Problems viewing my blog?

Two people have told me that they have recently been experiencing problems viewing my blog, so I wonder whether this has affected anyone else?

In an attempt to improve the situation, the settings on my blog have been changed, so only six posts, instead of ten, can now be seen on the first page. This should speed up loading the site.

Perhaps anyone who still has problems could let me know and give me more details, so I can try to sort things out.

A Dahlia Mystery

I was contacted a little while ago by Carol Leonard, an old friend, fellow dyer & spindle-spinning expert, who wondered if I could shed some light on an interesting result from a dahlia dyebath.

Carol explained that a student on one of her spinning courses had tried a dye experiment, using dahlias that had been in the house for a few days in a vase and were past their best. She used no mordant and, she thought, an aluminium pan and the pan and the skeins (wool and mohair) had been properly cleaned. She simmered the flower heads, then put the yarns in with them.  When she removed the skeins there was the faintest pink colour on them, most of which disappeared when the water was drained from them.  So she put the yarns back into the pan with the flower heads, put the pan on one side and then forgot about it for a couple of weeks.  During that time, mould grew on the surface, and the dyebath probably fermented.  When she next looked at the skeins, they had become a bright pink.

Carol wondered whether the fermentation had produced an alkaline bath, which caused the skeins to turn pink. Fermentation may certainly have played a part, although I would have thought this would make the dyebath more acidic, rather than more alkaline. (At least that’s the case in indigo fermentation vats, when washing soda has to be added from time to time to maintain an alkaline pH.) An alkaline modifier usually produces vivid orange-rust colours with dahlias, but I’ve never got a pink. 

However, I think one clue to this colour may lie in the fact that the dahlias were purchased from Asda supermarket. Sometimes flowers purchased from florists or supermarkets have been dyed extremely bright colours, probably to produce colour-co-ordinated bouquets. I’ve been given bunches of beautifully-arranged and brightly-coloured florist’s flowers only to discover that they had been dyed. This became clear when much of the colour came off on my hands, and also into the water, when I put the flowers into a vase. So perhaps this pink was a result of some dye on the dahlias, which then leached into the water in the dyebath.

I wonder whether anyone else can offer any other suggestions as to the reasons for this fascinating and puzzling colour result?

I have some pink dahlias in a vase as I write this, so when they have faded they will be destined for the dyepot. I will be interested to see whether I can get similar results from a fermentation dyebath, but I suspect I will not, as my dahlias have come directly from the garden and have most definitely not been dyed!


This photo shows the wonderful pink shade from the fermented dahlia dyebath.

P.S. to Yellows



Coreopsis growing in my garden







This is one of the delights of Autumn in my garden. I love the combination of the yellow of the coreopsis flowers and the deep lavender blue of these michaelmas daisies.



In my earlier post on yellows I made only a passing reference to coreopsis. However, now that I’m enjoying the wonderful glowing yellows of the coreopsis flowers in my garden, it seems appropriate to write a little more about these delightful plants. There are several species of coreopsis and all make good dye plants. Many are perennials and some will spread very rapidly, so caution may be necessary in a small garden. We have had perennial coreopsis in our garden for many years and the wonderful display they give in late Summer and early Autumn more than compensates for any need to remove surplus plants from time to time.

The flowers can be enjoyed while in full bloom and then harvested for the dyepot when the plants are deadheaded. Once the flowering season is over, the whole plant tops can also be used in the dyepot. A dyebath made from the flowers alone will give rich yellows and golds, while the whole plant tops give greener or browner shades. For increased fastness and really bright yellows, I usually use an alum mordant with coreopsis. However, the dye will fix on ummordanted wool, especially when an iron modifier is used, although this shifts the colour towards green or brown. Most species of coreopsis give similar colours, with the exception of the annual plant, dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), which gives shades with a more orange tone. This plant is well worth growing in a flower border for its charming blooms alone, and the colours it gives in the dyepot are an added bonus for dyers.

