Dyeing with Elderberry and a PH Experiment

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::


We did a ton of natural plant dyeing this season and since I haven’t yet posted about most of them, I hope to sprinkle them into blog posts and add a little bit of color and sunshine to the wintry times ahead. Up first is elderberry.


My daughter was the lead on all of these plant dyeing experiments and I was her assistant. Her first attempt at elderberry dyeing (see above) gave some gorgeous colored silk fibres (both above the label and directly below it) as well as some lighter mauve purple wool yarn and wool roving (left). When we cooked the elderberry dyebath too long and let it get too hot with the fibre inside, it all turned into a rich brown. That led us to believe that elderberry is very temperature-sensitive. It seems to do best in a cool or very very lightly warm dyebath, both for extracting the color and dyeing the fibre.


So, elderberry is temperature sensitive. But what about pH?

To test this she made up a new batch of elderberry dyebath from frozen elderberries. She used a cold method and just soaked them in water for a day or so.

Then she divided the dyebath into 5 little glass jars. And added a variety of acid and alklaline modifiers.


Then she added her fibre (wool and silk primarily) and put them out on the picnic table to gently solar dye for a few days. It was pretty cloudy that week and the jars never got too hot.


The dyebaths were all different and the resulting fibres were all over the color spectrum. Here they are wet, just pulled out of their respective jars and arranged on thick watercolor paper. That happened to be the most absorbent large paper we had around – we only realized after the fact that it was a fantastic way to get a permanent record of the dyes and a pretty bit of art.



Here are the fibre samples all dried out. We tried to rinse them out with water of a similar pH (i.e. acid-modified samples rinsed out in acidic water). Elderberry dyes are notoriously changeable and can be sensitive not only to pH and temperature but also to sunlight.





Yellow Dock Surprise

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::


All our plant dyeing books talk about yellow dock. The general consensus seems to be that the root yields an interesting orange and the fall harvested seed stock also gives an interesting orange-brown. We’ve been learning about yellow dock for a few years now, but from the medicinal angle.  We’ve harvested the roots and know the gorgeous blood orange inside of the long taproots well. They are a beautiful reward for the long hard digging it takes to bring them up out of the soil. We thought we’d get a pretty orange color out of the roots.  In May, when we first harvested a yellow dock plant that was directly in the mowing line of a field, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. My daughter decided to put the fresh plant stock filled with green seeds into our big dyepot on a whim.

Pretty soon the pot was filled with a truly vibrant orange dyebath.  The alum pre-mordanted fiber didn’t take long to start absorbing color.  This was entirely unexpected.  Why would the fresh green seed stalks give us such a rich, bright orange?


The second surprise came with the root itself. That rich, bloody colored root made a brown dyebath and cream-colored yarn. The raw silk rod took in more of the brown color, but overall it was rather dismal compared to the color from the green seeds.


Here are the results of her first yellow dock dye experiment. At the top is (from left to right): silk, yarn, silk rod and nettle/ramie fiber. Below is the fibre from the dock root dyebath.


Well we thought we’d try it again.  If it was true that the phytochemicals and biology of the plant was giving us a brighter color because we used it earlier in the season, then would the color change as the plants aged? The first experiment was in May. About a month later we were in Vermont and had lots of yellow dock right outside our door.  She dyed pre-mordanted wool yarn and a vintage cotton doily that had been mordanted with alum and also rhubarb leaves for the tannin.


The dyebath was a rich orange and the resulting color was indeed orange, though a lot lighter and less deep than the yarn that had come out of the same process (same pH, same plant, same fibre) a month earlier. A few weeks later were were back at home in Ottawa and the yellow dock plants were turning brown in their seeds.  We repeated the process using this aged plant. If we had followed the advice in various dyeing books, we would have only harvested the plant to dye with at this point.


We got a yellow! The nettle dyed cream, the raw silk was brown and the silk was a light beige. You can see those fibers in the bottom right corner of the photo, above.  Going counter clockwise is the orange wool we dyed in Vermont and the results of the first dock experiment we did in May when the plants were green and fresh out of the ground.


On the left (above) is the yarn dyed with the May yellow dock seeds and on the right is the same plant, same process but about 2 months later.


And here’s that dock root fiber again – it is strikingly brown compared to the fine, fancy colors from the seeds. So there you have it! We were really excited about these results.




Natural Dyeing: Hibiscus

Friday, July 31, 2015 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::


We’ve been dyeing up a ton of native plants this summer and I’m going to share our results here in this space over the next few months.  I think the boys in this house have seen the Super Keen side of us shine through the past few weeks. It’s been a bit of a maze in the house and garden with soaking plant stuff, jars of dye, dyepots taking up privileged spaces on the stove where some people think food ought to cook.

Since it’s been so hot and sunny, my daughter has been leaving her simmered jars out to complete their dyeing on the picnic table. It seems to work wonderfully and help the colors become very saturated. From left to right (top photo) is bee balm (all 3 jars), a yellowy wild mustard and a big purple-flowered hibiscus.



The rich purple hibiscus dyebath yielded this purply, silvery green. This is the hibiscus dye – so interesting how the yarn dyed differently (more yellowy green) than the silk.


Dyeing: Coreopsis and Day Lily

Friday, July 3, 2015 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::


Like wild food and medicine foraging, it seems intuitive that dyeplant foraging be done with seasonal, ideally native plants that grow plentifully in our area. Right now, there’s lots and lots of coreopsis and day lily and the blooms are everywhere. So she tried sun dyed fibre with both (that’s the day lily dyebath on the left, and yellow coreopsis on the right). The colors were absolutely delightful – especially the almost neon green coresopsis. All pre-mordanted fiber with alum + cream of tartar, from left to right: mulberry silk, wool yarn, raw silk rod, nettle (ramie), then more wool yarn and a raw silk rod in a brilliant green at the bottom right.