Dye This at Home
Brooklyn Tweed's design coordinator Lis Smith is also a natural dyeing enthusiast! With all of the beautiful Fall colors around us this season, we asked Lis to share her suggestions for folks wanting to try natural dyeing at home with Brooklyn Tweed yarns.
For the past 15 years I have enjoyed the practice of naturally dyeing fiber with color derived from plants and plant extracts. There are a myriad of other forms of dyeing, but this is the method I am familiar with, so I will focus on giving an overview of using plant materials foraged or cultivated in your home garden to color skeins of undyed wool.
Check out your local library or bookstore for books on dyeing or search online for dyeing blogs. Follow Instagram accounts and hashtags related to dyeing and other fiber techniques. Look to see if there are community workshops or local teachers to support in your area. This is a brief overview and should you be interested in learning more, a wealth of knowledge is available with a little time and research.
Be aware that older printed materials may include the use of heavy metals and other toxic materials in the dye process. I recommend vetting your sources and staying away from using metals like tin or chrome, it will be healthier for you and your environment.
Dyeing with natural materials can be much safer than other methods, but that doesn't mean it is hazard free. No tools that are used for dyeing should ever be used for cooking. If working in your home kitchen, be very careful to clean up the areas used so that others using the same space don’t accidentally use your dye tools or come in contact with leftover dyes or mordants (substances used to set dyes in fabric).
Plants and mordants have the potential to be toxic or cause allergies if ingested, inhaled, or handled too frequently. Also practice caution if foraging in areas with plants that are unfamiliar to you. Use rubber gloves and a respirator mask when measuring out finely powdered mordants and dye extracts.
Tools & Supplies
You’ll need a few tools specifically for your dyeing project before you get started. Yard sales and thrift stores are great places to pick up tools needed for dyeing at a low cost. If you find yourself wanting to further pursue dyeing, restaurant supply stores are open to the public and have everything you need to set up a home dye studio.
• Stainless steel, enamel, or copper stockpot (aluminum may react unfavorably with dyes & mordants)
• Tongs or large stirring spoons
• 5 gallon bucket for rinsing out fibers after each step
• Measuring spoons & heat-proof glass measuring cup
• Kitchen scale
• Rubber gloves & respirator mask
• Washing line & clothes pins or drying rack
• pH-neutral, enzyme-free soap like Synthrapol or Dawn dish soap
Here is a short list of plant matter that can be used to dye your yarn. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but simply plants I have used frequently and that are local to my region of the West Coast of the United States.
If you're foraging on a neighborhood walk or a hike farther afield, I suggest familiarizing yourself with the plants, animals, and people in your community before harvesting. Some plants are invasive and it can actually be beneficial to gather in abundance (with prior permission), but many plants provide food or medicine for people and animals and are a living part of an ecosystem. It is best to remove foraged plants respectfully, in a measured amount, and at the appropriate time of year.
If your dye materials have been grown in your home garden, or are the leftovers from your kitchen, feel free to use in whatever quantity you need for your recipe.
• Acorns* (tan)
• Black Walnut hulls* (brown)
• Calendula flowers (yellow)
• Coreopsis flowers (yellow)
• Eucalyptus leaves & bark (khaki)
• Fennel (bright yellow)
• Fig leaves (bright yellow)
• Marigolds (yellow)
• Mint (pale yellow)
• Oak galls* (tan)
• Onion skins (orange)
• Oxalis (pale yellow)
• Pomegranate rind* (khaki)
• Zinnias (yellow)
(*naturally high in tannins)
There are three main steps to hand dyeing yarn with natural materials, scouring, mordanting, and dyeing.
Scouring is the process of removing any barriers to an even application of dye via a hot water bath with some soap. Even previously undyed or bare wool should be scoured before mordanting or dyeing as the skein may have traces of lanolin, dirt, or other residue from the mill or ranch.
Mordanting is the process of using an additive to bind the dye to the fiber for longer lasting color. There are several different ways of mordanting for protein fibers depending on the dye materials you are using. Many dyes contain tannin, which acts as a mordant, so if you're using a dye stuff that contains a lot of tannin already, additional mordanting may not be required.
Now to add color! One of the easiest ways to add color to your skeins, after the scouring and mordanting steps are complete, is to make a dye bath, much like you would make a giant batch of tea. You can add the plant materials straight into the pot, and strain them out before adding your fiber, or you can put your dye materials into a muslin bag that can easily be removed before the skeins are added.
I always say there are as many different ways to dye as there are dyers, so I recommend playing with techniques, experimenting with sources of color, and keeping a detailed notebook to log your process so that when you achieve a result you like, you can go back and reference what worked well in that instance. Not every skein will turn out as you might have hoped, and if that’s the case, try over-dyeing the skein with a new plant before giving up on it, you might just love the results.
Suggested Dye Project
Pomegranate & Marigold Skeins
For these dyed skeins I used two fairly easy to access dye materials, one of which also acts as a mordant for your fiber. I saved pomegranate rinds from eating the fruit over the winter months, cleaning them and leaving them to dry on the windowsill, and harvested and dried marigolds from my home garden over a period of two years, using them in combination with fresh flowers.
