gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

Though I’ve been working with natural dyes for several years now, ironically I’ve never done it in the place whose native plants I know better than any other — in my Nordic country of origins, Finland. I learned this art in my adopted homeland, the States, and am more familiar with how the plants that grow there — or exotic dyes like indigo and brazilwood — behave in a dye pot than with the plants that lined my childhood paths through meadows and forests.

But now that I’m in Finland for an extended visit of several weeks, I’ve been able to heat up a big enamel pot borrowed from my aunt and fill it with the plants I’d recognize in my sleep. I’ve also been able to work in the most gorgeous outdoor dyeing studio you could imagine: my dad’s grilling shed, with a view of the lake.

I collected all the plants from our land, in some cases literally steps from where I put them into the pot. Blueberry (just the twigs for now, I’m going to try the berries themselves once they ripen in the woods)…nordicnaturals

White birch (Betula pendula) branches are most commonly gathered in the summer to make vihta, a bouquet of tender birch branches for the sauna. And although I collected mine for the dye bath, it turns out that boiling birch leaves gives off the exact same incredible fragrance as vihta in the sauna! Just breathing in the steam gets me so relaxed. The leaves make yellow to bright green dye; birch bark yields reddish shades.

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Heather (Calluna vulgaris) grows everywhere in these sandy-soiled pine forests. If you collect them just as the tiny pink buds are about to open, you’ll get a range of yellows on alum-mordanted yarn. The results may be different during a different season, or using just the branches.

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Juniper (Juniperus communis) has really sharp needles! You can collect the branches for dyeing, or later also the berries. I used the branches, but the color was a very light beige, not that remarkable.

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Lingonberry and lichen were also two new plants to try that grow plentifully around here. There are hundreds of varieties of lichen, of course. The ones I tried yielded an orange-brown color; same also for the lingonberry.

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Six skeins in about three days (all alum-mordanted wool — really lovely Finnsheep wool from Riihivilla). From left to right: lichen, juniper, heather, birch leaves, blueberry twigs, lingonberry twigs.

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Mild colors. It makes me wonder if these are the lukewarm Finnish temperament equivalents of the dramatic, strong hues of warmer places — South American cochineal or Indian indigo? Just kidding.. most plants around the world yield yellows and beiges. I’m going to keep experimenting. As I do so, I’m learning tons from some really impressive Finnish natural dyeing resources online (with English translations, much of the time, so worth checking out for non-Finns too):

4 thoughts on “Dyeing with the plants of my childhood

  1. This is great Mari. I have also been experimenting here since you’ve been gone with lavender, which gave me a beige: fern gave me a golden ivory; indigo over fern made a beautiful teal, and avocado skins which I had never tried and gave me a rich coral pink.. The cotton and silk were alum mordanted. This is so fascinating. I would love to experiment with native Southern plants with you when you come back. Enjoy your journey!

    1. Mari says:

      Yay, Caroline, let’s do that! I want to try avocado, I’ve been collecting the pits for a while… Enjoy your experiments!

  2. I just love the beautiful tones natural dyes give! Great work!

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