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The Joy of Natural Dyes

Spinning a yarn....

I found my myself doing a project for my daughter's 22nd birthday. I was chatting to a lady at a local Craft fair while I was helping on my daughter's stall. This lady had some hand knitted projects that she had done using her own hand spun wool, using a Navajo hand spinning tool - that sparked an interest in this project I will tell you about!

Navajo Spinning tool

The project expanded from harvesting wool and spinning it into a ball of yarn... to ending up being engrossed in learning about plant dying and the history of wool making!

Before I had met the hand spinning lady, I had started gleaning sheep's wool that was strewn over a Welsh field while on holiday. I found the texture and properties of wool amazing. Wool is strong, and able to regulate body temperature. Wool sweaters in layers under a coat, are a great way to keep warm in the British winters!.. It got me thinking about the whole process involved from sheep to sweater!

First I hand gently washed the wool I had gleaned in warm, soapy water and removed all the twigs and dirt from it, and rinsed it several times. Next I carded it - I didn't buy carding tools as they seemed quite pricey. However, they seemed quite similar to metal toothed dog brushes I had seen in the Pound Shop - so I bought 2 and they worked perfectly.. (although, if I seriously get into this I may purchase ones like on this video link above)

I then had the idea to use natural plant dye to dye my wool..

I did a bit of reading and it seemed that the process needed a mordant ( a fixer) so I used vinegar and some salt in some water and soaked the wool in it to prepare the fibres to receive the colour. I put a chopped red onion in a saucepan of boiling water. I then added a few teaspoons turmeric powder to the mix. When it was a cooler temperature, I added the wool ( as wool does not like to be shocked with big temperature changes) and gently stirred it. In another batch of water I did the same, but added baking powder to the turmeric and onion dye - and that lightened the amazing yellow up a notch!

*N.B After this experiment I realised that I should get separate bowls and saucepans, instead of using my kitchen ones, for these kind of projects. I was kindly donated all I needed off Freegle ( a free up-cycling national network)- It was fun to let the lady know they would be put to a creative use! Although a lot of the mordants are household substances, some are still to be used with some caution. For any big projects I will be doing, I will use a stove burner outside in the warmer months, so any fumes will not be in the kitchen, as some of the chemistry involved in some of the projects could cause fumes in a small space to be a problem. Apart from understanding some of those issues, all the books I have found about it -encourage experimentation with what plants to use, what heat and amounts of dye and mordants to use, and what proteins to use - plant or animal, that will be receiving the dye. Synthetic materials do not take dyes well using this process. So it's a very organic, natural process, using what is supplied by nature and is not harmful to the environment! I also found off Freegle a whole, washed, sheep's fleece, so I am well stocked for a while!

These are the colours I got with that first experiment.

The wool on the lefthand side had baking powder added to the dye mix of Turmeric and red onion.

I also found out how to hand spin using a drop spindle and found one on Etsy and promptly ordered one with some wool to practice with!

Here are the results of that project. It took a bit practice to get the hang of the spindle spinning. It got me pondering how this is such an ancient art - from the beginning of time this is how people have clothed themselves - they obviously fell upon the simple idea of spinning wool, and it evolved over time to be a very big industry. The process is something we probably take somewhat for granted now.

I found this video of a Californian fashion designer who dyes all her garments naturally. This was very inspiring. She shows how actually using plant dyes, the colours obtained are way more vibrant than synthetic dyes. She has done sets of bridesmaids and wedding dresses this way.

There seems something very earthy and wholesome to be using what is already growing to hand!

I also found a brilliant book which is like the encyclopaedia of Natural dying : WILD COLOUR

by Jenny Dean. This covers more of the history and science behind it. She lists colour swatches of the dyes from plants and what the leaves, flowers and bark produce, plus the myriad of colours that come from using different mordants ( fixers) and modifiers.

I endeavour to work with some other plants next. Nettles, ferns and avocado pits.

Blackberries do not need a mordant to fix the colour, so I might just be able to harvest some before they are gone. Note to readers: please do your own research on what plants to safely use. I would love to hear from anyone doing this process and what you are learning!

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Joy Stephanie
Joy Stephanie
Feb 16, 2022

Thanks Kim!


Kim Reader
Kim Reader
Oct 26, 2021

Your obvious delight in your new hobby is inspiring! I'm looking forward to seeing more results.

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