Workshop at Denny Abbey

I lead very few workshops away from my home, as my physical capabilities are becoming increasingly limited by arthritis, but for the last few years I have taught two one-day workshops each year at The Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey, near Cambridge. (  This is a lovely setting for courses and the familiarity of the set-up, plus the support I am given, means I have been able to continue these courses again this year. The number of students is limited to eight, so there is ample opportunity for people to ask questions and for me to concentrate on the individual needs of each student as necessary. The courses tend to be intensive, as we cover not only the basics of mordanting & dyeing animal and vegetable fibres but also colour modifiers and indigo dyeing. However, there is usually enough time for students to explore the grounds and look at the dye garden in between setting up the dye baths.


This shows some of the colours from one of this year’s workshops. The dyes shown here are: Left top row – indigo and weld. Left second row – rhubarb root. Right top row – buckthorn bark. Right second row – madder root. On each row there are also samples of each dye over-dyed in indigo. The samples on the bottom rows are from weld and madder.


As I have recently harvested some of my dyer’s broom and gathered some weld from the roadside, my thoughts have been turning to sources of yellow dye.

IMG_2287This weld was growing on some waste ground at the roadside. When I harvest weld from the wild, I always make sure to cut each stem above the last two or three side shoots, so they can develop and produce flowers and seeds for the next crop. I also shake some seeds from the harvested stems on to the ground below the plants.

                                                                                                                                                                           IMG_2371Some of the dyer’s broom growing in my garden. This plant is easy to harvest, as I treat harvesting for the dyepot as a way of pruning the bushes. In good summers,  it’s possible to harvest dyer’s broom twice – once in late June and again in September.


 Yellow is the most common colour available from plants and is usually the one with the poorest light fastness. I think it is probably also a colour dyers tend to require less frequently, unless they are using yellow to create greens in combination with indigo. When dyeing yarns or fabrics for items of clothing, or for furnishing fabrics, yellow tends to be required mainly in relatively small quantities to provide contrast with other colours. Creative artists may use yellow more frequently in tapestries or wall hangings and in these situations the fastness of the source of yellow dye is particularly crucial. Of the numerous sources of yellow available, weld (Reseda luteola)  is one of the most permanent, although technically it has a low fastness rating because of its tendency to “fade”. (See Gill Dalby’s “Fast or Fugitive” for details of light and wash fastness ratings of dyes). However, the term “fade” refers technically to any change in colour, not only to a reduction in depth of colour, and weld actually “fades” to a darker, rather than a lighter, hue as time passes. This means that, although weld may lose some of its brilliance over the years, it will not usually become significantly paler. So when selecting a source of yellow, weld is my first choice, with dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) a close second. Dyer’s broom contains many of the same dye pigments as weld and produces very similar yellows, although they may not always have the brilliance of yellows from weld. Weld and dyer’s broom are traditional European dyes and are also easy to grow. Weld is a biennial so it needs to be re-sown, but dyer’s broom is a perennial shrub, which is also a very attractive garden plant.  Both dyes are best used with an alum mordant, although they will produce reasonably strong shades on unmordanted wool if followed by an alkaline modifier, such as washing soda or wood-ash-water. When used fresh, weld and dyer’s broom sometimes give stronger, more acidic yellow colours than those obtainable from the dried dyestuffs. If you gather weld or dyer’s broom and dry it for storage, it is best stored in closed brown paper sacks, well away from the light.  If stored in this way, the dried dyestuffs should give good, strong colours in the dyebath.

