This is the woad I planted and in 2007, when I lived in Oxford.
And here is the yarn I dyed using that woad, along with some sunflower-heads, rhubarb leaves and brambles, along with tin, iron, copper and alum mordants.
I spent some time organising all those colours into different shades, and I created a tester-strip card with a sample of each shade wrapped around it.
I liked this tester-strip card so much that I went on to create a scarf based on it. It is a simple feather-and-fan affair with a distinct section of each colour in it, the idea being that I can refer to the tester-strip and back to the scarf intermittently until I have learned the colours off by heart. I like the idea that this scarf represents a series of learning processes related – but not confined – to knitting. As the Winter draws closer, it is time to get the scarf out again. And today, when I was gathering green walnuts outside St Mary’s Butts Church, (also for a natural-dyeing experiment) I remembered that I wrote a piece about this scarf and about how you could make one, called Botaknits. I decided to dig it out and put it here as inspiration to anyone who is thinking of ordering or planting a few dye plants.
There will be walnut dyeing in coming days.
From seeds to stitches…
One of the reasons that people donâ€™t dye their own wool using plants is the unpredictability of the resultant colours. Reproducing colours precisely when using natural materials is an expert skill and if you want enough madder or woad-dyed yarn to make a jumper thatâ€™s pretty uniform in colour, you are best off buying it from someone who does this for a living and knows what they are doing.
But if unpredictable colours, small projects, seasonal processes and experimentation are your thing, you could make a tester strip scarf using some things that you plant and some things that just happen to be in the garden. Making a tester-strip scarf will allow you to try out a lot of different things on a lot of small quantities of yarn and means you will only be dyeing manageable quantities like 25 – 50g of yarn at a time.
If you donâ€™t have a garden, you can probably find some plants that will yield interesting results growing on wastelands. Never take rare or endangered species, but be assured that nobody will mind if you haul home armfuls of brambles or blackberries â€“ both of which yield interesting results. If you have any friends with allotments, you might ask them to keep their poisonous rhubarb leaves for you as these produce interesting dye results (especially if dried) and you can easily set aside a container in your kitchen for collecting onion skins â€“ a rich source of yellows, oranges, tawny shades and browns.
You will need a couple of stainless steel pots, a colander and a plastic spatula or other stirring implement that you donâ€™t also use for cooking, a good cooking thermometer, a well-ventilated kitchen, somewhere to hang yarn while it dries, some mordants for preparing the wool for dyeing, and an apron. I also find it very handy to keep some old, clean glass jars about the place as these are useful for storing dried plant materials in and unused mordants.
Finally you will need some dye plant seeds and some undyed, 100% wool. You can use wool blends but these will give pale, unpredictable results. Wool has a lot of protein in it, and it is this protein which dyestuffs bond with. Using 100% wool also has the added bonus that you will be able to split-splice all your tester-balls together when it comes to knitting your scarf, eliminating the need to sew in any ends!
For my tester-strip scarf I planted woad and a whole mix of different varieties of sunflower. The rhubarb (happily) and the brambles (sadly) were already established in the garden. I got into a few dye-related habits, which are important activities for the casual, natural-dyer of yarns! Whenever we picked Rhubarb for crumble, I pinned the leaves to the window frame in my studio where they dried out. I then kept the dried Rhubarb leaves in a glass jar. I also dead-headed the sunflowers whenever the blooms started looking past their best and put the flower heads directly into a plastic bag in the freezer. The woad I was especially cultivating so I tended to that, weeding it wherever necessary and keeping it well watered. I also dug compost into the ground before planting the woad. You need to get woad into the ground as soon as it is looking relatively established as it has a large root and needs more nutrients than can be found in a pot. The brambles I fought with and weeded relentlessly all summer but there were still plenty of young shoots for the dye pot when the time for dyeing came!
When the time for dyeing came, I took my undyed yarn and turned it into large skeins. I did this around the back of a chair. I secured the skeins with cotton string in four places on each one, and then placed the skeins into a large basin of hot water to soak. I tied my string quite tightly, which meant that the dyeing result was uneven as the dyebath couldnâ€™t reach the fibres directly under each tie. I didnâ€™t care about uniformity of colour so this was fine with me, but if you want even colours, you must keep your ties loose enough to let the fibres move, but not so loose that the skein falls apart and turns into a giant tangle. The longer you can soak the yarn for, the better. As long as the whole skein is wet through, the mordant and dye baths will fully penetrate the fibres giving even and rich colouration.
Once your wool is all wet through, you can mordant it. Any natural dyes book will explain this process in more depth than I can here, but the mordants are important for fixing the dyes to the yarn and also for bringing out different shades in the dyebath. Usually mordanting requires dissolving alum, copper sulphate or tin in a big pot of water and keeping this very warm with your wool in it, for a couple of hours. Many people donâ€™t use tin as it is quite toxic, and alum is considered to be an irritant, but these are decisions for you to make yourself. Tin gives lovely, bright shades and is only used in very tiny quantities so I use it, but many other dyers donâ€™t. Whichever mordants you do/donâ€™t decide to use, you must keep the windows wide open during this part of the process in order to prevent inhaling too many fumes and stinking the house out with the smell of hot, wet wool. Once wool is mordanted it must be taken out of the mordant bath, rinsed, and dried. It is important never to put hot wet wool into cold wet wool, as this shocks the fibres and can make them felt! As long as you donâ€™t agitate the wool too much and as long as you always transfer skeins between liquids of the same temperature, your yarn ought not to felt. You must let mordanted wool cool to the same temperature as the water you are going to rinse it in and then rinse it thoroughly. After doing this I tied brown card labels onto my skeins with the names of the mordants on them, and then added the names of various plants to the tags as the skeins were successively dyed. This meant that there was always a bit of yarn hanging outside of the dyebath with a tag tied on it that didnâ€™t get dyed (provides interesting variegated results!) but if you want uniform colours, permanent marker on plastic tape labels ought to work for labelling the skeins.
