Experimenting With Natural Dyes

I love how this time of year just keeps throwing up seasonal treasures week after week. Often these treasures are fleeting like the bluebells and others last a little longer like the cow parsley that is flooding the verges at the moment.
Not long ago the fields, lawns, verges and country lanes were awash with yellow dandelions. I just love this wildflower although my husband can't stand them as they pop up in the lawn faster than he can cut it. There's a myriad of things that you can do with dandelions, I've made dandelion jam and bread before. 
A few years ago I tentitivly ipped my toes into the world of dyeing yarn with botanicals and had a go with extracting the dye from danelion flowers and dyeing up a few skeins of yarn. Let me first take you back to the day I walked the country lanes and gathered these lovely, bright little flowers...
I walked down the little dirt lane that runs alongside our home (that's our house across the fields in the above picture) to go and harvest some of the dandelion flowers that seemed to have happily taken over this field.
Standing before this sea of waving blooms was just a delight. How can you not love dandelions, they just sing with joy and are abuzz with insects busily feeding off them, they are vital food for our early insects!
I set my basket amid natures gift and slowly gathered a mass of flower heads, pausing to breath in the fresh country air and rest in the suns early spring warmth.
In the distance, I watched a train cut through the fields carrying its passengers to where ever it is they were going. As a child, I had pictured the English countryside just like this, except the train was a steam engine with billows of smoke trailing behind. These were the visions conjured up in my mind as my mother read The Railway Children to me and my sisters.
How much to gather? I wasn't sure so I just kept picking until the bottom quarter of my basket was full.
Reluctantly, I left behind the dandelion field and walked back up along the lane pondering on the process of extracting the dye from the flower heads and mordant my last three skeins of yarn.
I have wanted to dye with natural dye forever. My original vision was to spin my own yarn from the sheep that we would have on our little smallholding and dye the yarn with plants gathered from the countryside. It was a dream. When I realised that it may take way longer than expected to achieve our little dream I searched to see if I could just buy the yarn in...and I could. The rest is history as they say.
I've been dyeing yarn since 2016 and it is only now that I am turning to the hedgerows for dye material. I feel like I am a novice dyer again, and for the most part where it comes to extracting dye from botanicals, I am. There is a whole lot to learn about natural dyes and it's a journey that comes with plenty of opportunities of trial and error!
I popped the flowers into the crockpot and set it on low. I left it to gently bubble away overnight, then I switched it off and let it cool down. This is a slow process and that is part of what I love about it. Working with acid dyes is fairly quick by comparison. 
Once I drained off the dye, I put the mordant yarn back into the crockpot with the dandelion dye and brought it back up to temperature overnight then let it cool all morning. A quick wash, then out to dry and voila!

Three Things I learned When Working With Natural Dyes:

  • Extracting dye and dyeing yarn with natural dyes is a lenthy process!

It starts with scouring the yarn (getting rid of any oils) and preparing the yarn in a process called 'mordanting'. The word 'mordant' stems from the French mordiere, which means 'to bite'. A mordant literally helps the dye bite into the fibre and fixes it for long-lasting colour. For protein fibres you could use potassium to mordant the fibre. The preparation process was much longer than the process I use when using my acid dyes adding a good few hours to the process before I had even started dyeing.

When preparing my yarn for dyeing I use citric acid desolved in a water bath. I soak my yarn for about 30 minutes before I start dyeing. 

Next, it takes HOURS to extract the dye from the plant materials. As I shared above I left the flowers to simmer gently in my crockpot overnight.

Then the dyeing process - again takes hours. Another overnight steeping of the yarn in the dye bath.

My Conclusion: although I loved the process and the result, this way of dyeing is too long-winded to make it a viable option for stocking my shop. I am in awe of people who do choose to dye this way and of the colours they achieve. It is a real art!

  • The Quality of the Plant Material Matters

My second foray into dyeing from the hedgerows was using elderberries last autumn. 

Elderberry season is actually quite fleeting. You think that you may have weeks to gather sprays of berries and then before you know it the best of the berries are gone and what remains is soft, mushy fruit. 

This is the predicament I found myself in. I had taken a lovely walk along the canal near our home and gathered bags full of elderberries. I repeated the long process of extracting the dye and then dying up some fabric this time. 

Failure! Instead of the rich purple colour I was hoping for, I got a muddy brown colour. Hardly inspiring!

l would say that when extracting the colour from the plant that you choose materials at their peak. Once they are on the downward turn your results may not be what you expect.

  • Acid Dyes Give Me More Creative Freedom

I love colour. I love speckle. I lovethe control that I have with acid dyes. 

As I mentioned before those who have mastered dyeing with natural materials can achieve some amazing colours, however my inspiration comes from Britains rich culture, heritage and countryside. I will read a book and the image counjured in my mind translates to yarn. I don't think I would have the control I need to create the yarns that I do. 

There is no doubt that I enjoyed experimenting with natural dyes but my current technique and choice of materials is what I'm going to stick to. I think it would be fun to continue experiementing with natural dyes but perhaps I will limit it to fabrics. Who knows! But experimenting and playing with various materials and techniques is what keeps the inspiration going whether you create products for creators or if you try a new method of turning a heel on a pair of socks you are knitting up. Keep playing, keep experimenting but most of all enjoy the creative proccess!

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