What I Dyed On My Summer Vacation

When I retired on 1 January 2016, the first thing I started doing was daily walks that started as hour-long outings and grew into 3-hour explorations every morning of the streets and parks within a 2-mile radius of my house. I felt like a puppy let off the leash as I turned onto alleys I’d never noticed before and through paths in the woods that surprised me with their wildness, right in the middle of Baltimore City. I began bringing binoculars with me and learned to identify the birds that live in and fly through my verdant city. A list in my phone of the birds I had seen within that 2-mile radius grew to a count of 70-odd species that included Yellow-Crowned Night Herons, which fly up to the Jones Falls in Baltimore from South and Central America every year to nest, as I learned from a photographer I encountered named George Williams, who meticulously documents these birds every year from March through July and became my birding mentor.

But the summer months, after the Yellow-Crowned Night Herons fly south and the Baltimore Orioles (the birds, not the local baseball team) fly north, are the slow season for birding in my city. Only the year-rounders remain. Last summer during my morning walks, I just walked. This year, though, my summer walks have been directed by a new hunt, for plants that might be good for dyeing. I’ve had a frustrated quest for reds and oranges, and my eye alit on a plant growing in an overgrown part of the large nearby park where I like to go birding. It had a tall brown stalk topped by dark red-brown seeds. When I simmered it, the bath turned an encouraging orange-brown, but my alum-mordanted yarn turned a weak brownish yellow. Eventually I was able to google my way to an identification of the plant: dock, which I had dyed with in England six weeks earlier, but didn’t recognize it in Maryland in its seed-bearing phase. I played with the pH of my bath. White vinegar made the bath lighter, baking soda made the bath darker, and I went with the baking soda, resulting in a pleasing golden brown. I also wanted to see what I’d get from the coneflowers (echinacea) that were blooming profusely in early July. It started off as a dull greenish brown, then came to life with a lime green color when I added baking soda to the bath. I was afraid the vivid green would rinse out, so after I removed it from the dye bath, I kept it wet in a plastic bag for a few days before letting it dry, and then waited a few more days before rinsing it. It kept its color.

echinacea and dock plant dyes modified with baking soda
Echinacea, top; dock, bottom. Both pH modified with baking soda

There are many things to love about life in Baltimore City, but July isn’t one of them. This year we managed to spend only one week of July at home, sandwiched between a blissful week in Norway and followed by our annual two weeks at my husband’s family’s ancestral cottage on Lake Michigan in Michigan’s lower peninsula. If I had realized before we got married what an amazing place it was, it might have sullied my motives for marrying my husband. The cottage was built exactly 100 years ago on the edge of the woods up a short path from a sandy beach populated only by the descendants of my husband’s grandfather, who bought his piece of the strip along with family and colleagues, and their descendants. Every morning when we’re there, we walk a circuit of dirt roads through the woods, past a fallow field that used to be an orchard, down a path with a dead tree where the birds come to scout the fields for their next meal, up a hill with blackberry bushes growing wild by the side of the road, past cherry orchards, and back to the cottage through the woods. All the birds that have abandoned Baltimore are there. And of course it’s a perfect place for some good dyeing tourism.

The first plant I found was mint in full flower. I filled a bag with the flowers and cooked them. The resulting dye bath gave me a pallid greenish yellowish tint that came to life when I added baking soda and dyed a vivid yellow. I dyed with mint leaves a year ago and got a gray-green, so this was a dramatic difference.

The next plant I found in quantity and identified using Google was St. John’s wort. I’d seen a blog post that reported getting orange and orange browns from St. John’s wort, which was one of my unicorns. But for me, St. John’s wort produced a murky greenish brown in the first hank I dyed and a light dirty yellow in the other. I started thinking about murky colors, the ones that people don’t want to wear near their faces, and how to combine them with other colors so that they become the most beautiful colors you’ve ever seen and anyone would want to wear them next to their face and anywhere else. There’s a place in my palette for murky colors too, but I’ll be honest, I get more excited by colors whose beauty I don’t have to search so hard for. I set the light yellow hank aside while I decided what to do next.

