There is definitely a learning curve to natural dyeing. My first few attempts of dyeing wool with natural dye plants were not very successful: the yarns took on either very little color, or some nameless shade of brown or beige that I had not been aiming for. It’s all the more rewarding, then, when after a lot of practice I begin to feel more confident with the process, and start pulling the most gorgeously vibrant colored fibers out of the dyeing vat. This week, I brightened up the winter days by dyeing with two kinds of plant materials: logwood for purples, and onion skins for yellows.
Logwood is native to the Caribbean. The dye is extracted from the shavings of its heartwood. Aurora Silks here in Portland—a wonderful resource, by the way — sells sustainably harvested logwood from the Dominican Republic.
The onion skins, on the other hand, are entirely locally sourced, and practically free. (Are you wondering if I ate onion soup for four weeks before dyeing? Not quite. I did collect a lot for this purpose over a couple of weeks, but got the bulk of them from the very helpful produce folks at the grocery store.)
As guidebooks and inspiration, I have used Rebecca Burgess’ beautiful Harvesting Color, which introduces dye plants and the process of dyeing step by step, and A Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan, which focuses more on growing dye plants in one’s own garden. Neither one of these explain the process for onion skins, but I found a useful article here.
The fun part about getting more comfortable with basic dyeing is that you can then begin to experiment: different kinds of fiber, different kinds of mordants (substances that help to bind the dye to the fiber), different amounts of dyestuff, even the quality of the water used and the dyeing vat, can influence the final result. There’s an element of play, and certainly surprise, involved, and that’s what makes it so rewarding. In the above image, for example, the darkest purples on the left — almost navy blue — are alum mordanted sheep wool roving, first dip in the dye bath. The purple yarn on the right was also alum mordanted, but the second dip in the bath, when the dye was weaker. The lighter purple bundles are two kinds of alpaca wool from the second dye bath. The big bundles of yellow are alum mordanted sheep wool roving dyed in the onion skin bath; the orange-hued yarn was in the same dye bath but was unmordanted. And that’s just a few of the possible variables. The possibilities are endless.