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Another Way To Dye

I couldn’t resist a dyeing pun for hallowe’en (sorry, not sorry!) I’ve been doing some more natural dyeing this week and so thought I’d make some recommendations on how to get started if anyone else is interested. I’m by no means an expert, I’m still experimenting and learning, though I can offer some pointers on books, courses and dyes to play with that you’ll probably either have or be able to get hold of really easily if you want to have a go.

First of all, natural dyeing refers to the act of dyeing fabric and yarn with organic dyestuffs; these could be parts of plants, insects, or even clays and coloured earth. Natural dyes will only work with materials of natural origin – you couldn’t dye acrylic or polyester with them, but you can dye artificial fibres like tencel and rayon as well as natural fibres. Hand dyeing is slightly different – it can mean natural dyeing, but it can also mean dyeing with acid or fibre reactive dyes, which are both chemical dyes. There’s many reasons why you might want to use acid or fibre reactive dyes, though personally I’m interested in the pigments you get from nature – sometimes these can be really surprising and they can be really quite fun if they’re PH sensitive, as you can change the colour depending on whether you add the dyed item to a bit of acid (citric acid granules or plain vinegar) or a bit of alkaline (baking soda) immediately after dyeing.

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Focus on plant pigments

My main focus so far has been on plant pigments simply because there’s so many possibilities. Each region around the world has specific plants which can be used for dyeing; some are available worldwide and others are only available in that region – Peru has an amazing amount of plants which produce gorgeous colours but they’re extremely difficult to source unless you live there. For example, ch’illka is one of the few plants that produces a vibrant green, but it’s virtually impossible to find outside of Peru. To produce green without using ch’illka, you’d normally dye with a yellow and then over dye with a blue – dyer’s greenweed even gets it’s name from this process, as it actually produces a bright yellow which was commonly over dyed with woad or indigo to produce green.

Natural dyeing with Peruvian ch'illka gives a vibrant green
Peruvian Ch'illka is one of the few dyeplants to give a true and vibrant green

You might be wondering what my personal aims are with natural dyeing. At the moment, I’m enjoying experimenting and learning something new which makes me feel like a witch and a mad scientist in equal amounts! However, I do have a long term plan – in the future I’d like to stock a range of yarns, sewing threads and embroidery floss which are all naturally dyed. I can’t say when exactly I’ll start stocking these as I’m still at the beginning of my natural dyeing journey, but it is something I am keen on doing and little plans keep popping up in my head for yarn collection names or what my dyeing studio should have in it.

Getting started with natural dyeing

If you want to have a go and see if natural dyeing is something you enjoy, you can do this very easily without needing much specialist stuff.

Firstly, get yourself some undyed yarn. You can buy this from Chester Wool Co or World of Wool (there’s more places out there which sell undyed yarn, though these are the main two I’ve found). You can try with micro or mini skeins of 10g or 20g, or you can buy a bigger hank and cut it up into smaller weights. For my experimenting samples, I use pieces of yarn weighing 1g which I’ve cut from a bigger ball.

Basic tools for natural dyeing
A simple wooden spoon, some mordant, a pot or pan and some yarn is all you need to get started. My dyepot is a 2.8L stock pot, though I'm also commandeering a 10L one now that I'm dyeing bigger quantities of yarn.

You’ll need a mordant for your yarn – this is what fixes the dye to your yarn and comes from the french/latin word meaning “to bite”. Many courses and books recommend using alum (aluminium potassium sulphate), as this is a common non-toxic mordant and it’s what I’m currently using for my experiments. However, if you want to just give dyeing a go before buying a bag of mordant you might never use again, you can also use salt, lemon juice, a combination of salt and lemon juice, or soya milk as mordants and binders too. If you want to use any of these mordanting methods, you’ll likely have to do a bit of googling to find guidance on the quantities required, though you could also simply not use a mordant and see where that takes you.

