Introduction: Natural Dye With Jewelweed
When I started to spin wool, I ended up with a lot of un-dyed yarn that was a blank canvas full of potential. I took inspiration from the plants that grew in abundance right outside my back door, and tried my hand at dyeing with anything I could get my hands on. Of all the plants I've tried, I had the most fun and (arguably) the best results with jewelweed (impatiens capensis), also known as "Touch-Me-Nots." Most people are familiar with jewelweed as a natural remedy for poison ivy, but I was thrilled to discover a lesser known use: its stalks and leaves make a beautiful, colorfast, dusky pale-orange dye. I think of it as cantaloupe.
This tutorial includes instructions for every step: preparing the fiber for dye with a mordant, making the dye, and dyeing the fiber. The same methods can be used to dye with many other plants, such as Goldenrod or Queen Anne's Lace, but others (particularly berries) require different procedures. Have fun experimenting!
It will take quite a few hours to do this properly, and you will get best results if you take a break between steps to let things cool down overnight. Try not to be too impatiens :)
For this project, you will need:
- Jewelweed, or other plantstuff
- Wool to be dyed
- Lots of water
- Vinegar (optional)
- Cream of tartar (optional)
- Large, non-reactive pot
- Extra pots or buckets
- Rubber gloves (use them throughout!)
Ideally, use a non-reactive pot to dye in, such as stainless steel or enamel. Using iron or copper may affect the color of the dye. Though technically it's not the best choice, the pots I have on hand are aluminum, and it has worked out alright for me.
Step 1: Choose Your Fiber for Dyeing
Wool takes natural dyes very well, if treated properly. You probably won't have as much success with other natural fiber types; you're welcome to experiment, but for best results I highly recommend wool. For this tutorial, I used handspun yarn made with Romney wool.
You can use the same steps to dye raw (scoured) fleece, un-spun roving, yarn, or a finished knit or woven product. More care must be taken with fleece and roving to prevent felting, but the dye will work just the same at any stage.
Whatever you choose to dye, weigh it before you move on to the next step. This will be important for determining what amounts of other ingredients to use.
Note: Fiber felts with the combination of heat, water, and agitation. At certain stages of this project, your fiber will be both wet and very hot. Be very gentle with the fiber at those stages. At all costs avoid stirring, squeezing, wringing, or poking fiber when it's hot and/or wet. Don't even touch it any more than absolutely necessary!
Step 2: Soak Fiber in Water & Vinegar
After you recorded how much your wool weighs when it's dry, start by soaking it for an hour in a solution of 4 parts water to 1 part vinegar. Use enough to cover your fiber and get it fully saturated.
Why this step? Fibers need to be wet before they're put in a dye bath or a mordant solution, for best results and for even absorption. Natural dyes with wool often work better if they're acidic, hence the vinegar. But you don't need to go overboard; using TOO much vinegar may damage the wool instead of helping it. You may also omit the vinegar, and hope for the best.
Step 3: Pre-mordant Fiber With Alum & Cream of Tartar
Before you actually dye your fiber, you will need to pre-dye it with a "mordant." If you've never done it before this probably seems unexpected and daunting, but take a breath and don't panic!
A mordant is a solution that chemically bonds to both the wool and to the dye, acting like glue to make them stick together. The alum is the main active ingredient. Cream of tartar helps it out and brightens the color a bit. Both can be found in the spices section of the grocery store, or ordered (much cheaper in bulk) online. How much you need depends on the amount of fiber you're dyeing. Be sure to use the dry weight of your fiber to calculate the amounts to use. You'll find different recipes, but I follow these basic ratios:
- 8% alum to weight of fiber
- 7% cream of tartar to weight of fiber
In practical terms, this means:
- for every 4 ounces (113 g) of wool fiber, use 1.5 tsp alum and 1.5 tsp cream of tartar.