Once your skeins are mordanted and labelled, you are ready to dye them in whatever dyebaths you plan on making. These will all be prepared according to the plants you have chosen to work with. For my scarf I harvested the woad fresh and prepared it according to Rita Buchananâ€™s recipe while the frozen sunflower heads, dried rhubarb leaves and bramble shoots were all simmered for several hours in large quantities of water. The sunflower mix was also left to steep overnight. I strained the liquid off each of these dyebaths and then simmered hot, wet, mordanted wool in them. The woad dyebath doesnâ€™t appear blue as you would expect; rather, it is sort of a brackish greeny yellow. This is because the indigotine which is the pigment in the plant that dyes your yarn blue, is not water soluble. It bonds with the yarn through a process of oxidisation and starts to show up on your skein as it dries in the air above the dyebath. I just allowed my woad-dyed skeins of yarn to dry naturally, fully oxidising with the air, before rinsing them, while the wool I dyed using other plants got rinsed in water of the same temperature pretty much as soon as it came out of the dyebath.
Once I had all my skeins marked up with their dye and mordant details attached and hung up to dry, I started playing with the colours and organising them according to their different shades. I cut indentations along a strip of cardboard and wound samples of each colour along with their dye + mordant details down the length of it so that I had a record of how each colour had come about. I liked this record card so much that I decided to translate it into the idea of a scarf, rather like those tester-strips that you get at the DIY shop when you are choosing a paint-shade. I knew that wearing and knitting the scarf would have the massive advantage of allowing me to test the light fastness of the colours I had dyed, and to have a kind of portable record of the dye-process with me. I chose a feather and fan stitch pattern that I had found online and cast on. I split-spliced each new yarn in as the previous colour ran out, eliminating the need to weave in any ends, and when it was done, I washed it in a little conditioner to soften it where the successive dyebaths had made the yarn a little bit dry.
When I look at my finished scarf, I am reminded of the sea. I love the strange blues that came out of the woad/mordant experiment and the successive washes of green that follow it. I now know that for a true, solid blue, it will be better not to use any mordants and that a tin mordant results in no dye being taken up by the yarn going into a woad bath! And that if I want to get a bright green, I need to dye the yarn yellow first then put it into a woad bath rather than the other way around. I also know that I can get a very rich shade from sunflower heads if I use a lot of them (a kind of chocolate green.) And I have learned that dried rhubarb leaves give a much richer, tawnier, orangey colour than the fresh ones, and that brambles give a lovely softish yellow green.
But what I enjoyed most about this process was that there was no possibility of getting it â€˜wrong.â€™ Because I set out with only the commitment to learn something about colours and because I only had a little time and a couple of undyed skeins of wool to lose, I found the whole process enjoyable. The scarf is both a garment and a record of sorts. Nobody else can ever make a scarf like this because nobody else will have the exact conditions of weather, soil, time, gardening habits and lucky plant finds that I experienced… Instead, you will find and grow your own plants, make your own mistakes and make wearable records which speak of them and be unique to you. That is the beauty of the tester-strip scarf… that is the beauty of Botaknits.
Plant seeds and let them grow.
Harvest cultivated plants, gather lucky finds, amass dystuffs.
Organise wool into skeins, mordant and label.
Create dyebaths using assembled dyestuffs and water.
Dye according to recipes, instructions in dye books and intuition.
Rinse and dry yarn.
Organise yarn into a colour sequence that you find pleasing.
Wind successive colours into balls, attaching a small piece of each colour onto a card with a record of what you used to make the colour.
Pick a stitch pattern that is pleasing to you.
Cast on the correct number of stitches using the first colour in your sequence, knit until it runs out. Join with next colour using split-splice method and continue with the next colour. Continue in this way until your yarns are all used up.
Condition your scarf with a nice conditioner if necessary.
Block and wear the scarf.
Observe the effects of light upon the colours and keep the shade-card you made so you can tell other, interested people, what plants you used to dye the yarn.
Books are an enormous help. I especially love Rita Buchananâ€™s A dyerâ€™s garden : From Plant to Pot – Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers. This book has an excellent (and easy) recipe for dyeing with fresh woad leaves in it as well as a lot of good ideas for planning your dye garden and caring for your dye plants. I also love Dye Plants and Dyeing by John Cannon, Margaret Cannon, and Gretel W. Dalby-Quenet as it features very inspiring illustrations and a lot of background information on all the plants. It is less practical than Buchananâ€™s book, but it includes things like Ivy and Wallflower that are not covered in any other dye books that Iâ€™ve read, and which can easily be obtained without having a garden of your own.
You can buy a mordants starter pack from fibrecrafts that has a little bit of everything for the purposes of your experiments, and for my whole scarf (it is pretty massive) I used only 200g of pure, British, Bluefaced Leicester from Texere Yarns; product code DY280 Wool.