Thanks and Good Wishes

As these photos show, here in the south of England we have had heavy falls of snow and the garden looks so lovely in the wintry light that I couldn’t resist venturing outside with my camera. In the second photo, the very last roses are flowering bravely amidst a blanket of snow.















As the year starts to draw towards its close, I’ve been looking back over the months since my website was set up just over a year ago and reflecting with pleasure on the added dimension it has brought to my life. I have been both surprised and delighted to make contact with so many fellow dyers all over the world and I’d like to thank you for following my blog and sharing your experiences with me. I really value your comments and the links to other websites and blogs, some of which have opened up new areas of interest and experimentation for me. I would also like to thank those of you who have supported my efforts to persuade the publishers to reprint “Wild Colour”. I am still waiting to hear whether we have been successful and I will let you know of any developments in the New Year.

As I write this we are preparing for the arrival of various family members, including our dear granddaughter, now 18 months old, who will be spending the holiday period here with us. So this will probably be my last post until January and I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and all the very best for 2010.

A Natural Dyeing Project in Uganda

During the past few weeks I have been in correspondence with an Austrian, Rupert Kampmueller, who is working with a group of basketmakers in Rubona, Uganda. The ladies in Rupert’s group make beautifully patterned raffia baskets and also some other items, all dyed with natural dyes. Rupert’s main query concerned possible ways to use the fresh leaves of Indigofera arrecta, which grows wild in the area of Uganda where he is working. I am hoping that the methods for using fresh woad leaves can be adapted for obtaining blues from Indigofera arrecta and I look forward to hearing whether he has been successful. If anyone else has any further suggestions for obtaining blues from fresh Indigofera arrecta leaves, I’d be delighted to pass the advice on to Rupert.

In addition to using some local dyes, the ladies also use madder and weld to dye the raffia and I suggested that they might try using local sorghum leaves, which are used to produce reds in many parts of Africa and for which I have sent Rupert some dyeing tips. The designs on the baskets are traditional ones and Rupert and his dyers have created a wide range of strong natural colours to dye the raffia used by the weavers. For more details of the basketmakers and the organisation supporting them, look at the website and click on the link to Rubona Weavers.  

The following photos, sent to me by Rupert, show some of the baskets and their makers and also some of the dyed raffia.


































DSC00075                                                                                                                                                                                           The raffia in the centre was dyed with fresh woad leaves and the black colour on either side was achieved using the tannin/iron complex. These colours were the result of some test dyeing done by Rupert, while he was at home in Austria before returning to Uganda.









These hanks of raffia show some of the naturally-dyed colours achieved using local plants and also weld and madder.


A Grass from Japan















The seeds for this grass (Arthraxon hispidus) were sent to me by a Japanese dyer, who explained that this grass is used traditionally by dyers in Japan, where it is common on meadows and roadsides. It is also grown as a dye crop on the island of Hachijo.

The seeds germinated readily when sown in the Spring several years ago and now the plants self-seed, so each year a fresh crop of plants appears.

Arthraxon hispidus contains luteolin, which is the main colour pigment in weld and dyer’s broom. Although the yellows from this Japanese grass are not remarkable, I enjoy growing and using traditional dye plants from other countries, especially when the seeds have been sent to me by a fellow dyer.

The photo below doesn’t really do justice to the colours, which are actually brighter than they appear here. As with weld, the yellows from Arthraxon hispidus can often have a greenish tinge.


Colours from Arthraxon hispidus 

Left to right: No mordant, alum mordant, alum mordant + iron modifier

P.S. to my Recent Woad Experiment

As a final experiment based on Leena’s method of making a vat with fresh woad leaves, I thought I would make two more vats, using unchopped woad leaves for one and chopped leaves for the other. I felt this should give an indication as to whether chopping the leaves increases the blue potential and, as usual, I set out with my own pig-headed opinion as to which would give the better results – chopped leaves, of course. After all, I always chop other fresh dyestuff into the smallest possible pieces, in the belief that the more surface areas there are, the more dye colour will leach out. Of course, the chemistry of indigo dyeing is quite different from that of dyeing with other plant materials, so it may well be that the advantages of chopping the dyestuff do not apply to woad leaves when dyeing blue.

