Natural dyes for wool have been used for hundreds of years. Harvesting plants and extracting the color from the leaves, berries, and flowers is an enjoyable way to gather color today, too. You can plan and plant a home garden that produces not only food but also herbs and fruits that produce intense dye baths. Many weeds that we see growing along roadways were historically gathered as plant dye sources. Once you start down this path, you will look at every plant in a new way.
Harvesting the Natural Dyes for Wool and Cloth
The first step in creating a natural dye for wool, or whatever you hope to add color to, is to gather the plant materials. In some cases, this may be the root of the plant. Choose the blossoms before they begin to wilt and dry on the plant. Some common, easy to find dye sources are pokeberry, goldenrod plant, marigold, turmeric root, crushed acorns, and pomegranates. I am sure once you start to think about it, you will come up with your own favorites list.
When making your garden vegetables list, consider which vegetables can be used as a natural dye for wool or clothing. Many of the vegetables we enjoy from the garden; such as beets, carrots, and eggplants, may give off some color but won’t have a lasting effect on wool or fiber. These are referred to as fugitive dyes. The color from these plants is hard to make into a colorfast dye.
While looking for natural color, think about what spices are available. Turmeric root gives off a deep yellow mustard color. Turmeric root can be used from the garden or from the spice cabinet. Used coffee grounds and tea are other examples of dye possibilities right in your kitchen.
Gather quite a bit of the natural dye material. It takes a lot to make a large stock pot of dye. When I harvest pokeberry, I harvest a two-gallon bucket full of berries and stems. There is a lot of color in the stems so there is no need to remove the berries from the stems before making the natural dyes for wool and clothing from the pokeweed plant.
Making the Dye – Black Walnut Dye
Black walnut dye is made from the hulls of the black walnut. These large green balls fall from the trees in late summer and early fall. The local squirrels go crazy gathering up the inner nut and shell to store for winter. The green hull is left behind. I prefer to collect the whole fruit, gathering the dropped walnut balls in an open metal basket. This basket allows for air circulation and limits mold from growing on the nuts. Laying them out on a screen frame also helps keep mold from forming.
Wear disposable gloves when working with the black walnut as the dye does not wash off your skin. I have found it takes about a week for dye stains to wear off from my fingers! Break the hulls off using a hammer. The green hulls and the more brown, dried hulls can both be used in the dye bath. Use about a quart of broken black walnut hulls to two gallons of water. This will make a deep rich brown dye. Black walnut hulls and bark are rich in natural tannins which act as mordants. There is no need to add additional vinegar or alum to a black walnut dye.
Add the hulls to the dye pot. I prefer to use stainless steel or enamel coated cook pots for my dye batches. I also do not use these same pots for food preparation as some dyes contain toxins. Better to be safe. Local thrift shops, flea markets, and yard sales are good places to pick up used cookware to use for dyeing projects.
Strain out the hulls. I saved them for a second dye bath. Return the dye bath to the stove. It is ready for the yarn or fabric.
Prepare the Wool or Cloth – Mordants and Modifiers
When dyeing wool, yarn, fiber or cloth, first wet the material and soak in a mordant solution to open the fibers. This prepares the fiber to accept the dye color. Simmer the material to be dyed for an hour or two. Mordants are substances used to make the dye colorfast, and keep the color from fading quickly or washing away. Many mordants are metallic but not all of these metallic mordants are ecologically safe. Copper, tin, and chrome are a problem to dispose of safely. Alum, is a commonly found substance and is considered safe in small proportions. Other safe mordants are iron, (think rusty nails), and cream of tartar. Plant-based mordants include tannins from different sources. Acorns and Sumac leaves are good examples of plant-based mordants. Black walnut, pomegranate skin, and acorns have so much natural tannin that you can skip the mordant in the pre-dye bath. When using natural dyes for wool and other fabric, start by soaking the material and using a mordant when necessary.
Even when using safe mordants, wearing gloves, a mask and eye protection is recommended. Only work with dyes in a well-ventilated area. Some dyes can produce an irritating or nauseating smell while simmering. These are best handled outside, perhaps on a camp stove. When making natural clothing dye, keep in mind that you are conducting experiments with natural substances. Each dye lot will be slightly different and surprising. Take good notes as you go along, so you can refer back later.
Heat or No Heat when Using Natural Dyes for Wool
Many of the darker dyes are prone to turning brown shades if the dye bath is boiled. Try to keep the heat on a low simmer during the processing time. Pokeberry dye and black walnut dye can be used cold or room temperature. When not using heat, you might want to let the fabric sit in the dye bath overnight for full effect and a good result.
Take the thoroughly wet fiber from the presoak squeezing out excess water without wringing the wet wool. Place it in the dye bath. Carefully push it under the surface so that the entire skein or garment is in the dye. If using heat, keep the dye just at a simmering level for about 30 minutes to an hour. Turn the heat off and allow the fiber and the dye bath to cool. Often I will let the yarn sit in the dye overnight.
Should You Use a Modifier?
Modifiers can change the color or the intensity of the color. Iron can be used as both a mordant and a modifier. A small amount in the dye bath can affect the color. You can also have a modifier bath ready to move the fiber to after the dye bath. It is fun to experiment with small test swatches or skeins. Some readily available modifiers are vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, iron, lemon juice or ammonia. I often add a modifier directly to the dye bath. For vinegar, I will normally add up to a quarter cup to a one-gallon dye bath.
Remove the yarn or fabric from the dye and place in a basin. Gently squeeze out excess dye bath water. Allow to sit for a couple of hours at this point, before rinsing. For some colors, this allows the dye to oxidize, which may add to the colorfastness. It worked beautifully when I was using pokeberry dye so now I use this method for most of the darker colors.
Rinse the yarn or fabric in cool water, being careful to not felt the wool by agitating or wringing. Squeeze out excess water and continue to rinse until the water runs clear.
If you are anything like me, you will want to continue making natural dyes for wool and clothing. Have you already decided which dye you want to make first? Let us know in the comments below. Here are some photos of other natural dyes for wool that I have worked on using the yarn from our sheep and fiber goats.