Woolly Pursuits

    For the past few weeks, my ‘free time’ has been filled with woolly pursuits. I’ve been spinning and experimenting with old dyeing techniques with natural materials. I’ve made mistakes and learned from them, and been proud of what I’ve managed to create, despite my innate inability to to follow directions (but Lord, I try!)
    My favorite natural dyes so far have been in the pink family— avacado and madder root. 
“Avacado?” you may ask, “makes pink?”
And I will get yarn-nerdily excited and exclaim, “It does! The perfect soft ballet pink!”
  When I dyed with avocado, the first thing I had to do was…..eat a lot of guacamole. I was all for this sacrifice 😉
   When I’d collected about 5-6 pits from avocado, I put them in a pot of water and boiled them….until the pits were soft and mashable (who knew they’d do that?) Then I introduced my mordanted yarn and fabric (mordant is a slightly chemically altered ‘bath’ that helps the yarn and dye chemically fuse together; in this case, I mordanted the yarn with alum and cream of tartar– yep, the stuff from the spice aisle!)

   The yarn came out such a beautiful, even, dreamy light pink, reminiscent of ballet tights and pretty pointe shoes. Emboldened by this experiment, I decided to for a more complicated dye— the ancient and beautiful madder root.

   Hailing from India, the madder root has made such a marvelous deep salmony-pink to orange color that the desire for it was one of the reasons for the spice trade. Like many red dyes, creating it takes attention and process—- with the dye needing to be heated to work, yet not boiled, or it will be ruined. I found that the ‘sweet spot’ was heating it just to when steam would come off of it, but no bubbles would rise. I also needed to add a small amount of calcium carbonate to the dye bath, because madder root works best in hard water.
   I was nervous when the dye recipe called for me to dump the entire contents of a precious 3.5 oz jar into the dye—- I was either going to make something great, or mess it up and ruin my whole stash of ground root. 
   But my curiosity got the better of me, and I went ahead— first soaking the ground root overnight in a small contained of hot water to leech all the color out of the roots, and then pouring the contents into two large pots— it ended up making a lot of dye!
  I threw in yarn, lace, and different types of fabric. Each element too the dye in its own unique way— the two (natural fiber— cotton and flax) fabrics couldnt have looked more different; the cotton was light pink, the linen bright orange. the cotton lace became a rich orangey-red; the yarn became the most unique deep salmon color.
   One of the most interesting things about the madder root dye is also that you can save it and reuse it, with the color getting lighter, but still very nice, with each use. What I didnt use the first time, I stored in large jars to reheat and reuse for other projects. Madder root is the dye gift that keeps on giving!
   Things I learned about madder root include— your fiber needs to be scoured and mordanted, and then washed again for the dye to take best. Mordanting and then letting the fibers sit a while works the best.
   Also, when I initially wet the madder root, I will next time put the dry contents in a muslin bag and then strain the liquid before I pour it into the large dyepot—- I didnt the first time and ended up with tiny flecks of madder root in my fiber that had to be washed and shaken out.
Sheep from a recent visit to Shepherd’s Cross in Claremore, OK.

  And so, even though I love the look of natural fleece, it has been fun to create these ‘unnatural’ natural colors with wool and other materials. It seems that the dyes work better with natural (how many times can I type that??) elements— from wool yarn to cotton fabric or ribbon. Synthetic fibers just dont cooperate with the dyes. Mother Nature will only work in harmony with herself. Can you blame her?

   All these pursuits have been so intriguing and fun, and I find myself thinking about my ancestors who would have raised their sheep, processed their own wool, and also raised flax that they would have processed and woven. Most likely they too experimented with dyes….over a cauldron in the yard, with kids and animals scampering about. What was their favorite color to try to procure? How they must have felt such great anticipation to take a fiber from animal (or plant) to their spinning wheel or loom, then to the dye pot, and then make lovely, usable items for their family and home.

   My end project now is a shawl Im making with some yarn from my dye projects. Im going to blend the salmony madder root yarn into the pale sweet avocado dyed yarn and make something cozy to wrap up in. It will be so satisfying, I think! Wish me luck, I’ve come this far!~


One thought on “Woolly Pursuits

  1. Awesome. I've always wanted to use natural dyes but been a bit afraid. the avocado pits make the most divine color in you post and that seems easy enough…I may just try. Need special pots though…once the snowstorm is over thrift store here I come! As usually the my love of color inspires….and your lovely post!


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