Foraged, Donated, and Saved From the Drain

Over the last several months, I have accumulated a growing pile of yarn that I dyed my favorite way: using plants that I didn’t pay for. Spring came, spring turned into summer, plants grew, plants died. We had dinner. I went for walks. People gave me their dead plants and trimmings. It was all fodder for plant dyeing.

First there was dinner, black bean casserole, always a dyeing opportunity. I have written about dyeing with black bean soaking water before– soak the beans 12-24 hours, save the water and add an alum/cream of tartar-mordanted hank of yarn to it, repeat with the exhaust baths– but every time I dye with black bean water, I get different shades of grayed blues and purples. (The formula I use for the mordant is a half tablespoon each of alum and cream of tartar for 4 ounces of wool, simmered for an hour with enough water to cover the wool and left to cool overnight.) This time I got blue-grays with tinges of purple and green, in the first and second dyeings respectively, and a blue-green-gray in the third dyeing.

Three shades of color from a single bath of black bean soaking water

I’d say this is a much better use of black bean soaking water than pouring it down the drain!

It was May, and I was seeing purple smooth spiderwort flowers everywhere I walked. They were oozing purple juice that stained my fingers when I touched them, so I started carrying a plastic bag with me on my walks and taking a few blossoms from every plant I could reach from the sidewalk, which would yield a nice little harvest each day.

Smooth spiderwort plant in bloom

I stuffed the blossoms into a half-gallon V-8 bottle, which is both airtight and fairly easy to open, and filled the bottle with distilled water halfway to two-thirds, depending on how many blossoms I had, and covered it with a black plastic bag. I let it ferment at room temperature for five to seven days, shaking it several times a day and opening and closing the bottle quickly to let the fermentation gases escape. After a week or most of a week, I strained the liquid– a deep and vivid purple– from the plant material and squeezed the remaining liquid from the blossoms into the dye bath. Then I put an unmordanted 2-ounce hank of undyed superwash wool yarn (Wollmeise lace in Natur) into the bath and let it absorb the color for a day. While the yarn was in the bath, it turned a bewitching purple, and it teased me with that brilliant color as long as it was wet.

The vivid purple of the dye bath was a tease

Once it was dry, it became a much lighter bluish-lavender gray. Not as thrilling but still nice. I put the skein through another dyeing or two using the same process to intensify the color, and I did that with three 2-ounce hanks. Now I have three slightly different hanks of bluish gray that looks like the color of the sky on a hazy day, or maybe it’s a lavender-adjacent gray, depending on the time of day and the lighting and what colors are nearby. All colors are mutable, and plant-dyed colors are so mutable that getting specific about what color they “really” are is a fool’s errand.

Multiple dyeings of fermented smooth spiderwort produced lavender-tinted and blue-tinted grays

We went to the family cottage on Lake Michigan for a couple of weeks in June, and our younger daughter was able to join us for most of a week. She’s a vegan, which offered both a dining and a dyeing opportunity in the form of a very tasty combination of black rice with marinated and roasted cubes of sweet potato and tofu, seasoned with green onion, ginger, sesame oil, and soy sauce. How is that a dyeing opportunity, you ask? First I soaked the black rice in more water than it could absorb, overnight, or maybe it was more than overnight but less than a full 24 hours. A 14-ounce bag of black rice gave me a very potent purple dye bath after I separated the rice from the soaking water. In the first dyeing, one 2-ounce hank of superwash yarn remained in the bath for most of a day and became a very dark purple. The blue-green hank in the center of the photo below was dyed in the first exhaust bath for most of a day as well. The second exhaust bath produced the color on the right, a blueish gray, and the yarn stayed in the bath until the water was barely tinted, maybe a day and a half. This purple, green, bluish gray exhaust bath sequence is similar to what I got from the earlier black bean dyeing, but the black rice bath was more intense than the black bean bath and gave me stronger colors.

Three colors resulting from one bath of black rice soaking water

The yarn dyed in black bean water, fermented smooth spiderwort, and black rice water makes a pretty gradient.

A purple-green-gray gradient of recent dyeing

Normally I do a lot of plant-dyeing with foraged plants when I’m in Michigan. Sadly, this year was kind of a bust because spring had come late after a brutal winter, and the growing season was delayed by several weeks, so there didn’t seem to be much to dye with. I did find tansy fronds, and cut off a bagful of them and simmered them. I was hoping for the vivid green-yellow I had gotten in the past when the flowers were blooming, but I got a much weaker, somewhat muted yellow. Now I’m wishing I had thought to go and collect another batch of fronds and had re-dyed that hank.