Rhubarb root (Rheum spp.) is also a very useful source of yellows, particularly as rhubarb root can be used without a mordant. Both culinary rhubarb and ornamental rhubarb can be used for dyeing. I find it best to chop up the root before it is dried as, once dried, the root can be very difficuilt to cut up because it is so fibrous. Another method is to reduce the root to useful-sized chunks, (50gms for example) and then freeze the chunks separately in clearly-labelled plastic bags. Freezing breaks down the fibres, so the root is much easier to chop when thawed out. Rhubarb is not poisonous but it is a common ingredient in laxatives, so it is advisable not to mistake it for a foodstuff when you remove it from the freezer. I usually label it not only on the outside of the plastic bag, but also on a piece of stiff card, which I put inside the bag. Rhubarb root is a strong dye and as little as 25% – 30% will usually give a good, clear yellow. If you use too high a percentage, you may miss the yellow and end up with a mustard colour, so it is better to start with a little and then re-dye if necessary to build up the colour. However, if you do end up with mustard, using an acidic modifier (clear vinegar, for example) will usually shift the colour to yellow.

Of the yellow dyes not native to Europe, fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria) is, in my opinion, one of the best. Some dyers may be lucky enough to be able to obtain Quercitron, the inner bark of the black oak tree, from the USA. This dye source was highly prized in the past for the beauty and clarity of its colour and for its fastness properties, but is rarely available in the UK. A little while ago I was kindly sent some from the USA and I was delighted with the glorious colours it gave, so if you find quercitron on offer anywhere, I would highly recommend it.

Many other garden plants provide sources of yellow – indeed the majority of plants will yield some sort of yellow or beige. The Spring leaves of most fruit trees give yellows and even Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens balsamina), which grows so rampantly here along riverbanks and at roadsides, will give very pretty shades of buttery yellow. Among the most useful readily-obtainable sources of yellow are birch leaves (Betula spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). And I mustn’t forget buddleia, which featured in an earlier post.

IMG_2349Dyer’s chamomile growing  in my garden. I rarely use the flowers for the dyepot as they look so pretty on the plants. There are several varieties of Anthemis tinctoria available from garden centres and all are lovely garden plants. Although a relatively short-lived perennial, dyer’s chamomile seeds itself readily, so it’s not usually necessary to buy new plants.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  IMG_2348                                                                                                                                                            Goldenrod in my garden. Some gardeners dislike goldenrod, as it spreads so rapidly, but I value it, not only as a useful source of dye colour, but also as an attractive garden plant, especially when grown next to a deep purple buddleia. 

Other dyers will no doubt have their own favourite yellow-producing plants and of course there are many plants that give shades of mustard, rather than a clear yellow. I have concentrated here on my own favourite readily-available or easily-grown sources of yellow and I apologise for any serious omissions.


This alum-mordanted wool skein was dyed with goldenrod, using alkaline and iron modifers to create the colour variations.

Dyeing with Madder

As I have some home-grown madder waiting to be processed, I thought I’d write a few more words about dyeing with madder. 

IMG_2098Madder in my dye garden







After the madder roots have been dug up (and remember to dig as deeply as possible so as not to miss the thickest roots), they need to be washed well to get rid of the soil. Although some sources suggest otherwise, the roots can successfully be used freshly-dug and straight from the ground and I have obtained excellent bright reds from fresh roots. They can also be dried for use later.

IMG_2406Madder roots dug up from the garden







I usually soak the roots in a tub of water for an hour or two and then scrub them with a brush to get rid of the dirt. As it’s a good idea to wash out some of the less desirable brown and yellow pigments, it doesn’t matter if some colour leaches out into the washing water. Once the roots are clean, I chop them up as small as possible. (Incidentally, a garden shredder or an old food-processor can be very useful for chopping up madder & other roots.)  If I don’t intend to use them immediately, I then spread the roots out to dry on sheets of newspaper on wire mesh or wooden trays or in shallow cardboard boxes. If I’m lucky and the sun is shining, they dry fairly quickly outside. Otherwise I put them in the airing cupboard. If you have to put the roots on top of one another, it’s a good idea to put a sheet of newspaper between the layers and make sure to turn them over regularly, so they don’t develop mould. Once they are completely dried out, I put them in strong paper sacks and store them in a dry place, either under a bed or in the airing cupboard. It’s important to keep them away from damp and wet, as they can easily become mouldy. It’s not too disastrous if they do develop mould as they still seem to produce a reasonable dyebath, although the colour may be duller.

