Introduction: Natural Dye From Pokeweed

Picture of Natural Dye From Pokeweed

This last year, I nurtured a pretty little weed in my backyard.  It grew and thrived and grew and grew until it pretty much blocked the door to the backyard.  I protected it from all attempts to cut it down because it was a pokeweed.  A huge, 5 foot tall majestic pokeweed.  And pokeweed produces pokeweed berries, which are big, beautiful purple berries that dye the skin bright fuchsia.  I was going to gather these and try my hand at dyeing yarn.

In the great big universal intellect called the internet, I could find nothing on how to prepare them, so I began a trek to experiment and find the perfect recipe.

A friend raises alpaca and I bought several skeins of her lightest wool, (from Amelia who is the cuddliest alpaca you will ever meet).  The yarn was an off-white.  I was going to see if I could change that.

Let’s talk mordants.  Most fabric and yarn do not readily take a dye.  They must be treated first with something that will bind the dye to the material.  That binding agent is called a mordant.  The most common ones are salt, vinegar, alum, and iron. 

The closest recipe I could find was one using blackberries.  For that, they used a salt mordant, so there I began.

Step 1: Stuff You Need

Picture of Stuff You Need

Equipment:

Large pot for the mordant

Enamel pot for the dye

Measuring cups

Strainer

Masher

Gloves

The pot for the mordant can be any large pot that can accommodate what you are dying.  It will only have salt or vinegar in it so it is safe to use for food afterwards.  The rest of the equipment should be “dedicated”, or not used for food.  Pokeweed is poisonous.  Can I wash out all of the pokeweed residue?  Probably.  Am I willing to risk it with my family? No.  Fear not, though.  I found the enamel pot in a thrift store for $4, and bought the rest at the dollar store, so my initial investment was $7.

Materials:

4 cups pokeberries on the stems

1 cup table salt

5 cups vinegar (for round 2)

Whatever you want to dye.

Note that finished fabrics will need to be washed to get out any residue of finishing agents.  I used my alpaca yarn straight from the alpaca, so I didn’t wash it first.  (I was told it was washed before being carded and spun.)

Step 2: The Salt Mordant

Picture of The Salt Mordant

Remember two things.  First, pokeweed is poisonous!  Don’t get it near food or dishes.  It also stains everything.  Cover your work area.  Wear gloves.  Second, approach the mordant with caution!  One does not simply walk up to mordant!  Ok, I was kidding on the last one.  The mordant is harmless, but you knew I had to say that.  But the pokeweed is very poisonous.

Into the large pot, I dissolved 1 cup salt into 1 gallon of tap water.  I brought it to a simmer, eased the skein into it making sure it was all wet, reduced heat to low, and simmered it for an hour, turning the skein over half way through since it likes to float and I wanted to make sure all parts were soaked well.  Then I turned off the heat and let it sit in the mordant for an hour.  After that, I rinsed the yarn gently in the sink.  The instructions I found said to rinse it three times.  I am having doubts whether it should have been rinsed at all, but more on that later. 

Step 3: Preparing the Dye

Picture of Preparing the Dye

While this was going on I made the dye.  I should mention that pokeweed berries ripen slowly.  I found that if I waited for all the berries on the stem to ripen, the first ones had dropped off.  So I began collecting them when they were ¾ ripe (that is, the last few berries in the end were still green.)  I just placed them on a sheet of aluminum foil in my sun room and let them sit while waiting for more to ripen.  By the time I had enough berries to make the dye, these early pickings had pretty much dried up.  No problem, though.  Only the water is lost.  All that good dye is concentrated in there.  Using gloves and a protected surface, I began picking off the berries and putting them in a measuring cup.  In real life, I had my work space completely covered with aluminum foil, but I removed it for the picture.   Keep your space covered.  I found that the dried berries were harder to pick, and the stems looked like they had juice on them, so I started tossing the stems into the pot with a little water while plucking berries. Use the enamel pot for this!   You can see how much dye there still is in just the stems.  I should also note that the green berries still have a little purple juice in them, so I used them as well.

