A Winter of Natural Plant Dyeing Experiments: Striking Neons, a few cowpats and a surprise

It’s been a while since I posted regarding my natural dyeing experiments so I thought I’d do a round up of the various colours and shades that I’ve been cooking up over the winter months, in anticipation of, and to clear the decks for, the opportunities that spring will bring. Today I will stick to plant dyeing but will also be sharing some mushroom experiments, (spoiler: variable outcomes but some spectacular pictures!), and some lichen dyeing (still in process and promising, but I really don’t want to jinx it!)*.

All of these plant based experiments use the same method as my previous experiments; boiling up the dyestuff, allowing it to cool and steep, add soaked alum mordanted (mostly) superwash wool and heat, once, sometimes twice and then allow the yarn to cool in the dyebath overnight before rinsing and drying.

There are a couple of examples here where I have experimented with iron as a modifier. I have been wanting to get some nice greens and up until this point I have only managed a true green really by accident with day lilies which aren’t even recognised as a bona fide dye plant…

My modifier was made by adding old bits of rusty metal and nails to a jar with a solution of watered down vinegar, as per the recipe in Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour. My goodness this is a fabulous book. So much info and so well organised that it’s easy to grab it to check something out and find the answer to your question really quickly. However, I can’t blame Jenny for my slight heavy handedness with the iron in some of my experiments below!

So in no particular order, here we go:

Dried Marigold flowers

Marigold are a classic dye plant but it took me a while to get around to using them.

Through the summer I had conscientiously collected up the flowers from the marigold plants I’d grown in the vegetable plot for their pest deterrence properties and had dried them.

I was expecting them to produce a yellow but I really wan’t expecting it to be quite so yellow. The colour is deep and rich and practically glows.

This first marigold experiment spawned a few more.

Marigold plant and flower

At the end of the summer, as we were clearing the vegetable plot to plant the peas and broad beans that are now growing strongly, I decided to try the marigold plants rather than dried flowers.

There were a few late blooms but I had mostly stalks and leaves remaining. I had to rescue some these from the compost heap as my partner was a step ahead of me and had started clearing the plot before I realised. The stalks/leaves were a couple of days old before I got to pick them over and boiled them up in the dyepot.

These produced a more muted mustardy yellow.

Modified Marigold

These mini skeins were again dyed with dried marigolds. I have a big jar of them saved from the summer and when I take the lid off, the scent is just amazing.

The skein on the left is simply another alum mordanted superwash, while the one on the left has been modified with iron.

The iron skein has a definite green hue but I am learning that you have to be really careful with the amount of iron modifier used – once the dyebath heats up the iron really does it’s stuff. Starting with much less and building it up is a better approach if you want to avoid a shade of cowpat.

Blackberry – Leaves & shoots – thorns included

Blackberries or brambles abound in our hedges and we have no shortage of this particular dye source.

Reference to Wild Colour by Jenny Dean suggests the possibility of a true grey from unmordanted iron modified wool.

However, I confused my mini-skeins and used a mordanted skein so got instead the indicated brown, but what a lovely deep chocolate brown it is. Not quite what I’d hoped for by certainly no disappointment.

Ivy leaf and berry

My first experiment with ivy was a mix of leaf and berry which I’d used for our Christmas decorations. The ivy had been cut and in the house for over 2 weeks and was a little dried out so I soaked it overnight before putting heat under it and extracting colour.

The skein at the top is the ivy on an unknown vintage aran weight wool. The colour has taken unevenly. I’m not sure if this is a result of my mordanting; whether I haven’t managed to get the mordant evenly distributed so the yarn has taken the colour unevenly or whether it’s due to the nature of the base. That said I do like the effect.

The smaller darker skein was dyed with the exhaust again with iron (perhaps a little too much) added to try and get a nice green.

Persimmon Leaf – Autumn

Having achieved a lovely colour with walnut leaves on the turn, I couldn’t resist experimenting with these deep red autumnal fallen persimmon leaves.

I did have my doubts when boiling them up because as they boiled they produced a lot of frothy scum which I skimmed off before the yarn went in.

The final colour achieved was lovely enough to have me rushing out into the garden to collect some more but unfortunately they had fallen prey to the mower in the interim. So it’ll be next autumn before I can try and re-create this colour.


Goosegrass, cleavers, sticky willy, or Galium aparine is one of the banes of any gardener and a thoroughly horrible plant that will cover you in surface scratches fi you try to weed it with bare arms -A lesson it seems I’ve needed to learn and re-learn several times over the years.

It is however part of the same family as madder and ladies bedstraw, the roots of which produce red dye. I was aware that unfortunately the roots of goosegrass do not do likewise, but when I saw this clump of leaves and berries on a nearby fence while walking the dogs I thought they were worth a try.

Boiled up it produced a purply red solution which has produced a lovely subtle but rich grey green khaki colour which goes so nicely with the other colours in my winter palette.

I struggled to capture this colour with the camera, which is a disappointment because I love it.

So some fun colours which I’m really pleased with. I’m almost out of my the yarns I’ve been using to experiment with so I’m on the look out for a good alternative base to work with in the future. I have plans afoot to dye colours for the yoke of a sweater pattern a friend is working on which I’m quite excited about. Beyond that however, my plans are dependent on finding a base yarn along the lines of that which I usually knit with, i.e. non-superwash 4 ply. That way I’ll be able to dye for specific projects but also any leftovers will work together nicely.

Until next time, I hope you’re having fun with your crafting.

Tess xxx

*Both mushroom and especially lichen dyeing have associated ethical issues that don’t pertain to plant dyeing using the plant materials from our garden that are otherwise destined for the compost heap. I will discuss those issues and the additional challenges of identification in the appropriate posts.

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