Natural Dyeing Experiments: Old Man’s Beard or Travellers Joy

Old Man’s Beard, Traveller’s Joy or Clematis Vitalba was an iconic part of traditional British hedgerows when and where I grew up. As kids we loved those hairy fronds that appeared around about the same time as blackberries. As a gardener however, too much of the old boy in the hedgerow is a pest.

I’m not alone in thinking this and clematis vitalba for all its charms has become regarded as an invasive species in some areas. Whilst native to the UK, in New Zealand it has been declared an “unwanted organism” and is listed in the National Pest Plant Accord and as such It cannot be sold, propagated or distributed. It’s a classic case of you can get too much of a good thing and this voracious climber just doesn’t know when to stop and will happily choke and shade other plants constituting a very real threat.  In New Zealand, as an introduced plant it hasn’t really had anything that fed off it, whilst in the UK where it’s native, there are moths for which it is their only food source.

A picture of white clematis vitalba flowers against the intense green of the hedgerow
Clematis Vitalba Flowers

Speaking of food source, apparently here in Italy, and Tuscany specifically, the new young shoots are eaten in omelettes – this was news to me and I though I should try it for myself, so watch this space…

Anyway back to the point. We have a traditional mixed hedgerow with blackthorn, dogwood, dog rose, arbutus, bay, buckthorn etc. to which we’ve recently added some hazel and it’s being overtaken by the Old Man’s Beard. So, it’s a perfect candidate for my natural dyeing experiments to see if there’s dye potential in something we have in plentiful supply. I don’t want to get rid of it altogether, just keep it under control.

So my starting point was to see if anyone had tried it and if so, what results they’d had. I didn’t find a lot, but enough to spur me on – it’s easily done:

This Bohemian Wife had done some solar dyeing experiments to test potential with what she labelled ‘pink clematis leaf’ and had got a grey. I like grey, so despite being unclear whether the pink was referring to the leaf, they do darken later in the year, or whether it was variety of pink flowered clematis, my interest was further piqued, after all grey isn’t beige…

Paivi Suomi of All Fibre Arts got ‘a very nice yellow’ from and unidentified variety of clematis from this recipe. Yellow is good… it’s not beige.

Fran at Wool Tribulations got a ‘greenish yellow’ from her pink clematis – she helpfully included a picture of it and it’s a pink flowered clematis, a montana variety I’d say, and quite a stunner. Greenish yellow isn’t beige…

The final reference I found was by Sandra Heffernan of Massey University who, like This Bohemian Wife, was also based in New Zealand.  Heffernan had written a book chapter, available here, entitled ‘Novel Natural Colourants’ and was similarly inspired by the invasiveness of clematis vitalba, so just what I had been looking for. However, I have to say I found this piece a little confusing. Clematis vitalba is referred to as a lichen and lichen dyeing techniques are also referenced. There is a lichen called Old Man’s Beard, an Usnea but it’s not the same thing. The picture in chapter of the dyestuff residue could be lichen or could be clematis root, on balance I think it’s the latter and the lichen references are a little misleading. Most of the references are to invasive weeds and their environmental impact so I think we’re on the right track here. This chapter explains the process of heat extraction, mordanting and dyeing for both silk and wool. It doesn’t however explain which part of the plant was used, although the more I think about it, and based on that picture, I wonder if it was just root? Colours achieved on wool were golden peach (unmordanted), orange gold (alum mordant) dark sienna (iron mordant). These colours proved lightfast, especially those that had been mordanted. The dyed wool fabrics photographed were definitely orange, not beige…

So, I’m not sure that this research helped all that much, other than to increase the sense of nothing ventured nothing gained.

So this is what I did….

I cut back a section of the invasive old mans beard and stripped 330g of leaves and fleshy stems from the woody stems and vines and put them in a brown paper bag.

Old Man's Beard fresh leaves and fleshy tips, the raw dyestuff
Old Man’s Beard fresh leaves and fleshy tips

About a week later I went back to them ready to dye and they had dried out a little and reduced in weight to about 280g.

