Natural Dyes

Natural Dyes – Creating the dye colours

Once you have prepared your yarns, fibre or fabric, you need to prepare the natural dye colours themselves. There are lots of really good books available which explain the techniques in more detail than I will here. These are the methods I use, explained simply, so you can get started. The dye pouches from Gorgeous Yarns are all enough to dye 100g yarn, fibre or wool fabric a maximum colour and include a mordant if necessary.

Natural Dyes, safety advice

Please be aware that although these dyes are natural, they are still chemicals and must be used carefully with attention to safety and good practice. Please see the safety advice in the previous blog in this series here before you start. Any utensils you use for natural dyeing must not be used for food prep again. Prepare natural dyes in a well ventilated area away from food. Always use rubber gloves.

Groups of natural dyes

There are 3 types of natural dye:

  • Substantive dyes. These contain their own mordant, often tannins, which mean they don’t need a mordant. These natural dyes often come from trees; dyes like oak galls, buckthorn bark and alder cones. If you have already mordanted your fibre before you use one of these dyes, it doesn’t matter.
  • Adjective dyes. These need the ‘help’ of a mordant to fix the colour and extend it’s lightfastness.
  • Fugitive dyes. As the name suggests, these dyes run away, they don’t fix even if you use a mordant. Common fugitives are beetroot, blackberries and raspberries. They will give a coloured dye which looks lovely in the pan and on the fibre but washes away and is not lightfast. These colours often quickly fade to grey.

I use substantive and adjective natural dyes and only use fugitive dyes in the knowledge that the colour will not last.

Preparing Madder, Camomile, Rhubarb Root and Buckthorn Bark dyes

Each of these dyes needs to be soaked overnight (or longer) in a large saucepan of water. Generally, you need 100g of dye stuff to weight of fibre to be dyed. (WOF) This will give the maximum colour on your fibre. Using more dye does not darken or increase the colour because the fibre can only absorb dye colour to a maximum point.

Gently heat the dye stuff in the pan to simmering point for about 30 – 45 minutes. The dye colour should be very apparent in the pan. Allow to cool and strain off the dye bits. (These dye bits can be re-used in the same way to create another pan of dye which will be paler than the first.) This is your dye and it’s ready to use.

Preparing Logwood dye

Logwood Is a very strong colour dye so 25% WOF is enough for a rich purple. This dye is created in exactly the same way as Madder etc. However, I put the logwood in a fine gauze bag in the dye pan because it’s very splintery and the tiniest bits in your yarn are a real problem to remove. Remember that Logwood needs 22g of alum mordant per 100g fibre to get good purple colours. This dye is very sensitive to pH, and can shift from aubergine brown with the addition of very small amounts of acids like vinegar, and to inky blue purple with alkali like household ammonia. (Use with great care.)

Preparing Cochineal dye

Cochineal is a tiny scale beetle so some dyers prefer not to use it for ethical reasons. It is also a very strong so you only need 5% WOF to get a dark scarlet magenta pink. It’s better to use less, and if necessary re-mordant the yarn and dye again than use too much dye to get a darker colour. You don’t have to use a mordant with cochineal, but I find the colours are brighter if you do.

First, crush the beetles in a bowl or jug with the back of a spoon. The finer the cochineal is crushed, the better the colour. Then pour on hot water and leave the solution to cool. Strain this dye through a very fine sieve or tea strainer into your dye pan and add cool water. This is ready to dye with… The crushed cochineal paste can be reused in the same way to get more colour.

Saxon Blue dye

Saxon Blue dye is created with a historic recipe and involves diluted sulphuric acid and indigo in solution to give a beautiful, turquoise/teal blue. The Saxon Blue I use is made by Helen Melvin of Fiery Felts. It is another strong dye and needs to be diluted according to the depth of colour you want. Helen Melvin suggests 100ml WOF for a very dark inky blue, I find 50ml WOF is enough for a rich teal peacock blue. Lesser amounts give paler shades, and this dye leaves no colour in the dye pan afterwards.

To use this dye, decide what intensity of colour you want, and carefully measure the amount to WOF and pour it into a jug of water. Add this solution to a large pan of water to create the dye.

What next….

You have your dye ready in the pan, so now you are ready for the best bit…the dyeing! Read the next blog in the series for how to dye your yarn, fibre or fabric, and how to care for naturally dyed fibres.

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