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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Solar Dyeing with Native Plant Trimmings

Fall is pruning time for many Southern California native plants.  You can put your garden trimmings to use as mulch or compost;  or you can use them  to color yarn or fabric.   The easiest material to dye is wool yarn.  The physical/chemical structures of wool fibers allow them to bind natural dyes readily.  We’d like to introduce you to an easy way to dye wool/wool blend yarn using your garden trimmings.  But first, a little background that will help you dye with confidence.

Plant pigments & natural dyes    Plants make a number of colorful compounds called pigments.  People have used these pigments to dye fibers, yarn and cloth for thousands of years.   There are well known natural dye plants; for example, most people know that indigo dye comes from the ‘Indigo Plant’.  The dye potential of other plants – like some California native species – has not yet been fully explored.

Natural dyes can be made from most plant parts.  That being said, some native plants (and some plant parts) make more effective dyes than others.   Commonly used plant parts are leaves, branch tips (leaves and small stems), flowers, roots, bark and wood.  At this time of year, your garden may still have flowers from fall-blooming Sunflowers (Annual Sunflower; Goldenrod; Goldenbushes; Rabbitbush).  These flowers – and those of other yellow and orange ‘sunflowers’  like marigolds and Encelia – make wonderful yellow dyes.  But at this time of year, your best source of dye materials is leaf/stem trimmings.   

With a few exceptions, it’s difficult to predict the color of a dye from the color of the plant or flower.  At least two reasons explain this: 1) most plants make several pigments (only one of which may be obvious to the eye); 2) some pigments change color as they are heated, aged, or are exposed to other chemicals.   This unpredictability actually makes natural dyes more interesting – you are often surprised by the results!

In general, plants/flowers in the Sunflower family produce reliable green, yellow and gold dyes.  Flowers and fruits that are pink, purple or blue usually don’t make good, lasting dyes (the colors are weak and don’t hold up to washing and sun exposure).  Dyes made from yellow or orange flowers – or from leaves and stems/branches – tend to be more permanent.   In general, natural dyes produce softer, less intense colors than those produced by chemical (aniline) dyes.  They have a pretty, old-fashioned appearance that’s easy on the eye and complements human skin tones nicely.

Amount of plant material needed     Generally, the more plant material you use, the more intense the dye color.   A good rule of thumb for solar dyeing is about 1-2 gallon-size bags worth of trimmings per 3-4 oz (100 gram) of yarn.  If you are using dried material, you’ll need to use about 2-3 gallons of material to get a good color.   You may need to crush the dried plant material to get it to fit in your pot/jar.

Heat & dye release    Plant pigments are mostly contained within plant cells.  The cell walls must be broken down to release the pigment into the dye bath.  The easiest way to do this is to heat the plant material.   Another way is to let the plant material decompose a bit.  Both processes are at work in solar dyeing.  

Wool and wool-blend yarns do not like to be ‘shocked’ by sudden temperature changes.  So always put wool yarn into liquids of a similar temperature (e.g. cool wool into cool water; warm wool into warm dye bath).  When heating wool yarn, use medium heat (or heat from the sun) and simmer – don’t boil – the yarn.

A - Red Heart 'Shimmer' - color: Snow - 100% acrylic
B - Lion Brand 'Wool-ease' - color: Natural Healther-98 - 20% wool/80% acrylic
C - Loops & Threads 'Luxury Wool' - color: White - 50% wool/50% acrylic
D - Paton's 'Classic Wool' - color: Aran-00202 - 100% wool
E - KnitPicks 'Bare' - color: bare - 100% wool
E' - same as E, but not mordanted
Type of yarn    The type of yarn used greatly affects solar dye projects.  The photo above shows  a dye experiment using five different types of yarn.   Note that the brightest, truest colors come from the yarns with 100% wool content.   The dye uptake generally decreases as the proportion of wool in the yarn decreases.  The 100% acrylic yarn shows only a subtle effect of the dye. 

While 100% wool yarns produce the most predictable results, any yarn with at least 20% wool content will take up some dye.   Results using wool blends can, in fact, be spectacular!  So you may want to experiment with different yarns, including the ‘washable wools’.   

All yarns used in the dye experiment shown above (except yarn ‘E’) are available in local craft/yarn stores.   If you desire, you can order yarn specifically formulated for dying – at very reasonable prices – from KnitPicks (http://www.knitpicks.com/yarns/Dye_Your_Own_Knitting_Yarn__L300110.html.  KnitPicks ‘Bare’ yarns range from very thin (fingering weight) to bulky weight.   In addition to wool, KnitPicks also offers a limited selection of wool/silk blend yarns, wool ‘roving’ (prepared, unspun wool) and washable wool yarns.  The KnitPicks washable wool yarns produce nice bright colors with native plant dyes (see picture below).

