Dyes from the Woods

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

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

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

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

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.

Alum Mordants

Readers of my latest book “Colours from Nature” (details on this blog under “Publications”) will probably notice that my recipe for mordanting animal fibres with alum has changed slightly. I now use 10% alum & no cream of tartar, instead of 8% alum + 7% cream of tartar. The reasons for this are as follows: cream of tartar, potassium hydrogen tartrate not the culinary sodium pyrophosphate, was difficult to obtain here for a while, so I got used to mordanting without it. After some experiments, I found that alum used alone at 10% (i.e. 10gms alum per 100gms fibre) seemed the lowest % of alum that gave good results, so I adopted this as my method of mordanting animal fibres. When I started using cream of tartar again, I found that for some reason it wouldn’t dissolve properly & remained as a sludge at the bottom of the pan. So I decided it was simpler (& less wasteful) to use alum alone. 10% alum works well & is very convenient if you make it into a solution as I explain in the book. With a solution of 100g alum dissolved in 1 litre of boiling water, when you use 10% alum, you use the same quantity of alum solution in mls as weight of yarn in gms. E.g. To mordant 450gms wool you need 450mls alum solution. This seems so much simpler & the results are just as good, in my experience. In fact, with some dyes, such as madder, I think the results are better. And the alum solution can be stored indefinitely in a glass or strong plastic container with a well-fitting lid. Also. it seems much easier to measure out a liquid than a powder. But of course, if you have your own preferred recipe for alum mordanting, then that’s the best method for you.

Recently it has become possible to obtain aluminium acetate in the UK & this has made mordanting vegetable fibres, & also silk, so much easier. 5% alum acetate used in a single process can replace the more time-consuming tannin & alum mordanting processes commonly used for vegetable fibres. Aluminium acetate is widely used in Japan as a mordant for silk & I have found it to be excellent for both silk & vegetable fibres.

PS  One last comment: Before I throw away the used 10% alum mordanting bath, I usually add one final skein to it & mordant it as usual. I label it “alum exhaust”, just in case there wasn’t enough alum left to have even a tiny mordanting effect, & then use it with a dye, such as madder, which will fix both with & without a mordant.

A Postscript to Rhubarb

With the exception of the pale pink skein (dyed in cochineal on an alum mordant) & the pale blue skein (dyed in indigo), this photo shows some colours achieved from various dyes, using rhubarb leaves as a base or alternative mordant. The reddish colours are from madder, the pinker shades are from cochineal, the brown & tan colours are from cutch & the greeny-blue shades are from indigo. The wool skeins were first treated in the rhubarb leaf solution, then dyed. No other mordant was used.

Following a comment on my latest entry on Rhubarb Root, I thought it might be useful to clarify the difference between rhubarb leaves & rhubarb root. Rhubarb root is a very useful dyestuff, more suitable for animal, rather than vegetable, fibres, & it can be used both with or without a mordant. Used with colour modifiers, it gives shades ranging from yellow & rust to pink, red-brown & green. It doesn’t seem to matter what species of rhubarb you use. I use the roots from the edible rhubarb I grow in my garden for pies etc. Some people use the roots of ornamental rhubarbs. The rhubarb root sold commercially often comes from China & is used as an ingredient in laxatives or purgatives.

Rhubarb leaves, which contain poisonous oxalic acid so should be handled with care, can also be used as a dye on mordanted or unmordanted fibres, but they tend to give only a pale yellow colour. Their main use is as an alternative mordant or base for other colours. They work well on animal fibres but are not really recommended for vegetable fibres. Rhubarb leaves are widely used as a base for other colours by Tibetan carpet weavers, working in Himalayan regions where chemical mordants are often difficult to obtain. They are also used to assist fermentation in indigo vats.

Full details for using rhubarb root & leaves can be found in my books. (See under “My Books”)

Using Colour Modifiers

Full information for using colour modifiers is given in most of my books. For details of my latest book, “Colours from Nature”, see under “My Books” on this blog. Some information on modifiers is also given here in the entry “Colours from Dahlias”.

