Black Beans and Rice for Dye-ner

Yarn dyed in onion skin, lichen, black rice, black beans, marigold

Someone on the natural dyeing thread of my Ravelry group asked me if it’s possible to dye with black rice. There wasn’t a lot to refer to when I googled the question, but I ran across a blog post that showed a bit of wool roving dyed in boiled black rice, and it was a deep rusty maroon that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to achieve. So the next day I built my morning walk around a visit to a fancy grocery store two miles away, and on my way there I noticed that a lot of lichen-covered pieces of bark had blown down from the trees after wind and rain the previous day. I picked them up and did not decline the offer of a bag with my package of black rice, and by the time I got home from my meandering path home through neighborhoods full of old lichen-covered trees, my package of black rice was well hidden under the bark I had collected. A search of Google images identified it as green shield/Flavoparmelia caperata. I couldn’t find anything online about what kind of color I might get from this lichen, but I did get a vague idea about how to extract whatever color might lie within.

But first, the black rice. I dumped the contents into a pot and put in twice or maybe three times as much water as the package said was needed for cooking. I should have been more diligent about measuring and recording what I did, but I wasn’t diligent and I didn’t measure. I just put in enough water to cook the rice and leave me with about three cups of dye. After cooking the rice for 40 minutes, the rice was cooked through but not mushy. I drained the excess water and set it aside for dyeing, and got busy turning the rice into dinner. I sautéed cubes of sweet potato in sesame oil with minced ginger, garlic, scallions and sesame seeds until I got tired of standing around stirring the skillet. The sweet potato was still crunchy, but I mixed it up with the rice, added sliced almonds and raisins, and seasoned it with gyoza sauce and a tiny bit of vinegar, and it was delicious. A few days later I supplemented the leftovers with cubes of marinated and baked tofu and baked sweet potato cubes that had been sautéed with ginger, and it was even better. The undercooked sweet potatoes from the first version tasted like apples. And I hadn’t even gotten to the main event, the dyeing.

A meal made with black rice after extracting dye
I came for the dyeing, but I stayed for the dining

The dye bath started off a dark, somewhat viscous reddish purple, and it didn’t take long for my alum-mordanted hank to turn the deep rusty maroon that I had seen in the blog post that had initiated my black rice adventure, so I removed the hank from the dye after only about 20 minutes. But when I washed it, it bled and bled and bled until it stabilized at a mid gray with purple tones that dominated my first photographs of the color and made it look much more purple than it really was. In real life, it’s a blue-gray or a gray-blue depending on the light. I put another mordanted hank into the dye and left it in the still-powerful bath for about 12 hours and got a darker inky color that swings between gray-blue and blue-gray, depending on the light, but the blue element in the dye seemed to get more dominant as the exhaust bath got weaker. The third dyeing is decidedly a grayish blue in all lights, it’s just a matter of degree varying according to the light conditions.

Three dyeings of black bean bath
First dyeing on the right, second on the left, third in the middle

By now my dye bath was pretty depleted. I had been reading about how pH can alter dye color, so I unscientifically added lemon juice to the exhaust bath until it turned pinkish. (Next Amazon purchase, a pH meter!) To my delight, I got a lavender after 12 hours in the bath. By this time, my bath was very weak, but I had a mordanted hank lying around, so I threw it in for about 24 hours. It came out barely not-white, with a pink-blue-gray tinge. I thanked the black rice dye for its service and sent the exhausted bath to its final resting place down the drain.

Center hanks dyed in black bean exhaust bath with added lemon
Lemon was added to black bean exhaust bath to produce the lavender hanks in the center

Amid all this black rice activity, I found some time to scrape the green shield lichen off the bark I had collected and came up with about a cup of lichen. I cleaned it the best I could and divided it into two batches in order to experiment with two extraction methods I had read about, the boiling water method and the ammonia method. There’s a simple way to test whether your lichen will respond well to the ammonia method, which is good for extracting pinks, purples, reds, and blues if you have the right kind of lichen, according to this blog post and this article: you dip a torn piece of lichen into bleach and see if the torn edge turns some variation on red. This is called the C test, C for chlorine, because of the chlorine bleach. I didn’t have any bleach, but I did have ammonia, so I made a 1:1 ammonia:water solution, which is probably too strong. It certainly smells vile.