To obtain a true red from madder it is necessary to use an alum mordant. However, madder can also be successfully applied to unmordanted fibres, especially wool. The colours obtained without a mordant tend to be more orange or brown in tone but using an alkaline modifier (for example washing soda) can often produce some very attractive shades of pink. An aubergine purple can also be obtained from madder by using iron as a mordant and then applying an alkaline modifer.

I’ve done many experiments with madder over the years, usually leaving the roots in the dyebath & either dyeing without heat at all or following the often-repeated instructions to keep the temperature low for reds. However, I discovered a little while ago that madder root can be simmered to extract the colour, just as one does with other dyes, without losing the red. Before I do anything else, I wash the roots in cool to warm water, then strain them through a sieve to get rid of the water. I then put the same roots in a pot & pour boiling water over them (at least enough to cover them well), leave them for a minute or two & then strain off the liquid, which can either be thrown away or used for a separate dyebath. This gets rid of some of the less desirable yellow & brown pigments. If I’m feeling really brave, I may repeat this last process once more, especially if I plan to save the discarded liquid for a separate dyebath, but I’m always afraid I may be removing some of the very desirable red dye, as well as the pigments I don’t want. Then I add more boiling water (or cool if you prefer not to keep boiling up the kettle) to the same madder roots & simmer them for about 30 minutes. I then strain off the dye liquid, let it cool to well below a simmer, add the fibres & leave them to steep for as long as it takes to get the red I want. I may add some heat after a while but I never allow the dyebath to simmer once the fibres have been added. This method seems to result in reds just as good as, and often better than, those from the more common madder-dyeing methods. And the roots can be simmered again for another dyebath.

If you live in a soft water area, your tap water may be too acidic to be able to achieve reds from madder and you will only get oranges and rusts. These shades can be shifted towards red by using an alkaline modifier, such as a washing soda after-bath. Washing soda can also be added to the prepared dyebath but only if you plan to apply the dye without heat. It’s important to remember not to apply heat to any solution containing washing soda, especially if you are dyeing wool, as this may destroy the fibres.

Madder is a truly remarkable dye & it is often difficult to completely exhaust the roots. I now often dry out the roots after the first dyeing process & store them ready to use again later. If you do this, don’t store the dried roots in plastic bags as they readily become mouldy if they get the least bit damp. (Actually, they still seem to be fine to use even if they are mouldy, although the dyebath smells less pleasant.) I dry the roots out in the airing cupboard as described above, then put them in paper sacks & store them in the airing cupboard or under a bed until I need them.

If you grow your own madder, don’t forget that the dried plant tops also give pretty colours. Around late Autumn, the plant tops start to look dry & pale, like straw, & they can be cut off & used for a dyebath. With an alum mordant, they can give pretty pinks & without a mordant they give beige to tan colours.

Note: There are full details for using madder in my new book “Colours from Nature” (Click on “My Books” on the home page for more information)

IMG_0438[1]A range of shades from madder



Those of us who have buddleia bushes in the garden tend to accumulate a great deal of pruned material, when the bushes need to be cut back.

I have used these prunings in the dyebath several times and achieved some pleasing results. This year I have already cut back one of my buddleia bushes and this time I decided to separate the dead flower heads from the leaves and stems to see which parts gave the most colour.



This photo shows: On the left the results from the “dead flower heads only” dyebath and on the right the results from the “leaves and stems only” dyebath. In each set the top skein is unmordanted, the second skein is alum-mordanted and the third skein (also alum-mordanted) has been modified in iron.

