Dyeing with Black Walnuts

Spurred on by all your encouraging comments re: the tester-strip scarf, I have been on a spree of dyeing using those walnuts I told you about.

Here is the basket of walnuts that Ruth and I gathered on Tuesday.

This is Saint Mary’s Butts in Reading, and if you stand exactly where I was standing when I took this photo, then you shall see at your feet many blackening round things that look like limes, and have a sweetish, citrusy aroma. These are the fruits of the black walnut tree and they contain a very powerful dye.

Do not, as I foolishly did, peel these fruits with your bare hands. Rubber gloves are essential to the process of opening up these fruits. After bathing my hands in neat chlorine bleach for some time and also a fabric-whitening solution, my fingernails still look like this and my hands are stained a dirty brown grey.

There is, as they say, no teacher like experience.

Oweing to the masses of tannins in the flesh, they begin to darken almost immediately upon exposure to the air. Incidentally, this is one of the signs you look for in apples when selecting for cider; tannins lend specific flavours to cider and – just like with the walnut – the quantity of tannin the apple will determine how quickly its flesh turns brown. From this approximate rule-of-thumb I am pretty sure that black walnuts are full of tannins.

Inside the stringy pulp at the middle is a hard, nobbly walnut. This walnut is smaller and more difficult to open than the more commonly eaten Persian walnut. It takes a lot of scrubbing to get anything that looks like this.

To make my first black-walnut dyebath, I used only the green fleshy hulls of the walnut seed pods, although there are plenty of different recipes that suggest you toss the whole thing in, nut and all. I shall dry out the walnuts and crack them open after a 2-week curing period, then I shall save all the dried hulls and see what kinds of dye they yield. For now, however, I put all the green hulls into water, boiled this for a long period of time, strained off the liquid through a colander and a cloth (to catch any vagrant stringy bits) and put it back up on my cooker, ready to receive wool. I reserved the once-boiled walnut hulls in a bucket as I was sure I could extract more dye from them in a subsequent boiling.

I feel I must divulge here how unappealing my dye bath looked when I had boiled my walnut hulls in it for an hour or so; also, the process of boiling the hulls seems to turn the initially pleasant fragrance of the walnuts into a foul, overpowering stench.

However if you try this yourselves, you must not be put off by the malodorous qualities of this concoction, for once you have strained your liquid back into your dyepot you will see that it is a rich olive/mahogany colour, and that a layer of natural oils has gathered on the top lending the dark waters a viscous, potion-esque air. I love a dyebath with its latent colouring-powers.

I skeined up a ball of 100% shetland wool in an oatmeal colour and soaked it in water while the hulls were boiling, then placed this wet skein of wool into the dyebath and boiled it for about an hour. Then I switched off the heat, put the lid on my dyepot and went out for 24 hours. When I returned, I poured the dyebath away and watched the lovely dark swirls of walnut dye spiral away down the plughole.

Do you see that luscious brown wool? After I rinsed it, I took it outside, along with the piece of cloth that I used to strain the dyebath through, and hung it on Mark’s walnut tree to photograph it.

I am not sure whether Mark’s walnut tree is a persian or black variety, but I think it makes a very handsome place to strew one’s freshly-dyed textiles. What do you think? This is the piece of cloth (I think it is a cotton/silk blend?) that I used to strain the dyebath through, and which I subsequently rinsed and added to the first dyebath. I am delighted with its rich, dark colour, but it has turned out quite differently from the wool, being somehow greener and less chocolatey.

In colour the yarn I dyed is not dissimilar from the naturally brown shetland wool that I used to knit Mark’s jumper. However, the brown of this dyed yarn seems to my eyes to have a much more saturated quality than the heathery browns present in that other, naturally brown wool. Because this dyed skein has been deeply and evenly penetrated throughout by a strong colour, the colours are distributed very differently along the fibres. I like the flatness and certainty of this walnut brown, I like that it is a substantive dye which requires no mordant, and I like that I found it underneath a tree in a church garden where it was basically waiting to be swept away and dumped or composted by whoever maintains St Mary’s Butts.

I enjoyed how very physical this whole process has been; my fingertips hurt from a combination of scrubbing those hard little shells and being in turn scrubbed with fabric-whitener, while my nose now has a strong memory of the distinctive fragrances associated with this project. I enjoyed the hauling of buckets, the pouring of liquids and the magic of pulling wool out of a dyebath, not quite knowing how it was going to look. I have made up a second dyebath and added my M&S organic cotton bag to it; there will be more news of this tomorrow, and when that second dyebath is exhausted, I plan to add an alum-mordanted skein of shetland to it, in order to see what happens then…

…I am really impressed by how much colour a basket full of fallen walnuts can yield, and happy at the thought of what I might knit out of this wool with its acquired connotations of walnuts, St Mary’s Butts, and a happy gathering session with Ruth on Tuesday.

12 Responses to Dyeing with Black Walnuts

  1. Ruth says:

    Impressive stuff! I’ve loved these posts on dyeing – please do keep doing them đŸ™‚

  2. Ellen says:

    You are reminding me that I still have two bottles of gorgeous walnut ink which I got when I was an art student. It’s luscious stuff! Must go use!

  3. Liz T. says:

    That’s a fabulous brown! You could use it for some really defined colourwork.

  4. jeannette says:

    did i make this comment already or am i dreaming? i husked some walnuts once and had hepatic brown hands for two weeks.
    this is a wonderful tale — are the nuts edible? if so — even if not — i will find you jane grigson’s wonderful recipe for walnut bread.

  5. Petit Filoux says:

    Whao is all I can say. That wool looks amazing, the colour is simply wonderful. I remember walking around that church (not far from the the Fez if I’m correct?) back when I was at uni in Reading!!!

  6. Wendolene says:

    What gorgeous yarn! Brown is one of my favorite colors, and I was very impressed at how dark and strong the color came out. No wonder people used to use walnuts for ink.

  7. Philippa says:

    So that’s what those funny blackening green things are! I can smell them just reading this post (and the yarn, and the boiling walnuts – I wonder why; I don’t think I have done such a thing). The yarn is beautiful. Reading this post made me very happy. Except for your poor hands. Better happy stained fingers than bleached and raw digits.

  8. colleen says:

    I have so enjoyed reading tales of your dyeing, which have coincided with some things I have been thinking about (laundry!). Many years ago I pickled some green walnuts and suffered more mildly from walnut staining. And read once that travellers used walnuts to dye their hair black when it started to go grey. Not sure how much credence there is to that story; and unwilling to test.

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