Dyeing experiments

At this very moment I am supposed to be at the Muresk Agricultural College to participate in Fibres West, a week long, residential, mordanting programme with Julie Ryder, but thanks to a snap lockdown and ongoing restrictions, the programme was cancelled and I’m at home. I had packed all the clothes and materials required for the week, so as I unpacked I decided that I would continue my own dyeing experiments, and actually document them, and wear the clothes I made to fit the Flower Power theme.

My dyeing experiments have been going on for some years, but I’m knitting a massive cardigan from only naturally dyed yarn, and found I needed more colour variety, as I seemed to have a lot of yellow and some indigo.

I began with coreopsis which I had grown and dried and wondered whether I could change colours with different co-mordants. Coreopsis doesn’t need a mordant to “stick” to the fabric, as it has a lot of tannin, but mordants are effective at changing the colours.

This photo shows skeins of identical wool all dyed with coreopsis (except for the orange) but with the following additions – left to right: Just coreopsis. Coreopsis with cream of tartar. Coreopsis with rusty iron added to the pot (2 skeins). Right at the end is coreopsis with soda ash. The two orange skeins are dyed with madder root.

Below is how they looked as they were being dyed.

I rolled the dried skeins together to show the different colours.

And then wound them into cakes.

I then decided I wanted even more variety so began looking around the garden. Happily the oxalis weed is just coming into flower so Mark and I weeded a vacant block and collected a whole box of flowers.

All I had to do was play with the mordants.

I began by putting flowers into jars and adding different elements. Left to right: vinegar, soda ash, ammonia.

The most effective mordant is soda ash. It changes the PH to alkaline and gives a red tinge.

Whilst I was playing with the oxalis, I noticed that the Liriope plants that we have in the garden had berries on them, so I busily collected them in the hope that I could get some sort of blue/purple. I was in such a hurry to test the theory that I didn’t strain out the berries. I had a mess!

However, this was looking promising! I had used previously dyed yellow wool and added a piece of copper pipe as the mordant, and “cooked” it in a copper pot, so there is a greenish tinge.

I left the yarn in their pots overnight and then dried them. This was the result of one day’s dyeing. The purple left front was achieved with liriope berries and soda ash, and the dark green was pale yellow wool, liriope berries and copper. The oxalis results vary according to the mordant added. I feel as though I have a nice variety.

I wasn’t finished with my dyeing so harvested the last of the liriope berries in my garden. Below are the berries on the plant, a bit tangled up with the oxalis, which I’m waiting to flower before I weed out. The berries are really luscious to look at, but it’s only the outer part that is useful.

Once harvested the berries have to be pounded to extract the colour. I use an old potato masher for such activities. The little copper pot was my mother’s and is really useful. I do not polish it!

This time I put the berries in a gauze bag and extracted the colour before putting in the yarn. Look at that blue! You can see the colour of the wool in the pot at the bottom of the photo.

I added some white wool into the almost exhausted liquor after I finished to try and get a pale purple. It finished up more lavender.

Then I found some red onion skins and for some reason added soda ash, resulting in a lovely rust colour. The blue and the rust together. Still wet so they will dry a bit paler.

All the while this has been going on I had a small skein of yarn in a jar with berries and a drop of ammonia. I left it in a sunny spot for three days. The colour in the jar was dark green, but it’s finished up this rather exquisite colour on the left. The lavender is in the middle and the deep blue on the right was also left in a jar with liriope berries and soda ash. It’s cotton, so has taken up the dye differently. Rather a spectacular blue though, you’d swear it was indigo.

A little line of cakes which do look good enough to eat! The two on the right are oxalis, which were in the jars I showed at the beginning of this post – second from right is cotton dipped in oxalis and ammonia and solar dyed for a couple of days. Far right is linen thread which was solar dyed in oxalis and a drop of vinegar.

Wool is proving to be so joyous to dye and I think I’ve now tracked down every ball of white yarn in the house, so I haven’t quite finished with the experiments. I’m still trying to produce a proper red, and I want to pursue the greens and blues, and I need to replicate all this with cellulose fibres and perhaps some silk. Lots of challenges ahead!

I thought I’d share a little anecdote: whilst I was in the midst of this I happened to say to Mark how much I was enjoying dyeing. Siri suddenly came to life and said “that’s shocking”!! I didn’t know whether to be amused or alarmed…


27 thoughts on “Dyeing experiments

  1. How fascinating this all is, I’ve a feeling that there is a lot more dyeing to come. Please keep posting on your adventures in colour.

  2. Siri is a bit of a busybody, isn’t she?😂 Seriously, though, I’m so enjoying your process and look forward to seeing what beautiful colors you come up with next! I’m glad you’re conducting your own self-taught course at home!

    1. Thank you Kristen! I’m quite bothered by the Siri thing, it means conversations are being constantly monitored. I’ve turned her off on all my devices now, it’s too intrusive for my liking. I’m now going to play with the cellulose which I find much more difficult!

  3. Uh oh. My gardener friend says your only hope of keeping oxalis under control is to remove ever little bit by hand -before- it flowers. If you want to keep any variety in your garden, I would advise harvesting oxalis flowers elsewhere. That said, good for you recovering so well from a disappointing cancelation. Can’t wait to see your cardigan

    1. Oh yes, oxalis is a weed, and I do remove it but once it’s there I wait for it to flower which means I’ve always got a bit. I am known for weeding every vacant piece of land in the vicinity 😂. Thank you, I am enjoying myself immensely.

  4. Very interesting and I’ve learnt something new that there are other colours of Oxalis as ours is purple.

      1. We treat it as a weed, can kill it with boiling water eventually, as when you dig it up it has a lot of bulbettes that just go everywhere, just like onion weed which isn’t pretty at all.

  5. Bubble bubble, toil and trouble…definitely witchy but quite fascinating the various colours that you can get using different mordants. I didn’t even know what mordants were until I read your dyeing posts. Your colours are beautiful.

    1. Thank you so much Kathy, I usually mordant prior to dyeing but am quite enjoying the co-mordanting, which I think is much more effective. The experiments shall continue!

  6. we once asked Siri where the nearest car wash was – she replied that she thought cars should was themselves! Love the dye experiments – the colors are just beautiful! On a totally different subject, do you have any idea how much wool felt it takes for Luna Lapin? I have the book and patterns and must order felt!

    1. Haha, Siri is a worry – someone is always listening! I don’t have my Luna Lapin stuff with me, but I think there’s a materials list in the book? I know that it takes much more than I think 😁

  7. It’s a pity you had to miss your course as it sounds fascinating. However you’ve bounced back with the most amazing experiments in yarn colouring. I can’t wait to see the big cardi. Hope you enjoy the rest of your week and devote it all to fun!

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