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.





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.







Hibiscus and Horsetail

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::

The (nearly taller than her mother) little one around here has been busy doing lots of plant dyeing. Last week it was hibiscus and horsetail! She learned that the pH of the water used to make the dyebaths has a pretty profound effect on the colors yielded by the plants, and absorbed by the fibre. Horsetail is a great example. The brownish, darker shades (to the right of the photo below) were done with our regular tap water (whose pH is quite acidic).  The brighter yellowy tones (to the top left)  were achieved with a friend’s alkaline well water, with a PH above 7.5  She foraged the same plant from the same location only a week or so apart, so it must be due to the water! The fibres used were wool yarn, wool roving, a bit of mulberry silk fibre (to the left of the actual piece of horsetail plant), and a raw silk rod (underneath the handwritten sign for horsetail).



Next she tried hibiscus, using a dyebath her friend shared with her. He had achieved a purplish brown with his acidic water, so she decided to make the dyebath alkaline by adding baking soda. The dyebath turned blue. And the fibre that she dyed with it became a lovely, unexpected shade of green. That’s a silk rod on top, with (from left to right) – nettle ramie fibre, wool yarn and mulberry silk – all pre-mordanted with alum and cream of tartar.


Late Spring Plant Dyeing

Tuesday, June 9, 2015 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::

So Far

This summer it’s my daughter who’s in charge of plant dyeing around here. It’s incredible to see the colors yielded by seasonal plants like nettle and dandelion. And when a neighbor cut down their olive tree and left the leafy branches out at the front of their house, she added olive leaf to her list. She pre-mordanted all the fibres with alum, and did an iron after-mordant on a few (including the olive green wool directly under the olive branch and to the right; and the darker colored wool and yarn to the left of the dandelion sign).  So far she describes them as a group of goldy browns and she’s really, really keen to find some brighter colored yarn peeking out of her next dye bath.  Though she also readily admits they will be wonderful side by side in the woven wall-hanging she has planned. Tomorrow, she’ll dig up some bedstraw roots and (crossing fingers and toes) hopefully get a version of red or pink.



I think my favorite is still the nettle. I love the reddish brown undertones in it, the rich dye bath it readily gives, and the color fastness.


DIY shibori natural dyeing

Monday, July 30, 2012 – Filed under: Uncategorized ::


“Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.” from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

(photo, above, via Flickr)

These days, we are finding ourselves eating lots of turmeric as I prepare more Indian-inspired meals than ever before. In the hot summer, we are tending to fight the heat with spice and it feels cooling and refreshing, even for the little guy who seems to really enjoy his Indian curried lamb too.

Glowing yellow seemed just right for playsilks and shibori cotton dyeing too.

Here’s how we did it. The following is our how-to for dyeing cotton – the colors and method would probably be different for other fabrics, and particularly animal fibres.

We used a piece of cotton voile (a 20″ square to allow for a 16″ or 18″ pillow sham) that we had previously soaked in our alum-water mordant (see here for more info about that). We layed this cotton flat on our counter.

Then we folded it into thirds.

Then we started to fold it into triangles, one on top of the other.

Until we ended up with one (well-folded) triangle.

Next we used 4 elastics and 4 popsicle sticks to tie the triangle together.

You can position the popsicle sticks in many different ways, for different (geometric) effects. Once you have them placed where you want them, attach each end securely with an elastic band.

Meanwhile we prepared our turmeric dye bath – using one of our special “dye-only” pots with water and turmeric spice, at least a few teaspoons.

Then we slipped our tied-up triangle right into the dye bath, and turned the stove onto medium heat, at first, and then low heat for about an hour.

After a thorough cold water rinse in the sink, the triangle was ready to unfold.

We look forward to trying more shibori natural dyeing, especially with walnuts from our neighbor’s tree this fall, and madder root. It was a richly rewarding experience, and I can only imagine how wonderfully exciting to unfold the dyed triangle in the eyes of a five year-old.

I will be back here soon to share an iron mordant DIY and this year’s crop of hand-dyed cotton color swatches (then I’ll get to last year’s – I guess I’m trying to catch up and going backwards). Have a great Monday!