I poured boiling water over the materials for each dyebath and left them to steep overnight. In the morning I simmered the dyebaths gently for about 45 minutes, then added the skeins. I left the plant materials in the dyepot for the unscientific reason that I was too lazy to look for my sieves to strain off the dye liquid. Yes, I know I should be ashamed of myself! In general, I usually strain off the dye liquid to avoid having unwanted plant pieces lurking among the dyed skeins. However, it doesn’t really matter whether the plant pieces remain in the dye pot or not, as long as the dye colour has been properly extracted. The notable exception to this generality is madder root, which most dyers prefer to leave in the dyepot, as it gives up its colour gradually at temperatures below a simmer. (More about madder dyeing to follow in a later post.) There will no doubt be other dyes that some dyers prefer to leave in the dyepot and the choice is really a personal one. Once the skeins had been added, I simmered gently for about 30 minutes then left the skeins to steep until the dyebath had cooled. I was interested to note that the unmordanted skeins took up almost as much colour as the alum-mordanted ones, although only light- and wash-fastness tests will show whether the dye is as fast on the unmordanted skeins.

The amount of colour available from the dead flower heads was surprising. In future I will probably continue to separate the plant parts and make two dyebaths, as this extends the colour range available.

Dyeing with Woad Seeds

Dyers who grow woad will often find they have far more woad seeds than they could possibly need for sowing themselves or passing on to other dyers.

Some years ago I did some tests using ripe purple/black woad seeds in the dyepot and I was intrigued by the results.


                                                                                                             This rather dark image shows the page from my record book where I have the samples from this dyebath. The upper (1) of each pair of samples is unmordanted and the lower (2) is alum-mordanted. The seeds produced an attractive green on alum-mordanted wool, and a more yellow colour on unmordanted wool. Perhaps the most interesting sample was the one modified in clear vinegar (acidic), which produced a pale pink on unmordanted wool and a deeper pink colour on alum-mordanted wool. An alkaline modifier gave lighter yellowy greens, copper intensified the greens and iron produced greyish greens.

Woad seeds can be used in the same way as most other plant materials and I would suggest using at least the same weight of seeds as fibres (100%). Simmer the seeds for about 45 minutes to extract the colour, then strain off the dye liquid, add the fibres and simmer them for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until the colour is deep enough.

                                                                                                                                                                                  Recently I collected a bagful of woad seeds for a dyebath. This time about half of the seeds I used in the dyepot were not fully ripe and were still green in colour, rather than purple/black. The colours I obtained this time were less interesting, suggesting that it is advisable to allow the seeds to mature fully and become black before using them in the dyepot.


From top to bottom the samples are: No modifier, + acidic modifier, + alkaline modifier, + iron modifier. For each category there are two samples: the upper one is unmordanted and the lower one is alum-mordanted. The shades are very similar to those achieved from the earlier dyebath using fully mature seeds, but considerably less intense.

Woad Fermentation Vat




I mentioned in the previous post that I’d tried a fermentation vat from Helen Melvin’s booklet on indigo and the above photos show the initial stages of the vat. (I think the difference in colour between the vats in the photos is because one photo was taken indoors and the other photo outside.) The recipe is for indigo powder but I used woad powder instead. I have to confess that indigo and woad fermentation vats present a challenge to me, as I’m not a naturally patient person and I tend to become over-impatient with vats that can take several days to come into order and require frequent tending. This particular vat uses yeast and molasses to induce fermentation and remove the oxygen from the vat, and washing soda as the source of alkali. The pH level needs to be checked regularly, as the fermentation tends to make the vat increasingly acidic. When this happens, more washing soda has to be added. The vat also has to be kept warm over several days and this can require ingenuity as, even in the hottest UK weather, the temperature can drop considerably at night. As keeping the vat on a hotplate seems an unnecessary use of electricity and the weather was fairly hot anyway, this time I placed the vat (in a lidded plastic container) inside the tray of a  plant propagator, before putting on the lid. At night, I brought the vat into the conservatory and kept it overnight in a container of hot water. (On reflection, it might have been better to have left the vat in the propagator and packed it round with polystyrene or straw to keep it warm, as the water became cool during the night.) After about two days the vat was usable and I managed to dye a skein of wool a reasonable shade of blue. (As I wasn’t sure how well the recipe would work and I didn’t want to waste my precious woad powder, I suspect I was rather mean with it and that meant the colour produced was not very deep.) I kept the vat active for another couple of days but by this time my patience was running low and the odour of the vat was beginning to be rather unpleasant, even to my less than delicate nostrils. So I decided it was time to pour the vat away. 