To make sure the experiment had some validity, I used the same preparation and dyeing methods for each vat and I also used the same weight of leaves and skeins. I first simmered the leaves, chopped and unchopped, for a few minutes before steeping them for 15 minutes. I then added cold water to bring the temperature down to 50C and continued as described in my last post.









This shows the two vats, after whisking to precipitate the indigo particles. The vat on the left was made using unchopped leaves and the one on the right was made using chopped leaves. There was very little difference between the two vats at this stage.








This shows, on the left, the 4 skeins dyed in the vat made from unchopped leaves and, on the right, the 4 skeins dyed in the vat made from chopped leaves.

 The skeins were dipped in each vat for about 5 minutes each time and in the order in which they appear in the photo. So each vat was used four times and for one skein each time. The skeins dyed in the vat made from chopped leaves are very slightly deeper in colour but the difference in depth of blue is so tiny as to be barely noticeable.

So, contrary to my expectations, it would seem that chopping the leaves makes very little difference, if any, to the depth of blue achieved. That is certainly good news for those of us who like things to be as simple as possible. Now I suppose I should try my usual method, rather than Leena’s, using both chopped and unchopped leaves, to see whether similar conclusions can be drawn when using a slightly different method. But perhaps I’ll leave that test for next year.

A Woad Experiment

I have been following Leena’s posts ( about her experiences with using her home-grown woad leaves and I was particularly interested to learn about the method which gave her the best results. Although this method is very similar to the one I have been using for over 30 years, one element of it was new to me. I usually start by pouring boiling water over the chopped woad leaves and leaving them to steep for about 30 minutes.  I then strain off the liquid and squeeze the last drops of juice from the leaves before discarding them. I then allow the liquid to cool to 50C before adding the washing soda and whisking to introduce oxygen and precipitate the indigo dye particles.  However, Leena’s preferred method requires the whole unchopped leaves to be simmered in boiling water for about 3 minutes, after which the leaves are left to steep in the hot water for 15 minutes. The water is then strained off, the leaves removed and cold water added as necessary to reduce the temperature to 50C.

Leena’s recipe then proceeds much as the recipe I always follow. In both our methods, washing soda is added until the solution is around pH10 and then the liquid is whisked until blue froth forms. This whisking continues until the froth that is forming ceases to be blue and changes to white. Both methods then continue in exactly the same way, by adding the reducing agent and then using the vat once the liquid has changed in colour to greeny-yellow.

I decided to test each of these methods using the same quantity (400gms) of leaves for each, picked on the same day and grown under the same conditions. I left the leaves for Leena’s method unchopped but chopped the leaves for my method, as that is what I usually do. I then tested the two dye vats using the same weight of the same type of wool for each dip in each vat and leaving the wool in each vat for the same length of time. This ensured that each vat was used in the same way, so the experiment had some validity.


This photo shows:

On the left: the blue froth formed following my method 

On the right: the blue froth formed following Leena’s method.



As the froth on the surface on the left seemed a much deeper blue, I was expecting to achieve deeper blues on the yarns dyed in this vat. So at this stage I was beginning to feel that my method might, after all, prove to be the better one. But “pride goes before a fall”!


The three skeins on the left were dyed in the vat made following my method (“my vat”)and the three skeins on the right were dyed in the vat made following Leena’s method (“Leena’s vat”).


 So although “my vat” seemed to form froth a much deeper blue in colour than the froth on “Leena’s vat”, to my surprise this did not appear to influence the results when the skeins were dyed. In fact, the skeins dyed in “Leena’s vat” seemed a slightly deeper blue than those dyed in “my vat”. So my earlier expectations were proved wrong.

The question now is: which method will I follow in future? For workshop or demonstration purposes, I think my method is simpler because it doesn’t require a heat source and it gives perfectly good results. However, for my own purposes, I shall probably try out Leena’s method again, as it may enable me to get slightly deeper shades of blue. So my thanks to Leena for introducing me to a new and useful method.

Dyeing with Damsons

Aylesb prunes 010This now disused orchard near Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire has many old damson trees of a variety known as Aylesbury Prunes.




This area was known for growing damsons, apparently used to dye hats for the Luton straw hat industry. It has also been suggested that damsons may have been used to dye British Royal Air Force uniforms a blue-grey colour during World War II and damsons were reportedly used in the past as a source of dye colour in the wool industry in the North of England.         

