All The Shades of Fennel, Saxon Blue, and Osage Orange

The range of color you can get from any dye is fascinating in itself, but when you throw in natural dyes, it gets even better.

The above skeins were dyed using locally foraged fennel, Saxon Blue, and Osage Orange– but they are all so wonderfully different, due to the variables introduced. (Actually, I think a bit of sweetgum seed pod dye bath snuck in there somewhere, but I can’t be sure)

I find that I approach working with natural dyes the same way I approach working with acid dyes– with an open mind and a lot of “what if?”s. One color is built on another, and so forth; as the bath gets exhausted or a color is added I am able to get multiple, individual colors; using modifiers extends the variety even more.

I’d love to tell you what the combination/exhaust bath/modifiers are for all these skeins….but I can’t. I’m not very fond of the phrase “In the moment”, but that does seem to be an appropriate description to how I currently work with natural dyes, especially since I am not looking to replicate colors currently. Exploring all the “what if”s. That said…I must try to keep better notes!

These four skeins are available in the shop right now, but if you want one, you should hurry, since there is only one skein of each color…and won’t be made again! They are truly unique colors. The base I used is American Sock.

A quick update on the salvia blossom dyed yarns: as I predicted, the lavender blue hues have rapidly faded; both the small skeins are now a blue-tinged gray. The larger skein has retained quite a bit of its original lavender hue, but it has faded somewhat, and I think will fade more. I’ll keep an eye on it. The green skein is doing fine, but it hasn’t been exposed to a lot of daylight yet.

Salvia Surprises

There’s a lot of salvia that grows around my neighborhood, and the ones that have long purple stems of velvety flowers are probably the most ubiquitous. A neighbor had been doing some strenuous weeding and pruning, so the green bins were filled to the brim; I carried armfuls home.

I stripped off the flowers (the rest of the plant is destined for the dye pot but is now drying out in my front yard) and put them into the pot

Then added yarn and water and simmered the whole thing for a bit. The yarn began to turn green, which wasn’t that surprising– it’s the skein on the left in the first photo. I took that skein out and hung it to dry

then added a pinch of tin and more yarn. Almost immediately the water turned purple with the addition of the tin, which I hadn’t expected. It’s not quite as reddish as the photo looks; the color was more of a lavender. I let it sit in there for about a day, then hung the yarn to dry. At first, the yarn was definitely purple, but the next day had already turned to a blue, and was starting to get a grayish tint. Still pretty, but different. I’m guessing the color will probably fade more, probably like red cabbage, but am interested to see what happens. The color didn’t rinse out. We’ll see!

Building a natural dye reference library, part two

intro to natural dyeing and growing herbs and plants for dyeing

These two books are not prepossessing, but informative nonetheless! Both were published in the seventies, as so much of the natural dye books were before the recent resurgence of interest.

An Introduction to Natural Dyeing, which has a cover illustration that I keep thinking is a rooster, was published by Thresh Publications in 1972. It has color photographs interspersed throughout– which are always a little frustrating in these old books, because we are so used to incredibly clear photography in our printed matter these days!

It has your usual information on preparing the fibers and mordanting (chrome again!), but lacks information on what different effects the mordants can create, and also their effects on the handle of the fibers, which surprises me– it’s such important information.

brown to yellow

The collection of materials used, however, are all contemporary ones, plus the foraged materials are ones that I myself can mostly find locally.

beige to green

including the wild mustard…but the dye bath I made of it smelled so incredibly awful (I didn’t get back to it in time. Now I know NOT to let that particular plant linger too long in the dyepot) that I didn’t get a photo of the color produced because I almost immediately plunged it into the recent indigo vat. Even after its oxidizing bath in a vinegar/water mix, there is still a slight odor left!

marigold pageI love the second book, however, “Growing Herbs and Plants for Dyeing”, by Betty E.M. Jacobs, published in 1977. Now that I am planting a dye garden, I’m even more interested in any information on raising dye plants, and the colors you can get from them. Above, the ubiquitous Marigold, of which I have a lot, to the point that I can fill up a bag in the freezer fairly quickly now!

coreopsis illustrationThere are no photographs in this book, only line drawings, which is charming– although not necessarily the most helpful at times. The plants: Agrimony, Barberry, Bedstraw, Bloodroot, Broom, Coreopsis, Dahlia, Dyer’s Broom, Dyer’s Chamomile, Elder, Golden Rod, Heather, Hollyhock, Lily of the Valley, Madder, Marigold, Meadowsweet, Mullein, Onion, Pokeweed, Privet, Ragwort, Safflower, Saffron, Tansy, Tomato, Weld, Woad, Yellow Flag, and Zinnia. I’m not familiar with the name Yellow Flag, but I know all the other ones, and have several of them growing in my garden. I won’t, however, be planting the weeds!

Another thing that I just noticed is that indigo is not mentioned here, which is unusual– all of the other books, well, almost all of them, have indigo information and recipes, although most are recipes for making an indigo bath with hydrosulfite.

EASE-ing along


Okay, bad pun. But I finally got around to taking photos of my finished Ease sweater by Alicia Plummer, which I’m pretty happy with. There are a few things I’m not in love with, but I’ll know what to do if I knit it again, which could totally happen; it’s a great sweater.

The pattern has two variations– one without the drawstring collar and one with. The one with is the way to go; it’s a detail that makes the sweater really special. I used American Twist Worsted in Sagebrush. Looks like I’m out of stock of that color though…I’ll have to get more of that base in!

Next time I will make the body part a larger size but the sleeves smaller; they’re a bit big on me compared to the body. Also I should not have increased at the bottom before the ribbing; it poofs out at the sides in a weird way.