During our walks, I noticed large patches of tansy growing wild on the side of the road, and it was just starting to blossom. According to the blogs I found online, I could expect to get orange-yellows. Again, the orange tinge eluded me, and I got a strong green-tinged yellow from the first hank I dyed in tansy simmered in a covered pot. Then I experimented with pH and found that white vinegar made the dye bath sample lighter while baking soda turned it into an intense green. I put in the dirty yellow St. John’s wort hank and an undyed hank. The previously dyed hank turned a deep olive green and the undyed hank went mint green, but when I squeezed the hanks, I saw that a lot of the color left the yarn to drip back into the bath because the dye was not affixing to the wool. Then I noticed that a very weird thing was happening. I had put the light muddy yellow from the St. John’s wort into the tansy bath, and when I went to bed, it had turned green. In the morning, the part that was above the surface of the dye bath was still green, but the part that was below the surface had turned golden yellow!

Oxidation in a tansy dye bath

Candy, my Ravelry group’s resident scientist, explained:

Oxidation! The only reaction I can think of that, without any other inputs of heat or chemicals or pH changes, can make something color or discolor is oxidation. That is actually partly how the older/original indigo dyeing processes worked. They came out of the vat brown (or something other than blue) and then oxidized to blue. There is also a snail dye that was used in Ancient Rome that was blue until about 24 – 48 hours after it came out of the vats, at which point it turned Royal purple. It was also way, way, way stinky so I don’t recommend trying it. There is one from Israel too, that is used to make talitot, which are the blue strands at the corner of men’s prayer shawls.

Keep in mind that it is POSSIBLE, possible, that your yarn will also change color after it comes out of the water and fully dries. I can not offer you a prediction one way or the other of what will happen.

Also, oxidation reactions can be anoxidations, which means the bath used up all the oxygen from under the water and it causes a color change. Think dead swamp water. Again, that means you MAY NOT have a stable color once you pull and dry it.

I DO NOT know how to fix that. Maybe borax but that may also ruin the wool, which is way self-defeating.

Candy was right. Those greens were unstable and washed right out. So I picked more tansy and made another bath. I reasoned that there were two factors at work, the oxidation and the alkaline pH modifier, that had produced the green color. I have had alkaline modifiers produce colors that didn’t affix to the wool, so I decided to abandon pH modification as an experimental factor and focus on oxidation. I cooked this second tansy bath with the lid off the pot to encourage oxidation from the start, and left the pH, which was pretty close to neutral, unmodified. The result made my jaw drop.

natural dyeing with tansy

Left hank: This is the hank I initially dyed in St. John’s wort to a light, dirty yellow, then overdyed in the first bath of tansy modified with baking soda and showed in the picture of the oxidized bath as green on top and orange on the bottom. When I rinsed it after dyeing it in the pH-modified, first tansy bath, it actually did retain some color, a mid-intensity olive green. I washed out the dye from the first bath and then put it into the exhaust bath of the new, unmodified tansy bath for six hours. It turned a grassy green. It’s still unrinsed and wet in this picture, but dry and six weeks later as of this writing, it remains a nice vivid green.

Center: this is the hank that first took a mint green color in the unstable baking soda tansy bath. It lost almost all its color in the rinse and was a weak green-tinged yellow when I put it into the newly-cooked tansy bath. It spent nine hours in the new, unmodified bath and became a strong spring green.

The hank on the right was previously undyed and had been in the exhaust bath only for a few minutes when I photographed it here. This was a very powerful bath and was giving me colors I’d been trying to get for a long time, including a light aqua, so I was going to use it until there was nothing left. I got two hanks from the first dyeing and three hanks from successive exhaust baths. It was really interesting to watch the transformation of each hank as it dyed, yellow while it was submerged under the dye liquid and turning green with exposure to the air.

Oxidation changes color of yarn dyed in tansy from yellow to green
Oxidation changes color of yarn dyed in tansy from yellow to green

I put my exhaust bath into a glass baking dish to give the dye more surface area for exposure to the air, and I saw a thin layer of blue green at the very top.