Use a pot and wooden spoon that you don’t mind sacrificing to dyeing. This doesn’t need to be massive, a small saucepan might suffice if you just want to have a go or don’t have much space. While the focus for most natural dyers is on non-toxic substances, some things might cause reactions if you dye with them and then use the pot to cook in.

Natural dyeing in the kitchen

There’s a huge amount of potential for dyeing in common kitchen products which you probably already have. Brown onion skins give a wonderful rusty colour on wool and sunny yellow on cotton, paprika provides a subtle straw yellow on wool, turmeric gives a mustardy colour but does eventually fade, the water you soak black beans in can be used to produce a denim blue on both cotton and wool, strawberries produce a lovely pastel shade of purpley pink. Red cabbage is probably the most fun of the kitchen based dyestuffs, as it produces turquoise in PH neutral water, a bright blue shade in alkaline water (PH8) and a bright pink in acidic water (PH4/5) and it works just as well on cotton as it does on wool.

My notebook for natural dyeing
My natural dyeing notebook. I've also got a copy on my computer, as I find it easier sometimes to write and sometimes to just type

Keep notes on everything so that you can reproduce colours later – you’ll need to note the weight of your fibre (when it’s dry, a digital kitchen scale is perfect for this), what type of fibre you’re using, the weight of the dyestuff compared to the weight of the fibre (for most kitchen based dyes it’s equal to the weight of your fibre), if and how you’ve mordanted your fibre, what the dyeing process was (i.e. how long you left the yarn in the dye, and at what temperature) and what colour you got.

Courses and books - natural dyeing

If you fancy delving a little deeper into the subject of natural dyeing, you could get hold of some books or try an online course.

For a good introduction to dyeing, it would be worth looking at these free tutorials by Maiwa School of Textiles on the subjects of fibre type, weight of fibre and scouring. They should help to give you a good understanding of these basic yet often overlooked aspects of natural dyeing. Closet Core Patterns have also started a series of blog posts on natural dyeing, which cover all sorts from what tools you need to natural dyers you should follow.

In terms of courses, there are a few running online which you could try. I’m using Textile Dyeing With Natural Pigments by Anabel Torres which is very thorough and really useful – the videos are in Spanish but they do have English subtitles and all the text is automatically translated for you. There’s also Sustainable Natural Dyeing by Loch Ness Knitting and Plants & Colour are also running Introduction to Natural Dyes as an online, interactive course via recorded videos, zoom and using Slack for live Q&A sessions. There’s sure to be more out there too if none of these take your fancy or if you’ve already done them all.

At the moment there are very few in-person workshops, though some dyers are starting to book these in for next year. These are a great way to meet other people interested in natural dyeing and you can of course ask questions in real time, which is a bit harder with online courses. Sometimes yarn stores will host or promote these workshops, other times they’re held at the dyer’s own studio; this could be a nice day out or part of a longer break, depending on where the workshop is held and where you’re based. Loch Ness Knitting are starting to book in workshops for next April onwards, if anyone wants to head up to the Highlands… (I’ve been seriously missing the landscapes and atmosphere of Northern Scotland during lockdown). Likewise, Plants & Colour are taking a register of interest for their various workshops, including shibori techniques and how to make paints and inks from natural pigments.

Just as there are lots of courses out there, there are also lots of books. The nice thing though is that most of these include different dye plants, techniques or mordants that the author has learned about, so no two books are ever giving you identical information.

I have Wild Colour by Jenny Dean and Natural Color by Sasha Duerr. Wild Colour is a truly fantastic resource; I’d recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in natural dyeing, as not only does it go through the tools and techniques of natural dyeing, it has an entire section dedicated to dye plants with a page or more per plant discussing the different parts you can use, where you can find them, how to harvest the dyestuffs, how to use them and even colour palettes you can get from the different parts of the plant. It seems to be widely regarded as the bible of natural dyeing, so definitely one you should have on your shelf. Natural Color is laid out slightly differently, providing projects you can try at different times of year to match the season’s palette or harvest of dyestuffs. There are direct recipes in there for making things from dip dyed chunky blankets to baby bonnets as well as some more general projects for lengths of fabric.

