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.

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.


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.

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!

Some Interesting Dye Sources

IMG_0593                                                 Sage flowering in my garden, with a welcome bee just visible on the far left.

IMG_0596                                             More sage and another bee.

Every now and then I come across a reference to a dye source from the past that I find surprising. My surprise is usually because the dye in question is often not one in common use today. One such dye source is sage, Salvia officinalis, which was used in mediaeval times. Sage is one of the dyes mentioned in the Plictho de larte de tentori, a collection of dyeing recipes published in Venice in 1548 and compiled by Gioanventura Rosetti, the Master of the Arsenal in Venice.  Although I suspect few natural dyers today would regard culinary sage as a common dye source of choice, the leaves give subtle shades of mustard yellow/ brown and an iron modifier gives attractive tones of deep mossy green. When I cut back my sage bushes, which can grow rampantly if not checked, I dry some of the prunings for culinary purposes and use the rest in the dyepot. (See the post “Anglo-Saxon Dyes part 2 ” for examples of colours from sage leaves.)

A friend phoned me last week to ask whether I had heard of privet, Ligustrum vulgare, being used commercially in the past in Wiltshire as a dark green dye. She had read about this in a novel but I don’t know whether the reference was to privet leaves or berries, so I wonder whether anyone else has more information about this? Privet leaves give a yellow shade, which would become a mossy shade of green if modified with iron, and perhaps they were used instead of a more traditional source of dye because  privet happened to be readily available locally in the wild at the time and was therefore a cheap alternative? As far as privet berries are concerned, according to a reference in Dominique Cardon’s “Natural Dyes”, the juice from the berries was used in the past to dye the red, violet and blue colours on playing cards. There is an illustration in her book of an 18th century cardboard playing card from Nimes, on which privet berry juice has been used as a dye. Red was achieved using Glauber’s Salts (sodium sulphate) and potassium sulphate, urine was added for violet, and lime and potassium sulphate were used for blue.

Another unexpected source of dye colour is the reported use of damsons, Prunus sp., as a dye for a variety of purposes, including dyeing hats for the Luton straw hat industry and dyeing wool for the textile industry in Westmoreland. Apparently, damson trees were planted around Market Drayton in Shropshire, and also in Worcestershire, to meet the demand for dye, and some damson bushes found today in hedgerows or in old orchards are the remains of trees grown for dyeing and not for damsons for eating. In my experience, with the exception of buckthorn berries, berries generally make poor dyes, especially on animal fibres, and the colours from berries tend to fade rapidly. So I am surprised that damsons, which are so good to eat, should have been specifically grown to be used for dyeing, when more reliable, traditional dye plants could have been grown. However, it may be that the colours given by damsons could not be achieved from dyes that could be grown or were readily available at the time. It would also appear that, in the past,  berries containing anthocyanins were frequently used by painters and dyers in those areas where they were abundant. For example: the blue in an early Swiss linen fragment has been attributed to elderberries and several early dye references from Germany, Italy and Sweden include recipes for bilberries. (Ref: Cardon p243 – 250) Of course, it is not surprising that early dyers would make use of what was growing around them. However nowadays, when we have access to so many excellent dyes from all over the world, dyers are able to select the most reliable dyes for their purposes and no longer have to make do with whatever is available locally.

The other reference I came across recently in a magazine was to the use of nettles, Urtica dioica, to dye camouflage military uniforms in the First World War. I know that nettles were used to produce fibres for cloth for military uniforms during the First and Second World Wars, but I had not heard before that they were also used as a khaki dye. Certainly, in wartime when it would have been important to find cheap, local sources of dye colour, the use of nettles sounds perfectly sensible. Nettles give various shades of yellow or brown, depending on the time of year when they are harvested, and the use of iron would give a khaki colour. I suppose it’s also possible that the same nettles could be used for both fibres and dye colour.

Does anyone else know of similar unexpected dye sources from the past?

Dyeing Alpaca Fleece

Recently I went with members of the Bedfordshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to spend a pleasant evening admiring alpacas. These particular alpacas belong to David Titmuss, the son of one of our members, Toni Titmuss, and David and his wife had kindly invited us to visit their farm for one of our meetings. The early evening sunshine bathed everything in a warm glow and the alpacas were happy to be photographed, although they quickly lost interest if required to pose for too long.



The natural colours of the alpacas vary from white, cream and beige through various shades of rust and brown to almost black, and all these colours are lovely. The fleece can be extremely soft and a pleasure to handspin. Of course, as a dyer, I was interested in testing some dyes on white alpaca fleece, so I got my dyepots ready for a few experiments on some of my skeins of handspun alpaca.


