A Spoonful of Magic Powder

July in Baltimore has my least favorite weather of the year because it’s hot and humid and you can’t wear sweaters. I dread July so much that I especially appreciate those moments when the weather isn’t so awful, when there’s a refreshing breeze, when the frogs at the frog pond are sitting out in view and the pollywogs are swimming to the the surface and grabbing an insect snack and swimming back down. There’s a bit of comfort in the fact that these things are happening because of the weather that I dislike so much, and I’m particularly aware of the wonderful things that happen only in July, things that I look forward to: the profusion of wild raspberries and black-eyed Susans everywhere I walk. Wild raspberries because they’re delicious and there are so many of them that I made multiple batches of raspberry muffins (best muffins I’ve ever tasted using this recipe) and black-eyed Susans because I got a really good dark green and dark gray when I dyed with them last summer, and I want more dark colors for a project I’m knitting.

The redeeming features, or at least partially redeeming features, of July in Baltimore

I spent all of June looking for the black-eyed Susan plants to come out of the earth, and they mostly stayed hidden until suddenly they were everywhere. But in the meantime, I noticed that there were a lot of coreopsis plants blooming wild near the marshy places where I walk, so I picked 3.8 ounces of the flower heads and put them into a dye bath. I got a deep sunny yellow from the first bath and the exhaust baths just kept giving me beautiful and useful lighter intensities, so I kept flinging in the hanks, mordanted in alum and cream of tartar, until ultimately that 3.8 ounces of plant material dyed 11 ounces of superwash merino. That’s a potent dye plant.

A lot of color can be gotten from a relatively small weight of coreopsis flower heads

Then I saw that someone on a Ravelry plant dyeing group had gotten true and vivid oranges using coreopsis and a baking soda after-bath. As I have said over and over in my posts here, orange is my color hero and has been one of my unicorn colors in my plant dyeing. Madder is a reliable source for oranges, but my preference is to dye with foraged, donated, or waste plant materials like onion skins (the skins of yellow onions give a really good orange), so the prospect of getting true orange from a foraged plant was irresistible. The method was simple: pour boiling water over coreopsis flower heads, let them sit overnight, add mordanted yarn and let it dye. Then prepare the after-bath of baking soda dissolved in water and put immerse the hank in the solution. All doable!

I went out and collected another 2 ounces of coreopsis flower heads and put 2 ounces of mordanted yarn into the prepared bath. When the yarn was a lovely deep yellow, I dissolved a teaspoon of baking soda in a bowl of tap water, at pH 8, squeezed the dye water from the hank and picked out the flower bits, and threw it into the baking soda bath. It instantly turned vermilion, so I took it out of the bath and let it dry. Another prepared 2-ounce hank went into the exhaust bath until it turned a sunny medium yellow, and it went into the same baking soda solution that I had used before. It quickly turned a bright orange. Of course the wet yarn was going to dry a couple of shades lighter than the blazing colors that came straight out of the after-bath, but my burning question was whether this after-bath would play that cruel trick that other alkaline modifiers have broken my heart with, and wash away all of the color when I washed the yarn in water and pH-neutral detergent. I let the yarn sit for a few days to let the color set, then washed the hanks: the washing water turned orange, but in the end there was minimal color loss. So maybe the stability of the color was because the color from coreopsis is intrinsically fast, or maybe it’s some characteristic of the solution of the baking soda in the water that I’m not scientifically learned enough to identify.

I’m regretting that I was running out of yarn when I dyed with this bath, now that I know how potent coreopsis is as a dye plant

Now I was curious about whether the method I had used to get orange from coreopsis would get me orange from other bright yellow flowers. When the black-eyed Susans started blooming profusely, I collected a big bag of flower heads, 10 ounces of them, and separated the petals from the eyes, which came to 2 ounces. Following the method that had worked with the coreopsis, I poured a kettle full of boiling water over the petals and let the bath sit overnight. However, there was little color in the bath, and I knew from experience that there is a lot of extractable color in rudbeckia petals, so I went back to the method that had previously worked, heating the bath to steaming for an hour or so. Then I put a 2-ounce hank into the bath and let it sit for a day. In the end the hank was a medium yellow with an ochre tinge and the bath was just about clear, so I didn’t attempt an exhaust bath, besides the fact that I was running out of the yarn I’ve dyed with for years, Wollmeise Lacegarn in Natur, and getting more has become prohibitively expensive because of extra fees applied for handling during the coronavirus crisis. I put the yellow yarn into the baking powder + water solution, and it did not turn orange. But after a while the color brightened to a very pretty strong yellow with a slight tinge of green.

Before and after alkaline modification, same black-eyed Susan petal hank

Then I simmered the remaining 8 ounces of the eyes for a couple of hours and left 2 ounces of mordanted yarn in the bath overnight. It was a deep gray when I took it out in the morning, and I put another 2 ounces into the exhaust and left it in the bath for 24 hours. It was a pretty silver gray, and I thought about just letting it stay as it was. But I was curious. How would a spoonful of magic powder transform this medium gray color? I snipped off a few inches of the yarn and put it into a solution of baking soda at pH 8, and it turned a bluish green. I like bluish green. The whole hank went into the baking soda solution and stayed there for an hour and a half while I went off for a walk, and when I came back I had a hank of green yarn where there used to be silver gray yarn.

