Moldy Oldies

Last fall, when the pokeberries were ripe, I experimented with extracting their color by soaking them in vinegar in hopes of getting a more durable dye than I had previously gotten by fermenting the berries in water. In October I collected bags and bags of this invasive species and stuffed them into 2-quart plastic tomato juice bottles and filled the bottles with white vinegar, and a brilliant purple juice very quickly emerged. Around that time, my daughter, a vegan, came to visit, and I made a dish for her made of black rice, fried tofu, and sweet potatoes, very tasty, and also a source of one of my favorite dyes, black rice soaking water. I had these two interesting dyes all ready for me to put mordanted hanks of wool into them. The only problem was getting around to winding the hanks and mordanting them. Several times every week, between late October until now, June, I would think about winding the yarn around my swift and mixing up the mordant and cooking the yarn in it, and several times every week, I would decide I was too busy that day. So it went for seven months, while I guiltily watched the bottles of pokeberry accumulating dust and the container of black rice water developing odd white bits on the surface of the bath where it sat at the back corner of the refrigerator, and decided each day that I would deal with them another day.

Moldy oldie black rice dye

Finally in late May and June, the coreopsis volunteering in the park were blooming profusely in their first and biggest bloom, and I thought about the beautiful vivid yellows and oranges I could dye with them if I got around to prepping some yarn. The coreopsis began to wane, and if I wanted to catch the last of the big bloom, now was my time to stop procrastinating. I finally wound and mordanted six hanks, and at last I was equipped to find out what time had done to my pokeberry and black rice dyes. I had been hoping that the white bits in my black rice dye might have been ice crystals, formed after spending so much time in the dark cold corner of the back of my refrigerator. They weren’t. They were mold, all right. But I flung a hank into the bath and let it sit there for about 16 hours. It turned a very nice dark grayish plum. I threw another hank into the exhaust, and 16 hours later pulled out a lavender color that I’ve been trying to get for years. I got very excited about these results.

The lavender and plum colors of the degraded black rice dye didn’t last, regrettably

Sadly, my excitement was illusory. I washed the hanks a few days later, and the purple tones went down the drain with the water I washed them in, leaving them the blue-toned gray I was originally expecting to get from a moldy dye bath. I put them into an afterbath of dissolved baking soda for a few hours, and their color shifted slightly bluish, not much different from the color I would have gotten from fresh black rice soaking water. I really would have loved to have gotten the purples I thought the mold was producing, but I guess the lesson is that black rice is a very durable dye substance, even when it’s degraded.

Two hanks of black rice dyed yarn being modified in a baking soda solution afterbath

I had two tomato juice bottles of pokeberries marinating in vinegar, using a method I described in my post Pickled Pink, Pots of Gold. I arbitrarily grabbed one and poured half of the liquid over a mordanted 2-ounce hank of superwash wool, and I could see from the moment the dye hit the yarn that the pokeberries had gone much browner than the purples and pinks that fresh pokeberry dye usually gives, although the yarn tends not to hang onto these vivid colors for very long, and will lighten and brown over time. The skein stayed in the bath for 24 hours and resulted in a dusty rose of medium intensity. It’s the color avocado dye is supposed to be but has never been for me, so I was perfectly satisfied. I don’t know how the color is going to hold up over time, but it’s already the color my vivid purples have faded to, so maybe the dye skipped that initial bright color while waiting for me to get around to using it, and will stay dusty rose. Or not, and I’ll accept change as something that happens to us all over time.

People who have dyed with pokeberry have told me that they were able to modify the color toward red tones by heating the bath. I tried that once, with a lot of care not to bring the bath to a boil because high temperatures will usually turn dye baths brown. I didn’t want to risk that, and I didn’t get a very dramatic change in the color, maybe because I was too careful. I gave it another try with this bath, using the exhaust from the first hank and the remainder of the the bath and the yarn in the pot. I heated it gently just before the boiling point, then turned off the heat and let it cool for a while. Then I did it again and let it sit overnight. In the end, I didn’t see any shift in the hue, compared to the first hank after both were dry, and only a very slight increase in intensity of the same hue. But I still had another juice bottle full of months-old pokeberry dye. I like that dusty rose color, and I would be pleased to have more of it at a higher intensity, enough to see more contrast with the first hank, so it was a good candidate for overdyeing.

