I cannot remember why I started the process of learning how to dye wool with plants. I did not arrive at the decision because of a strong opinion about synthetic dyes or because of an already held skill set. In fact, I hadn’t tried it until this summer because I found the whole thing to be rather intimidating. There’s a whole lot to it, especially if you’re going for a certain color. I find precision to be an anxiety-provoking requirement of any project. That is why I haven’t gone further with sewing. It really does matter if you measure correctly when you’re making pants, right? Anyway, I decided to relax into natural dyeing and just experiment and to allow myself the freedom to see what happens, which was also an exercise in patience, flexibility and managing expectations. While I’m not great at precision, the fantasy of perfection is a constant nagging companion, and reckoning with perfection’s shadow side is an important job for me.
The first round of dyeing experiments started with an early morning walk with my daughter. We collected willow tree branches and leaves, and some long stems of some false indigo. We sorted and picked and plucked. It was quiet and kind of chilly. The birds were doing their early morning show and our cat was making his rounds around our home’s perimeter. Eventually, we put the plants in their own dye pots and started the slow process of simmering in water.
(Note: early this summer, I did my dyeing in the kitchen, but guess what? It’s stinks! Not to me, but to others who are not similarly obsessed and just want to eat their breakfast in peace. Now my operation is in the garage, which is fully aerated, and I have the company of a gigantic spider.)
Once the dye pots were cooling, I got my creamy wool simmering in the mordant bath (alum). For the willow and false indigo, I used some border leicester wool I have on hand. Finally, it was time to introduce the wool to the dye baths! If I had to choose one aspect of dyeing with natural dyes that is so important, and on its own a wise teacher, it would be the demand for patience and for overcoming the urge to rush a pot. Too rapidly boiling the plants can damage the flowers and alter the color; too rapidly boiling the fiber can damage the quality of the wool. Not simmering fibers in the mordant for long enough will lead to a weaker uptake of color and not letting the fibers sit in the cooling dyepot long enough will do the same, plus you can hurt yourself! And in this case, the wool I used for these dyepots I received in its raw form; it had to be skirted, picked through and washed before it could even be dyed.
Putter and check.
Think and wonder and hope without attachment.
Eat some snacks, drink some coffee.
Do a chore, write a note.
Don’t forget to check the pot.
Look out the window and wonder about that flower and if it too could bring color.
Open up to learning about plants and their names.
Don’t panic about not knowing.
Here is what we got:
Weeping Willow Tree: leaves and twigs & border leicester wool; uncarded locks and carded batt.
And the False Indigo leaves, stems and flowers & border leicester wool:
Remember that whole thing about precision and my aversion for it? Well, if you follow directions really well and have the time and ability to focus on what you’re doing, I understand it’s possible to get blue. That is in my future. but for now, we got:
A wonderful first go at natural dyeing for me. And a funny thing has happened on the way to the natural dye pot. My eyes have opened up a bit more, and curiosity has expanded exponentially. Walking through my yard, or through the woods or in a field, I now see bits of color everywhere, some of which I overlooked in other days. Now I look at bark on a fallen log and wonder what it would do with some attention from heat and water. And how’s about those berries? Can I share them with the animals here? The tension between wanting to dye everything with everything I see now and knowing that time and patience are necessary ingredients of any dyeing experiment is a gift in its own right.
I’ll share more of my summer experiments in posts to come. In the meantime, I want to share my go-to books right now on the natural dyeing process:
A Garden to Dye For, by Chris McLaughlin
Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, by Rebecca Burgess
The Craft of Natural Dyeing: Glowing Colours From the Plant World, by Jenny Dean
What kinds of things do you do that allow you to slow down, exercise patience and enjoy curiosity?