Oxidation in exhaust bath of tansy dye
See that thin layer of darker blue green at the top surface of the exhaust bath?
Range of colors dyed in tansy
Six hanks all dyed with tansy. The three on the left are the aqua I’ve been trying to get!

The part of Michigan we go to calls itself “the cherry capital of the world”, which probably would get an argument from Washington state and California, but a lot of cherries do grow in the area. We got some from a roadside stand, and they were a bit disappointing because we were there at the end of the season. They tasted bland and the texture was mushy, and a couple of them had managed to get squashed on some of my wet and mordanted yarn, producing a purple stain that I couldn’t wash out. I took that purple cherry stain as a sign about what my next Michigan dyeing experiment should be, although one of my rules, as a dyeing scavenger, is that I avoid using food as dye unless the food isn’t edible or the dye is a by-product. But the cherries weren’t that good, and then my husband’s cousins invited us over for dessert, so I had a legitimate way to get an edible use from my dye production: a cherry-chocolate ice cream sauce. I boiled the cherries in more water than needed for a strictly food-based purpose, then took the cooked cherries from my precious dye bath, squeezed out the pits, and melted some chocolate chips into the cherries. It was pretty good with ice cream, but of course the dye bath was the main event.

My first hank emerged intensely violet from the dye bath. As it dried, unrinsed, the color began to variegate between blue purples and red purples, due to oxidation. After I rinsed it, a lot of the purple stain washed out and left me with a variegation of grayish purple and brownish purple, which was just fine with me. The first dyeing rinsed to a variegation of amethyst and periwinkle, the first exhaust rinsed to periwinkle, and the second exhaust was a blueish lavender.

Natural dyeing with plants and mushrooms in Michigan
Michigan dyeing gave me vivid purples, bright greens and yellows, and a couple of murky colors

Then it was time to go home. My dyed yarn went into a plastic bag that I put into my suitcase. It stayed in the trunk of our car after a night in an Ohio hotel. This is what I found when I took the cherry-dyed yarn out of the suitcase, arranged in order of their dyeing from left to right.

Cherry dyed yarn after initial color faded

These weren’t vivid purples anymore. Cherry and other berries tend to be fugitive dyes, and those initial colors had run for the hills. I was a little disappointed, but I’m not complaining about these beautiful and subtle variegated colors.

When I got back home, I started to work on a writing assignment I’d been given for the newsletter of a local non-profit I volunteer for, Baltimore Green Space, which works to protect and encourage the transformation of Baltimore’s vacant lots into community gardens and urban forest patches. My assignment was to write about a program that pays teenagers to grow flowers for sale, while teaching them the basics of good work habits and teamwork as well as the basics of horticulture. First I went to see the garden where a lot of this work was being done and to talk to the man who founded this garden almost 30 years ago, out of the rubble of a razed city block. While Mr. Sharpe showed me around, yanking a big head of kale out of the ground and pressing it upon me for our dinner, I noticed a plant with red stalks, red-green leaves, and brilliant magenta flame-shaped flowers growing randomly. I asked him what it was, and he couldn’t think of the name at the moment. I explained that I dye yarn with plants, so he let me take some. When I cooked it, it produced a potent rose-red dye, very much like cochineal, an insect from South America that is collected and ground up as a dye material, but local and vegan.

amaranth dye bath
Mystery plant dye bath: dare I hope it’s for real?
amaranth dye
Yes, I can dare!

Candy, as usual, supplied the name of this miracle plant: amaranth. A moment’s googling supplied me with the information that amaranth is the source of red dye #2, and that it is a dye stabilizer. A dye stabilizer! Would it stabilize, say… cherry dye?

So I gave cherry another try. I had nothing to lose, since I was very fond of the colors that remained in my yarn after the bright fugitive stain took flight from my first cherry dyeing. I cooked up another batch of cherry-chocolate sauce using cherries from the supermarket, and combined the cherry dye bath with amaranth exhaust bath. This time my cherry-dyed hanks did not oxidize or take a brilliant berry stain that quickly rinsed away; they dyed as gray-tinted periwinkle and stayed that way.

