Plants for Dyeing: Comfrey

I’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.

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Natural Dyeing: Goldenrod

The blossoming of goldenrod every August always brings to mind the impending start of another school year, and the first of the annual agricultural fairs. Because it blooms at the same time as ragweed, many people wgoldenrodith allergies believe that they are caused by goldenrod, but this has been found not to be true. So even those with allergies can take advantage of this abundant, easy to collect dye source. When made in a brass kettle, goldenrod produces a vivid yellow, often bordering upon chartreuse. I’ve found it to be one of the more colorfast natural dyes.

Cut about a grocery bag full of the flowers. Simmer in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in brass container for another 1/2 hour or so. Allow to cool, then remove from the dye bath, rinse in tepid water, and allow to air dry.

Goldenrod is a North American native. During the War for Independence, colonist made a tea from the blossoms, and Native Americans used it in a steam bath to relieve pain. It is also said to be good for obstructions  kidney stones. When bruised, the plant has a spicy smell like anise and sassafras.

There is an old legend that relates goldenrods to asters. Two young girls talks about what they would like to do when they grew up. One, who had golden hair, said she wanted to do something that would make people happy. The other, with blue eyes, said that she wanted to be with her golden-haired friend. The two girls met and told a wise old lady of their dreams. The old lady gave the girls some magic corn cake. After eating the cake, the girls disappeared. The next day, two new kinds of flowers appeared where the girls had walked: Asters and Goldenrods.

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.

Plants for dyeing: Pokeweed

pokeweed It’s mid August, which means that the berries on the pokeweed bushes that grow around here will soon be ripe.  Pokeweed is shrub that commonly grows in dry, neglected areas. In New England, it generally blossoms in mid-summer and sets fruit in September. Throughout history, pokeweed has had several uses. One of the first plants to show itself in spring, young shoots were gathered, boiled and eaten as a tonic after the long, cold winter. As the plant matures, however, parts of it become poisonous.

The Algonquins called this plant puccoon, which means “plant used for stains or dyes.” An English name for the same plant is “inkberry”, and in my museum classes I sometimes have kids pick, mash, and write with pokeberry. Though technically a berry, which provides a stain rather than a dye, pokeweed can be used to color wool a rich shade of magenta. Unfortunately, stains fade a discolor rather quickly, and are definitely not as colorfast as true dyes. (Think of what happens on that white T shirt that gets blueberry or strawberry stains on it. )

For that reason, I have only used pokeweed to color my yarns a few times. While alum mordant is usually pretty effective with plant dyes, I have not found that it works well at all with pokeweed. My best results and truest, deepest colors have been achieved using white vinegar as mordant.

Pokeweed dyepot:

This is a simple recipe. For a pound of yarn, pick a large paper grocery bag full of pokeweed berries. Crush them until the juice runs, combine with about 1/2 gallon of water in a suitable steel or glass container. Pour in about 1 cup of vinegar. Submerge presoaked yarn skeins into dyebath, raise to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 1/2 hour. Allow yarn and dyebath to cool. Rinse yarn in cool water, allow to air dry.

If you try this yourself, I’d love to hear about your results.

Plants for Dyeing: Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrot) grows abundantly all over the place here in southern New England. This has become one of my favorite dye sources for use during the month of August. Easy to find in large quantities, I depend upon this wild flower for its ability to yield, of all colors, chartreuse! Using alum for mordant, wool, and local water, year after year I have produced nearly identical shades of truly vivid yellow-greens. They tend to be reasonably colorfast, as well as reliable. The carroty aroma that arises during the dye process is also a plus. Try using about 1/2 a paper grocery bag full of flower heads per 1/2 pound of wool. A pinch or two of alum, or the use of an aluminum pot, should do the trick.

There is some interesting folklore attached to this prolific plant. Queen Anne, wife of James I of England, was an avid lace maker, and is the namesake of the flower. The tiny purple dot in the center represents a spot of blood caused by a needle prick to the queen’s finger, and this tiny sliver of color was thought to cure epilepsy. Black swallowtail butterflies flock to them like cats to catnip. Farmers consider it an invasive weed, and the milk from animals that graze upon it is supposed to taste a bit bitter and carroty. The plant is also called bee’s nest, bird’s nest, crow’s nest, and devil’s plague (seems a bit harsh!). The carrots that we eat today are believed to be derived from this wild variety, and to revert to it when not tended or cultivated. Queen Anne’s Lace roots have also been used as a coffee substitute, like chicory.

Natural Dyeing: Bracken Fern

The very first natural dye I ever used (perhaps 20 years ago) is bracken fern. It was April in CT, and I had to do a demo at a Rev War re-enactment. Not many plants available here that early in the spring. But the  “fiddleheads” from the wild ferns that grow around the yard were about 6″ high, so, I decided to give them a try. (These are not the edible ones, from the ostrich fern, but the somewhat furry ones.)

Talk about flying by the seat of your pants! I’d hardly done any dyeing before, but necessity is the mother of invention, nothing ventured nothing gained, and all those other similar sayings apply to this experiment.

Here’s what I did:

1. Cut about a pound of fiddleheads.

2. Mordanted a 4 oz. skein of homespun wool yarn in alum and cream of tartar.

3. Set up an iron kettle, with about a gallon and a half of tap water,  over an open fire.

4. Added the ferns and brought up to a simmer, for 1/2 hour.

5. Removed the plant material with a slotted spoon.

6. Add the yarn, which had been soaking in warm water. Simmered another 1/2 hour.

Here’s what happened:

Surprise!! The most beautiful shade of deep grayish green you can imagine, at first. The iron kettle was probably responsible for the richness of the color. On a few later occasions, I tried fiddleheads/alum in stainless steel, and got a rather washed out shade of yellow. I no longer have the yarn, but the chip to the left is a good approximation. Now that I’ve written this up, I’m inspired to try it again!

Plants for dyeing: Celandine

 

I’ve been doing natural dyeing demonstrations for many years. Although nearly any green plant will produce some shade of yellow, I was never satisfied with the results. About 5 years ago, in a search for a clear, golden yellow dye to make some muffatees with my homespun, I remembered the orangey sap that oozes from celandine when it’s pulled up. This plant grows wild in several areas of my yard, so I collected some and gave it a try as a dye. The results were spectacular: a soft, true, buttery yellow.

And it was easy! I simmered the plant, roots, leaves and all, in about 1 gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then removed the plant material. The yarn was mordanted in alum and cream of tartar, and submerged in the celandine bath. I simmered (not boiled) the yarn for another 1/2 hour, and was so happy with the results.

Celandine in New England begins to blossom in late May or June. The plants are perennial. Oh, by the way, the juice of celandine is supposed to be a great remedy for “piles: (hemorrhoids), but as I haven’t tried it myself, I’m not making any promises!