Questions Asked, Questions Answered

I started August with a very seasonal plant-dyeing agenda: another go at dyeing with dried dahlia blossoms, this time adding calcium carbonate to the water in hopes of approximating the conditions that produced orange for my friends dyeing with dahlia in the UK; dyeing with phragmites, which flower in August; and dyeing with Maryland’s state flower, the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) before its season ends.

I had dyed with dried dark red dahlia blossoms in July and got brown. A pretty brown, but lacking even a tinge of orange. I speculated that the chalk-rich water and soil of southern England might be an operative factor, since my local soil is based on clay and silt. I ordered a package of calcium carbonate powder, deadheaded more dahlias, and added about a teaspoon to a bath of about 3 ounces of dried blossoms, which was more plant material than my previous experiment. I was very encouraged to see my alum-mordanted yarn take on a bright orange-brown color, which was similar to the color my friend Gwen had gotten from her first dyeing, but whereas she got orange and orange-yellow from her exhaust baths, the orange tinge faded from my exhaust baths leaving me with plain brown, which nevertheless had more of a golden tinge than my previous experiment. I came away with the information that adding calcium carbonate to my local water will help to bring out orange tones at least in dahlia.

The yarn cake on the left was dyed in dark red dahlia blossoms in Baltimore tap water. Same for the hank on the right, but with calcium carbonate powder added to the dye bath. Calcium carbonate enhances orange tones.
Dark red dahlia plus calcium carbonate, first dyeing and two exhaust baths

Now I want to try adding calcium carbonate powder to avocado stones and skins, which dye pink and orange in the UK and brown in Baltimore, possibly because of the absence of chalk in my local environment. But why was I still getting browns in my dahlia baths, despite the addition of calcium carbonate to my bath? Was it something to do with the plants themselves? I got the chance to find out when I visited my sister in Philadelphia, a fervent gardener of vegetables and flowers, and she let me deadhead her pink and yellow dahlias.

I had 2.9 ounces of wilting dahlia heads, to which I added a teaspoon of calcium carbonate powder in the bath water, which came from the tap. That turned the water cloudy, and the simmered flowers produced a muddy, murky, yellowish greenish brownish bath. I kept the water at a steaming but not bubbling temperature for an hour, then put in 2 ounces of alum-mordanted yarn. And darned if it didn’t turn a bright orange yellow! I was so elated, because it supported my hypothesis that the reason for my failure to get orange was because of the dark red dahlias I had previously used. It would have been nice to have had enough of my sister’s dahlias to be able to try them without the addition of calcium carbonate, but I would have needed a lot more dahlias and yarn, neither of which I wanted to waste on anything but getting bright orange colors. I left the yarn in the bath until it got to room temperature, but the orange yellow didn’t turn to orange-orange, so I took it out and put a 1-ounce hank into the exhaust, and it turned the same color as the first hank. It seemed to be quite a potent exhaust bath, so I decided to throw in a 2-ounce hank of butter-yellow yarn I had previously dyed in grape leaves, and it also turned vividly yellow, with an olive-green cast very much like the color I got in July from fig leaves. By this time, the bath was looking pretty clear and colorless, so I thanked those 2.9 ounces of dahlias for working so hard for my 5 ounces of yarn and returned the water and plant material to the earth.

Pink/yellow dahlia blossoms plus calcium carbonate powder got me a nice sunny yellow

Early in August, I went to the park and gathered enough phragmites for a small dye bath. The plants were in a place where I had to fight my way through a lot of undergrowth and soggy ground, and I emerged scratched and my feet wet, but it was enough to work with, and it produced a pale green on several alum-mordanted hanks. I simmered the plants again, and it deepened the color. Then I went back to the park and collected a bigger bunch of phragmites and repeated the process, producing three lovely shades of green.

But I knew some other places where I could get a lot more phragmites a lot more easily. On our way to my sister’s house in Philadelphia, we stopped at the Pennsylvania welcome center just over the border from Delaware on route 95, where there is a big patch of phragmites behind a fence in the middle of the lawn. But a good number of the flowering fronds could be reached easily from behind the fence, and I had a nice little bag of them within five minutes. When we got to my sister’s place, Mandy and I took a quick trip to a nearby park where I had previously accompanied my sisters on a dog walk and noticed a lovely patch of not-quite-ready phragmites growing in easy reach. That day the phragmites were in their invasive glory, and between the two of us in the next 15 minutes, we cut down more than I could easily carry. I made an enormous bath and dyed three 2-ounce hanks, and could have dyed more if I’d had more mordanted yarn at the ready because there was still a lot of potency in the bath. I poured it into containers and put it into the freezer for later.