                                                                                                                                                                  Aylesb prunes6

This photo shows the damsons ready to be picked.






I am fortunate that my friend Maggie Stearn, handweaver and dyer, lives in Eaton Bray and she suggested harvesting some damsons for a dyeing experiment, to see just how effective they might be as a source of dye colour. Maggie kindly picked about 20 kilos of damsons, so we had ample for dyeing –  and for freezing and jam-making, too!

For our tests we used the damson skins only, as they seemed the most likely source of dye colour and are rich in tannin which would help fix the dye. However, we did test the fruit pulp as well, just to be sure we weren’t missing an important source of colour, but this only resulted in an unpleasant pale beige colour and sticky pulp that was difficult to remove from the fibres. We used equal weights of skins and fibres and we tested the dye extracted from the skins across a range of fibres (wool, silk, cotton and linen), all mordanted with alum, and used four modifers.

The results of our experiments are below. I have to say that they confirm my feeling that damsons, like most red and purple fruits or berries, do not make particularly useful dyes. In general the colours are disappointing, particularly on wool, although with an iron or copper modifier the colours on the other fibres tested, especially the silk, are more attractive. The greens from the washing soda modifier are interesting and I have achieved similar, but deeper, shades from elderberries with an alkaline modifier. In general, I find it surprising that there should apparently be so many references to damsons as a source of useful dye colour. I can understand that the pale lavender shades achieved on some vegetable fibres, including raffia, might be popular with Victorian ladies for their straw hats, but I find it harder to believe that the colours achieved on wool could really be useful at an industrial level, especially bearing in mind the general unreliability of red and purple berry and fruit dyes. However, I do wonder how many of these references are actually based on solid research, backed up by conclusive evidence, rather than merely on hearsay. I can certainly understand that any abundant local source of dye colour would be valued at times when imported dyes were unavailable or too costly, but I remain unconvinced that the use of damsons for dyeing would be worth the effort nowadays, especially when dyers have access to more reliable sources of purple and lavender shades.


This shows the unmodified samples. From top to bottom: cotton, linen, silk, wool







This shows the modified samples on all four fibres.

Clockwise from top right: acid modifier, alkaline modifier, copper modifier, iron modifier




NOTE: Thanks to Maggie Stearn for all the above photos

Mulberry Bark

Several weeks ago I was sent some mulberry bark by a kind lady who had collected some from a fallen branch from an ancient tree and thought I might like to try it out in the dyepot. As I’ve never tried mulberry bark before, I was interested to see what sort of colours it might give.

I started by leaving the bark to soak in water for a week or two and then I simmered it for about an hour, before adding some alum-mordanted and unmordanted wool fibres. I used about the same weight of fibres and bark and I kept the temperature just below a simmer, as the tannin in barks can sometimes dull the colour if the temperature is too high. When the fibres had taken up as much colour as possible, I turned off the heat and left them to soak overnight. I then applied alkaline and iron modifiers to some of the samples.

The photo below shows the colours I obtained.









Left to right: No mordant, no mordant + washing soda, no mordant + iron, alum mordant, alum + washing soda, alum + iron

Some of the colours produced from the mulberry bark are more yellow in tone than the colours often obtained from barks and I was interested to see how little they reacted to the two modifiers I used. My thanks to Ann Machin for supplying the bark for this experiment.

Fungus-dyed Jacket









 This jacket was knitted using only wool dyed with the fungus Cortinarius semisanguineus, which I obtained from Finland. The pattern is one I devised myself and the front bands have been crocheted rather than knitted. I often use crochet for edgings, partly because it gives a firm border but mainly because it’s quicker. (Yes, I know that speed is not really a valid reason for design choices and I confess to laziness at times!) The skeins from which the upper section of the body was knitted were dyed using different modifiers to give a variegated effect.








This is the reverse of the jacket. The keen-eyed viewer may notice that the colours in the upper variegated section of the back are slightly different from those on the variegated sections of the fronts and sleeves. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough of the same wool for the back, so I used a skein I bought from Leena in Finland, also dyed in Cortinarius semisanguineus. But the colours all seem to blend in well together.


