A few days into UK lockdown, I decided I needed to document this time in a way that was personal and relevant to my life and art practice. I started a diary of my daily permitted walks around my village and immediate countryside, in search of vegetation with which to naturally dye wool yarn and fabric. I began to examine these surroundings with new eyes and a greater appreciation of just where I live. I resolved to work with supplies I already had (feltable undyed DK yarn and wool gauze) or could prepare (alum mordants, copper water and iron water modifiers).
So far I have sampled on my travels 33 different species of plant from tree leaves, flowers and fallen bark generating 69 different coloured samples - approximately the same number of days in lockdown that I have experienced. You can read the dyeing processes in more detail in previous posts in May on this blog.
The methodical documenting in my sketchbook has brought back memories of lab book work of a former life allowing for personal reflection as well as a much needed focus in this strange time. I could have dyed wool roving to felt but I wanted to continue the slow approach so I knitted each yarn before felting. I have often found that as I knit I focus on the sounds around me such that these memories are more intense and, when I return to the work, they return. I can still look at the elderberry leaf sample and remember the tv programme I was watching! I chose to create ribbons of felted yarn – symbols of awareness and support. On many occasions ribbons have been tied to trees and posts as powerful signs of devotion, remembering others. This seemed fitting given the covid-19 situation. I am still at the designing stage with these ribbons but ideas of their attachment to branches in a wall or sculptural form are forming. This arrangement will be haphazard, reflecting the non-conformity of nature to our lockdown constraints.
I have also begun to darn on the samples of wool gauze with the dyed yarn – an attempt to repair the situation or my personal mark of change left? I am unsure but certainly like many of us my life will never quite be the same again.
One of the easiest and most reliable sources of a good pink (in my opinion) is the avocado - fibre does not need to be mordanted and you get good bang for your buck! In this particular case I extracted dye from 6 avocados (skins and stones) I had in the freezer and dyed about 150g yarn. Both of the photos below show the same dyed wool gauze sample for colour comparison. The alum adds a more salmon tinge to the oink.
Having read many instances of dyeing with rosemary and achieving shades of yellow, brown, grey, and even purple? I decided to try this for myself. We have only a couple of small rosemary bushes in our veg trug so I snipped about 20g of rosemary sprigs, stripping off the rosemary from their stalks into a metal bowl. I covered them with recently boiled water, added 3 small skeins of yarn (alum mordanted) and wool gauze sample, and left alone overnight. (Strength would be 200%wof)
The yarn had turned a pale but bright yellow. I began to heat the bowl gently over a pot of water and within 5 mins of simmering, the yarn had begun to turn green which increased in intensity after 30 mins simmering then leaving to cool down overnight. An amazing amount of dye seemed come from so little rosemary.
I was particularly excited by the green yarn after 30 mins simmering - not many plants seem to give this colour without further modification. Of course I'm not sure how light fast this will prove, but certainly with repeating, only next time I would put the rosemary in a net bag - the time I spent unpicking them from the yarn......
From top to bottom the yarns are - rosemary at room temperature, 5mins simmering, 30 mins simmering, and 30mins simmering iron water modified. The wool gauze was not mordanted and was taken out after 30 mins simmering.
After the success of dyeing with rosemary I moved on to sage and used the same method as above using also about 200% wof chopped sage leaves.
Next came marjoram or oregano, also around 200% wof of stripped leaves used and treated in the same way as above.
The photo below shows the alum mordanted yarns dyed with sage and marjoram. both gave a pale yellow (top skein of each pair) when left overnight at room temperature, that progressed to a lime green (bottom skein of each pair) when the pot was simmered for 30 - 45mins and then cooled down overnight. both produced a lovely green but more slowly for marjoram, and with a much more yellow tinge than rosemary green.
Once the tulips in our garden were finished and petals lying on the grass thanks to a fall of hail at the beginning of May, I decided to see what dye could be extracted from them. The petals were steeped in recently boiled water in a bucket overnight, then simmered gently for 30 minutes with fibres. I wanted to avoid a pale brown by heating too much, and I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant chatreuse green in the alum mordanted yarn and non mordanted gauze next morning. Heating one of the skeins gently in diluted iron water for a further 15 mins gave a dark olive.
We planted some rhubarb in our vegetable trug last year but one of the plants was not looking so clever, so when the offer from my husband came to "use the root if I wanted" I jumped at it.
I cleaned and chopped up the precious root, simmering it for 1 hour then straining out and simmering 2 small skeins of wool and gauze in the dye for a further hour. The one root only permitted me 100% wof strength but a pleasant pinkish brown was achieved, which changed to a duller brown dipped in room temperature iron water. Heating up the iron water would probably have changed the colour more dramatically but would have been more harmful to the wool fibres..
I cut 3 stalks of the rhubarb and, after a rhubarb crumble was made (great recipe from Nigella using amaretto biscuits in the crumble, that's the secret definitely), I prepared the leaves for further mordant purposes. Having read all the googled research on the dangers of handling rhubarb leaves containing oxalic acid, I took no chances. I donned a charcoal filter mask, rubber gloves and simmered the chopped leaves on a camping stove outside. To maintain a 200% wof concentration I only managed to treat a few skeins of the wool, predictably turning a pale mucky khaki colour.
One of these skeins I tried in the next dye made from dock leaves....
I should stress that the dock leaves were not actually in our garden of course but I picked a few from through the back fence.
The leaves were treated as for the tulip leaves and the resulting colours shown below
It was interesting to note that the un mordanted yarn (not shown in above photo as it was the one iron modified) was very similar to the rhubarb mordanted one even though the starting yarn was quite a different colour. Not sure if this meant less dye was taken up by rhubarb mordant relative to alum mordant or just didn't give that brighter yellower look associated with alum.
Perhaps as predicted by the yellow marks one often gets on handling the flowers, the resulting dyed fibre was a lovely pale yellow - certainly not as strong a cow parsley but distinct nonetheless for 150% wof. Simmering in iron water gave a darker khaki green.
Much of the remaining hedgerows around my village are hawthorn and during lockdown time in May, were full of blossom both white and pink. and so being careful to sample only little from a wide area of hedgerow, I took enough to test out the dye from blossom separately from leaves and twigs.
The blossom was cut off from the twigs and simmered for an hour, fibres added then allowed to cool down overnight.
The leaves and twigs were cut up into 5cm pieces and left initially in a bucket overnight covered with freshly boiled water. In the morning this was heated to a simmer for an hour, strained of plant vegetation, fibres added to the dye and allowed to cool overnight (300%wof)
I was surprised how dark the yellow appeared from the blossom, but then I did use about 500% wof. The dusky pink of the unmordanted fibre and salmon from alum mordanted fibre were lovely and something I would try to repeat. There should be enough tannin in the leaves and twigs released that I don't necessarily need the fibres mordanted The dusky pink only seems to be produced from un mordanted fibre, and only when it was not heated up too much or for too long.
Hi I'm Helen MacRitchie, a UK based textile artist in felt and embroidered textiles. This blog details some of my research into exhibition pieces or just fun developments, enjoy...