Learning to Naturally Dye Fiber

This is one of the great ironies of my life. Shortly after my wife and I were married, we acquired a small flock of sheep. We kept them for lamb production and didn’t do anything with the wool. Now many years later, we don’t own any sheep but one of our greatest interests is fiber production and arts. We became convicted some time back that a very important part of being less dependent on the industrial system was being able to produce our own yarn and produce some of our own clothing. Leah started out by teaching herself to knit. After she started turning out some fine quality hats, mittens, shawls, felted slippers, sweaters, vests and dish clothes we started looking into spinning. I bought her a drop spindle (a couple of them eventually) and she learned to spin yarn. The next step was getting a spinning wheel, which was a little bigger investment but well worth every penny. The next logical step was to start dyeing our own yarns using plants that could be found around the farm. We found the book, Wild Color, The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes to be very helpful.

This book is a great place to learn the basics of natural dyeing. It covers the basic equipment needed, fiber preparation, mordanting techniques, how to make your own mordants and how to modify dyes. The book covers a large number of plants that can be used to make dyes with and shows all the color ranges that can be made from them, depending on mordants used and other variables. It is simply amazing how many colors can be made from any one kind of plant!

Our very first dye project was a complete failure. It was late winter/early spring when we tried to make pink dye from birch bark. My father and I peeled a bucket full of bark and took it home. Leah and I peeled apart the bark and cleaned it. We followed all the directions and no matter what we did we could not get ANY color out of the birch. We’re not sure if some sub species of birch are better than others or what the problem was. It was very discouraging. Leah looked around the web and found out that a lot of other folks had had the same results.

Our first success was with Goldenrod. The first thing we did was mordant the yarn in an alum solution. We then harvested some Goldenrod blossoms and put them in a stainless steel stock pot, added water and heated it on the stove.

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After the the dye blossoms were done simmering we strained the liquid off and returned it to the dye pot. We then soaked the white yarn in the dye solution until it was dyed enough to suit us. Here is the finished product after it dried.

We have also done some dying with Sumac leaves, with some success. This spring we are planning to try using Dandelions and Queen Ann’s lace later this summer. Last fall we collected a large sum of Yellow Dock seed but have yet to try it. I imagine we’ll try the yellow dock soon. I will try to get pictures of the whole process from start to finish and share them here.

9 thoughts on “Learning to Naturally Dye Fiber

  • February 25, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    If I knew how to knit well enough to make clothing for the family, I would attempt/invest in this type of project! (Or, at least *buy* a high quality homespun yarn such as this!) That yarn looks awesome! I’m inspired…unfortunately my brain and fingers have a hard time communicating when it comes to knitting. I can crochet pretty well but I’m convinced that knitted clothing items look nicer. *sigh*

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Hey Tamara, I can’t even think about doing either of them! The charts make my head hurt just looking at them. The kids do pretty well knitting. I was surprised how quick they took to it.

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      Hi Amy, Leah says that she has that book on her “wish list”. Looks like a good one!

  • February 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Hi Scott,
    Give Leah my encouragement. I’m struggling through learning how to knit socks. We live in southern Oklahoma and my goal for dyestuffs pretty much rests on the big black walnut tree out back. Brown hides red dirt well. We have no sheep right now but are growing cotton and kenaf.

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      Hi Judy, Good to hear from you. Have you grown your own cotton before now? What kind of yields do you get? I’d be interested to see if you could get a crop out of it up here. I doubt we have a long enough season. You never know though, I have grown tobacco and it did real well. Some day I’d like to try growing a little flax.

  • February 28, 2013 at 1:04 am

    I agree that it would be very good to be able to provide our clothing. I started out years ago by ordering a drop spindle and wool. Then a few years ago I got a spinning wheel. It is a wonderful craft and now that I read your post I am looking forward to dyeing some yarn. We have all of those things readily available here on the farm. By the way, don’t overlook yellow dock for its medicinal and nutritional values!

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