Cherry dye stabilized by amaranth exhaust bath
For comparison, the most colorful of my first cherry dye batch is laid across the three hanks dyed in cherry and amaranth

I continued to keep trying for orange. I was finding osage orange bark and bolete mushrooms during my walks, and got an orange-tinged blond color from the osage orange and an earthy, slightly murky yellow from the boletes. I put them into amaranth in my quest for orange and got various shades of apricot and salmon. Then I tried yellows from mixtures of yellow flower blossoms and got more shades of apricot and salmon. The one in the center of the photo below is as close to orange as I got and probably will ever get from amaranth.

Yarn dyed in various yellow dyes and overdyed in amaranth
My orange unicorn is still on the loose

Summer is pretty much over now. I tried to hang onto the best part of it by bringing back big bags of tansy, sumac flowers, and mint flowers when I left Michigan in order to dry them and use them into the fall and winter. But I neglected them when I got home and they molded by the time I got to them. I was so sad. I really wanted to experiment more especially with the tansy. I was determined not to repeat that mistake when Mr. Sharpe, the urban farmer, gave me a huge load of amaranth after I showed him what I had done with the first batch he’d given me. I dyed a few more hanks with the fresh amaranth and then carefully dried the rest of it. The other day I made a dye bath with the dried amaranth, and kept adding and adding to the bath waiting for it to get to be the rich color I’d gotten before, until I used it all up, and then was rewarded for my trouble with a dull straw color. I was so dejected that I’ve allowed myself to violate my rules about only using scavenged dye materials and am now waiting for an order of annatto seeds to arrive, because people on my group have gotten thrilling oranges with them. Summer is gone. I’m not in Michigan. I’m consoling myself with the title of the Ram Das book Be Here Now.





21 thoughts on “What I Dyed On My Summer Vacation

  1. Just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog! I’m storing away your experiences for when I’m finally able to start walking and rambling again!


    1. Regarding the tansy, the earlier in season you use it, the greener a colour it will produce. And I noticed that you wrote that they had just started to bloom.
      Also, leaves only, no flowers, also produces a stronger green.


      1. Recently I dyed with tansy leaves at the very beginning of the growing season, and I got a kind of a wishy-washy yellow. I was hoping for green, but maybe it was not enough tansy to get a strong color.


  2. Absolutely beautiful range of colors! I’ve been following your dyeing in Ravelry and it’s been fascinating. Now I’m looking forward to seeing how you’ll use these gorgeous colors….


  3. Hi, Annatto, the dark red seeds of the West Indian annatto tree, are used to add a vibrant natural red-orange color to food.

    You may be able to source Annato powder by McCormick spices. What colour would Keens curry powder give I wonder?


    1. Turmeric is a fugitive dye, but in parts of Asia they combine it with pomegranate skins to produce longer lasting color. Curry powder probably isn’t going to give color that lasts very long.

      I bought my annatto seeds from somewhere on Amazon. It fades pretty quickly.


  4. I’m new to dyeing wool and have only just bought my first commercial Landscape brand powder dyes (Australian). Made the mistake of adding hot water to the powder and not the other way round.

    Blood satsuma plums stain the skin from experience. Had a beautiful tree in the garden which I sadly had to say goodbye to when I sold to retire to the coast, so how well would wool dye? Do the flowers of dandelions work or just the roots?


  5. I don’t know if you still pick up comments from older posts, or if you have found orange yet. I sun dyed a perfect orange from the dry papery yellow onion skins. If you need a lot I am sure a friendly green grocer would let you collect them from his onion box.The wool was mordanted with alum and cream of tartar. I am struggling to get green. I am a very new dyer. 14 June 2020


    1. Yes, when comments show up on my WordPress app I see them and answer them! I have gotten some really nice oranges from a first dyeing in yellow onion skins and beautiful yellows from the exhaust. Red onion skins give greens. You can also get greens by overdyeing yellow in black bean water. Phragmites is also a good source of greens.


  6. Great article!! I’m wondering if the Lake Michigan cottage you describe is near Saugatuck? I ask because your description sounds very much like the area around my mother in laws “ancestral cottage” south of Saugatuck which was built around 1920. She grew up in Chicago in the 30’s and spent every summer there.


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