Natural Dyeing with Hollyhocks: Stunning Results from The Black Knight

As the temperatures soar here I thought it was time to get going with solar dyeing and what better place to start than with my amazing hollyhocks. I love hollyhocks and have grown them for years so you can imagine my disappointment when the first few hollyhocks planted here failed to thrive. I had been kind to them giving them both their beloved sunshine but also the relief of a little shade later in the day.

Had it not been for talk of the dye potential of the dark shades, and stumbling across a pack of Suttons ‘Black Knight’ almost black hollyhock seeds at the garden centre when I was in the UK just as it was going into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic and everyone was panic buying seeds, I may not have added them to my basket.

I’m so pleased I did and that last year I got around to sowing some. The seeds germinated well and grew on happily and were so successful that I was a little pushed for places to put them. Given that my echinacea and rudbeckia had done well in the border by the back wall I thought I’d try the hollyhocks here too. Conscious that this wall soaks up the heat all day, is in full sun for much of it, and then radiates that heat once the sun sets, I also planted some in some slightly more sheltered spots. I needn’t have worried, the ones that did best and that are now taller than me, are the ones planted in the harshest of conditions. Those that were a little more cosseted are a shadow of these tall majestic sun loving beauties.

Needless to say the rest of the seeds have been planted and will be grown on to be planted out in the autumn along the edge of the top vegetable patch. Here they will get all the sun they love and hopefully cast a little shade on some of the more reticent plants. They will also be joined by the existing year old plants that are protesting at their current location by their failure to thrive.

As for the dyeing, I’ve had some interesting and pretty mixed results.

One of the attractions of hollyhock as a dye plant is that it can produce blues and reds, colours that can be difficult to produce. Indigo produces fabulous blues but is a very particular and more involved process while madder is a classic red but requires root, which I generally avoid except with invasive plants. An alternative red can be obtained from cochineal beetles which, as a vegetarian and beetle fancier, doesn’t sit right. Anyway, hollyhocks look great in the garden, you can collect the flowers as they drop and they dry really nicely, so it’s a win-win-win situation even before they hit the dyepot.

So how did I get on? Well it wasn’t straightforward, but where would the fun be in that?

So here goes, I’ll take you through my various combinations of dye and yarns in the appropriate order so you can see what I did, what I got and how that informed my next steps. In all cases, the dried hollyhock flowers were put in a jar, covered in warm water and left outside in full sun for a full day and then overnight before being used. As I write, hiding from the golden orb in the sky, we are having August-like temperatures in June and it has been at least 32 degrees celsius / 90 Fahrenheit, all week. The jars heat up nicely, in fact I was a little surprised initially at just how hot they were, and how hot the dye solution was when I was handling them.

When the water is poured onto the flowers they initially bleed a petrol blue colour then comes the red and the dye solution produced develops into a dark red/purple.

You can just see the blue at the bottom of the jar being followed down by the red

Skein 1 (Dyejar A) – a 10g mini skein of lonk wool/nylon sock yarn went into a solution extracted from 10 Hollyhock flowers. The flowers weighed a gram each before drying so I based my ratio of plant to wool based on fresh weight rather than dried. The skein immediately coloured grey and the colour deepened taking on a bluer hue the longer it stayed. Because there was still a lot of colour in the solution I left this about 4 days. This skein was leftover from my winter dyeing and I thought it had been mordanted, but I wasn’t entirely sure so I thought I should reproduce the experiment to see if I could get consistent result and a little better saturation. I left this to dry before rinsing, the delayed rinse being a more common technique in ammonia lichen dyeing to maintain maximum saturation and colourfastness, but I thought I would use it here to be on the safe side and given the speed at which everything dries in this heat. When I did rinse it the colour ran which made me question whether this skein had been mordanted so another reason to try and replicate the process.

Skein 1 – the picture loses a little of the blue – you get a hint of it in the top left corner

Skein 2 (Dyejar B) – While the above skein was sitting in the jar I mordanted another batch of yarn using alum and cream of tartar. Then I did exactly the same as I did above, the same quantity of flowers to the jar for the same period of time. Then I put in my mordanted skein of the same lonk/nylon yarn and on hitting the dye solution it turned a yellowy green. This stayed in the jar for about 36 hours at which point it as definitely green rather than blue, although it does have a blue tone that is more pronounced in some places that reminds me of some greens produced by overdyeing yellow with indigo. Again I delayed the rinse and when I did rinse there was no run and a the water remained clear.

