Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stirring Up Color in the Kitchen

I've had the best time experimenting with natural dyes lately. I'm talking natural dyes that come from plants. The yarns above are dyed with, (left to right), coffee, pomegranate hulls and black beans. I've learned about the how's of natural dyeing by poking around at various sites and the process is pretty straight forward.

1. MORDANT your wool with alum and cream of tartar. (Must be protein based fiber such as wool, alpaca and silk. Cotton and plant based fibers require different mordants). I used 1 Tablespoon + 2 teaspoons of Alum and 2 teaspoons of Cream of Tartar to 4 ounces (about 100 grams) of wool.

Mordanting sounds so scientific, but it's simply the act of heating your wool in a pot of water that contains the dissolved mordants for a period of time, then allowing it to cool and soak for 12 hours or so. I bought my mordants at
Dharma Trading Company and found some good step by step directions at Earth Guild. This site contains some good detailed information regarding cautions with mordants and the process required to avoid damaging your wool.

2. EXTRACT your chosen dye. This process depends upon the plant you're using. You'll find instructions for the amount of plant material to use indicated as % WOG, which means percentage of weight of goods or in this case, fiber to be dyed.

With the coffee, I used 100% WOG, (or 100 grams coffee grounds to my 100 grams of wool sock yarn). I extracted the dye by simmering the grounds in water in my crockpot overnight, then prepared it for the mordanted wool by pouring the solution through floursack tea towels several times. This removed much of the oil as well as the coffee grounds.
With the pomegranate, I used at least 200% WOG of pomegranate hulls, chopped up and simmered the hulls for several hours.
The black bean dye was created by soaking two pounds of dried black beans in room temperature filtered water for 48 hours. I didn't heat them at all and have read that others have gotten different, lighter colors when the bean water is heated. You can read of others natural dye results in the Ravelry Plants to Dye For group.

3. IMMERSE your fiber in the dye for a period of time. Both the pomegranate and coffee dyes were heated with the fiber similar to the heating involved in mordanting, but the blue of the beans were obtained by just a prolonged soaking at room temperature. My bean wool soaked for about 48 hours to get the dark blue color you see.

Afterwards, I rinsed the skeins in cool water, pressed the water out and allowed them to hang to air dry. I'll follow up to let you know how color fast these yarns turn out to be. I'm concerned about the bean skeins, which rinsed totally clear, but left a pink stain on a white towel the skeins sat in for a period of time before hanging to dry. We'll see...

This pomegranate dyed skein is not superwash, and I've noticed that superwash wools take up much more intense colors. I also didn't use a mordant on this one, since I've read that pomegranate itself is used as a mordant. When I do this again, I'll try it with a mordant and on superwash yarn to see what I get. The experientation possibilities and permutations are wide open.


  1. That blue is to dye for! Love it and I can't believe you did it with Black Beans!!! Amazing!!!

  2. These are incredible - I would never have considered beans to dye yarn. What did you use as base yarn? Beautiful end product!

  3. Thanks! The base yarn for the bean dye skeins are a DK superwash that was white with little flecks of color. The pomegranate dyed skein is Paton's Classic Wool in white and the coffee dyed skein is Rio de Plata sock yarn that was a very light yellow/cream/violet color.

  4. I looove those colors. Especially the black beans.
    I'm a member of the rav plant dye group too, there's so many interesting ideas on there. Can't wait to see what you do next.

  5. I love the blue too! I'll have to go and look at the ravelry dye group. Beautiful work. =)

  6. The black bean blue is great! So you used the Alum and Cream of Tartar mordant for that one also? may I ask what your recipe was for the mordant bath? I am also new to the natural dyeing process, and have tried a few basic things like Onion Skins, Blueberries, some roots/leaves.

    You really inspire me to try some more natural dyeing too!

    Jolene (
    fiddle_grrl AT Hotmail DOT com

  7. Add me as another one who loves that blue! Beans - who knew?

  8. Jolene: My recipe for the mordant bath is: 1 Tablespoon + 2 teaspoons of Alum and 2 teaspoons of Cream of Tartar to 4 ounces (about 100 grams) of wool. I just dissolve that in about a cup of hot water, then add the mixture to a crockpot with some room temp water. I then add my soaked yarn and turn on the crockpot, bring it to a simmer and allow it to simmer for an hour or so. Then I turn it off and allow it all to sit overnight. Then I give it a rinse before dyeing.