Not what I was expecting

I tend to stick to a somewhat limited palette when producing items for myself, so I am trying to extend the range of colours I usually work with. My preference seems to be for the strong reds, purples, pinks and blues that come from madder, woad, indigo, cochineal and logwood. So for a change I decided to aim for a rich medium brown that I hoped would provide a pleasing contrast with some indigo-dyed wool I had earmarked for a jacket.

Walnut hulls seemed a reasonable choice of dye and I knew I had a container full of sludge from the fresh green walnut hulls I had collected and processed last year. Fresh green walnut hulls usually give much richer browns than dried hulls and when I used this sludge last year I achieved lovely warm shades, so I was full of enthusiasm. I used unmordanted handspun wool and set up the dyebath. First, I simmered the sludge in its accompanying liquid (plus extra cold water) for about 45 minutes to extract more colour. Then I strained off the dye solution and added more cold water, plus some oak bark solution to increase the tannin content, as this can improve the depth of colour from walnut hulls. The wetted skeins were then put into the dyebath and gently simmered for about an hour, before being left to steep as the solution cooled down.

However, when I inspected the colour on the skeins it became clear that I wasn’t going to achieve the depth of colour I wanted – instead a mid greyish brown (typical of the shades from dried walnut hulls) seemed to be the result. I was still determined to aim for a rich warm brown, so I decided to add some madder extract to the walnut solution, in the hope that adding some red would produce the colour I wanted. I mixed about a teaspoon of madder extract to a paste with hot water, removed the skeins from the dyebath and stirred the madder paste into the dyebath, then returned the skeins to the pot.

To my surprise, the (unmordanted) skeins almost immediately became a purple colour, not the rich brown I was expecting. Then I remembered this had happened before several years ago and I had assumed at that time that it was just one of those strange results that would never be repeated.

I had also made a dyebath from oak leaves and oak bark, as I wanted two slightly different shades of brown, and I had added madder extract to this dyebath too. This time the skein became a rich pink/purple. Both the purple and pink skeins retained their colours after they had been washed and rinsed.

So how do I account for these unexpected results? Well, leaving aside the possibility that some mysterious colour spirit had decided I am destined to work always with the same colour palette, I can only assume that the tannin in the walnut hulls and oak leaves and bark reacted with some pigments or chemicals in the madder extract to produce these purple colours. Perhaps the madder extract contains elements from the processing that are not present in madder root, so now I need to try out this combination using madder root, rather than extract. If this does not produce these purple colours, then the assumption would probably be that something present in madder extract , but not in madder root, was the cause of the purple colours.

If anyone has any other ideas as to how and why these purple colours resulted from these dye combinations, please let me know!

What I was expecting:

What I achieved:

17 replies
  1. Mona
    Mona says:

    I've no idea of what's causing this (except for the colour fairies 'teasing' you;) – but it's wonderful, isn't it? – If this works out with madder root too – we'll be able to make pinks and purples with local plants – and all vegetable. I'd prefer this combination to cochineal, then. Looking forward to hearing more about your experiments!!

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      I must now make time to try this out with madder root. However, I have a feeling I won’t get those lovely pinks & purples with the ordinary root – but it’s always worth a try!

  2. Leena
    Leena says:

    Interesting and surprising result. I have gotten with oak bark and madder root only red, only lighter than with alum mordant. I will have to try it with also walnut hulls. Do you think there could have been iron in the extract? Iron has turned alum mordanted color from madder root to purplish for me.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      I’d be very surprised if there was iron in the madder extract but it might explain these results.

  3. Ladka
    Ladka says:

    This much about "repeatability" of natural dyeing procedures! And I'd be interested in your results with madder roots – it would be nice to get purples and pinks with tannin, easily available around, and madder roots.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      That thought had occurred to me but unfortunately I don’t know what the pH of the dye bath was.

  4. cedar
    cedar says:

    beautiful colours, hope the fairies of colour visit me as I too have a sludge walnut vat….so when you added the madder you don't need to add any mordant with that, as the tannin in the walnut will set the dye? is that correct?

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      Well, these results were on unmordanted wool, so the tannin in the walnuts probably helped. However, the madder I added was madder extract & I still have to see whether the same happens with madder root. Please let me know the results if you try adding ordinary madder root instead of madder extract.

  5. Laura
    Laura says:

    Fascinating and very exciting that you can get this strong deep pink/purple from plants around in the period I focus on, the early C17th in Britain. I'm not a dyer, but I am ridiculously thrilled to find this – please do post if you ever work out how you did it!

  6. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Hello Jenny, I have recently been experimenting with madder to try for a wide range of colours. For one experiment I had wool soaking in a jar of madder solution using powdered root. I added lemon juice to the jar. Without stirring I got blotches of purple on an otherwise orangey-brown piece of unspun wool. I'm going to try experimenting with walnut and madder, once I've worked more with madder alone. 

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      This is certainly interesting, Cathy. It seems that adding something acidic – in this case lemon juice & in my case tannin – may have had an influence on the purple. This is contrary to what I would expect with madder, as acids usually make the colour more orange & alkalis make it pinker.

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