Dyeing Wool with Plants

Since we had some of our Shetland wool spun into yarn, I have been eager to try out some natural dyeing. I had my chance today when I took part in a Natural Dyeing Workshop that was led by Susan Martin here at the Trust and an enjoyable event it was.

Susan took us through the whole process of dyeing, including mordanting the wool so that the dyes will fix, collecting seasonal dye plants, making a dye bath and dyeing the yarn.

After an introduction to the subject we set up a lichen dye pot, using fallen lichen that had been collected over the winter (see here). Lichen is a substantive dye, and does not need a mordant to be fast. We used the traditional method of layering equal weights of lichen and hanks of wool in a pot, which is then covered with water and bought slowly to a simmer.

While the lichen pot simmered, we went on a forage to see what other dye plants we could find. We collected ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), docks, nettles, Dyers Camomile (Anthemis Tinctoria) and Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). Susan had also bought along some walnut leaves.

Dyers Camomile

Dyers Camomile

Susan showed us how to make dye baths by boiling up the plant material collected for varying lengths of time. We then dyed small hanks of wool to see what colours we would get.

The star of the day was the Dyers Camomile, which produced a rich golden yellow. The Tansy was lovely too, producing a pretty pale primrose yellow. The Walnut produced a strong yellow-brown, which became olive green when the hanks were after dipped into iron water. The lichen produced a rich tan brown, which could be made stronger by longer simmering.

Above is a photo of the results. From left to right:
Walnut leaves on our shetland yarn wool, (alum mordant, after dipped with iron),
Walnut leaves on white wool, (alum mordant, after dipped with iron),
Walnut (no mordant),
Walnut (Alum and cream of tarter mordant),
Plantain (Alum and cream of tarter mordant),
Dyers Camomile (Alum and cream of tarter mordant),
Lichen (no mordant),
Tansy (Alum and cream of tarter mordant),
Tansy on our shetland yarn (rhubarb mordant)

We were all impressed with the range of colours produced and how well they harmonised together. Fired with enthusiasm, I have already got another lichen pot brewing and have made a bigger batch of Dyers Camomile on our shetland wool. I am looking forward to exploring natural dyes further.