October Tricks and Treats

My initial successes in September with extracting plant dyes by fermenting plant material made me want to try to ferment every plant I saw in October, and there are a lot of plants in October in my part of the world. The method I’d had success with was simple:

  1. Place plant material in a jar or bottle with a tightly fitting lid.
  2. Add distilled or spring water, leaving space for gases to develop without exploding the jar.
  3. Cover the dye vessel in a black plastic bag.
  4. Shake the jar or bottle and open it briefly to release the gases, then close it tightly, a couple of times a day.
  5. When fermentation begins, there will be a “pfft” sound of released gas when the dye vessel is opened, and when the process is complete and the dye is ready to use, you’ll no longer hear the “pfft” sound. Depending on ambient temperature, that can take four days to two weeks.
  6. Empty the plant material and the dye liquid into a colander with a bowl underneath and sieve the juices of the plant material through the colander. I use a potato masher to press the plant material.
  7. The instructions from which I learned this method say to divide the dye into two jars, adding an acidic modifier to one and an alkaline modifier to the other. I haven’t always liked what I got from this procedure, so I pour a little bit of my dye bath into separate cups and add a bit of lemon juice to one and some dissolved baking soda into the other and see if I like one result more than the other before I’ll commit my precious dye and yarn to the modified baths.
  8. Add the yarn. I just put it in without bothering to soak it and leave it until the dye is depleted.

My sister in suburban Philadelphia gave me the run of her big, bounteous flower garden, and I took away a big bag each of fading and dead dahlias and orange/brown marigolds. When I got home, I pulled out the petals and put them into plastic juice bottles with high hopes. One of my Ravelry friends in the UK had gotten glorious oranges from dahlias using heat extraction, and last year I got vivid yellows from yellow marigolds, also using heat extraction. Plants have many surprises in them. The dahlias, which were two different colors, pink and purple, were releasing a nondescript murky yellow brown in their bath. The orange and brown marigolds were making a bath that was the color of pink lemonade, of all things.

Fermentation baths of marigold petals, pokeberry, dahlia petals
Fermentation baths of marigold petals, pokeberry, and dahlia petals

I felt more hopeful for the marigold bath, so I tried dyeing with it first. The alkaline bath was a dud. It gave me yellowish beige, and I set the hank aside for overdyeing. The acidic bath turned a more promising light salmon pink, and the yarn turned a pale apricot while it was in the bath, but it dried to a nondescript pale yellow. I started to sense that fermentation had its limitations as a dye extraction method. I was sad that I had used all my dahlias in fermentation baths when my friend had gotten such nice results from heat extraction, but I put the beige marigold yarn into the dahlia bath and wasn’t unhappy with the yellow-ochre that resulted. It would have been nice to try simmering the dahlias, but I was able to get my hands on more orange-brown marigolds to see what would happen if I simmered them. I got pale brownish-yellow, a shade or two lighter than the marigold-dahlia hank, not bad, nothing to write home about. I concluded that orange-brown marigolds won’t dye as vividly as the yellow ones do and don’t contain an orange dye.

One of the advantages of fermented dyes is that it’s not necessary to mordant the yarn before dyeing it, unlike heat-extracted dyes. I needed to mordant the yarn that I put into my simmered marigold bath. The recipe I use is a teaspoon and a half each of alum and cream of tartar for four ounces of wool. My marigold bath wasn’t strong, abundant, or beautiful enough to justify dyeing more than an ounce of yarn, so I had another three ounces of mordanted yarn ready to dye in some other plant dye. I acquired some more amaranth, which I simmered (no boiling!) for an hour. I let the plant material steep in the cooling bath and added the yarn to sit for a couple of days. Back in August, the yarn would have dyed a deep rose color after sitting in a bath with the same volume of amaranth plant for two days. But it was late in the season, and I got salmon pink. Amaranth loses its potency as the season wears on.

Amaranth dyeing from plants at the end of the growing season
Hanks dyed in amaranth plants at the end of the growing season, dye extracted by heat

Meanwhile, I had a pokeberry bath going. Pokeberry may be the bane of gardeners’ existence because it’s pervasive and invasive in a lot of North America, but it ferments easily and beautifully and produces a purple of astonishing intensity. It’s very easy to get that purple with the plants available to me, using the method I described above. In fact I don’t know how to get any other color from the local pokeberry, other than by abbreviating the time in the dye bath to get a lighter shade, which I did with this particular bath. People on Facebook post pictures of pinks and a variety of purples, and they ask me how I get my purple, and I tell them. But when I ask how they got their colors, no answer. Come on, people! Share!

I dipped the nondescript yellowish fermented marigold hank into the pokeberry exhaust bath, as well as one of my pink amaranth hanks. When they were wet, they were a purple-tinged pink, but their original dyeing emerged when they dried, with a yellow variegation in the marigold hank and a salmon tone in the amaranth.