Step 4: Making the Dye

Picture of Making the Dye

I collected 4 cups of berries, so I added those to the stems in the pot, and added twice that – 8 cups - of water, and then an extra 2 cups for good measure to make sure there was enough liquid to cover the yarn.  I put the pot on high heat and brought it to a boil, then reduced it to low.  With the masher, I crushed the berries to get out as much juice as possible.  I have found that berries are easier to juice if they are hot, which it why I did it after they came to a boil.  Once everything was nicely mashed up, I simmered it for an hour, and then strained it to remove all the stems, berry hulls and the millions of seeds.  Once the juice came back to a simmer, I eased in the rinsed yarn.  I simmered the yarn in the dye for an hour, turning it halfway through, and then turned off the heat, covered it, and let it sit in the dye overnight.  It looked good while it was in there.

Step 5: Salt Mordant Results

Picture of Salt Mordant Results

The next morning, I pulled it out, squeegeeing out as much dye as possible back into the pot.  Then I rinsed the yarn well, and out came almost all of the purple dye.  It had turned a pretty camel color, but I did not grow pokeberries to get camel-colored dye.  I wanted fuchsia.

Step 6: Vinegar Mordant

Picture of Vinegar Mordant

Not to be daunted, I moved next to a vinegar mordant.  I used the same procedure as above, but instead of using salt, the mordant was a 1:4 ratio of white vinegar to water.  To get the volume I needed, I used 20 cups water to 5 cups vinegar.  This time, I didn’t rinse it after the mordant bath.  I squeegeed it out as much of the mordant as possible, and then eased it immediately into the simmering dye.  Same as before, I simmered it for an hour and then let it sit overnight.

This time, I got somewhere.  It still wasn’t fuchsia, but it was a very nice purplish brown.  I called it a success.  And the three (natural, salt, and vinegar) coordinate beautiful together, so I am going to find a crochet pattern that will showcase them.

For my next Instructables, I am going to continue my experiments using other mordants, like alum and iron.   I’ll let you know what happens!

Comments

neo71665 (author)2013-10-20

Keep it out of the reach of kids. Poke salad is poisonous. When you eat it there is a required method to remove the toxins. By boiling it down for the color I would think you only made the poison mix stronger.

Welsh Dragonfly (author)neo716652013-10-20

I agree. I have heard that various parts of the plant are edible IF they are prepared in correctly. My inclination is to consider the entire plant poisonous and treat it as such.

neo71665 (author)Welsh Dragonfly2013-10-20

The leaves and stalks are edible if prepared correctly. Young leaves are much like greens. The stalks are fried like okra. The berries and roots are highly toxic. I was taught to wash my hands after just picking it because it can poison you just through the skin.

jbeargrr (author)neo716652016-06-02

Actually, the berries are not toxic, but the seeds are. Fortunately, the seeds are very hard. If you swallow the seeds unbroken they pass through without harm. The berries can be used to fight off infections. I keep some whole berries in the freezer to use in the winter and swallow them whole like pills, so the seeds don't get crushed. I don't think you have to worry about your dye pot being toxic after using poke berries in it. Just scrub it out well, it should be fine.

Poke sallet, (not salad, a sallet is a cooked green, mostly used to refer to poke, but can also be collards, turnip, or other cooked green) is very popular in the south. My grandmother and my mother cooked poke greens every spring, I remember helping then pick them.

Now I want to harvest a bunch this year to use for dye. Several projects in mind. I didn't know you could get so many colors from poke berries. Those reds are beautiful.

neo71665 (author)Welsh Dragonfly2013-10-20

The leaves and stalks are edible if prepared correctly. Young leaves are much like greens. The stalks are fried like okra. The berries and roots are highly toxic. I was taught to wash my hands after just picking it because it can poison you just through the skin.