 This is the first in what I plan as a series of knitted cushion-covers, dyed with various fungi. This one was dyed using what remained from the skeins dyed with Cortinarius semisanguineus, after I’d knitted my jacket.

Maggie Stearn – Handweaver

Jenny1 greybThis scarf was handwoven by Maggie Stearn, using a mixture of handspun merino wool and some silk yarns, all naturally-dyed by me, using extracts of logwood, madder, fustic and cochineal. The handspun wool was so fine that I knew I’d never use it for knitting, so I commissioned Maggie to make this scarf for me, incorporating some silk yarns as well. I was thrilled with the results and love wearing this scarf. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t do justice to the sheen and drape of the scarf, or to the subtlety of the design and colours. 

I have the utmost respect for the craft of handweaving and I know I would never be capable of the application and skill required to see a weaving project through from start to finish. In fact, a kind friend did set up my 2-shaft table loom for me about 30 years ago and I’m ashamed to say that I’d lost the will to live before she’d finished warping it. So I wove a couple of inches and then gave the loom away to someone who was doing some work on our outbuildings and expressed an interest in weaving. I have to say that I’ve never regretted this impulsive act as, once I’d admitted to myself that I lack the strength of character required to become a weaver, I was free to explore the delights of natural dyeing and handspinning without feeling obliged to continue weaving as well.

A few years ago I was asked by handweaver, Maggie Stearn, if I would be prepared to dye some silk skeins for her handwoven scarves and shawls, as she was interested in developing a range of naturally-dyed items. This seemed like a good challenge, partly because silk is not a fibre I regularly work with and partly because it would give me an insight into some of the colour considerations that play a part in designing for weaving. Also, as the fine silk Maggie uses weighs so little, I would be able to handle the wet skeins relatively easily. (I used to dye large quantities of wool for an Irish blanket weaver and had great problems with mordanting and dyeing the weights involved. After I had badly scalded myself with boiling water, I decided I could no longer dye such heavy batches.)

Maggie trained at Wall Hall College under the tutelage of Mike Halsey, a well-known British weaver, and started off weaving fabric lengths, usually in wool. After some years gaining more experience of the market, she decided to produce mainly silk scarves and shawls, with some cushions and bags, and all in the most beautiful colour combinations. So it was a privilege to become part of her production processes.

Last year I had operations on my right arm and also on my knee, which meant I was unable to do much dyeing for Maggie, but I am now feeling fit enough to start again and looking forward to whatever colour challenges she decides to set me.

Below are some more of Maggie’s scarves. Look at her website (  for details of the full range and how to order.

Jenny maroon1The dyes used here are extracts of cochineal and logwood.






Naturals BEIGEThe dyes used here are extracts of rhubarb root, quebracho, wattle and walnut, with a small indigo stripe.





 Naturals CINNAMON

The dyes used here are extracts of quebracho, wattle and walnut, with some fustic and indigo.




Naturals LIMEThis scarf was dyed using extracts of weld, cochineal, walnut and logwood, with some indigo as well.

Autumn Musings















I love the Autumn. I love the final harvests of fruits and vegetables grown throughout the Summer and the feeling that the hard work earlier in the year has usually been worth all the effort. Of course there will have been failures, such as the courgettes this year, which got burnt by the sun when I left them in the closed cold frame during a brief hot spell. Or the potato crop, which was pathetic in comparison with last year’s harvest. But even the failures have their uses and teach me some important lessons. And I love the glowing Autumn colours in the flower garden and the occasional perfect rose or interesting seed pod.



A selection of the more interesting tomatoes we grew this year






The last spray of the rose, “Deep Secret”






 A seed pod from my tree paeony






My dyer’s broom, rhubarb leaves and dahlia flowers and leaves have been cut, dried and stored for later use and the walnut hulls given to me by kind friends are soaking in tubs of water. However, I still have to harvest and use my woad leaves, so there are pleasures yet to come.

But eventually the frosts will come and strike down the remaining Summer flowers and it will be time to plant the bulbs. Eventually the garden will be ready for its late Autumn tidy-up. Trees need to be pruned and some plants will be divided or moved to new positions. And then finally most of the work will be done and it will be time to light the wood-burning stove and settle down in its warmth to plan for the next year.