Low intensity natural plant dyeing in Winter: A simple, step by step, anyone can do it, guide

In my previous natural dyeing post I talked about using a new to me method of low intensity dyeing that used the heat generated by our woodburning stove and time. Today I thought I’d share a quick guide to this approach so you can easily see how you could adapt it to suit your circumstances, and integrate elements of it in your dyeing practice should you wish to do so. If you’ve never dyed before, don’t worry, there’s nothing complicated about this approach so it’s probably a good place to start.

Should you have any doubts about the effectiveness of this approach, here’s the full palette of colours I dyed using this simple approach in January. While I call this a low intensity method, I found there was no lack of intensity in the colours it produced!

From top left to bottom right we have the loquat leaf from my previous post, bramble leaf modified with iron, pomegranate skins, persimmon leaf modified with iron, quince leaf, oak leaf modified with iron, marigold exhaust modified with iron, marigold, acorn modified with iron, persimmon leaf, apricot root, goosegrass.

Although as you can see from the step by step guide below, while this is a simple approach it does take time. In fact, you could say that you replace the intensity of heat used in other methods with length of time, a truly slow approach to dyeing.

Whilst for some this may be a hindrance, for me I find this helpful because I can integrate my dyeing into my everyday activities. There’s no need to set aside a full day or half day to devote to the activity. Also if you do it bit by bit, it doesn’t take up large amounts of space. A single jar of dye materials steeping on the kitchen counter isn’t too intrusive even in our small kitchen. This makes it perfect for experimentation and test dyeing new bases, as I did here, and working out ratios of weight of plant materials to weight of yarn for scaling up for future dyeing projects.

So here’s what I did:

  1. Break up dye materials and put in a glass jar
  2. Cover with hot water
  3. Put the lid on the jar and let sit for 4-5 days
  4. Soak yarn in water
  5. Strain into a heat-proof pot suitable for dyeing – I use a small stainless steel milk pot or a pyrex casserole – the latter I use on the woodburner only (add more hot water to your dye materials if you want to extract more dye from them)
  6. Add yarn to dyepot (mordanted* or not depending on the dye source) and gently heat for an hour or so.
  7. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
  8. Check the yarn for colour uptake by removing yarn from liquid and squeezing out the liquid. If there’s more colour in the liquid and less uptake on the yarn than desired, repeat steps 4-8 again until you have the colour you want or have exhausted the materials and the dye bath.

Optional – if you want to modify colours as I have using iron in the palette above, I usually complete steps 1-8, then if I’m underwhelmed by a colour, or it’s too similar to another colour I’ve dyed, I will add the iron solution to the dye solution before repeating steps 4-8 again.

The iron solution I use to modify is simply made from diluted cider vinegar poured over some rusty old metal scraps I found in the garden, mostly rusty old nails. Rust is produced by the oxidisation of iron caused by exposure to oxygen and water. The vinegar will dissolve the rust so that the next layer is exposed to the water to rust. This produces a rusty water/iron solution that you can use to modify colours. This can be potent, so use sparingly and monitor because as heats speeds up and sets the effects. The effect of iron on dyed yarn is referred to as ‘saddening’ and it can turn yellows to green and browns to darker brown, greys through to blacks depending on the base colour. In the picture above, in the bottom row you can see how the marigold exhaust which had produced a paler yellow which I then modified to green with the addition of iron. Exhaust is the term for what’s left in the dye bath after the initial dye process. In this case the bright yellow marigold, second in on the left of the bottom row, was from the first dye, whilst the skein to its left is a combination of the dye that was left in the pot with iron. Repeatedly working with the exhaust until you have literally ‘exhausted’ the dye is a more sustainable low resource intense approach; an excellent way to get the maximum use of your dye materials and water and to produce variety in your results and build a palette.

* Most of the yarns shown above, but not all, have been mordanted with alum. This is a pre-treatment of the wool that helps the wool absorb the colour and keep the colour, i.e. improves the lightfastness of the dyed yarn.

However, dyes from plant materials that are high in tannin don’t necessarily need this treatment because the tannin itself fulfils the mordanting/lightfast function. However, Tannin doesn’t necessarily brighten the colours in the way that alum does. If you don’t want to bother with mordanting, especially if this is all new to you, then it may be best to try dyes from high tannin materials for lasting results instead.

Tannins are the substance that make unripe fruits taste bitter so they aren’t eaten before producing seed. They also cause tree leaves to change colour in autumn, so if you collect leaves as they turn colour in autumn and use them fresh or dry and store them for later use, you are collecting them when they have the highest concentration of tannins. Materials I’ve used that have high levels of tannin include pomegranate skins and dropped immature fruit, persimmon leaf, loquat leaf, oak leaves, bark and galls, apricot bark and root (most barks are high in tannin), bramble leaves and bark.

Tannins produce colours from yellow through orange, to reddy hues, brown and grey. From here you can modify them with iron as described above and as you can see in the picture above. In the top row the bramble, persimmon and oak all modified with iron, and in the bottom the acorn modified with iron were all dyed on yarns that had not been pre-mordanted. So you can produce a nice palette of golds, browns, greys and greens from tannin based plants alone, depending on where you live and what you have access to, without having to pre-mordant.

So I hope you can see that with an experimental ‘try it and see’ approach with a small amount of plant materials, some water and a mini skein you could try this method and see what you get. Nothing ventured nothing gained, but with a view to sustainability, not a huge investment of materials and resources either. Also if it doesn’t work out perfectly first time, you can always re-dye or over-dye or modify.

As I said in my previous dyeing post, in the summer I’m hoping to experiment with a similar approach replacing the winter woodburning stove with the power of the sun so we’ll see how that goes…

Have I convinced you to give it a go yet? If you do I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time, have a think about it, it really is fun.

Take care,

Tess xxx

P.s I’ve recommended this book before and it’s probably the definitive ‘how to guide’ that covers not only a he range of processes for animal and plant fibres, but also mordanting and modifying, as well as sourcing and growing plant materials and the colours you could expect from different parts of the plant. I think it’s a fabulous resource and a must if, having dipped your toe into natural dyeing through online resources, you want a rigorous guide to develop your practice further.

This is an affiliate link so if you purchase from this source I will receive 10% of the cover price to help cover the costs of running this blog, and a further 10% will go to a brick and mortar UK bookshop, helping support bookshops on our high streets.

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