Two batches of phragmite-dyed yarn, the first on the left, the second on the right

Mandy also let me deadhead her sunflowers. I have seen sunflowers dyeing a nice gray. Mine initially turned the yarn the color of overcooked spinach, but it ended up a pleasant mushroom brown. Not exciting, but I decided against overdyeing it because I’m knitting something that will finally use the pinks and blues I dyed in the UK with Liz and Gwen, using indigo and cochineal, and the mushroom brown looks nice with the indigo and cochineal colors. Somehow those colors strike me as jarring when paired with most of my plant-dyed yarn, so I have been looking for colors they get along with. The hank is shown in the group photo at the bottom of the post at the extreme left.

The before photo of a lot of the yarn I dyed in August. Thanks, Mandy!

The last item on my August to-dye list was Maryland’s state flower, black-eyed Susan, also known as Rudbeckia. This was a long-delayed action item, ever since they started blooming profusely in June and I came across yellow masses of them near the banks of the stream near my house that had been defoliated in recent stream reconstruction work. When I walked there during the spring, there was nothing there but bare ground held in place by hemp nets staked into the ground. It was ugly and smelled bad, and it depressed me to remember that before the reconstruction, that very place had been a haven for a wide variety of wintering and migrating birds. So when I decided to check on its current state in early July, it had turned into a completely different place, full of native plants in glorious flower, attracting butterflies everywhere I turned my head. I think the city might have planted them to clean up the mess they had made, although everything grows in Maryland so it’s possible that the new plant cover might have been spontaneous.

Flowers and butterflies in a former wasteland

Google told me that black-eyed Susans can give colors in the gold to olive range, depending on what part of the plant is used, the blossoms theoretically producing gold and the leaves and stems producing olive. By the time I finally completed my other dyeing priorities, it was August and the rolling expanse of yellow that initially attracted my attention was now a lot less yellow, but there were still plenty of black-eyed Susans in other nearby pockets. I collected about 6 ounces of flower heads, and simmered them for a couple of hours. Information I had found on the internet said that the plant would need several days of alternating simmering and steeping to produce color, but I threw 2 ounces of alum-mordanted yarn into the bath after only a couple of hours of simmering and steeping, and it quickly turned a very dark khaki that was magic with every color I have ever dyed. I put another 2-ounce mordanted hank into the exhaust bath, and got a lighter, less green color that photographs as gray. In some lights, that’s accurate, but there is a distinct green tone that the pictures don’t capture. It also is very friendly to a wide range of color partners. Now I had another question I wanted to answer: what would happen if I made separate baths from the petals and the eyes?

I collected another 6 ounces of black-eyed Susans and stripped off the petals, about an ounce of them. I simmered them for about an hour, then put in a 2-ounce mordanted hank. There was the gold color! It has some olive notes as well, and is very similar to the fig leaf dyeing I did in July. Considering that the ratio was 1:2, I couldn’t have asked for a more saturated color. It depleted the bath. Then the eyes-only bath: it produced a color that was as dark as the first dyeing of the whole blossoms, and also green, but less yellow in the color mix. It also plays very nicely with every other color that has some value contrast with it.

Rudbeckia dyeing. From left, exhaust bath of whole blossoms, first dyeing of whole blossoms, eyes only, petals only

So now I have some answers to some questions: calcium carbonate powder will bring out orange tones that my tap water will normally suppress. Dark red dahlia blossoms dye brown. Lighter dahlia blossoms can dye in the yellow-orange range. Black-eyed Susans are a great dye plant, and whole blossoms or the eyes can produce shades of dark green and dark green/gray. The petals produce an olive-gold. No questions about phragmites– they are always a fabulous green! And now I have more questions. I want to test some of this new information by adding calcium carbonate to separate baths of avocado stones, which are supposed to dye orange, and to avocado skins, which are supposed to dye pink, but which have always given me the same shades of brown no matter what, when simmered with my tap water. My sister Mandy has also promised to dehydrate the dahlias she deadheads over the coming month and give them to me when I see her in September, so that I can see what happens if I use a higher concentration of plant material. Orange perhaps? The questions never end!

Group photo of all 17 hanks of my August dyeing

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