I took 180g of these slightly dried leaves and roughly chopped them and put them in an aluminum pan with 2 1/2 litres of water.

Chopped Old Man's Beard in the pan ready to make the dye
Semi dry leaves chopped up ready to make the dye

I put the pan on a low heat for a hour and a half, them let it cool and left it overnight.  The next morning I strained it and had a nice rich colour.

A glass showing the deep amber colour of the dye liquid
Decanted dye

The remaining leaves were put into a bowl and covered in boiling water and left outside to mature into a second dyebath.

A close up of the yarn in the dyebath ready to be heated
The yarn in the dyebath

2 x 20g skeins of superwash wool, 1 mordanted with chard and one unmordanted went into the the dyebath and were put on a low heat.

The pan was slowly raised to a low simmer, kept there for an hour and allowed to cool, then raised to the heat and simmered for another hour before being left to cool in the pan and sit overnight.

A close up of the dyepot after the yarn has been heated and left overnight
The colour begins to develop

The next morning it was put on the heat again and taken up to a low simmer, held there for an hour and left to cool.

Once cool, I wrung out the skeins and checked the colour, they were definitely brown, a pale brown admittedly, but I would argue, quite vociferously, not yellow enough in tone to be beige.

I wanted to give the colour as much opportunity to develop so put the skeins back in the dyebath and topped it up with 1/2 a litre of the water from the original leaves which had been soaking over night and left the pan out in the hot afternoon sun and then overnight.

The next morning the skeins were rinsed and dried.

a picture of two skeins the lor of which was mordanted and is a slightly darker richer colour than the top which wasn't
The final colour: Top, No Mordant; Bottom: Chard Mordant

So, in summary after boiling the whole semi-fresh dyeplants and leaving them overnight to make the dye bath and then bringing the yarn to a simmer and holding it there for an hour and then cooling three times with 2 overnight soaks, this is the final colour.

The mordanted skein took a slightly richer colour, but it’s not clear to me whether this is because the dye adheres better or whether this is because the chard mordant itself slightly colours the yarn dulling the brightness of the undyed yarn I’m not sure. It may well be a bit of both.

I poured the 60ml of dye that I had left into a jar and kept it until the alum I had ordered arrived. After mordanting more of the same yarn in alum, I followed the same procedure with the remaining dye with a little extra water. The colour is good but definitely a little paler, and if anything a little more beige!

3 colours: Left; alum mordanted exhaust dyed. Middle: First dyebath, no mordant. Right: First dyebath, Chard Mordant

Also in the meantime samples of the first two skeins chard mordanted and no mordant have been test for light fastness in bright sunshine and have passed the test.

So, experiment number 2 has also resulted in a good colour and has proven that the dastardly Old Man’s Beard can be put to good use. Admittedly my colour palette is a little limited, i don’t have a nice true grey or an orange, but I’m building up some good base colours with which to experiment with modification – I have a jar of rusty nails doing their thing in anticipation…

Again if this inspires you to have a go (please remember to collect your dyestuff responsibly) I’d love to hear how you got on.

I’ll definitely be repeating this one throughout the year as the plants mature to see if that has an impact on the outcome.

Until next time, take care,

Tess   xxx

3 skeins of yarn naturally dyed with Old Man's beard pictured in a hedge of Old Man's Beard.
3 skeins of yarn naturally dyed with Old Man’s beard pictured in a hedge of Old Man’s Beard.

2 thoughts on “Natural Dyeing Experiments: Old Man’s Beard or Travellers Joy

  1. I was actually searching because I’d read old man’s beard was suitable for basket making. Never considered the possibility of a dye, I have considered using dyes to brighten up some projects this is definitely food for thought, and rusty nails solution there’s an idea that I could go forward with

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, I’m glad it made you consider its possibilities. If you want more ‘food for thought’, check out the ‘Vitalbini’ post which has a recipe that uses the fresh young growing tips

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