Thursday, November 26, 2015

Exploring Color: Natural Dyeing with Farmhouse Yarns

Each month, our Classic box showcases dyers' unique and colorful yarns. In October, we included a skein of natural undyed 100% merino yarn to accompany the rich hues from Carol Martin at Farmhouse Yarns. Our featured patterns showcased some amazing colorwork designs to feature the contrast but this month also brings the opportunity to play with color yourself.

You don't need professional dyes and equipment to start experimenting with color for custom dyed yarn. There is plenty of dyeing potential found right in your kitchen! Natural dyeing is a great way to explore the multitude of combinations you can achieve with some plant material. Natural dyes require three things: dye material, heat and a binding agent called mordants. Natural dyes use metals to help the dye bind to fiber and create brighter, deeper colors. There are plenty of metals you can use and each will yield a different color with the same dyestuff. Alum (powdered aluminum) is the easiest to work with and can be used with just about everything. Dharma Trading is a great source for mordants and dye materials.

I'm using but onion skins for my samples, which are a easy way to get started since they require very little preparation, are easy to collect and are very forgiving to a beginner. It doesn't take much to get started, but buying some dedicated dyeing tools will be helpful once we move beyond the basics. I use an inexpensive enamel pot and metal slotted spoon for dyeing and collect the skins from onions whenever I cook. The skins keep best stored in a paper bag until you have enough to make dye.

To beginning, I split a full skein of Andy's Merino II into one ounce mini-hanks, loosely tying the hanks to avoid tangling but allowing the dye to penetrate under the ties. Soak the yarn for a least an hour in cool water.

Yarn hanks, tied and soaked before mordanting.

When using metal mordants, use a dedicated dyeing pot and utensils and take care not to inhale the powder while pouring. Measure out the alum, about 1.75tsp per 4oz of yarn, and dissolve in hot water. Fill the dye pot with plenty of cold water and stir the mordant mixture in. To improve color even more, you can also use cream of tartar dissolved in hot water before adding the alum. Once the alum is added, squeeze the excess water from the soaking skeins and place into the mordant pot. Heat the water slowing to a gentle simmer for one hour, stirring the yarns around every so often to make sure it aborbs the mordant evenly. After an hour, turn off the heat and let it sit in the water until cool. Since I'm not using cream of tartar, I let my yarn soak in the mordant overnight. Once its cool, rinse in cold water.

While my yarn is sitting in mordant, I started the dye bath. With onion skins, you'll need half the weight of the yarn in dyestuff at minimum. With 1oz of yarn, I used .5oz of onion skins. I made up a sachet by stuffing the skins into the leg of an old pair of tights, cutting and knotting the top. Fill a pot with water, add the bag of skins, and cook for at least an hour. The longer you cook the dye and the more dye material you use, the deeper the color will be. With wool, you want to cool the dye before adding yarn to prevent felting.

Cooking the dye bath. On the left, yarn soaks in the mordant pot.

Once the yarn is ready, remove the sachet from the water and add the yarn. Add more water to completely cover the yarn. The amount of water in the pot won't effect the dye's potency but you want to make sure the yarn to move around freely to help it absorb evenly. Like the mordant, you want to slowly heat the dye to a gentle simmer and stir occasional. Then just wait until the yarn is a color you're happy with! Both my samples sat in a dyepot for about an hour. Let the water cool, then remove the yarn, rinse under cool water to remove any excess dye and let dry.



The top skein was dyed without any mordant and ended in a soft golden color.  As you can see with the bottom skein, the mordant process allowed a much deeper yellow-orange color. The mordant skein will also be more color-fast and less prone to fading.


The sky is the limit with natural dyes! Try out different materials, such as flowers, berries, nuts or tree bark. My favorite resource is Wild Color by Jenny Dean, a great book with lots of techniques for making dye and a great guide to the colors plants can make.

Next week, we'll do some more kitchen dyeing with food coloring!



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