Once you have calculated the proper amounts, put the alum and cream of tartar in a cup. Add some hot water, and stir to dissolve. Add the mixture to a dye pot full of enough water to cover your fiber, and stir. Then add the fiber to the pot, and bring it to a simmer. Keep it at a simmer for one hour, and turn off the heat. Let the fiber cool in the pot, preferably overnight for best results. In the meantime you can get started on making the dye bath.
Why this step? You can skip this step, but depending on what plant stuff you use, the dye will probably be very pale or wash out right away. Some natural dyes (walnut, indigo, turmeric) don't require a mordant, but most do. Once you have mordanted your fiber, it is permanently altered. You can dry it at this stage and store it to dye later, or you can keep it wet and put it right into a dye bath.
Note: Alum doesn't affect the color of the dye, but there are other chemicals that you can use as mordants, which DO change the color. Using an iron sulfate solution with jewelweed, for instance, will produce a dark green color instead of a dusky orange.
Step 4: Collect Jewelweed for Dyeing
Locate a stand of jewelweed, which commonly grows in shady, damp wooded areas throughout eastern North America and blooms in May through October.
Cut or pick the entire plant except for the roots, which are full of mud and dirt when pulled up. Jewelweed has orange or yellow flowers, but the dye actually comes from the stalk and leaves. You can pick jewelweed for dyeing throughout the summer, even before the flowers start to show up!
Fill your dye pot if you can, but in any case be sure to collect at least twice as much plant material as the fiber you plan to dye, by dry weight.
Step 5: Boil Jewelweed in Water
Fill the pot with enough water to cover the plant matter. Bring it to a simmer, and keep it simmering just under a boil for an hour or two. At this point you can check the dye bath to make sure you're getting good color out of the jewelweed. The water should have turned bright orange! Turn the heat off, and allow it to cool a bit.
Note: Keep in mind that the orange of the dye is much brighter than the finished product will be. It may look bright at this stage, but you'll end up with a duskier, less saturated color.
Step 6: Strain Out Plant Matter
Strain out the plant matter, leaving a clean orange dye bath, and let it fully cool down to room temperature. You won't want to "shock" your fiber: sudden temperature changes can cause it to felt.
Step 7: Simmer Fiber in Jewelweed Dye
Gently place your room-temperature, pre-mordanted fiber into your room-temperature dye pot. Bring it back up to a simmer, and keep it at a simmer just under boiling for an hour. Turn off the heat, and let it cool in the pot.
Note: It may seem repetitive and pointless to let everything cool down, only to heat it up again. But it's worth being patient. The extra steps will keep your fiber in the best possible condition, and to allow time for the mordant to set and take up as much dye as possible for the most saturated results.
Step 8: Rinse Dyed Fiber in Clean Water
Have a second pot or bucket on hand, filled with clean room temperature water. After the dye pot has cooled to room temperature, remove the dyed fiber from the pot and place it in the clean water. Let it soak to release the extra dye that hasn't bonded to the fiber, and then repeat this step. Remove the fiber and place it in a pot of clean water, repeating until the water runs clear. Some kinds of dye require many rinses, but jewelweed doesn't really seem to. No more dye seeped out of my yarn after just two rinses.
When little to no dye seems to be coming out, optionally add a small amount of mild soap (such as Dawn) before the final rinse.
Step 9: Hang Dyed Fiber to Dry
Find a place to hang your fiber to dry. Resist the urge to wring it out right away. Even without heat, too much agitation can cause it to felt even at this stage. You may gently press it, if you absolutely must, but it's best just to hang it up and wait.
In general it's a good idea to keep natural-dyed products out of direct sunlight as much as possible, to prevent fading. That said, I hung my jewelweed skeins in the sun for faster drying, and the dye held up just fine.
Step 10: Stash Your Dyed Fiber, or Use It!
Congratulations, you are done!
If you don't plan to spin/knit/crochet/weave it up right away, store your fiber out of the sun, just to be on the safe side. Natural dyes do generally fade after time, but in my experience jewelweed makes a dye that is quite colorfast and lightfast. I have seen no fading in the project featured in this tutorial, and several years have passed since I dyed it.