I love being able to follow processes through from start to finish and recently had the opportunity to do just that with our sheep wool. When we first arrived at The Farm School this past October we were instructed on how to care for many things—one of which was the sheep. After learning all about their food, water, grazing schedule, etc. we were also asked to preserve their wool quality in the process of caring for them. We did this by making sure to carefully feed the bales of hay to minimize stalks of hay from getting on their head, neck, and back when filling the feeder. This helps to keep the wool cleaner and means that we will have more usable wool by the time shearing comes.
In February, the time had come for the sheep to be sheared and we had a local expert show us how to carefully remove the sheep wool, both in the best interest of the sheep as well as maintaining the quality of the wool. We “skirted” the wool, which meant removing the bits that are just too poor of a quality to use. The rest was packed up to be send to the spinnery.
In March, the wool was sent to a local place called Green Mountain Spinnery (www.spinnery.com) in Putney, VT. I rode along to pick up our wool in April and got a tour of their amazing facility. The place is full of very old and beautiful machinery and we “followed” the process from raw wool to spun fiber as we walked around the mill. We also picked up our stunning single-ply worsted weight wool “skeins” (loosely coiled oblong length of yarn) that was divided prior to the spinning process to create skeins of pure dark gray, pure white, and mixed gray/white.
Later in April we used some of the white skeins in a workshop with Michelle Parrish of Local Color Dyes (www.localcolordyes.com). It was amazing to see what colors we can achieve with just plant materials! I’m going to detail the process for dyeing “protein” (or animal) fibers—in our case we were dyeing our sheep’s wool. There are three plants that I will describe the process for: Marigold (for golden yellow), Madder Root (for brick red), and Weld (for bright yellow).
Before you can dye a skein of wool, you need to mordant the fiber. This means pre-treating the fiber to allow for the natural dye to bond to the wool. If you skip this step, the color will likely not stick after rinsing so it’s critical to ensure this process happens if you want to keep those beautiful bright colors. This seems like a good moment to clarify that you should use completely separate equipment for the dyeing process including pots, thermometers, measuring cups, spoons, etc. I would suggest a visit to a thrift store to source some of these items if you don’t want to use your cookware. Wearing gloves is also recommended.
To Mordant Fiber:
- You’ll need to purchase aluminum sulfate. One place you can typically find it is at a garden store as it is normally used as a soil addition to increase acidity. The amount of aluminum sulfate you will use depends on the weight of your fiber when it is dry. Weigh the skein(s) first and then soak them in water.
- As a guide, the amount of aluminum sulfate you need is about 18% of the weight of the skein(s). As a rough guide, a 4 ounce skein of wool would use about a tablespoon of aluminum sulfate. Stir the aluminum sulfate in a pot of water on the stove and turn up the heat but don’t let it come to a boil. Add the soaked skeins and keep the temperature around 180°F so that the water is hot but not boiling for 1 hour.
- Turn off heat and leave the skeins in the mordant bath overnight to cool. If you do not plan to dye your skeins right away, you should hang the skeins so that they can thoroughly dry. They can be stored and will not need to go through the mordant process again. If you do plan to dye the next day, they can be pulled out of the mordant bath and used without needing to dry them.
Here’s a bit more information on the plants we used to dye:
Marigold– A great plant to use in your garden as a “companion plant” (certain plants that beneficially enhance each other in terms of growth or in fighting off pests) so you can’t plant too many of them! Flowers are harvested for the dyeing process and should be plucked off the stem just below the flower and dried before storing. Marigolds give a golden yellow color.
Madder Root– The color comes from the roots and you can either grow it or purchase it pre-chopped. Madder Root gives a red/pink/orange color.
Weld– Has a long history in being used as a dye plant. Stalks are harvested and dried out to be used for dyeing whenever you get the opportunity to use them. Weld gives a bright yellow dye color.
To Dye Fiber:
- If you previously dried your mordanted skeins, wet them again by soaking them in a warm water bath while you prepare for dyeing.
- You’ll want to match the weight of the skein with the weight of the plant material you’re working with. You can also use more plant material and the colors will be even richer. The process of making the dye bath is a bit like making tea using plant matter.
- Mix up a soda ash solution that you will use in all three methods below to make the dye baths more alkaline. Fill a glass jar with 3 cups of hot water and add 3 Tablespoons soda ash and stir to dissolve.
- To dye using marigolds:
- Place dried marigold flowers in a large pot and fill with water.
- Heat for 1 hour on the stove but do not let it boil.
- Strain out the flowers using a colander lined with cheesecloth and use a wooden spoon to press out excess liquid from the marigolds.
- If you’re interested in a more reddish shade of yellow, test the pH using a test strip (very affordable to purchase at a variety of locations) and add a little bit of a soda ash solution to your dye bath as making it more alkaline will give you a slightly redder shade.
- To dye using Madder Root:
- It’s necessary to soak the madder roots ahead of your dyeing day to allow as much color to be extracted as possible. The roots we were using to dye with were soaked for two days prior but the longer you can soak them the better color you’ll achieve. It’s recommended to do multiple extractions from the roots and then the liquid can be combined to create a richer dye bath.
- Place previously extracted madder roots and liquid into large pot and fill with water.
- Add 1-2 Tums or 1-2 teaspoons calcium carbonate (essentially chalk).
- Test the pH using a test strip, which you want around 8, and if needed add 2-3 Tablespoons of the soda ash solution to make the solution more alkaline. Re-test after the soda ash addition and add more if needed.
- Heat on the stove for 1 hour but keep the heat below 140°F and definitely do not let it boil.
- Strain out the roots using a colander lined with cheesecloth and use a wooden spoon to press out excess liquid from the madder roots.
- To dye using Weld:
- Chop up woody stalks and place in a large pot.
- Add 1 teaspoon of calcium carbonate mentioned above in the madder section.
- Test the pH and add 2-3 Tablespoons of the soda ash solution if needed to get the pH to about 8.
- Heat on the stove for 1 hour and ensure the temperature does not exceed 180°F.
- Strain out the stalks using a colander lined with cheesecloth and use a wooden spoon to press out excess liquid from the weld.
- After your dye baths are ready, wring out the excess water from your soaking skeins. Place skeins in the dye baths you made above and put the pots back on the stove and simmer for 30-60 minutes. Turn off the stove and allow the skeins to cool overnight in the dye bath.
- Wring out excess liquid and hang ideally outside to dry. It’s a good idea to let them dry before rinsing them as another measure to help the fiber hold onto as much color as possible.
- After dry, rinse them out in lukewarm water until the water runs clear so the color will not run. Allow to dry again by hanging.
- Make something beautiful using your naturally dyed skeins!
Happy Dyeing! ~Amber
Note: The beginning and end photos of this blog depict two additional natural dyes not specifically discussed in this entry, indigo (to achieve blue) and umbilicate lichen (to achieve purple). I chose to just describe the process for what I thought to be the more simplistic of the natural dyes—madder, marigold, and weld. But feel free to do some additional research to learn more about indigo and umbilicate lichen!
-Our very talented natural dyeing instructor, Michelle, from Local Color Dyes!
-How to start making natural dyes. (2014, December 12). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://gatherandgrow.org/2014/12/12/how-to-start-natural-dyeing/
-Madder. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://footguards.tripod.com/06ARTICLES/ART33_madder.htm
-Nature’s Gift of Incredible Colours – Natural Dyes. (2014, May 21). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://incrediblehands.net/?p=81
-Weld (Reseda luteola). (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.wildcolours.co.uk/html/weld.html