarely give a true rose pink.

The most commonly used source of purple is the heartwood of logwood, Haematoxylon campechianum, from South or Central America. Purple can also be achieved from some species of lichen but lichens are protected in the wild and should preferably not be harvested for dyeing. Lichen purple is also not reliably fast and for that reason I would be reluctant to use this dye for anything I might want to sell or give to anyone else. Alkanet root (Alkanna tinctoria) will give a purple shade under certain conditions but the colours it gives are very variable and not always reliable.

Some time ago I discovered by chance another source of purple, when I added some walnut extract to a madder extract dye bath (both extracts from Earthues). This combination produced a pleasing purple-pink but, following further experiments, I found that this only occurs if the dyes are used in extract form and not when the chopped plant dye pieces are used. (See my earlier posts on this. Not what I was expecting & Walnut hulls & madder root again but no purples or pinks) I must conduct some more tests to see whether this colour can be regularly produced from this combination of extract dyes, as it could prove very useful.

To try and find other sources of pink and purple, I looked again through my dye sample books and decided to try dyes from fungi, in particular from species of Cortinarius.

For this South Downs Yarn fungi dyeing session we used Cortinarius semisanguineus, with an alum mordant and followed by an alkaline modifier. This gave pretty pinks. However, a further alum-mordanted skein followed by a copper modifier after dyeing did not give the purple tones I had hoped for, but a rather dull beige pink. I’m not sure why this was the case but I suspect the exhaust dye bath which we used was too weak to give a pink deep enough to produce the desired result from the copper modifier.

I also had the remainder of a small amount of the fungus Hapalopilus rutilans, kindly sent me from Finland by Leena Riihela for some tests for my most recent book  A Heritage of Colour, and which gives a pretty lavender purple dye colour. I had read that extracting the colour from Hapalopilus rutilans at pH9 to 10 would improve the colour, so I added a small amount of soda ash to bring the water to pH9 when I simmered the fungus to extract the colour. Unfortunately this proved not to have been such a good idea, as the extracted dye colour seemed paler rather than more intense and pink rather than purple in tone and it dyed the skein a rather pale dull pink. (I had probably also added too much fibre for the amount of dyestuff I had and this made the colour paler than I had wanted. Note to self: Don’t add too much fibre in future when you know there isn’t really sufficient dyestuff for a reasonably strong colour to be achieved, especially when you haven’t got enough dyestuff left to re-dye the fibres!) I re-simmered the used dyestuff together with the last remaining few pieces of fungus and used it to dye two small skeins, which this time became a prettier colour, but still pink in tone. I suspect this was because some soda ash solution had been absorbed by the pieces of fungi and had an effect on the dye bath when the fungus was re-processed. However, as this fungus is not readily available I doubt whether I would be able to obtain enough to make it a useful source of purple.

230 harvested Cortinarius semisanguineus p140 centre right

Cortinarius semisanguineus (photo courtesy of Leena Riihela)

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Shades of pink from Cortinarius semisanguineus (Alum mordant + alkaline modifier) The paler shades are from exhaust dye baths 1 & 2 (Photo courtesy of Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn)

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This skein was dyed in the third exhaust of the Cortinarius dye bath. (Alum mordant + alkaline modifier)

241 Hapalopilus nidulans p144 lower left_edited-1

Hapalopilus rutilans (photo courtesy of Leena Riihela)

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Small skeins dyed in Hapalopilus rutilans after re-simmering the used dyestuff as described above.

for blog colours from Hapalopilus nidulans p144 lower right_edited-1

Colours from Hapalopilus rutilans without pH adjustment for colour extraction. The top sample is alum-mordanted & the lower sample is unmordanted.


These results indicate that Cortinarius spp. of fungi can be useful sources of pinks. I am also experimenting with the alkaline extraction method on birch bark to see whether this might yield a pink colour. More information about this will follow later.

Dyeing greens for South Downs Yarn

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

I have been doing more natural dyeing with Louise Spong of South Downs Yarn, (see link on the right of the home page), this time focusing on greens. The photo below shows a range of green shades from one of our dyeing sessions.

039 blog greens

Although green is the most common colour in nature,  producing green from natural dyes is not as straightforward as one might expect. Mossy greens can usually be achieved by using an iron modifier on yellow-dyed yarn and using a copper modifier on fibres dyed with plants such as weld often gives lime green. However, a true grass green is almost impossible to obtain from a single dye and has to  be achieved by dyeing blue over yellow or vice-versa.

The photo below of colours from weld shows from left to right: weld + iron modifier, weld with no modifier, weld + copper modifier.

blog greens weld + iron & copper

There are numerous sources of yellow but indigo is the only reliable source of true blue. I tend to prefer to dye yellow first and then use the blue dye; I feel this gives greater control over the final colour because the indigo blue can be added gradually by dipping the fibres in the vat several times. If the vat is weak and each dip is brief, the green colour can be built up gradually until you reach the desired shade and depth. Some dyers prefer to start with blue fibres and then over-dye them with the yellow dye and this also gives good results. The shade of yellow determines the shade of green. Dyeing blue over a bright clear yellow gives grass green; mustard yellows tend to produce mossy greens, whilst over-dyeing pale yellow or a beige yellow often gives a turquoise green. It is also important to remember that most yellow dyes require a mordant, in which case the yarn you use will need to be mordanted even though indigo does not need a mordant. Yellow dyes that do not require a mordant include rhubarb root and saffron. However, saffron may be considered too expensive to use in the dye pot, although about 5% should be enough to achieve a reasonable yellow..

greens blog article

The photo above shows the development of turquoise green from pale yellow over-dyed in indigo.   Later in the year I shall be writing an article on dyeing greens for the “Journal for Weavers, Spinners & Dyers” and this will give more information and include several photographs.