Washable yarn: left dyed with Rabbitbush, right dyed with Toyon

Mordants   Traditional dyers discovered long ago that treating wool/yarn with certain substances increased the intensity and staying power of natural dyes.  These substances – called mordants – change the wool in subtle ways that make it hold the dye more strongly.   A common mordant used with wool is alum (potassium aluminum sulfate; ‘potassium alum’) or pickling/spice alum (ammonium aluminum sulfate). 

Potassium alum is available from chemical supply companies and on-line from natural dye supply companies like the Woolery (http://www.woolery.com/store/pc/Mordants-Surfactant-Soda-c501.htm).   Pickling alum (ammonium aluminum sulfate) is widely used in foods and other products.  You can sometimes find it in the spice aisle in local grocery stores (sometimes in the Mexican food spice section).   You can also order it on-line quite cheaply (just google ‘pickling alum’ or ‘alum’).   Alum is usually used with another readily available substance – cream of tartar (tartaric acid).  We get ours in a big container at Smart & Final.

Mordants are dissolved in water and then applied to the yarn or cloth.   There are many ways to do this.   We recommend mordanting your yarn before you dye it, to give good, even dye results with solar dyeing.   You can let the sun supply most of the energy and work of mordanting (see instructions below).  

Even though alum is a relatively safe mordant, you’ll want to handle mordants,  mordanted yarns/cloth  and dye materials/dye baths with rubber gloves.   You’ll also need to thoroughly wash all equipment used in the dye process after you’re finished.  If you continue do more than a little natural dyeing you will need a  dedicated set of pots/spoons, etc.  used just for dyeing.   Dye supplies and equipment should be stored away from cooking supplies/equipment.

Free movement insures even dye color    When using natural dyes it’s important that the yarn is able to float freely in the dye bath.  This allows all parts of the yarn to come in contact with the dye.   If necessary, add a little extra water to the dye bath to ensure that the yarn floats freely.

Disposal of used mordant, dye, rinse water and plant materials   All the spent (used) materials from this project are safe for disposal.  We recommend using the plant materials for mulch or compost.  The spent liquids are mostly water.  You can use them to water your garden plants (best option) or pour them down the drain.

Solar Dye Method  The solar dye method is a simple technique that uses a minimum of equipment and energy - and is fun to do.  You can try it with most  native plants commonly grown in local gardens.   You can even use non-native plants, garden vegetable plants and weeds.   Whatever plant you use, be sure to check (on-line is best) that the plant is non-toxic before you use it in solar dye projects.   One of the nice things about plants in the Sunflower family is that they not only are good dye plants but they also are safe to use.



·         Large, clear glass/plastic jar (at least 24 oz ; gallon size is better) with a lid* - you may need a second, smaller (at least 16 oz.)  clear jar with lid for mordanting

·         Old cooking pot (equivalent or larger volume than the large jar; enamel or stainless steel is best – aluminum is fine)**

·         Old spoon or stick (sturdy; wood or stainless steel best)**

·         Sieve/colander

·         Plastic dishwashing tub or plastic bucket (for rinsing dyed yarn)

·         Kitchen scale or measuring spoons

·         Hot pads

·         Heat source (stove or burner); optional – see Instructions

·         Rubber household gloves

·         Small mesh lingerie washing bag or mesh paint straining cloth (optional); helpful for containing plant materials /straining the dye bath)

·         Wool or wool-blend yarn (natural color/white/un-dyed; at least 20% wool content– 50% or more is best) -  one or two 100-gram (3-4 oz) skeins/hanks).  

·         Native plant clippings (see below for suggestions***); enough to fill your jar about 2/3 full; woody stems  should be cut into 2-3 inch long pieces

·         Alum mordant (10% of the weight of the yarn;  for example, if dyeing a 4 oz skein of yarn, you’ll need 10% of the yarn’s weight (0.4 oz) of alum); or use a skimpy Tablespoon of alum per skein.

·         Cream of tartar (5% of the weight of the yarn; in the example, you’d need 0.2 oz of Cream of Tartar to mordant the skein of yarn);  or one level teaspoon of cream of tartar per skein.


* try Smart & Final                  ** try thrift stores as a good source if you don’t have these 

*** Anything in the Sunflower family (Encelia; Annual Sunflower; Rabbitbush; Coyote Bush; Mule Fat; Goldenbush; CA Sagebrush; Goldenrod; Telegraph Plant; Yarrow);
Black Sage; Toyon; Ceanothus



Preparing the yarn  (can be done ahead of time or several days before the dye bath is ready). 