KiranP2 (author)2015-11-11

I just finished another round of pokeberry dyeing. Using an alum mordant with fresh UNHEATED pokeberry juice produces an INCREDIBLE royal violet. I couldn't believe it!

debbie.wilson.10888938 (author)2014-10-06

Thanks for all your documentation. I too have been trying to dye with pokeberries. The first year I got peach mordanted with alum. The second year I increased my pokeberry to water ratio and got fushia, but not the red I wanted. This year I followed very exact directions from on line and got a rusty orange. This is a beautiful color but not the red I wanted. I used vinegar to mordant this year. I don't know why I can't get the beautiful deep red-purple that I see in the dye pot. I think I may be able to find some more poke berries, but if not I will try again next year.

Debbie, I just finished a batch of pokeberry dyed yarn. I'd suggest using all fresh pokeberries, as the dye deteriorates as it dries inside the berry. It also works very well with high concentrations of vinegar as a mordant. Lastly, I've heard that heating/boiling pokeberry dye can change the color- the longer it's boiled, the more orange-brown it becomes. Red can be achieved after moderate boiling. I'd advise making small batches until you figure out what works.

One website that I read said that the trick was not to heat the dye up too much. He said to bring it to a very low boil for an hour. Maybe it is getting too hot and breaking down the protein that creates the color.

Uncle Kudzu (author)2013-10-19

And the young leaves in the Spring are tasty when cooked down like spinach with eggs!

As I mentioned above, the pokeweed plant needs to be cooked in specific ways to break down the poisons. If it is incorrectly prepared, it is still poisonous. I caution my reader to be SURE they are preparing it correctly before eating it.

Well, I did some research and it seems that you are correct to generally consider the plant poison.

I do recall that the person who prepared it for me cooked the egg and poke salad dish  by boiling the poke salad twice in a fresh change of water and then cooked it again in a cast iron skillet with the eggs, and used only young leaves from a young plant, but I thought all the cooking and stress on young leaves was about removing any bitterness. But you are apparently right to address the potential of poisoning.

Anyway, this is a very well done instructable that I'm passing on to the GF, who is the handler of yarns in our household. Thanks for sharing this use of a very common (to my area) plant. I apologize for hijacking the discussion toward the food use of it.

Brit4Shains (author)Uncle Kudzu2014-12-04

My ex's family is from NW Tenn, and they prepared it by boiling any of the leaves 3 times with fresh water, then it can be used like greens or spinach...

Very tasty when fired in a little bacon grease...

Salmonberry (author)2014-12-03

The Burgess book recipe works really well for a deep red. It uses
A LOT of pokeberry though. I left the dark red in overnight and the light pink is a quick dip. I think it's starting to oxidize and turn orangy though. It was an experiment.

Salmonberry (author)Salmonberry2014-12-03

Tried to upload photo from phone but it wouldn't let me.

marianna.brough (author)2014-11-25

I would suggest looking into Rebecca Burgess' book, in it she mentions two natural dyers, Carol Lee and Carol Leigh (I'm not making that up), who developed a way to use pokeberries to make a bright red dye on protein fibers using a very low pH dyebath. They put a large amount of distilled vinegar in the dyebath until they achieved about 3.5 pH. Vinegar is a little nicer to wool and other protein fibers than citric acid which can make the fibers brittle. I froze some poke berries and plan to dye some wool yarn with it.....one of these days.

Midnight Star (author)2014-07-23

Very cool. Thank you for this!

supersoftdrink (author)2013-10-21

wait... that's alpaca?


Protein based fibers are easy to dye when you use acid. The dye will permanently bond to the protein if you do it right.

Try citric acid if the vinegar isn't enough to bind the dye to the fiber.

Add the acid TO the dye. Simmer it all with the fiber, either wool (alpaca included) or silk. Rinse in cool water and it should work well.



Protein fibers can also be dyed with kool-aid in the microwave, thanks to the citric acid in it. What's amazing about dyeing wool and other protein fibers is that you'll be able to see the water in the dye pot turn clear once the fiber has absorbed it all.

r_harris2 (author)2013-10-20

a good instructible and a graphic demonstration of the fact that end colors are often different than the original source material !

ChrysN (author)2013-10-19

Nice, it is interesting to see the difference between using salt and vinegar mordants, I'd love to see the effects of the other mordants.

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