Knowing I was going to dye my skeins yellow with the marigolds, I chose pomegranate rind as my tannin so that it would compliment the final warm color of the fiber. You can substitute in any other high tannin material and dye stuff to the process outlined below. Other high in tannin plants could shift the color in a different direction, so be sure to pair your dye and mordant materials with that in mind for the most satisfactory results.
Before starting, weigh your skeins and start a new project section in your notebook, you’ll need these numbers throughout the dyeing process. Make sure your skeins have a sufficient number of ties on them before adding to the scouring pot to prevent tangles later on.
Add your skeins to a stockpot filled with water and a bit of enzyme-free pH-neutral soap. Bring the pot to a simmer slowly. Make sure the skeins are fully covered in water and have room to move freely in the pot. Stir periodically over the course of about an hour.
Allow the yarn to cool completely to room temperature, then gently rinse the soapy water from the skeins. Hang the skeins to dry or proceed directly to the mordanting step.
To a pot of water, I added the pomegranate rind in a muslin bag, at a 10% ratio of the weight of the yarn to be dyed. I brought the pot to a simmer and held it there for at least an hour. After the water cooled to room temperature I removed the pomegranate rind and added my scoured skeins to the tannin bath.
To prevent felting or scorching the fibers, bring the heat up on your mordant pot slowly and hold at a simmer, again for a few hours. Turn off the heat and allow the fiber to cool down – I let my pot rest overnight. Rinse the fiber and hang dry to dye with later, or you can move straight on to the next step of dyeing.
To give a little extra boost of color and potential light- and wash-fastness to the fiber I dyed my skeins in an old copper pot. I also transferred the dye bath created during the mordanting process into my copper pot, to save on water waste and utilize any remaining dye and tannin left over from the pomegranate rinds.
To the pot filled with the saved pomegranate dye bath, I added a muslin bag filled with marigold flowers, at a 13.5% ratio to the weight of the yarn, and simmered for an hour. In general, the longer the time the dye stuff simmers in the pot, the richer the color.
As with scouring and mordanting, make sure there is enough water in the pot and that the pot is large enough so that your fiber can move freely around in the pot when stirred. (If the dye can't penetrate all areas of the skein, you may end up with splotchy or uneven colors.) Add your skeins to the dye pot once the plant material has been removed and the vat has come back to room temperature.
Slowly bring the temperature of the pot back up to a simmer until the desired color has been achieved. Allow your pot to cool down before handling the skeins, you can even leave them in them in the covered pot to rest until the next day. Rinse with an enzyme-free pH-neutral soap and hang to dry.
Suggested Knitting Project
A really fun project for using hand dyed skeins is the Saurel scarf by Susanna Kaartinen. Brioche stitch is fantastic for highlighting specially dyed skeins.
The pattern calls for three colors, but you can use as many colors as you like. I used five colors in my scarf shown above, and it was fun to see how colors on the opposite side of the work show through and change the feel of the color on the top side. It actually makes it seem like there are far more than just five colors used.
You’ll need 6 skeins (730 yards) of DK weight yarn, and you can mix using commercially dyed skeins with your hand dyed skeins in whatever combination you fancy.
Whenever I have white or light colored yarns left over at the end of a project, I'll save them in a basket so that I always have yarn to use for hand dyeing. When the basket gets full, I wind the yarn into skeins, and scour and mordant them to have ready for the next dye pot.
For this project I dyed a batch of small skeins of Arbor in Hammock, most between 20 and 30 grams each. I used a range of natural dyes: Madder, Black Walnut, Rhubarb, Quebracho Red, Eucalyptus, and Cochineal.
One of the fun parts of dyeing your own yarn is you get to name the colors you create! The three colors I created were made from the following combinations of dyes:
• “Paloma” (dusty rose) - Cochineal & Quebracho Red (commercial dye extracts).
• “Heirloom” (orange-red) - Madder, Black Walnut & Rhubarb (commercial dye extracts) in the Cochineal & Quebracho Red bath used to dye “Paloma”.
• “Sandalwood” (deep rusty red) - Foraged Eucalyptus over-dyed with Madder (commercial dye extract).
I worked one side of the scarf in varied stripes of Arbor in Hammock and Degas, the other side in my three hand-dyed colors of Arbor.
Since I was working essentially with half skeins or smaller, I just pulled from the basket at random and added in new skeins when the last one ran out. The only rule I gave myself was to keep the hand-dyed colors on one side and the solid colors on the other, which helped in keeping track of which was the right and wrong side when working the two-color brioche.
I hope that you give hand dyeing a try and work the newly dyed skeins in your stash into beautiful, colorful projects!
Interested in dyeing Brooklyn Tweed yarns on a larger scale? Our Brooklyn Tweed for Indie Dyers program is your source for high-quality American-made yarn bases.