Natural Dyeing Experiments: Olive leaves

I’ve been keen to have a go at natural dyeing with plants that grow in the garden or in the neighbourhood since we moved here about this time last year. However, having spent a week of dog walks picking the heads off hedgerow flowers (dyers camomile), I began to realise just how many flowers it takes to do at least equal weights of dye materials to yarn and decided to have a re-think. I  started to think about those plants and prunings that are effectively waste or a problem that need to be disposed of anyway.

Around here, pretty much top of that list are olive prunings. Our olive trees, and those of friends and neighbours, are grown for oil. To promote productivity and ease of picking the trees are kept clear in the centre, unproductive vertical growth is pruned and shoots from the base that get in the way if the nets are snipped off. This creates a lot of prunings. The usual practice is to burn olive prunings when the weather allows.

Pruned olive tree – oops that vertical growth on the left was missed!

So Olives…. I did my research and found just 2 references of home dyeing with olive:

The Flying Fleece, chopped the leaves, boiled them for an hour, added alum mordanted wool and got a lovely acid mustard yellow colour. I have to say that vibrant yellow had me hooked. With no quantities given and my inexperience, I kept looking.

Goldyspinner used 500g of leaves for 100g of unmordanted fleece and got a pale beige which took an additional dunk in an ammonia solution to produce a truer yellow.

This proved encouragement enough for me to give it a go.

I stripped the olive leaves from some pruning in the burning pile – 295g and put them in a brown bag. To be honest I’d got a little ahead of myself and it took a bit longer to mordant my yarn – I’m experimenting there too with oxalic acid and will report back at a later date  – and buy pans specifically for dyeing.

I bought some lightweight aluminium pans to basically use the pot as a mordant as Rebecca Desnos explains in her book, Botanical Colour at Your Fingertips. I wasn’t entirely confident with this approach, Jenny Dean of Wild Colour is certainly skeptical about it too, but I wasn’t sure where I could get alum, the most commonly used mordant, or how long it might arrive if ordered online as postage was still slow as a result of covid. So this seemed the quickest/easiest solution open to me in addition to the chard.

By the time I was ready to dye, my 295g of olives leaves had dried to 160g of dye material, and I prepared my dye as follows in my aluminium pot:

80g of dried leaves were chopped roughly and 2 litres of water added

This was left overnight

The next morning the leaves hadn’t really hydrated at all and still sounded ‘scrunchy’ against the side of the pan when stirred.

The pan was put on a low heat and slowly brought to a low simmer and simmered for an hour.

The leaves softened slightly and the water turned a pale yellow green.

The pan was left to cool down completely.

As the leaves has only slightly softened, the pan was returned to the heat and slowly brought back up to the simmer, kept there for another hour and and allowed to cool.

This was repeated once more.

After this third boil it sat overnight before the dye liquid was drained off the leaves.

The liquid had deepened in colour and the yielded 1 litre of dye.

It both looked and smelled rather like tea!

Dry yarn was added 1 x 20g oxalic acid mordanted superwash wool and 1 x 20g unmordanted superwash wool

These were left to soak overnight in the dye solution

The pan was then put on a low heat and gently brought  up to a low simmer and kept there for approx 40 minutes, then left to cool in the pan.

It was then brought up to a low simmer, kept there for an hour and then left to cool in the pan, where it stayed overnight.

The next morning I took the skeins out rinsed and dried them.

They were a definite shade of beige. The mordanted yarn, shown on the left in the picture, was very slightly darker.

There was still a lot of colour in the dyebath, so I decided to add the unmordanted skein back in, bring it up to a simmer leave it there for an hour then let it cool in the pan.

It took on more colour, and was a little darker than the mordanted skein. There was still colour in the dyebath so I added a little more water and popped the mordanted skein back in and repeated the process.

At this stage I decided these skeins were done, the extra heat, cool and steep had deepened the colour but only marginally. There was still colour in the dyebath, but I wasn’t sure these skeins would take on much more.

So the Result:

It’s beige. One could be positive and think of it as caramel, or at a stretch golden, but really it’s beige.

That said, for a first experiment, the fact that I have a definite colour on a skein is a positive.

I think this experiment has demonstrated that Olive prunings can be used as a dye source, and if one wants beige, why not from this source of garden waste, rather than something more precious or pleasing. But I was left with more questions to explore:

      • Would fresher leaves give a brighter more yellow shade?
      • As they dry do the leaves act more like bark? My colour looks more like that which goldyspinner got from bark
      • Should I have pre-soaked the leaves for longer before boiling them?
      • Should I then have stewed them less and dyed with the paler golden solution rather than the stewed tea like solution?

Looking round the garden I see I still have plenty of dye potential that needs pruning from the base of the trees whenever I get the chance, so no shortage of opportunities to test out those questions, but, I’ve a few other experiments on the go, so it may have to wait…

If you have any experience dyeing with ‘unusual’ dyeplants, I’d love to hear about it. Or if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

Take care til next time,

Tess xxx

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