The silver hank is before, the green test strand is after modification with a baking soda after-bath
Three very different colors from the same black-eyed Susan dye bath

I still wanted to find out if another plant that grows in my area might be able to replicate the orange I got from the coreopsis. Jerusalem artichokes, with their yellow petals and yellow centers, grow abundantly in my area in late August and September. I tried dyeing with the flower heads last September, at the end of their season, and was rewarded with a lovely golden yellow. July is early for Jerusalem artichokes, but I found some growing and took home about 3 ounces of flower heads. I simmered them for an hour or so, then threw in a 2-ounce hank of mordanted superwash merino from Wool2Dye4 that was very much like Wollmeise, but not Wollmeise because I had used it all up. The yarn sat in the hot bath until it cooled, then it sat there some more. It was a dingy brownish yellow. I heated the flower heads again, to steaming, with the yarn in the bath, and let it sit there overnight. No change. I went out and collected another three or four ounces of flower heads and added it to the existing bath and simmered the new plant material with the old, and put the yarn back in. And still no change. Why? Last September’s flowers produced a potent yellow dye but these flowers from July were giving me this faint tea stain. Was I using an insufficient amount of plant material? Were these early bloomers not a good dye material? Was the Wool2Dye4 yarn not as receptive to plant dye as Wollmeise? I was going to have to wait until at least August to test my questions about the potency of Jerusalem artichoke flowers, but I could test the general color absorption of the yarn with another batch of black-eyed Susan, which had recently proved itself to be a good dyer.

I collected 8.65 ounces of black-eyed Susan flower heads, petals and eyes, and simmered them for about an hour and a half, then put in 2 ounces of mordanted yarn. I was expecting to get a deep khaki green, and I got it. That reassured me that the Wool2Dye4 name wasn’t a misnomer. The exhaust bath gave me a lighter greenish gray. Or in other lights, a grayish green. Then I threw the Jerusalem artichoke failure into the second exhaust, because why not? It was about as sad a color as I was likely to get. The exhaust bath was pretty exhausted, and it came out a slightly greener version of the brownish-yellow, which was a slight improvement but nothing to keep me from acting on my impulse to find out what would happen if I put it into a baking soda solution after-bath. Abracadabra! That spoonful of magic powder transformed the pallid green-brown-yellow into vivid apple green before my very eyes. It turned failure into something beautiful and exciting.

Comparison of sad, drab color with its moment of transformation into a beautiful bright green
Three different colors from the same bath of whole black-eyed Susan flower heads

Lesson to note from these two sets of experiments with black-eyed Susans: if you dye with the whole flower, the colors will be more green. If you separate the petals from the eyes, you’ll get a green-tinged yellow and the eyes will dye gray.

But I still wanted more orange, especially in pale shades to serve as the background for the darker greens, blues, and browns I’m using in a stranded knitting representation of elaborate ironwork fencing, which our Ravelry friend Johanna charted from the ironwork of her garden near Vienna, Austria. I checked in on the patches of coreopsis growing near the stream where I walk, and they were still blooming abundantly. I collected 2 ounces of flower heads, and in total, those 2 ounces dyed 7.35 ounces of yarn in a 4-hank gradient made from the full-strength first bath and three successive exhaust baths.

I might have enough orange for a little while now

I am now a convert to this simple alkaline modifier method, which requires nothing more than a teaspoon measure, a bowl, water from the tap, a box of baking soda, and a moment of time. The transformed color doesn’t wash out after a few days of letting the dyed yarn dry and set. I don’t know if that’s because I have tried to keep my baths at no more extreme a pH than 8 or 9, but I have operated on the belief that an excessively high pH can cause the color to wash out, although I have no scientific basis for believing that other than some heartbreaking experiences a few summers ago with dumping a ton of baking soda into an exhaust bath, getting some vivid colors, and losing them almost completely in the wash. But based on this limited sample of plants, coreopsis and black-eyed Susan, a solution of baking soda in tap water at pH 8 has been a magic trick that extends the color range of a plant dye rather spectacularly.

This is the range of colors I got from dyeing with only two plants. This photo probably shows the colors at their truest, and they are grouped by dye bath chronologically from left to right.

Here they all are grouped around a work-in-progress that will probably incorporate all of them.


6 thoughts on “A Spoonful of Magic Powder

  1. Thank you for your detailed account and for sharing your secret for obtaining green. Yellow is such a ubiquitous colour in the natural dye world, but green opens up all kinds of possibilities! And I love your range of colours.

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    1. Thank you, I’m so pleased to be helpful to you! And I know who you are, you’re the mushroom lady, I have your book! I drool over the colors you get with mushrooms. I have so much trouble identifying them, and the colors I get are not very exciting.

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