All the skeins were mordanted in alum. The dyes used are, from left to right: 1 weld, 2 weld + iron, 3 madder, 4 madder + washing soda, 5 madder exhaust, 6 coreopsis flowers, 7 coreopsis flowers + washing soda, 8 brazilwood, 9 brazilwood + washing soda, 10 Phaeolus schweinitzii fungus, 11 Phaeolus schweinitzii + iron, 12 Exhaust of 11, 13 Cortinarius sanguineus fungus, 14 Cortinarius sanguineus fungus + washing soda, 15 Pisolithus tinctorius fungus

In general, I was pleased with the depth of colour I achieved. However, as alpaca tends to be more “hairy” than sheep’s fleece, and less “woolly”, the colours are probably less saturated than those achieved on sheep’s wool. One other thing I learned about working with alpaca is the importance of washing the fleece very well before spinning and dyeing it. When spinning sheep’s fleece, I often soak the sorted fleece overnight to get rid of any dirt, then spin “in the grease” and wash well afterwards and before mordanting or dyeing. This method proved less successful with alpaca. I found the grease was difficult to wash out after spinning and this caused patchy results from some of the dyebaths. I got much better results with alpaca fleece that had been well washed before spinning. After spinning, I washed the skeins again and then mordanted and dyed them.

Fungi galore – again

Here are further details of the fungi I used recently and the colours I achieved from each.

Note: A = no mordant, B = 10% alum mordant, 1 = no modifier, 2 = washing soda modifier, 3 =  iron modifier. The order of samples for each fungus is: 1A 1B, 2A 2B, 3A 3B

The extra, usually larger, skeins are from the exhaust dyebaths and are alum-mordanted.


These colours come from a dyebath of a mixture of Cortinarius croceus and other orange- and yellow-gilled species of Cortinarius.


This shows, on the left,  colours from Hydnellum aurantiacum  and on the right, colours from Tapinella atrotomentosa.


These colours are from Phaeolus schweinitzii. The green shades from the exhaust dyebath were modified using iron.


These colours are from Cortinarius sanguineus


These colours are from Pisolithus tinctorius

Fungi Galore!

Recently I managed to acquire a selection of fungi, mainly purchased through Leena in Finland, who either had some for sale herself or gave me the details of a supplier. Since then I have been once again exploring the wonderful world of colours from mushrooms. The photo below shows the range of shades I’ve achieved so far.


I tested each fungus using alum-mordanted and unmordanted wool and used washing soda (alkaline) and iron modifiers. I limited my tests to these two modifiers only, partly in order to reduce the number of samples and partly because, in my experience, these are the most useful modifiers. Also, as copper is toxic I try to avoid it where possible.

In my next post I’ll give details of the various fungi I used and the colours I obtained from each.

More Extracts

Several weeks ago I was sent some more extracts to try out. This time they came from Debbie Bamford ( They were extracts of Brazilwood and Chestnut and also one labelled “Green”. I have tried extracts of brazilwood and chestnut  in the past, and also one from another supplier labelled “Green”, but it’s always useful to be able to try others. Brazilwood extract was in fact on the market about 20 years ago, both as a powder and as a type of resin,  and I used it then. However, when I supplied natural dyes by mail-order, it was interesting to notice how reluctant dyers were to buy the extracts instead of the dyes in their plant form, even when I pointed out that the extracts would actually work out cheaper because they go such a long way. Now, of course, dyes in extract form have become very popular, although some dyers still prefer to process their own dyes from plant to dyepot.

Brazilwood gives lovely reds and a brilliant purple when used with a washing soda modifier and I was very pleased with the results from this extract. I was interested to see that the acidic modifier produced very little change in shade, especially as, when used with brazilwood in its plant form, it usually gives a bright orange. Brazilwood is not as lightfast as the other red dyes, madder and cochineal, but I sometimes use brazilwood over madder-dyed fibres to increase the brilliance of the colours. A little brazilwood extract added to a madder extract dyebath should give good results, although I haven’t tried it yet.


Brazilwood samples (alum mordant)         From top to bottom: no modifier, acidic modifier, alkaline modifier, iron modifier

 Note: all samples on wool yarn



 Chestnut gives soft brown shades and deep grey when used with an iron modifier. As it is rich in tannin, it can also be a useful plant mordant for vegetable fibres and silk. “Green” gave an interesting range of shades and I was particularly intrigued by what happened with a washing soda modifier. (See photo below). The only thing I find slightly irritating is that when an extract is simply labelled “Green”, or given a name such as “Moody Blues”, I have no idea which plants have been used in its production. Of course, I understand that manufacturers don’t want to give away trade secrets, so I’m prepared to cope with my irritation and use the extract anyway. I do keep telling myself that I should stop asking so many questions and just enjoy using the products but still……………………..

                                                                                                                                                  img_2056This shows the “Green” wool samples on the left & the Chestnut wool samples on the right.  The order of samples with each dye is: A & B with no modifier, A & B + alkali, A & B+ iron

NOTE: A = no mordant & B = alum mordant.