What I am very happy about is that the first time I wore it out I received multiple compliments on it and two people asked where I had bought it. That’s definitely knitting success! Also this color ended up being way, way more flattering on me than I had expected. I have a couple extra skeins and maybe I will knit a hat or scarf from them.

Organic Indigo Fructose Vat— finally successful!


When I first tried the organic indigo vat, I didn’t have too much success; the blues I got were very pale and faded to grey overnight. However, the above cloth is the cloth I’d put at the bottom of the vat to protect the yarn from the sludge, so I knew that I’d been close.

Processed with VSCOcam with s2 presetThis time when I tried again I did not use henna but fructose. The ratios are very simple for the fructose vat and I think I had been a bit too ambitious starting with the henna vat. I used, like last time, organic indigo from Botanical Colors, which is also where I got the vat tutorial. The indigo powder is so very, very, dark blue, a color unlike any other color. This time I tried hydrating the indigo rather than just mixing it. Maiwa suggests hydrating the indigo by using marbles in a small container and shaking it vigorously. I don’t have any marbles so I used small smooth stones I picked up from the neighborhood.

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This time I did not check the PH but carefully monitored the temperature of the water I used, making sure it was around 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I also used a smaller container to make the starter solution, a mason jar. This made me able to see the color changing. This time the surface of the vat looked very promising– you can see the coppery scum on the surface and the “flower” (bubble cluster).


When the liquid in the jar had turned a clear amber color (I thought I had taken a photo of this but I can’t find it), I dipped a test bit of yarn into the vat and was pleased to see that it oxidized into blue that wasn’t gray like last time.

I then made a larger vat, carefully tipping the solution into the pot and again, watching the temperature, heated it to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit, then turned the temperature off and let it sit a bit more. Again I put a piece of cotton cloth at the bottom of the vat to protect the yarn from the sediment.

IMG_2599I let all the yarn I dipped in the vat oxidize in a vinegar-water solution, like suggested. I’m really happy with the results. This vat needs a lot more indigo to make a dark blue, but as I was just aiming for a blue, any blue, I’m not disappointed. The blue is a very clear, sky blue color, and, I think, prettier than the blues I got from the one that used thiourea dioxide and soda ash.

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This is on the lovely cormo-rambouillet base, which, sadly, I can get no more of, and I’ve dyed up all I had left. (I am slowly adding it to the shop) I’d like to find something similar, so if anybody has any suggestions there, it would be much appreciated! The biggest issue with these lovely small farm yarns is finding ones that are priced low enough so that I don’t have to charge a fortune. This is difficult because getting these yarns made isn’t cheap for the farmers, so naturally they have to price them so that they can make a profit, or at least break even. I am not at the point to be able to afford to get yarns made myself, or even to buy in large quantities, making the search even more difficult. (One day, when we eventually move out of one of the most expensive places in the country to live….) So again, if anybody has any advice or ideas or connections, do let me know!

I rinsed and dried the cloth I put down at the bottom of the vat:


I think I will try to do this with every vat and when I have enough sew them together to make something.

I will try the henna vat again, because it intrigues me and seems to produce slightly greener blues; I will also increase the amount of indigo; this vat exhausted quickly.

If anyone wants to try the fructose vat, I encourage them; it is beautifully simple. A reader commented on how much less people are inclined to share of their natural dye processes these days compared to the dyers that published so much of their explorations in the older dye books. Having been a dyer for my living these past seven years, I understand that secretive inclination; with so much competition these days it is rather inevitable.

However, I will not be that way with my natural dyeing. There does not seem to be nearly enough information on the web currently about natural dyers’ experiments and explorations, their processes and successes and failures, or at least it seems like it to me. I am so very much in the beginning experimentation and exploration phase, and maybe it will benefit other beginners. I am not very organized or scientific, so you won’t be seeing any precise recipes from me, but I think it is good to share what I learn anyways and maybe others will feel the same.

Sowthistles and libraries

anne bliss books

Two of the books I have in my dye book library are North American Dye Plants and Weeds: A Guide for Dyers and Herbalists, by Anne Bliss. I sort of think of Anne Bliss as the queen of weeds; she’s certainly done extensive research on what colors they yield! Both books include descriptions of the colors gotten with no mordant, alum mordant, chrome, copper, and iron. weeds by anne blissI’m particularly fond of the Weeds book, because it’s so pretty, with it’s faded color and delicate line drawings.

We had a crop of weeds growing in a patch next to our building that I chopped up and simmered to test out for color; flipping through various books, including this one, I realized it was Sowthistle (non prickly).

sowthistle image

sowthistle page

They made a particularly pretty shade of golden brown:


The second bath was pretty too:

sowthistle second bath

And this was the second bath, but this time with an ammonia after dip:

sowthistle third bath ammonia

sowthistle triadIt’s pretty amazing the range of colors you can get just from one plant. These were just with an alum mordant; I want to try copper and iron modifiers to see what more colors I can get.

I have been collecting a bunch of crock pots from friends and thrift stores, which are perfect for simmering small batches of dyestuffs and sampling them.

A couple blocks away there were lots of sow thistle weeds, quite dense and high; I gathered a bunch of them and tied them into bundles to hang to dry:

Processed with VSCOcam with 5 presetA little silly, but a good idea after all when I went back to that area to harvest more weeds and found the weed whackers had leveled them. However, I was by there a few days ago and, true to their weedy selves, they’ve grown back vigorously, so I’ll probably go get some more.

Also, they like to go to seed even when they’re no longer in the ground; the blossoms turned to little puffballs:

IMG_2577there aren’t any yellow flowers now at all.