Skein 2 a semi solid tonal yellow green

The difference in colour and run resist of the skein that I knew to be mordanted really made me wonder and edge to the view that the first skein wasn’t actually mordanted. But I couldn’t be sure, so, I tried again

Skein 3 (Dyejar A) So this time I put in 12g of mordanted romney yarn, in the original dye bath and again they yarn immediately showed grey. After a few days in the jar in full sun it remained grey, a nice silvery grey with a blue hue, shown on the left.

Skein 4 (Dyejar B) 12g of unmordanted romney yarn went into the second dyebath, and again the initial show was grey although the dye bath appeared a little more red than jar A at the outset. The same time in the jar as the skein above and in the same sunny position, this yarn again came out grey but with a slightly browner hue this time, shown on the right.

Second skeins from the original dye baths

Now both mordanted and unmordanted yarn had been in both dye baths and I had been unable to re-create the green. However, the second round of dyeing was using the exhaust so it’s possible that the first skeins in each dye bath used the available colour differently. So there was only one thing for it; another dye bath and 2 more skeins:

Skein 5 (Dyejar C) – A 15g skein of mordanted Romney.

Skein 6 (Dyejar C) – A a 5g skein of unmordanted yarn.

I only put a little unmordanted yarn in this time as generally unless the dye has a high tannin content, I really prefer to use mordants to aid saturation and colourfastness. With these experiments using a new to me dye source however, I do like to try out all the options and see how it works. I also tend to use up some unmordanted yarn experiments with iron to both modify and post-mordant, but I don’t need a lot of skeins to so this.

Skein 5 and 6 were put in the same dye bath at the same time to see how they responded to the same solution. The initial show was grey but as time went on the colours diverged somewhat. The skeins stayed in the jars for 5 days, largely because my mum was visiting and I simply didn’t have time to do anything with them. Despite being June, the temperatures were a pretty constant 32-34 each day.

When I removed the skeins there was still a fair bit of colour in the dye bath and while there was an increasingly obvious difference in the 2 skeins, that remaining colour was obscuring the amazing colour of the mordanted wool. The mordanted yarn came out a very striking green colour, which despite the green hue of my first mordanted skein, I still hadn’t been expecting. The unmordanted yarn was a strong almost gunmetal grey, but the mordanted yarn had clearly out competed it for all the green blue shades in the dye.

At this stage Dyejar A, my first jar was pretty old and maybe 10 days and had little colour remaining, it just looked a little grey, but Dyejars B and C still had colour and a red hue, so given how nice the greys I’d got from exhausts so far I decided to combine them and pop in another 25g of mordanted romney rather than let any of this grey loveliness go to waste.

So the pattern here seems to be that with an alum/CoT mordant, the first dye bath clearly produced greens and even my first dye bath produced a blue/greenish grey on probably unmordanted yarn. Then once the green shades have been extracted the exhausts appear to produce some rather lovely greys. What’s more the difference in the two green colours suggests that using these solar dyeing techniques, the difference between 36 hours (effectively 2 daytimes) and 5 days in the dye had a significant impact on saturation and shade. I’m thrilled that I can produce these colours simply by using the power of the sun. There has to be some upsides to this unseasonal heat which is playing havoc in the vegetable garden, and anything we can do to reduce our gas consumption has to be a good thing for the planet on environmental and geo-political grounds.

The full selection in dyejar order, the first 2 from dyejar 1, the middle 2 skeins form dyejar 2 and the final 2 skeins from dyejar 3

My conclusions so far are that my Dark Knight hollyhocks aren’t producing the blues I’d been seeking, but my goodness, these true greens are a marvel in themselves, and an exhaust that produces grey…! These are 2 colours that had been lacking in my palette from straight dye processes. I’d achieved green through modification, mainly with iron, but this does dull the colour somewhat while these unmodified true greens are really bright and zingy. Alongside the silver and gunmetal greys this plant is providing a lovely platte all by itself so perhaps I should go and pop that last skein of romney in my final exhaust and pot on my new hollyhock seedlings which have germinated in the time I’ve been dyeing these skeins.

Dried hollyhock flowers ready for winter dyeing

We have the perfect conditions for testing the light fastness of these skeins just now and I’m continuing to collect fallen flowers so that come the winter months when heat from the stove/hob is a little more welcome, I’ll try extracting colour and dyeing with more direct heat.

Isn’t in great when things don’t quite turn out as you expected but you’re in no way disappointed!

Please feel free to share your summer dyeing activity in the comments below.

Until next time, happy knitting and happy dyeing.

Tess xxx

p.s. you can check out a ever expanding archive of natural dyeing posts by clicking on the ‘natural plant dyeing’ category in the right hand sidebar of the blog page.

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