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All projects are FREE, however, donations towards the upkeep of Walkabout Crafts are much appreciated. Please click below to make a donation..Natural dyes come from flowers, berries, leaves, bark or roots. They can also be obtained from materials which are usually discarded, such as coffee grounds, tea leaves, liquid from cooked fruits and vegetables, onion skins and shells of nuts.
When collecting plants remember that many wild plants are protected and must not be picked; growing your own plants is better for the environment and provides plenty of scope for dyeing.
Natural dyes can be divided into two separate groups - substantive dyes and adjective dyes:
Substantive dyes are produced by simmering plants in hot water; you do not need to add mordant's. They can be obtained from plants such as lichens.
Adjective dyes require the addition of a chemical known as mordant, to make the fibre receptive to the dye and the colour more permanent. Common mordant's include iron, alum, chrome and tin.
Dye bath - The dye bath must be large enough to contain the yarn or fabric and the correct amount of liquid, yet small enough to move around. A dye bath made from stainless steel is ideal as it does not absorb traces of dye and lasts longer. Alternatively, use an enamel dye bath. Do not use aluminium, copper or iron pans as these metals will affect the final colour of the dye.
Glass Jars for storing mordant's and to soak some dyestuffs.
Stirring rods, made from glass or smooth wood, for stirring the fabric or yarn in the dye bath.
Weighing scales which can measure very small quantities
You will also need: a measuring jug, a sieve, string, rubber gloves, notebook and some muslin or net bags.
Natural dyes work most successfully on natural fibres, such as wool and silk. These absorb the colour well and, with practise, a wide range of colours can be achieved using various dye stuffs. Unbleached cotton and linen can also be dyed, but here we concentrate on dyeing hanks of wool.
Preparing hanks of wool:
1. Prepare the wool by winding it into hanks. To secure the ends, wind around the hank a few times and knot together. Then loosely tie three pieces of cotton string around the hank to prevent it tangling.
2. To enable the dye to take, the hanks must first be washed or 'scoured' thoroughly to remove the natural oils. Soak the wool in a warm soapy solution for about five minutes; then rinse in warm water.
3. Put it into the dye bath while it is still damp. Do not put warm wetted wool into a cold dye bath or cool wool into a hot dye, as changes in temperature damages fibres, causing them to shrink.
Keep a record of dyeing recipes so that you can refer back to them. Note down when and where the plants were picked, which part of the plant was used for the dyestuff and which mordant it was combined with; all these will affect the result.
The best way to learn about natural dyes is by experimenting; a range of effects can be achieved by varying the strength of the dye bath solution or by using different mordant's for the same dyestuff. Try dyeing several hanks of wool in the same dye bath for varying lengths of time to get a range of shades.
Use a notebook, with holes punched down the edges of the pages for tying samples of dyed wool; beside each sample describe which plants were used, where and when they were picked and how they were dyed.
Dyeing without mordant's
Substantive dyes, or dyes which will produce a good, fast colour just by simmering, without adding a mordant, offer a good introduction to natural dyeing. Lichens and walnut shells contain acids which enable the dye to remain fast. Some bark and roots are also substantive. It is easy to produce a good colour from onion skins by simmering them; for a greater variety of shades use a mordant.
Lichens are a combination of algae and fungi forming a parasitic plant which grows on trees, bark, rocks, walls and roof tops. They are usually green, grey or yellow in appearance. Many lichens are now protected species and some are very rare, so identify them carefully and only pick a very small amount of common types that are in plentiful supply. Lichens should, ideally, be picked after rainfall; collect them by scraping carefully with a knife.
When lichens are used as dyestuffs it is possible to achieve a range of colours, from brown through to reds and purples. Theses colours can be extracted either by boiling or fermentation.
1. Put the lichens in a saucepan of soft water and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer for 2-3 hours and leave overnight.
2. The next day, add the wetted prepared wool or silk and gradually simmer until you achieve the desired shade.
3. Allow to cool and then wash and rinse the wool or silk until the water runs clear.
To find out whether a lichen will produce a colour by fermentation, first scrape the surface of the lichen with a knife and add a drop of ammonia. If the lichen changes colour to brown or red it can be used for this method of dyeing.
