Do or Dye

‘Round about this time every winter my wandering creative eye starts to fixate on my spinning stash, as the cold and unpleasant weather of the Midwest drives me toward indoor activities that will relieve my mounting cabin fever. Besides spinning wool into crazy art yarns, I also hand dye wool rovings myself using professional acid dyes or experimenting with natural & botanical eco dyeing.

This year, my dye cabinet really needed to be worked through – I had POUNDS of wools stuffed in there waiting to be painted, and jars of dye I hadn’t even cracked open yet. On top of that whole situation, another imminent move (I’m a roving artist, myself – har har) meant that I really needed to downsize.

So in I dove, resolved to color all of the wool that I had laying around and produce a stash of things I could spin for years to come. 10-12 hours of labor and days of setting and drying time later, I had an extremely pretty and earthy toned woolen rainbow to cuddle.

My acid dye batch included some dyeable prespun merino yarn and a fistful of silky-soft baby Suri alpaca locks – lush!

But after that massive batch of acid dyeing, I decided I wasn’t done yet. I saved back about a half pound of wool because I had last summer’s reject elderberries sitting in my freezer, preserved with the intent to commit eco-dye.

In the past I’ve created my own botanical & food based natural dyes out of tea, coffee, turmeric, pokeberry, black walnut, and avocado – as well as trying out some commercial botanical dyes – and had mixed results. Usually it’s quite hard to get the homemade natural dyes strong enough to get good color and to mordant the fiber properly to get the color to stick. Still I get tempted because I’m a mad fiber scientist at heart!

The lightly toned roving in the picture above comes from commercially derived botanical dye liquids and represent the strongest colors I’ve ever gotten out of a natural dye.

In the late summer when we harvested 15-20 pounds of wild elderberries to make syrup and jelly, I discovered that while rinsing our little treasures the overripe and underripe berries tended to float to the top of the rinse water, making them easy to scoop out leaving the plump, juicy berries sunken at the bottom. I saved back all these rejects knowing at some point I’d try to dye with them, the perfect solution to not wasting pounds of harvest.

The dye process was quick, and I used this excellent post from Woollenflower to guide me. After a mordanting soak during which I boiled down my frozen berries, I drained the wool and put the dye berries through a cheesecloth sieve to separate off the liquid. The wool roving went into quart canning jars, each portioned with citric acid and elderberry juice, and I popped them into the canner to steam for about an hour. After the heat was applied, I let them cool overnight.

While most of the dye rinsed out, I’m still very happy with the gorgeous muted purples and pinks that appeared! Elderberry is particularly sensitive to pH levels, and I aimed to created a mottled effect with some alkaline color and some acidic color on the rovings – it’s hard to tell because none of my picture taking equipment captures these subtle tones in natural light, but I’m pleased with the result 🙂

I don’t expect a ton of colorfastness from this batch, so I’ll probably reserve this wool for creating a wall hanging, as I did with some of my Avocado dyed wool – an indoor decoration is the perfect solution to delicately dyed natural fibers which tend to fade in sunlight or with multiple washings.

A dreamcatcher I made using peachy-pink natural avocado-dyed alpaca fiber, handspun by me. I also crocheted the happy li’l cado in the middle 🙂

I can’t stop looking at this gorgeous woolen rainbow, which I’ve had strung along my photo backdrop curtain string for weeks at this point just because it’s too dang pretty all displayed together like that 😉 But today I’ll pack it all away, now that my last stash of undyed wool is colored. I successfully cleaned out my to-dye-for wool stash, but now where do I put all the dyed wool??? Ha!

Almost all of my dyes, mordants, and dyeable wools come from Dharma Trading Co., a USA based tie-dye and fiber art supply company, and I highly recommend them for their products, free resources, and customer service!

-MF