Inspired by Dye Plants of Ontario, edited by Nancy J. McGuffin, compiled by Burt House Spinners and Weavers Guild, I made a list of all the plants that I could harvest for dying in my Halifax city garden. I can harvest chives, onions, hydrangea, bracken ferns, coltsfoot, dandelion, rue, and privet. A few mornings later I was looking at my forsythia bush and wondered...yup. On page 189, Forsythia, a plant in the olive family was listed.
On a lovely early May morning I collected 20 cups of Forsythia flowers and the tips of new growth branches.
Into a dye pot they went, just covered with water. They cooked at medium high heat to begin, and then the pot was turned to simmer for 20 minutes. Surprisingly, I remembered to use the timer. (flowers give better colour if simmered, not boiled)
I don't have a scale so the balls of wool that had been wound on a ball winder, were measured in a measuring cup. I gather that measuring is important in dying so I complied, in my own way. I had two balls of wool yarn approximately 1 cup size and 2 cup size, and one ball cotton of approximately 2 cups worth. This is an eyeball measurement and has no relation to weights, accurate volumes, mass or density. Eyeballs only. And a good dose of rationalization.
I soaked the wool in warm water with “DownEast” dish soap (a small squirt) and a sploop of Glauber salts. Overnight because I forgot I had a meeting and then people came over to play recorder. The next morning the wool was then rinsed before going into dye pot with warm water.
While the pot is simmering I will tell you about the plants that can be harvested. Assume that the mordant (the chemically bit that helps to hold the colour to the wool as well as influence the colour tint or tone) is alum. I picked up a bottle of alum at the health food store a few years back for these impulsive dying moments. I also have a copper scouring pad and a copper flower pot that I toss in for excitement sometimes, but not today.
Using alum as the mordant for all of the following you will get: Chives, a dye bath of deep gold yellow; Onion (dried skins) a burnt orange; Hydrangea flowers a pink beige; Bracken ferns a green; Coltsfoot (flowers and leaves) deep yellow; Dandelion (flowers and leaves) a celery green; Rue (leaves) a pale lime; Privet leaves a gold yellow. The forsythia should yield a strong yellow green. These plants I have in enough quantity that I can harvest and not destroy the plant. Others that I could use for smaller amounts of yarn and available in my city garden could be: Bee balm, Bergamot, Buttercup, Cedar, German Chamomile, Cucumber, Feverfew, Forget me not, Geranium, Grape, Lavender, Lilac, Linden, Marjoram, Meadowsweet, Mint, Parsley, Pea (the bush), Plantain, Raddish, Rhubarb, Sage, Smoke-tree, Tomato, Willow and Yarrow. That is just in my not so big yard. Think what I could talk my friends into giving me in addition. The Rhubarb (deep acid yellow or if I use copper – deep gold green) intrigues me, so does the Tomato (pale yellow or with copper – bright tan)
The timer went so now.....Wow, a near disaster. I was thinking I need to get rid of the flowers and stems because poking those out of the wool afterwards will be annoying. So I ALMOST poured the dye liquor down the drain in an effort to collect the flowers and stems. Luckily, I uncramped my brain and thought to use one strainer to collect the bits and dump them into the next strainer. Then because I wasn't sure if the plant bits should stay in the pot, I put the strainer back in the simmering pot along with the alum and wool.
Those of you who like to measure things are wondering how much alum I put in. You'll hate me. About a plop. Enough that when you dump it in, the water goes plop. Possibly 3 tablespoons all at once. Here's a chance for the measuring kinds of gals to do an experiment and see how much it takes to make a plop verses a ploop verses a splash. Use a height of about one foot from the surface of the water.
The dye liquor yields a water colour that is similar to daffodils on their last day. “Expiring Daffodil!” What would the paint stores do with a colour like that to market?
I have set the stove to medium high for 2 minutes and then will turn it down to simmer for 25 minutes. Dye Plants of Ontario is really a terrific book. There is a great introduction, explaining how the Burt House Spinning and Weaving guild undertook to dye a huge number of plants over a year. They involved guilds and individuals from all over Ontario and had several artists draw the plants. They established a set of instructions for dying and reporting. The dying for each plant was done with Alum, Chrome (no longer recommended), Tin, Copper and Iron. Skeins dyed with Alum was then further over dyed with Chrome, Tin, Copper and Iron meaning of course that a separate skein was used with each secondary mordant. One tough problem was on how to colour code the results. It isn't clear what criteria they used to keep people from describing colours as Expiring Daffodil, but you see the possible problem (or creative solution). At the back of the book is a good set of general instructions.
I did read these, a couple of times before hand and during. My learning style is “in-attentive” and consequently I often miss out on a few details. Such as bring the water to a slow simmer. My solution to turn the knob to medium high and then turn it down to simmer is not considered the correct way. I thought it was pretty slow compared to turning the burner up to high and then turning it down to simmer, but that is relative and probably should be ignored by those of you who like instructions. I have a friend who shopped for years to find an ice-cream scoop that would scoop the correct amount of muffin mix into her muffin pan. She would slap me if she was in the kitchen with me now. I on the other hand would lick the muffin mix spills up. It is a wonder we are good friends. But in the end, I have dyed yarn that is somewhat like what the book predicted.