Most yarns purchased locally come in 3-4 oz (100 gm) balls.  You’ll need to rewind the yarn into loose skeins/hanks to insure even dyeing.   We find it’s easiest to wind skeins using the back of a chair (see above). 

Once the skein is created, tie the yarn ends together and then tie the skein loosely in three places.  We suggest using natural/white cotton string or crochet cotton - or short pieces of the yarn itself.  Place the tied skein in the plastic wash tub/bucket; soak it in lukewarm tap water while you prepare the mordant.  Be sure to squeeze the yarn to get out the air bubbles – yarn should be thoroughly soaked before it goes into the mordant solution or dye bath.  Most yarns should be soaked at least 30 minutes.

Next, dissolve the alum and cream of tartar in 1 1/2 cups of very hot water (from the tap or heated).  Remember to wear gloves when handling mordant. Stir to completely dissolve, then cool to lukewarm.  Place solution in the either the cooking pot or the smaller jar.   Add the wet yarn and additional tap water (as needed) to cover the yarn.  Swirl yarn gently in the solution.   Cover the pan with plastic wrap (or put the cover on the jar).  Place in a hot, sunny spot for 2-3 days.

Remove the yarn and rinse well in tap water. Gently squeeze the skein to remove the rinse water.  Dry the yarn for later use or put it directly into the prepared dye bath.  You can dry the yarn over a plastic hanger in the bathtub.  Or hang it from a clothes line outside to complete the drying.   The dry, pre-mordanted yarn is good for up to a year; store in a labeled plastic bag until ready to use.

Preparing the dye bath

The plant material must be small enough to fit through the mouth of the jar.  If needed, cut branches/twigs into 2-3 inch pieces with your pruners.  You can either place the plant material directly into the water or place it first into a mesh lingerie washing bag.   It’s easier to remove the plant materials if you use the mesh bag – but the choice is yours.  The heat won’t affect most laundry bags – if unsure, test the bag in boiling water before using it.

After the plant materials are cut to size, you can proceed in one of two ways: 1) put the plant material in the jar, add tap water to cover and place  in a sunny place for dye extraction, or ; 2) heat the plant material for a short time on the stove/heat source prior to putting it in the jar.  Note: if you are preparing dye from Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) , Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) or Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) you should use method 1 or heat the dye bath outdoors.   At high temperatures these plants produce cyanide fumes (smell like bitter almond) which are toxic.  

We recommend method 2 for most plant materials.  Although it uses a little energy, the dyes are more intense.  To pre-heat, put plant materials in the pot and cover them with tap water.   Bring the pot to a boil on high, then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the water shows some color.  Let the dye bath cool to lukewarm/cold and transfer it to the jar.  Cover with the lid (or plastic wrap).

For both methods,  place the covered jar in a warm/hot sunny place (a sunny window or patio works well).  Let the dye bath develop for 5 to 10 days.  Swirl the water every other day.  You’ll know the dye bath is ready when there’s no more change in color and the plant materials appear tan or pale.

Remove plant materials from the dye bath, then strain out small pieces using a strainer/colander or paint straining cloth.   You now have a prepared dye bath.

Dyeing the yarn

Pour the dye bath back into the jar.  If dry, soak the pre-mordanted yarn in lukewarm water for at least ½ hour.   Place wet yarn into the jar and check the liquid level.  If needed, add more water (so the yarn floats freely).  Place the capped jar back in the sun and let the sun’s rays work their magic!  Be sure to swirl the contents of the jar gently every other day.


In our experience it takes 5-14 days to complete the dye process.  In general, dye uptake is fastest in warm, sunny weather.  But some dyes just take longer.  You’ll know that dyeing is complete when the yarn remains the same color for several days.

Remove the yarn and gently rinse in cool tap water.  Grasp the yarn and rinse using an up-and-down motion.  This rinses and straightens the yarn.  Rinsing is complete when the rinse water remains clear.  Use the rinse water to water your plants.

Hang the dyed yarn up to dry in a dry, shaded place.  Fluff the yarn occasionally as it dries.   Re-wind the yarn into a nice ball.  And now you’re ready to use your newly dyed yarn for knitting, crochet or other craft projects.


You can access our brief instruction guide at:   http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/solar-dyeing-using-native-plant-trimmings-27255522

Learn more about native plants that can be used for dyes at: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/10/garden-crafts-colors-of-california-dyes.html

We hope you’ll enjoy solar dyeing as much as we do.  Feel free to send your  dyeing questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com .

1 comment:

  1. great article. thanks for the idea. will try it here in AZ - Koibeatu