A few other books I’m interested in are Journeys in Natural Dyeing and The Modern Natural Dyer (both by Kristine Vejar), The Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth, and My Colourful Kitchen and My Colourful Garden (both by Dwynwen Hopcroft of Loch Ness Knitting). I’ve heard great things about these books and again they all offer something slightly different.

Journeys in Natural Dyeing (Kristine Vejar) looks at the different dye plants and practices of countries around the world, incorporating projects such as bracelets and bookmarks for you to try. It also has practical advice on subjects such as over dyeing with indigo. I’m personally fascinated with the different colours and techniques found in different countries, which is one of the reasons I’m interested in getting this book – this came from being introduced to natural dyeing while in Peru on my honeymoon. On the other hand, Kristine Vejar’s book The Modern Natural Dyer is a comprehensive guide to dyeing with both protein based (wool, alpaca, etc) and cellulose based (cotton, linen, hemp, etc) fibres and provides colour shade charts for particular dyestuffs on particular fibres.

The Wild Dyer (Abigail Booth) is part dyeing, part patchworking – the idea behind the book is to help create something useful and beautiful from the fibres you dye, so while there’s guidance on growing and foraging for dyestuffs, there are also tutorials for making an apron, foraging bag and more. My Colourful Kitchen (Dwynwen Hopcroft) looks into how you can use waste materials from your kitchen to dye with and produce gorgeous vibrant colours, while her other book My Colourful Garden walks you through dyeing with plants and weeds found in your garden and local areas – plus both books come with two micro skeins of merino yarn for you to dye with if you get them directly from her website, which is a lovely little bonus. You can even get My Colourful Kitchen in a bundle with the online course Sustainable Natural Dyeing, for which you get an extra three skeins of merino yarn to dye with – given we’re in the run up to Christmas, this might make a nice present to drop hints for with your loved ones.

Specialist dye suppliers

If you have already started experimenting with dyes from your kitchen and local area but you want to branch out and try some more exotic or specialist dyes, there’s three main companies in the UK that you can get these from – Wild Colours, DT Crafts and Dyeing Crafts.

I’ve only recently discovered Dyeing Crafts and Wild Colours closed during the first lockdown (they’re open now though), so I’ve mainly been getting supplies from DT Crafts. All have their merits so I’ll likely continue to get supplies from all – Wild Colours tends to have extracts in higher quantities as well as comprehensive guides on how much dyestuff you require and seeds for dye plants, while DT Crafts has liquid concentrate dyes, undyed yarn and kits for learning to dye with or creating new indigo vats. Dyeing Crafts is a little of both; selling dye plant seeds, a good amount of natural dyes, dyeing gifts, undyed silk scarves and workshops. I haven’t as yet found any other suppliers in the UK.

Natural dyeing with logwood
Logwood comes in chip form and produces a range of purple shades. Top left is equal weight of fibre & dyestuff from the first dye bath on wool, top right is the same on cotton, bottom left is the equal weight of fibre & dyestuff on the second dye bath of the same logwood chips and bottom right is the same on cotton

In terms of “exotic” dyestuffs (stuff I don’t have in my kitchen or can forage for locally), I’ve used both logwood and madder from DT Crafts. Logwood creates wonderful shades of purple from mauve to shades so deep they’re nearly black – but unless you add some iron, it can fade to grey. Now this might look equally as nice, I don’t know, but I’m very attached to the beautiful purples at the moment. Madder is supposed to give brick reds and warm oranges, though so far all I’ve gotten is orangey peach, which still looks nice but isn’t the bright red I was going for! I’d quite like to play with some brazilwood extract – this produces vibrant scarlets and apparently is sensitive to acids for colour modification, producing a rich gold.

Hopefully, this post gives you some useful information to get you started on your own experiments with natural dyeing. Happy dyeing and happy hallowe’en!