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Natural dyeing is addictive. A year on from first forays into the process it’s as bad as ever. This post is by way of a summary of discoveries, thoughts and lessons learnt along the way.

This is not a ‘how to’ post – but if natural dyeing appeals to you then you might glean some tips and links back to previous posts which go into more detail.

It began last summer, you’ll find the story of how it came about here.

Gathering materials on walks around the lanes and byways of Dorset has become second nature. Always with a bags, scissors, secateurs and gloves at the ready. Always scanning for what’s available now, and what to come back for later. Combing books and the internet for something new to try. Natural dyeing is infinitely variable, according to season and location.

Lessons Learnt:

  • Dye Stuffs are everywhere. In hedgerows, gardens, grocers and larders.
  • Try everything once. Take turmeric. Bright yellow  – but rubbish light fastness. It fades really badly.
  • Beige is easy to obtain – proper, strong colours less so. This is why, historically, certain dye-stuffs have been so highly prized, Cochineal and Madder being prime examples.

  • Use modifiers for a greater range of colours. Vinegar for more red tones. lemon juice to fix pinks (sometimes), bicarbonate of soda for bluer tones. Red Cabbage is particularly susceptible to these alterations in pH (it’s practically litmus paper in vegetable form). Elderberries are also obliging.

  • Iron Liquor. A bunch of rusty nails and other smalls rusty things go into a jar of water with a dash or two of vinegar and left to stand. It ‘saddens’ colours. Very useful as an after bath to turn unexciting beige yarn to deep brown or grey (very good sock colours). The results depend on the strength of the liquor, it’s unpredictable and the colour can be uneven – but very useful indeed. You need to refresh with new rusty objects after a while to maintain the liquor’s strength.
  • Conditioner. This can be fabric or hair conditioner. The process of dyeing (the mordants and modifiers in particular) can harden the yarn or make it sticky. The sock knitting machine hates this. But a short soak in conditioner restores softness and makes it much nicer to handle.
  • Pinks. These are so fugitive. Red currants, beetroot, damsons. These have all been tried. Vinegar, and salt have been added. The dye baths have been vivid. Lovely dusky pinks have come out. But the colour fades – the light fastness is terrible. Only camellia petals have lasted.

  • Traditional dye stuffs are there for a reason. They last, they come true, they are reliable. Gorse and heather make beautiful shades of yellow to gold. And you don’t need to pick off each flower. Trimming the fresh shoots with the flowers works just as well.

  • Gather and Collect. Some things you can’t find all in one go. At the moment the hunt is on for Oak Galls (Oak apples). These appear on oak twigs through the summer, caused by a tiny wasp laying eggs on a leaf bud. They have been used for centuries in the making of ink. They are tannin rich and also make a good dye, not needing any mordant. But they are small and you needs lots of them.

  • Oak Bark is also saved – broken into pieces and left to soak in a bucket of water so the tannins leach out.  Used on it’s own, boiled up for shades of tan to brown (with the addition of iron). Or the liquor added instead of plain water to other dyes that might otherwise be too beige.

So there you go. Not a comprehensive list by any means. But points to consider along the way.