I wet the hank and put it into a bowl, then poured about half of the remaining dye over it. I immediately noticed that this batch was different from the first batch, more potent and more purple and more like fresh dye. I don’t know why. It didn’t look as if there were more berries in that bottle than in the first. Maybe the berries were newer, less degraded than the ones in the other batch? The hank turned a completely different color than the dusty rose I was expecting– dark maroon! I have had enough experience with pokeberry to avoid getting too attached to the intense, vivid colors it can try to break your heart with, although extracting the colors in a vinegar bath is supposed to retain more color than extracting color in plain water. We’ll see. Maybe in a year I’ll do a follow-up post on how these pokeberry colors have aged. I will enjoy this startling dark color while I have it, without getting too attached to it. My aesthetic will accept whatever it turns into. After I took the dark maroon hank out of the bath, it looked as if there was quite a lot of color remaining in the exhaust. I had a pale pink hank hanging around from last fall’s pokeberry dyeing, so into the bath it went and stayed there for 24 hours. It turned a blue-tinged floral pink of medium intensity, very much like hanks I dyed with fresh pokeberry baths. I can only observe and report what I see, I can’t always explain it.

Three pokeberry hanks: dusty rose, from degraded pokeberry; maroon, an overdye of degraded pokeberry in fresher pokeberry; pink, from a pink hank dyed in the exhaust bath of the maroon hank

I had prepared six hanks for dyeing, and the two black rice hanks and the two pokeberry hanks (dusty rose and maroon) accounted for four of them. I was saving the two others for the coreopsis that was rapidly waning. I grabbed the last of the first bloom before it completely disappeared, about four ounces of flower heads, and poured boiling water over them, covered them, and left the bath to sit overnight. In the morning I put the two remaining hanks (four ounces of superwash wool) into the bath and let them sit in it for 24 hours. This produced two very bright yellow hanks with random areas of intensity because I didn’t remove the flower heads from the bath. I like the random bursts of intensity that come when the wool directly contacts the plant material. I kept one as-is and put the other one into an afterbath of dissolved baking soda. Bright orange! I described my initial experiments with coreopsis and the dramatic color shifts I got with afterbaths of dissolved baking soda in my post A Spoonful of Magic Powder.

The black rice hanks turned grayish after washing. But what about those coreopsis hanks? Glorious or what???

My black rice bath, after dyeing two 2-ounce hanks, was pretty much depleted, but I couldn’t yet give it up, being in a state of irrational exuberance from my mistaken belief that moldy black rice dye would produce purples. I wound and mordanted another four ounces of yarn, in a 2-ounce hank and two 1-ounce hanks, and put one of the 1-ounce hanks into the second exhaust bath to sit for 24 hours and soak up whatever color remained. It was a very pale tint of lavender/mauve. The question I wanted to answer was what color would I get if I put it into a baking powder after-bath the way I had done with the coreopsis hank? I was expecting a green. I got sky blue. Briefly. I washed it and now have pale gray with blue tones. It’s a candidate for overdyeing, maybe in black bean, black rice, rudbeckia, or something yellow. Or maybe I’ll put it in the leftover pokeberry dye that is still waiting to be used. I would probably get a purplish color, as I got from a previous experiment with a hank dyed in a black bean exhaust bath, overdyed in a pokeberry exhaust bath.

Here are my nine hanks looking pretty together. How will time treat the pokeberry hanks?

Now I have an array of nine hanks, seven of which were dyed in very iffy dye baths. There were some nice surprises, particularly in the pokeberry hanks, but overall I think the lesson is, don’t wait seven months to get around to using dye baths. I don’t expect the pokeberry colors to stay as they are, but I’m curious to see if I can find an extraction method that will preserve the color longer and more intensely. I’m prepared for my colors to fade and change because I’m curious about the unseen attributes of the plants I find in the place where I’m living my life, and dyeing with them tells me interesting stuff, even if the colors don’t last. Of course I do want the colors to last, if I can figure out a way to make it happen. Right now I’m looking at last September’s pokeberry colors, extracted in vinegar, and I’m comparing them with the way they look now, after spending the winter and spring hanging off a hanger in my dark living room waiting for me to get around to washing and winding them into cakes. Actually it looks as if they haven’t lost that much color, so maybe extracting the color in an acidic medium actually is a good way to go, far better than my first experiments with fermenting pokeberry in water, which produced vivid royal purple initially and then faded within six months to a year. I have a big jar of citric acid, so I’ll give that a try next fall.

Here’s a photo of my new pokeberry hanks with pokeberry dyeing from nine months ago (in cakes). The lavender-ish cake is the overdye of black bean exhaust with pokeberry exhaust that I mentioned above. I’ve never gotten a color as dark as the maroon hank in my previous experiments with vinegar as an extraction medium, so there isn’t an older color to compare it with to gauge how it might age. The pink hank I got from the exhaust of the maroon hank is an overdye of a hank very much like the palest pink cake in the center of the photo.

Hanks are the newly dyed yarn, cakes are what I dyed nine months ago


4 thoughts on “Moldy Oldies

    1. Thank you! I’m planning to use these colors and a lot of others in a striped machine-knit pullover I’m planning now. Can’t wait to be done with entrelac socks so that I can get to something differently and less labor-intensive!

      Liked by 1 person

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