IMG_2308                                                                                       This shows some of the dyed skeins

So why bother with fermentation vats? This is a question I ask myself each time I make a fermentation vat. I think the answer is that it does me good to be presented with a challenge and to have the chance to appreciate how skilled the dyers of the past must have been. I have convenient pH papers, with which to check the pH value of the vat, but the dyers of the past had to rely on experience, appearance and taste. They knew exactly how and when to “feed” the vat to keep it active over a long period of time and when to allow it to rest. I think I regularly try out fermentation vats so that I can feel entitled to call myself a dyer.

Recipes from a Creative Artist

When I wrote the post “What do I actually do?”, I was thinking about my own lack of creative, artistic output when compared with the work of creative artists who use natural dyes in their work. One who comes immediately to mind is Helen Melvin of Fiery Felts ( , who uses natural dyes to such wonderful effect in her felted landscapes, as shown below. (Photos courtesy of Helen)














In addition to her pioneering work in the creation of inks from natural dyes, Helen has also produced three booklets about natural dyeing, which give an insight into her approach and also offer useful hints for those of us who are  interested in learning about how other dyers work. Each of these booklets has a delightful and unique cover handpainted in natural dyes and contains about 20 pages of useful information. The first, “Colours of the Earth”, deals with Helen’s favourite dyes. The second booklet, “The Colour of Sea and Sky”, is devoted to indigo and the third, “Colours of the Rainbow”, covers the use of natural dye extracts in fibre and fabric painting. All of these booklets reflect Helen’s passion for natural dyeing and joy in colour.


In “Colours of the Earth”  Helen describes the methods she uses for dyeing with her favourite dyes, including madder, saffron, dyer’s broom, rhubarb and weld. She also has some useful hints for using cochineal and logwood and I’m pleased she includes dyer’s alkanet, as I love the subtle variations of tone from this dye, which is too often overlooked.

In “The Colour of Sea and Sky” Helen explains the technical aspects of indigo dyeing and analyses various methods for making and using indigo and woad vats, including her preferred methods. Her recipes also cover fermentation vats and I was pleased to find instructions for a vat using yeast and molasses, from which I got reasonable results with powdered woad. (Fermentation vats often require more patience and tender care than I’m able to muster, I’m afraid!) Like many dyers, Helen usually makes her vat using an indigo stock solution, which was my own method in the past. Nowadays I tend to make vats without first making a stock solution, because it is simpler to add all the ingredients directly to the vat. However, simpler is not necessarily better and Helen is quite correct when she points out that one possible disadvantage of my “Quick and Easy Vat” is that some indigo may remain undissolved because indigo dissolves and reduces better in a more  concentrated solution. This means that the vats I make are often better on the second day, once all the indigo has reduced. This situation can be easily avoided, however. I now make the vat in my usual way, but initially on a small scale in a large lidded jar, using only about 500mls – 1 litre water. I leave this solution to stand overnight, which gives the indigo time to dissolve and reduce, and then add it carefully to the water in the vat when I am ready to dye. The only disadvantage of this is that I need to add a reducing agent, such as sodium hydrosulphite, to the water in the vat before I add the indigo solution.

In “Colours of the Rainbow” Helen gives an overview of the various natural dye extracts available from different suppliers and gives detailed and comprehensive instructions for mixing the extracts to make solutions suitable for painting fibres and fabrics and also for stamping and stencilling designs. She also explains how to apply and fix the dyes to make them permanent. Natural dye extracts open up many possibilities for using natural dyes creatively and this booklet should prove invaluable for dyers who wish to use natural dyes to create their own individual patterned fabrics or who wish to produce multi-coloured fleece or rovings for feltmaking or spinning into variegated yarns.

Thes booklets are lovely to look at from the outside and full of useful information inside. I’m looking forward to the next one!