Natural Dyeing: Color Variations with Wool

I’ve been dyeing wool fleeces and handspun yarns with natural sources for nearly 20 years. One thing that perplexed me was the way the yarn would often appear somewhat variegated, with lighter and darker segments. A few years ago, it finally dawned on me what the cause was. It’s urine staining. Urine was often used as a mordant, so it stands to reason that the parts of the sheep’s fleece that got soaked with his own urine (the yellowy parts) would take dye differently from the fibers higher up on his back. This can be avoided by making certain not to card urine soaked portions with the cleaner parts of the fleece. Unless, of course, you’re like me and actually prefer the slight variations, often a hallmark of handmade items.


5 thoughts on “Natural Dyeing: Color Variations with Wool

  1. MaryAnn says:

    An excellent dye can be made with the use of the dry skins from onions. The typical “brown” onion skin will produce a bright yellow dye. Use the dry skins of the onion. I collect them in a bag until I have enough which also allows for further drying. The dryer and older they get (several weeks to 2-3 months in a bag drying vs fresh or wet skins) the deeper and richer the yellow to brownish orange color dye you will get. Also the resulting color depends on the amount of onion skins vs water vs how long you boil it down too. Bermuda onion or the “red onion” skins can produce anything from a baby pale pink to a rich and deep maroon redish purple. I was told but have not tried it, that the tiny pearl onions and some of the larger “white” onion skins can produce a light green color and some a light blue dye. When my mother was a child in Lithuania they used onion skins to dye their Easter Eggs !
    Contact me if you want further information.

  2. The ‘yellow’ in sheep wool is ‘wool fat’, otherwise known as ‘wool grease’. The main component of the grease is lanolin. Some breeds have higher amounts of grease – merino being the most. The grease can act as a resist when dyeing.

    To remove the grease, soak the fleece in very hot (not boiling) water and mild detergent. Remove the fleece when the water has gone from very hot, to just hot.

    The heat will melt the grease, and the trick is to get the fleece out of the water before it cools enough to let the grease re-conjeal.

    To preserve the lanolin content in the wool, use mild soap instead of detergent, and let the water cool.

    I’m not experienced with natural dyes, but in wash fast acid dyes, the variegation is usually a result of the different components of a compound dye striking the yarn at different temperatures within the pot. I like the variegation so I start with a hotter dyebath and omit my levelling agent (salt).

    To get a truer solid, I start with a tepid dye bath, use the salt, work in smallish lots, and frequently lift the skeins in and out of the bath.

  3. katknit says:

    Doug, I’m talking about the staining that occurs around the lower sides, where there are dung tags etc. I haven’t noticed a problem with the grease. Thanks very much for the post on the grease factor, however – lots of good info here.

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