Plants for Dyeing: Black Walnut

For the past few weeks here in Connecticut, the black walnuts have been dropping from the trees. There aren’t many of these trees left, so whenever I spot one, I make a note of it. Luckily, there are several on the grounds of the museum where I work, so I have a ready supply seasonally, and make sure to save some to tide me over till the next harvest.

Walnuts grow within a large round casing, or hull. Anyone who has seen one of these on a light colored pavement knows how easily they can stain the surface upon getting wet. The hulls of black walnuts have long been used to produce a colorfast brown dye, though I often wonder why natural brown fleece wouldn’t be a better source of brown wool. At any rate, this dye couldn’t be simpler to make and to use. When ripe, the hulls are green, and it is necessary to wait a week or two to allow them to turn brown. To dye about a pound of wool, collect about a dozen of thedarkened hulls, submerge in two gallons of clean, cold water, and allow to steep overnight. Be careful where you leave this soup sitting – I once left a pot on our bluestone patio, and next morning, the hundreds of little star shaped footprints were scattered across the stones. If you’re wondering about colorfastness, these raccoon prints took more than two years to fade away!

And this is without mordant. Black walnut provides one of the few natural dyes that do no require any mordant for wool. Just submerge the fiber in the dye, simmer for a half hour or so, and the result will be a shade of brown similar to this.

Walnut hulls can also be used to make ink for use with your trusty quill pens. For a cup of ink, simply soak one of the hulls in water overnight, add salt or a glug of vinegar, and store in a bottle. Fun activity for kids. If you don’t have a feather pen, toothpicks work well as a substitute.

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