Basically, colour modifiers are used after the initial dyeing process to alter or modify the shades. So if you dye 5 skeins in the same dyebath, leave 1 skein unmodified, then apply a different modifier to the remaining 4, you will end up with 5 differently coloured skeins that all tone together. Modifiers may be pH alterants: acids like clear vinegar, citric acid, lemon juice; or alkalis like washing soda, soda ash or wood ash water. (See below) The other modifiers are solutions of iron or copper. A small quantity of the modifier is added either to a pot of water or to some of the used dyebath. The dyed materials are then added to these solutions (1 to each) & left to soak until a colour variation is achieved. If nothing much seems to be happening, just add some more modifier & continue with the soaking. Sometimes the colour variations are dramatic, sometimes they are more subtle & on occasions it’s difficult to notice much change at all, especially with acidic modifiers. In my experience, the most useful modifiers are the alkalis & iron. You can also heat all the modifier solutions EXCEPT THE ALKALINE MODIFIER. If you heat this, you may damage or even destroy animal fibres such as wool. BE WARNED!

NOTE: Wood ash water is made by removing the ashes from a wood-burning stove & soaking them in water for a week or two. The ashes sink to the bottom, leaving a yellow liquid which is strongly alkaline. You can tell when it’s ready because it will feel slick or slimey to the touch. Just remove the solution without disturbing the ashes & use half to one cupful as your alkaline modifier.

Rhubarb Root again

At last I’ve managed to find time to try out the colour modifiers on the rhubarb root extract dye that I wrote about earlier. The samples are on unmordanted wool.

The photo shows from top to bottom: No modifier, acidic modifier (clear vinegar), alkaline modifier (washing soda), copper modifier & iron modifier. (Note: I always put the modified samples in alphabetical order – acid, alkali, copper, iron). The last sample is from a different dyebath, made by adding an acid (this time citric acid granules, but clear vinegar would have been equally good) to the dyebath before dyeing. I added enough to turn the dyebath yellow, rather than rust, in colour. However, take care not to add too much or the colour may be too pale, so add it gradually.The unmordanted sample was then added & simmered for about 20 minutes. This latter method is a useful way of getting a clear yellow from rhubarb root, in either extract or plant form, without having to use an acidic modifer afterwards. If you dye several skeins in the acidified dyebath, they can be modified as usual, although little change occurs from an acidic modifier.

I was delighted with these results, as rhubarb root is such a useful, versatile dye, especially as it can be used without a mordant. It was good to know that the modifiers are effective when used with the dye in extract form.

Woad again

 Today the weather is cold, dull & gloomy, so I just wanted to remind myself of that chilly but bright day in November when I made a final vat using my home-grown woad leaves. Here are some of the skeins I dyed that day, hanging outside to dry.

Stored away in my shed I still have some woad solution, to use whenever the mood takes me or when the brighter weather draws me outside to set up my dye pots.

Woad solution is easy to make & can be stored for several years. All you do is follow the instructions for using fresh woad leaves, given in my earlier entries, up to & including the whisking to produce the blue froth. Then leave the solution for a while to allow the froth to settle. It’s important to make sure all the froth is incorporated into the solution, as the froth contains most of the blue pigment. Then pour the solution into a strong glass or thick plastic airtight container with a well-fitting lid. (If you use a plastic container, make sure it is made of thicker plastic than those containers used for milk. I have found that, if the plastic is too thin, the blue pigment is absorbed by the plastic, which becomes a deep blue, leaving little pigment left to dye anything else.) Allow the solution to overflow slightly, then screw the lid on well.  You can add a teaspoon of sodium metabisulphite as a preservative if you like, but I’ve never found it necessary. I have successfully stored woad solution in my shed for several years & it never seems to develop mould or deteriorate in any way .