Fennel yields a range of greens, from soft mossy or sage green to forest green. I tried it last year but not with great success — it was one of my first attempts at dyeing with plants and I made a number of mistakes, which is probably why the end result was a color that could maybe charitably be called olive green but that really was the color of DIRT. Now that I’m somewhat more experienced, and fennel is again growing in abundance in the city, I decided to give it another go.
Harvesting fennel for dyeing purposes is easy in places like Oregon, where it’s naturalized and can be found growing by the roadsides and other areas where the soil has been disrupted. I picked mine along a ramp leading up to railroad overpass, and in about five minutes, I had as much bright green fragrant goodness as my arms could hold. Both the leaves and the stalk can be used in the dyeing vat. The fibers are pre-mordanted in iron. I followed the instructions in Rebecca Burgess’ Harvesting Color, which I’ve recommended before. And I left the fibers in the dye for several hours after turning off the heat.
I dyed both yarn and wool roving, and both turned out a light sage green, a color which I happen to really love. I already have in mind the perfect knitting project I want to use it for… that is, of course, after I’ve spun it into yarn first.
Why was I successful this time and not a year ago? I think it was a combination of factors. Since that first attempt, I’ve really internalized a few good rules of rules of thumb — what I might call “points I wish I had known/been more diligent about when I was just getting started.” I share them here in case they might speed up someone else’s learning curve:
- The kind of fiber you are dyeing matters. Protein fibers — that is, fiber from animal sources (silk or wool) — behave differently than plant-based or cellulose fibers such as cotton or hemp. For example, fennel produces greens with protein fibers, but with plant-based fibers, you are more likely to get lighter, more yellowish shades.
- Maintain proper temperature at all stages of the dyeing process: when extracting the dye, mordanting your fibers, and finally heating up the materials in the dye bath. The water should be at most simmering, between 180 and 200 F. Anything hotter than that can burn the pigment; anything cooler will not dye effectively.
- If you are a spinner, you might want to dye the wool before you have spun it into yarn. Why do I say this? Because you may not like the results. Or the color may be uneven. Imagine this happening to skeins of yarn that you have painstakingly spun over many days! (Yes, I speak from experience…) In contrast, when the dyed material is unspun wool, you don’t stand as much to lose. You can simply leave out all the bits you don’t want to use when spinning the wool into yarn.
- But: protect raw fibers or roving when dyeing. To prevent them from becoming hopelessly tangled in the vat, I make them into little bundles wrapped in tulle, netting, or similar fabric closed with rubber bands at a few points to hold it together. Also, be extra careful to avoid agitating the fibers, and ensure that there isn’t too big of a difference in water temperature if transferring them from one pot to another; this can cause felting.