Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Natural" Dyeing

When I started knitting 20+ years ago I thought it was just silly that someone would spend time making yarn. It never occurred to me that someone could dye their own yarn, but I would have thought that was a waste of time, too. While I have developed a different view over the years, a recent experience of using a plant as a source of dye is making me rethink all of this again.

I took a day-long workshop last year in which each student, led by an expert dyer, was given a small batch of yarn or roving and a choice of dye baths from plants like black-eyed susans and goldenrod. We soaked our fiber in the baths and took the results home to dry. It was really fun. I was told about all the work that went into collecting the plant and pre-mordanting the fiber, but only when I did it all myself did I discover how much work it was. I have planted several more dye sources, but I’m not sure I’ll be doing this again!

First, I grew the plant. This was not difficult, but it took some time (about 1 year). Then I collected the flowers. Also, not difficult. (the picture shows what is left of the plant now).

Then I boiled the flowers. This was not difficult, either, but it did smell rather bad. And then it became caustic, forcing me, husband and cat to evacuate the house for the afternoon. We sat outside while the cauldron bubbled its toxic fumes. Husband said he was fine with it, and it was nice when our noses stopped burning. It’s his fault for getting me the books.

It all sounds so natural, right? Growing plants, harvesting flowers, creating toxic fume clouds in one’s house. The part that seems less natural is the application of chemical solution to the wool so that it can accept the dye. This is the mordant step. I could have ordered the chemicals online, but instead chose to go to the garden center and purchase 3 lifetime supplies of mordant in the form of fertilizer (potassium aluminum sulfate) and fungicide (copper sulfate). Then a trip to the store to get cream of tartar (potassium acid tartare). True, all these chemicals are technically NATURAL, but it might not be what you had in mind upon hearing the term “natural dyes”.

Anyway, it was fun (husband agreed, cat won’t say) and the yarn looks cool.

The darker color was produced by briefly soaking the dyed yarn in an ammonia solution (more chemicals). It was supposed to be green, according to the book, but I was happy that it turned ANY color.