By Emily Smith
Natural dyeing is a great way to learn more about the plants growing around you, as well as how your yarn is processed. Most commercially dyed wool is done so with chemical or acid dyes, since natural dyeing is more variable, and requires quite a lot of plant materials to dye on a commercial scale. Whenever dyeing at home, it is advisable to always research the materials you are working with – plants can be poisonous! Find out how they react when boiled, and if you’re foraging for materials, how much of one plant you can take from an area without damaging the surrounding environment. For the most part, it’s a lot of fun! And you can get some really interesting and rewarding results.
For a PDF of this tutorial, visit the technique page on Make: Projects.
Bushel of oak leaves
Dye pot with lid
Dust mask, if you are working with powder
1 tbsp of a mordant** (alum, iron, or copper). In this tutorial, I used alum. Iron would yield a deeper brown color. You can purchase a mordant online at Earthues: A Natural Dye Company.
Fiber to dye ideally wool or animal fiber, as vegetable fibers don’t pick up the dye quite as well
Container or jar that can fit your fiber and extra space for water
Old wooden spoon
Portable cooking stove or hotplate, optional. You can use your home stove, but it’s advised to use a portable stove in a well-ventilated area.
**Note: Every natural dye requires a mordant. They work by adhering to both the fiber and the dye, fixing the color to the fiber. Chemical mordants are metallic salts of aluminum, copper, or iron, and they can be purchased as a powder or crystals. Natural mordants can be obtained from sumac leaves, oak galls, or rhubarb leaves. Alum (used here) is the most commonly used, and the least toxic.
Step 1: Gather all of the materials needed for dyeing. A general rule of thumb is to add equal weights of natural dyestuff (in this case, oak leaves) to the weight of fiber being dyed. So, if you’re going to be dyeing 100 grams of fiber, you’ll need an equal weight of dry oak leaves.
Step 2: Place your leaves in your dye pot.
Note: Never cook or store food in a pot or container that has been previously used to dye or mordant materials. So, keep your dyeing separate from your cooking. Do not eat while you’re dyeing, always wash your hands if you come into contact with any materials, and when handling powders, it is advised to wear a dust mask.
Step 3: Around this time of year, it’s best to first boil water, which is then to be poured over the leaves, and settled. While the water is boiling, move on to Step 4.
Step 4: It’s time to pre-mordant your wool. Pour around a tablespoon or so of your mordant into a container. (The recommended ratio is 3 ounces of alum per pound of fabric.)
Step 5: Add your fiber, and enough water to cover your fiber, into the container.
Step 6: Let your fiber soak in the mordant overnight. Be sure that it has been mixed sufficiently so that the alum is equally applied.
Step 7: Pour boiling water over your leaves. Put the lid on the dye pot, and let it sit overnight. Stir a few times.
Step 8: The next day, bring your dye bath to a boil. This will extract more tannin from the leaves, and will give you a richer color. Let it simmer for around an hour or so.
Step 9: Strain the solution into a container. Throw out the leaves.
Step 10: Pour the dye solution back into the dye pot.
Step 11: Add the fiber to be dyed. Allow the materials to simmer for 1-3 hours. Soak overnight once the dye bath cools down.
Step 12: Once the wool has been sufficiently absorbed by the dye, rinse the wool under a tap, and set to dry.
About the Author:
Emily Smith is a graphic designer, illustrator, and crafter based in Vancouver. She is an avid textile artist and community organizer with a focus on facilitating collaborative and creative workspaces, teaching workshops, and organizing crafty and creative events. She enjoys foraging for unlikely materials, increasing bicycle safety and visibility, and becoming more self-sufficient while lowering her carbon footprint. Follow her on her blog at bluemollusc.com or Twitter @emilysmith2000.