1. Remove any bits of bark or moss attached to the lichen. Then squeeze the lichen well if it is wet, or crumble if dry.
2. Place the prepared lichen in a screw top jar and add one part ammonia to two parts of soft water.
3. Store the jar in a light, warm place, shaking several times a day until a dark red liquid appears. After about 14 days the dyestuff should be ready and you can strain off the lichen.
Walnut shells should be steeped in soft water overnight to obtain the liquid for dyeing. Treat bark and roots in the same way, steeping for as long as necessary. Onion skins can also be used for fermentation; collect the outer golden yellow skins for use in the dye bath.
Basic dyeing recipe
Any part of the plant can be used for dyeing; flowers, leaves, berries, roots or bark. Break up the dyestuff if necessary; for example, you should finely chop leaves, crush berries and grind roots or bark. As a general rule, equal amounts, by weight, of dyestuff and wool or silk should be used. Quantities can be adjusted as necessary.
The dyestuff can be put into a muslin bag and suspended in the dye bath or left loose. The latter produces a stronger colour, but involves picking out the pieces of dye stuff before rinsing the wool.
You will need:
4oz wool or silk to 4oz dyestuff
1 gallon soft water
1. Place the dyestuff in the dye bath, making sure that there is enough water to cover it. Simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Depending on how you have added the dyestuff, you can now either strain off the dyestuff and use the liquid, keep it in the muslin bag, or leave it loose in the dye bath
3. Leave the dyes solution to cool slightly, then add the warm wetted wool or silk. Over an hour, slowly bring the dye mixture to the boil, then simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Allow the wool or silk to cool a little in the dye, then remove and rinse thoroughly, first in warm soapy water and then in clear water. Leave to dry away from direct light. The best way to dry yarn is to leave it hanging outside in the shade to drip dry.
Most natural dyes need a mordant, in the form of a metal salt, to enable the yarn to receive and hold the colour extracted from the plants.
Alum - (potassium aluminium sulphate) comes in white crystals and produces clear colours. It is safe to use but do not add too much to the dye bath or the yarn will become sticky.
Chrome - (potassium dichromate) comes in orange crystals and enables you to obtain mellow shades. It is slightly sensitive and slightly poisonous, so store in an opaque container and cover the dye bath.
Iron - (ferrous sulphate) comes in green crystals and dulls colours. After dyeing, the yarn needs to be thoroughly rinsed, otherwise the fibres might disintegrate.
Tin - (stannous chloride) comes in off-white crystals and can dramatically brighten colours. But use tin very carefully or it can make the fibre harsh and brittle.
When to mordant - wool can be mordanted before, during or after dyeing. These mordanting recipes use 4oz clean wetted wool and 1 gallon water in the dye bath.
Alum - Mordant the wool before dyeing. Put the water in the dye bath and heat to approx 30'c. Dissolve 1 oz alum and 6g cream of tartar in a little warm water in a jar, then add to the dye bath and stir well. Add the wool and gradually bring to the boil over one hour. Once it has reached boiling point reduce the heat and simmer for about an hour. After this you can squeeze out the wool and dye immediately or dry label and store for future use.
Chrome - To mordant before dyeing, follow the method used for alum, using 3 g chrome. Dissolve the chrome crystals and add to the dye bath. Put a lid on the dye bath, then rinse away from light. After this, either dye the wool immediately or leave it to dry, wrapped in a towel, then label and store in a black plastic bag. To mordant during dyeing, add the dissolved chrome to the dye bath 20 minutes before the end.
Iron - This is usually used after dyeing. It can sometimes make colours uneven, so make sure you stir it well. Follow the basic dye recipe, then after about 40 minutes remove the wool from the dye bath. Dissolve 3g iron and 6g cream of tartar in a little warm water. Add this to the dye bath, stir, then put the wool back into the dye bath. Continue dyeing for 20 minutes; rinse thoroughly.
Tin - Follow the method for alum and chrome, dissolving 3g tin and 3g cream of tartar in a little warm water and then adding it to the dye bath. Rinse in warm soapy water, then clear water. After this you can dye the wool immediately, or dry, label and store, but not for too long. To mordant during dyeing, add the dissolved tin, the dyestuff and the wool at the same time, or add the tin 20 minutes before the end.
It is best to hang dyed yarn outside in the shade to drip dry. Alternatively, wrap hanks of dyed yarn separately in a towel and spin on a slow speed in a washing machine.
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