Dye It Yourself Books on natural plant dyes abound. Karen recommends Natural Dyeing by Jackie Crook (Lark Books, 2007) and The Craft of Natural Dyeing by Jenny Dean (Search Press, 1994), among others. She will be teaching “Natural Plant Dyes” again on Sept. 30-Oct. 2. See www.northhouse.org for details.
Colors to Dye For: Everyday plants produce rich hues
Long before the concoction of aniline (coal-tar-based) dyes that yield Technicolor hues, people dyed with natural materials gathered in their backyards. Everyday organic materials like plants, wood, mushrooms, roots, bark and lichen can be used to dye fibers and fabric, producing rich, earthy colors.
You probably have a dozen different dyes in your household right now. How about coloring your next knitting project with spinach, coffee grounds, turmeric, sumac berries, nettle, dandelion, carrot tops, beets, pomegranate juice, orange rinds, blackberries or even hedge clippings?
Back to school
Last fall, I spent three days at the North House Folk School exploring the art and craft of natural plant dyes under the tutelage of veteran dyer Karen Rognsvoog. She gave the class a head start on the process by bringing in brown paper bags brimming with dried plant material, including grape, sweet fern, marigold, Queen Anne’s lace, purple coneflower, buckthorn, rose hips and St. John’s wort. The next step was preparing the dye baths.
Armed with garden shears and work gloves to protect our hands from the plants with poky parts, we chopped the color-bearing parts of the plant material into sturdy plastic buckets. Someone shaved curls off a block of osage wood. Someone else crushed a bag of black walnuts.
“Careful,” Karen warned. “They’ll stain your hands.” Such a dye is called a “fugitive” dye.
We labeled the buckets, filled them with tap water and set them on a table to soak overnight. We also washed the raw materials we would be dyeing: silk scarves, wool yarn and cotton squares.
Beetle red and birchbark brown
While the dyes were steeping, we piled into two cars and drove to public ditches and a big burn pile to gather more material, including birch bark and dogwood. September was late in the season to be harvesting and pickings were slim. August is harvest time for a lot of natural dye plants in the Northern Wilds, like blackberries and blueberries.
Back at North House, we poured the bucket contents into big stainless-steel kettles, set the kettles on burners and brought the liquids to a boil. In teams, we poured each kettle’s contents through a strainer to remove the plant material while great clouds of steam billowed up and slicked our faces with moisture. We returned the kettles to the burners and added mordants.
Mordants are dye additives that help “open” the fibers so they will accept dye better, make the dye fade-resistant, and can deepen or alter the dye color. We used only natural mordants: alum, iron, tin and copper (also called blue vitriol), which gives a greenish tint. Colonial-era clothing, Karen explained, was often gray because they dyed clothing in iron pots.
To round out our selection of dye colors, we also mixed up a few purchased—but still naturally derived—dyes. One, cochineal (CO-shin-eel), is a pink-red dye that comes from the powdered shell of a tropical beetle. Another, indigo, generates a blue as vivid as an aniline dye but comes from the leaves of the plant Indigofera tinctoria.
One by one we slipped our skeins, scarves and cotton squares into the pots. The longer you left it in, the richer the color. You could even switch a skein from one color to another to layer the shades. Each time someone disturbed a pot, it released the smell of plant matter and mordant. Leaning over a kettle of bubbling green dye, I felt like a cartoon witch. After the materials absorbed the dye, we fished them out with long wooden spoons, rinsed them and draped them over racks to drip dry.
“I love this orange.”
“Look at that pink!”
Karen pointed out that variable plant potency makes natural dye colors one-time-only events. “You’re never going to get the exact same color again.”
Most of the dyes yielded muted, earthy shades, as you might expect. Grapevine and tansy (with iron) turned out taupe and sand, respectively. Black walnut was a weak-coffee brown. Some of the dyes were surprisingly bright. Osage orange was like a goldenrod crayon. Logwood was a deep royal purple. My favorite dye, to my surprise, was buckthorn (with copper), which produced a soft sage green.