Tansy-dyed yarn on far left, posing in Michigan with other recent dyeings

When I got home to Baltimore in early July, I resumed my walks and saw what was growing. I cast a covetous eye over the dark red dahlias growing in the garden of the neighbors on the corner, because my friend Gwen, who lives in the Oxford, UK, area, had gotten vivid orange shades from simmering dahlia blossoms for about an hour. I mentioned that to another neighbor who happened to come by, and she introduced me to those neighbors. They gave me permission to dead-head their dahlias, and I did. I also mentioned to the neighbor who performed the introduction that fig leaves can dye shades of yellow and green, and she gave me permission to grab the odd leaf here and there from the flourishing fig tree in her front yard, as well as the fruits when they ripen. Then the next day a pile of fig leaf trimmings appeared on the table on my front porch. I was also talking to a friend who has a big community garden next door, and I told her about a video I had seen recently that showed how to get a vivid lemon yellow from grape leaves, and then she summoned me to the garden early on the next Sunday morning to collect trimmings from their grape vines.

Suddenly I was up to my ears in donations. The first thing I tried out was the grape leaves, which I simmered for an hour and left to steep for a couple of hours. The bath smelled heavenly but the leaves didn’t seem to release very much color, although mordanted superwash yarn did turn a pale yellow after a few hours in the bath. The next day I removed the yarn from the bath and re-simmered the leaves, let it steep, and returned the yarn to the bath, and then repeated the process the day after that. The final result was a light buttery yellow, not the vivid lemon yellow I had seen in the video. Now I’m regretting not having experimented with raising the pH with an alkaline modifier, because that might have intensified the yellow.

The yellow grape leaf hank is so pretty in the middle of the smooth spiderwort and black rice hanks that I haven’t brought myself to re-dye it

Next I put the fig trimmings through the same process, and got a pale yellow that was a little darker than what I got from the grape leaves. I knew fig leaves could do a lot better than that, so I collected another 20 or so leaves and made another bath. This time I got a strong ochre that thrilled my heart. I threw a couple of wishy-washy yellowish hanks into the exhaust bath, but either I had used up all the color in that first dyeing or the bath was going bad in my warm kitchen. The yellow may have gotten slightly more yellow in this dyeing, but it wasn’t very evident.

The grape leaf hank is on the left, looking a bit brownish in this photo, but the enhanced fig leaf hank is in its full ochre glory

Finally it was the dead dahlia heads’ turn for a nice simmery bath. I had approximately two ounces of dried blossoms, and they started exuding color the moment I added hot tap water to the dye vat where they were waiting. I had high hopes for the bright orange Gwen had gotten, but I got a coppery brown very similar to the browns I get from avocado skins and stones. Gwen and Liz, both in the UK, get brighter colors from these plant materials, and one of the differences between their dyeing environment and mine is that their water comes from chalk aquifers. I did some research to try to find out the predominant minerals in our local water, and came away baffled. There appears to be some calcium in my water, but I don’t know how to compare it quantitatively to the water my British friends dye with. I have some more dead dahlia flowers for a future dyeing experiment and will add some calcium carbonate powder to that bath to see if I can stumble my way to replicating the conditions that give Liz and Gwen oranges when I get browns. I like browns. But I love orange. It’s an experiment to look forward to.

Dried dahlia blossoms, first dyeing, left, exhaust bath, right


My yellow-brown range

August is around the corner. There are things I love about August. Firstly, it’s not July, which is the worst month of the year in Baltimore, in my opinion, because the weather is brutally hot and humid. Not that August is a whole lot better, but at least it’s not July. On the positive side, the phragmites start blooming in August. Phragmites are a tall grass that grows in low ground that accumulates water. It is vilified by environmentalists because it is an invasive plant that kills biodiversity, but from my narrow selfish perspective, it does have the advantage of yielding gorgeous greens in a simmered dye bath. During my walks, I have been scouting out the places where it grows and I see that the fronds are starting to form. In a couple of weeks, it should be ready for me to harvest. Maybe my next spate of dyeing will give me good greens and oranges!

12 thoughts on “Foraged, Donated, and Saved From the Drain

  1. Your purples and lavenders are particularly attractive to my eyes, especially with that pale yellow in contrast. I hope you’ll use them all together for some iris-colored project.

    After it has cooled, I use my vegetable-cooking water to nurture the plants in my yard. No “down the drain” for me either, even though I don’t dye.


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