I couldn’t find any particular instructions about proportions of lichen to water for my dye bath, so I made a guess and boiled a half cup of lichen with three cups of water. Within a half hour, the bath was an amber color. I turned off the heat, let the bath cool a bit, and left 2 oz. of yarn in it overnight. I didn’t mordant the yarn because I had read that fungi are “substantive”, whatever that means, and don’t need mordant. I got a nice orange-ish yellow that was different from any of the other yellow I’ve dyed, and I was pretty happy. As for the rest of the lichen, it has been sitting there on my kitchen counter for most of the last two weeks and I open the jar and shake it around a few times each day. Its color has been very slow to develop, if it’s ever going to develop at all. I put a little snippet of yarn into the bath two days after I assembled it, and it’s a light brown. Not ugly, a little different from the other light browns I already have, but I’m not sure I want to commit a hank of yarn to it. I’m still on the fence about it, so it’s still on my kitchen counter. I’m hoping this ugly duckling might eventually grow up to be a beautiful orange swan, but if it never does, I’ll have traded some water and ammonia for some experiential learning.

Experimentation with dye extraction methods
Bottom, yarn dyed in lichen using boiling water method; top, lichen fermenting in ammonia/water solution; center, yarn sample from fermenting lichen bath

Next I wanted to have another go at black bean dyeing. Last time the beans soaked for 12 hours, and I got blues with a grayish tint. This time they soaked for 16 hours. I put two 2-oz. alum-mordanted hanks into the cold bath for about an hour and got a brilliant sky blue. I was thinking about overdyeing black bean blues in a yellow dye just long enough to get aqua, so I boiled some dried marigold heads that my sister pulled out of her garden back at Thanksgiving, and swirled one of the sky blue hanks around in the hot bath for about a second. Instantly it turned into a luminous bright green that would thrill St. Patrick’s heart. Not aqua, but who cares when you get an even better color? I put another hank into the marigold bath and was surprised to find that the hank was dyeing an intense leaf green rather than the yellows I’d gotten from my marigold baths last summer.

Two hanks dyed in fresh black bean bath, bottom overdyed in fresh marigold bath
Two hanks dyed in fresh black bean bath, bottom overdyed in fresh marigold bath

I gave the aqua idea another try. I put another hank in the black bean dye for 16 hours or so, and got a gray blue. Then I put that hank into the marigold bath in hopes of getting an aqua tint, but the bath was too weak to change the color. I had another bag of marigolds that my sister had yanked out of the ground after the frost killed them, mostly leaves and stems and a few flower heads. I dipped the new black bean hank into it and got a different shade of green, more gray tinted. Another hank spent some time in the second marigold bath and came out a darker, more olive green than the hank from the first marigold bath.

Comparison of different dyeings of yarn dyed in black bean bath and overdyed in marigold, first dyeing top, second dyeing bottom
Comparison of different dyeings of yarn dyed in black bean bath and overdyed in marigold, first dyeing top, second dyeing bottom
Color comparison of two different dried marigold dye baths
Comparison of colors produced by different dye baths of dried marigold. Top had more blossoms, bottom was entire plant

There wasn’t a lot of potency left in the black bean bath at this point, but I wanted to finish it off with another pH experiment. Again I unscientifically added lemon juice until the bath turned pinkish and put in a very small, half-ounce hank for about 16 hours, and got a light lavender. This black bean bath had pretty much given its all, but before saying farewell to it, I decided to overdye that final black-rice-plus-lemon hank that had dried out to be a dingy, indeterminate, 51st shade of gray. I left it in there for 24 hours, and it darkened a bit to become another version of pale lavender, slightly bluer than the one I got from adding lemon to the black rice bath.

Yarn dyed in black rice and black bean plus lemon
Left hank, black rice + lemon; center hank, black bean + lemon; right hank, black rice + lemon overdyed in black bean + lemon

Natural dyeing is really addicting. It gives me insight into the hidden characteristics of ordinary things with results that serve my art and craft and visual inquiries, and I keep thinking about methods that might get me different results. Next I’ll want to play with pH more and experiment with alkaline as well as acidic additives. I’m not rigorous enough or technical enough to be a real scientist, but being curious allows me to pretend to be one.

3 thoughts on “Black Beans and Rice for Dye-ner

    1. This darn autocorrect. That will teach me to type contents on my phone. Anyway, the green is kickin’. Totally going to try that! And you got the best blue I’ve seen from black beans. Nice!


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