Introduction: Color Falling to Earth
In the autumn I can hear the plunk, plunk, plunk of walnuts falling from the trees. You sure don't want to be standing under the trees on a windy day! Little green globes fill the grass. Left unnoticed and untouched they will slowly disappear. Not dissolving...but carried away by squirrels to be buried in my gardens. Yes, most will be dug up by the squirrels to have a feast when times are tough, but many will sprout and grow to be little walnut trees---pulled out by me as soon as I find them.
What treasure lies within these nuts! Not only tasty nutmeats to make cookies and cakes, but the color of the earth is easily transferred to yarn, fabric, or basket making materials.
Walnut dyes have been used for centuries. The process is fairly simple..just takes some time and patience... and a walnut tree.
I dyed basket reed, 100% cotton fabric, and handspun wool yarn.
Step 1: Making the Dye
1. Gather walnuts when they fall from the trees. I went out every day to pick a few up, gathering about half a 5-gallon bucket.
2. I used the whole nuts, as I was not going to process them for the nutmeats. If you want to use the nutmeats put on rubber gloves and remove the hulls from the nuts.
3. Place the hulls/walnuts in a cooking pot (one you only use for dyes--never to be used for cooking again) and cover with water.
4. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for an hour to two. I did this on a small butane burner outside, as it is rather smelly. Take off the heat and let the nuts soak over night.
5. Strain the liquid into another container.
6. Do not put the nuts or hulls in the compost pile, as the toxins will interfere with the growth of certain plants (mainly in the nightshade family--tomatoes, peppers, etc.)
Step 2: Dye Basket Materials
Place basket reeds in a pot and cover with walnut dye. Let soak overnight. Pull out the reed and let dry.
Darker brown color
Place the reeds in a pot, cover with walnut dye, and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer for an hour to more until desired color.
Step 3: Dyeing Cotton Fabric
1. Wash natural cotton fabric in hot water. Rinse well. If there is any finish on the fabric you can boil it for an hour or more with a little detergent and washing soda to remove the finish. I used a new flour sack towel.
2. Heat the walnut dye in a pot and add the fabric. Simmer for an hour or more. Let soak in the dye until cool. Remove and hang to dry. Then wash in soapy water and rinse well.
3. I used a shibori method to get the patterning. I wrapped the towel around a 3-inch PVC pipe, wrapped it with string, and scrunched it down to one end. I placed the tube and all in the simmering dye bath for about an hour. Let it soak overnight and then unwrap the fabric, line dried, and then washed in soapy water and rinsed well.
Step 4: Dyeing Hand Spun Wool Yarn
I dyed two skeins of wool yarn, each 2 oz. The lighter shade was with the walnut dye only and the darker skein was mordanted with alum and cream of tarter.
Soak the yarn in water for several hours. Squeeze out the water. Place the dye in a pot and add the yarn. Place over medium heat and slowly bring it to a boil. Simmer the yarn in the dye for about an hour. Let cool in the dye bath and then rinse in cool water. Hang to dry.
To the second skein I dissolved 1/2 ounce alum and about 1 teaspoon cream of tarter in a quart of water. To this I added the walnut dye and and the wet yarn. I simmered it for an hour, let cool in the dye bath and rinsed well.
Natural dyes are fun to use and often unpredictable. That's part of the appeal. There are many plants you can harvest in the wild or grow in your garden. I've used onion skins, goldenrod, sumac, Queen Anne's lace, and purchased indigo. I hope to grow indigo next year to try my hand at producing beautiful blue yarns and fabrics. There's always more to learn and experiment with.