Dyes extracted from marigold, dahlia, amaranth and pokeberry
Left to right: marigold overdyed in dahlia, heat-extracted marigold dye, amaranth overdyed in pokeberry, fermented marigold overdyed in pokeberry

One afternoon I went walking in the rain, and with my new awareness of the plants around me, I noticed a previously overlooked tree on the edge of the park whose fruits were ripe and dropping to the ground. They were 1-inch spheres covered in red-orange blossoms that leaked orange red all over my fingers when I picked them up. My sister identified the tree for me: paper mulberry, an ornamental planting originating in Asia that has become invasive in parts of North America.

Paper mulberry fruit
Paper mulberry fruit, a plant dyer’s treasure

I made a small bath, and it fermented very quickly. The weather was warm, but the plant itself responded very readily to the extraction method I was using, and the dye bath was ready in only four days. It gave me a neon orange hank! I ran right out and gathered every paper mulberry fruit I could reach, but it was the end of its season and I couldn’t get my hands on anywhere near what I wanted. Next September I’ll know where to look and will create booming harvests of neon orange yarn. I got a little greedy when I dyed the second paper mulberry fermentation bath, and doubled the amount of yarn I put into the dye bath. It came out a pleasing medium-light bright orange. I can absolutely use it. I can’t wait for next year. Paper mulberry is right up there with pokeberry as an October treat.

Oranges from paper mulberry plant dye
Oranges from paper mulberry plant dye

I was visiting Neighborhood Fiber Co. (one of Baltimore’s yarny treasures) a few weeks ago, and was talking with the dyers there. One of them showed me a swatch book she has compiled, and one page had samples of various kinds of fabric dyed with gingko fruits. The colors looked something like results I have gotten from avocado skins and stones, a pinkish brown. I braved the fecal stench of the gingko fruits that had dropped on the sidewalk to collect enough for a bath, which did not want to ferment readily but eventually did, and it stopped fermenting after about two weeks. The dye bath was an earthy medium yellow. Lemon juice lightened the bath, baking soda also lightened it and produced a fizzy reaction, but washing soda darkened it slightly and did not produce fizzing. I added washing soda to bring the pH to 9, then put an ounce of yarn into the bath for two days. I haven’t washed the hank yet, but so far it’s a light yellow with an orange-beige tinge. Nothing spectacular, but I can use it.

Emboldened by my paper mulberry success, I have started squeezing berries and flowers I find when I walk to see if I get any staining juices from them. One of them was a bush of fragrant red flowers in a narrow tubular shape, which I have tentatively identified as red penstemon. It was shedding its flowers all over the sidewalk and grass next to the curb, so I bent over and picked up every blossom I could get, while competing with the bees that likewise knew a good thing when they found it. The blossoms were not available in the quantities I’d have liked, but I got about an ounce and put them into a bath. It fermented readily, which I began to suspect was connected with the bees’ interest in these flowers: plenty of sugar. Even though our ambient temperatures have cooled quite a lot lately, it only took a week for the penstemon bath to complete its fermentation. I tested acidic and alkaline modifiers, and the baking soda turned the dye a tempting bluish purple, while lemon juice deepened the rose-pink bath with a more orange tinge. I put little strands of yarn into the test baths, and the acidic bath turned the strand powder pink, while the alkaline bath did next to nothing, just turned the yarn slightly dingy gray. I went with the acidic modifier. The bath seemed to deplete after about an hour, so I removed the yarn while it was still a pretty pink. I suspected that leaving it in the depleted bath overnight might turn the color yellowish. I’ve been hurt before.

Yarn dyed in fermented gingko fruit and penstemon
Yarn dyed in fermented gingko fruit (left, hasn’t been washed) and penstemon

There’s a house that I walk past with a beautiful but neglected garden, and in a very weedy corner, there were about a dozen large amaranth plants growing. I knocked on the door many times to ask if I could have some of it– I’m strongly introverted, but I’ll put myself out there for dye plants– but no one ever answered the door. About 10 days ago I walked by and saw that the entire yard had been mowed, and there was a young man standing in the yard surveying the scene, looking a bit upset. I went over to him and asked if I could collect the amaranth plants from wherever they might have been dumped. He said everything had been taken away but I was welcome to anything that was still on the on the ground, so I collected a big armload of leaves, stalks, and fronds. I didn’t quite understand what the story was, but apparently he was a renter who didn’t live in the house, which was why I never got an answer when I knocked on the door. He had rented the place in order to grow flowers to sell to a local florist, but he had outsourced the weeding to someone who didn’t do it, so the owner came and mowed the place down. Anyway, I got more amaranth than I could use. Some of it went into fermentation baths and some of it is in the freezer so that I can find out if freezing it will preserve the color. Drying it, I have found out sadly, will not. As of now, the yarn is sitting in the dye bath and turning a raspberry pink.

Amaranth and pokeberry fermentation dyeing
Yarn soaking in fermented amaranth bath, more pokeberry-dyed yarn just out of the bath

On my walks, I encountered a vine with red berries inside a hard yellow pod, which my Ravelry friends identified as bittersweet. The berries let out a mercurochrome colored red juice when I squeezed them, so I cut off enough to half-fill a plastic bag (I never leave the house without a plastic bag in my pocket, and usually a pair of scissors) and started a bath in my accustomed way. However, the bath never really fermented, and the muddy brownish yellow of the solution came from the pods rather than the berries, which never released the color that had tempted me. I got a suggestion from my Ravelry group to try introducing a bit of sugar, but I wanted to see what would happen if I followed the method I’ve been using. About 10 days in, I tried crushing the berries and returning them to the bath, but then the bath started to mold.

