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
Large pot for the mordant
Enamel pot for the dye
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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!