Natural Plant Dyeing: Adding a fabulous new orange to the palette with Bidens

Towards the end of last year, as leaves tuned colour, the weather turned colder and frost threatened some tender dye plants, I began to plan some more dyeing experiments; a combination of trying to replicate previous colours and discover new ones. This potential for new colours comes as we explore further what plants will thrive in our clay soil, and in hot dry summers that can transition to cold waterlogged winters overnight, or in the space of a few thunder, lightning, hail and rain filled hours.

The first new plant and colour I want to share came from majestic tall Bidens that grew from a seed mix sewn pretty randomly along the top fence of the garden. We’ve been planting trees, shrubs and flowers along this stretch to cover a chain link fence. From this mix some striking yellow and orange daisy like flowers bloomed. As one flower wilted a side shoot would produce another bloom and they flowered all summer long. Having germinated from the seed mix we weren’t sure what they were. The flowers were like cosmos but the plants much bigger.

Having read that Cosmos flowers were a traditional dyestuff and reminded of this by the flowers on sale from Officina del Colore Naturale at the Fierucola, I thought that perhaps these flowers that looked like cosmos on steroids might work too. I continued to investigate and was thrilled when first I identified them as Bidens, and then read on Laura dell’Erbe’s blog* that they could indeed by used for dyeing.

From here while the trajectory was pretty clear, I wasn’t really prepared for the wow factor.

Over the next few weeks I collected the flowers and dried them. Then when I had a good number I popped them into a large glass jar and poured over some hot water. The effect was immediate. Orange colour began to swirl in the jar as I poured in the water. It was an evening and I failed totally to capture this on camera, but it was amazing.

I left the flowers in the water with the colour intensifying over a number of days, picking it up an admiring it every time I came into the kitchen. Then, when I was ready, I decanted the solution and put in a pre-soaked, alum mordanted skein of British grown and spun, single breed Romney wool yarn and heated it very gently on the wood burning stove.

I heated it gently because I was wary of how well the colour in the jar extracted from the flowers would stand up to more intense heat. Also, if you can get the results you want from less heat; firstly, ‘Why not ?’ and secondly, this may be a better indication of the scope for using solar dyeing techniques with Bidens in future.

So this is the colour I got:

It’s amazing isn’t it. The colour is so vibrant and it’s a lovely true orange.

I have been able to get some oranges in the past from apricot, quince and loquat, but quite different.

Top: Loquat leaf. Bottom: Apricot root

As you can see, the Loquat is much a gentler orange and the apricot shows much more pinkish in comparison.

The Bidens is by far the most zingy almost citrus orange with much stronger yellow undertones. As such Bidens has the potential to add a lovely new orange to the palette.

Needless to say, as well as collecting flowers, I also let some go to seed and harvested the seed and have already sown some and planted on the seedlings in anticipation of more bidens dyeing this year.

My next task is to get some more yarn wound and mordanted to try alder cones. I’ve never used these before because we don’t appear to have any trees near us, but on a recent hike around Cortona we parked next to an alder tree with cones aplenty… They’re already in water and developing a fabulous colour. I’ll report back soon.

Until next time, happy knitting, and dyeing.

All the very best,

Tess xxx

*Unfortunately I can’t link to this post as the domain now seems to be occupied by the sports brand Adidas

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