Failed bittersweet fermentation bath
Failed bittersweet fermentation bath. Can’t win ’em all. But I learned something!

This brings me to some observations about when the fermentation method I’ve been using is effective and when it is not. The variety of plants I have used ferment at different rates, and the factor that I can identify is the amount of sugar in the plant. I asked Candy, my science resource who is a member of my Ravelry group, about the role of sugars in plant fermentation. She explained that the point to adding sugar to the dye vat is to feed the yeasts and bacteria that produce the fermentation of the plant material, when the plant does not naturally have a lot of sugar. Sugar is not the only possible agent for causing fermentation: yeast and lactobacteria also cause fermentation.

Candy went on to suggest an experiment to test which kind of fermentation agent will facilitate extracting dye from a given plant material through fermentation: set up four 4-fluid-ounce vats of, say, bittersweet, since my experience shows that bittersweet doesn’t have the sugar that makes pokeberry such an easy fermentation material. Add a tablespoon of sugar to one bath, a tablepoon of sugar and a quarter teaspoon of quick active yeast to another, a tablespoon of fermentation pickle juice (don’t have that and don’t quite know what it is) to the third, and the sediment from apple cider vinegar to the fourth. Give them time. Warmer conditions are better than my current conditions, but one must work with what one has.

The variations in speed of chemical change will test bittersweet’s affinity to the variety of fermentation agents. The variety of experimental factors will provide information about the need of bittersweet’s fermentation culture for additional sugar to grow and function, and will inform regarding its reactiveness to lactobacillus and other bacteria, which will indicate specifically the best culture for this particular plant. Bittersweet might have more affinity for agents other than sugar.

The best time to collect plant material for this experiment is after several days of dry weather to enable yeast and other microbes to attach themselves to the plant more tightly.

Some fermenters want exposure to the air and others need to be sealed off from air exposure. Experimentation will indicate whether the plant material responds better to aerobic or anaerobic fermenters and whether to let air in or try to keep it out.

Under ideal conditions, the temperature will be in the 80’s fahrenheit and will be consistent. Temperatures under 70 will slow or stop fermentation, and temperature fluctuations are definitely not ideal because they enable competing microbes to enter and invade the culture, which can kill the culture, alter the action in unexpected ways, or rot the materials before the desired microbes can extract the dyestuff.

So this begs the question: should I feed my bittersweet bath a piece of trick-or-treat candy?

Many thanks to Ma Petite Shoe on The Avenue in Hampden for letting me use their Halloween decorations as the backdrop for my featured photo. Shoes and chocolate, the answer to Freud’s classic dumb question about what women want!

Variety of plant-dyed yarn colors
Happy dyeing in October!




12 thoughts on “October Tricks and Treats

  1. Having never actually tried your dyeing methods, i do have an idea which may have merit — or not. Have you thought of using a heating pad to raise the ambient temperature? I’ve used a heating pad to keep soap warm while curing. My first thought was a yogurt maker but that may be too warm.


  2. I would also add raw honey to the list of sugars to experiment with. I would also be of interest to get Sandor Katz book on Fermentation of food to gather ideas. I am currently working with a lot of alcohol extraction of natural dyes and get a wonderful green from avocado skins. As for temperature raising perhaps an old fashioned cold frame would be of help. I also find a big black plastic tub with a lid in a sunny spot a good substitute


      1. Yes green, I clean the skins then cut them up and place in a jar and as we can’t get cheap clear alcohol here in Oz I cover them with methylated spirits which is a very concentrated non drinkable alcohol. This started from working with our native resin which dissolves in methylated spirits, (much like shellac) which I have been working with for several years. I decided to see what I else I could use. So far I have had success with a couple of fungi, purple carrots, a native boodroot as well as gum resins. Not all pass the light test though.


  3. I’ve been lurking for several months, fascinated by your dye adventures. Thanks so much for sharing them!

    I’ve never heard of “fermentation pickle juice” either, but my wild guess would be sauerkraut brine. Organic or natural foods stores may have sauerkraut or pickles with active cultures. They’ll be in a refrigerated section — my local place sells sauerkraut in bulk. I’ve also found it at farmers’ markets; the product is delicious.


    1. That’s a good thought. I’ll ask Candy to clarify what she meant by fermentation pickle juice. But at the risk of ruining the impact of my next blog post, I will say that sugar works very well to get bittersweet to ferment.


  4. Fermentation pickle juice comes from pickles you ferment ie do you remember grandmas old recipes to put them in brine in a crock for days to weeks, and even leave them in the crock and not heat seal them but eat them out of the crock. Sauerkraut juice would also work from fresh made sauerkraut. The canned stuff has been through a heat process that kills all of the natural bacteria and yeast


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