Thousands of years ago people discovered that they could change the colour of wool by making dyes from plants. How?  A question I would love to know the answer to. Why? Because, just like modern people, they wanted to look good.

As part of my Iron age textile work I have made dyes from a variety of plants, and last weekend I joined Ann and Caroline from Hembra Crafting to do some more experimenting. Before we could start dyeing we mordanted sections of wool and natural fabric pieces. Synthetic fibres do not always take plant dyes, and plant fibres, such as linen are harder to dye than wool. But then seeing the differences is part of the fun.  A mordant helps fibres to absorb the dye, and acts as a fixative, making the dye last longer. Some plants produce natural mordants through the tannins in them. Rhubarb and Oak galls are good examples. A more accessible mordant is alum. We set up two mordant pots, one just alum, and the other alum mixed with cream of tartar. (The just alum pot was for pieces to be dyed with Logwood)

The mordant pot.

January is not a good time to collect fresh dye stuffs, but there are some excellent sites where you can buy dried versions and these work equally well. So we set up a variety of dye pots, Weld, walnut, logwood, madder, and cochineal. ( Yes, I know it isn’t a plant!) Then the fun started. Trying different fibres in different dyes, overdying, and comparing our results. Weld, walnut, and madder are plants the Iron Age people used to colour their clothes. Logwood is an American plant, so didn’t come into this country until the 16th Century. However it is a spectacular dye stuff. The colour explodes from the moment the bark hits the water.

Adding Logwood.

Some of the results were disappointing, the weld took very well on the wool, but not the fabric squares, others were more successful.  Caroline dyed different parts of a t shirt and created a multi coloured piece. The logwood worked well on all pieces, as did the cochineal. So now I have some new lengths to play with, the big test is to do something with it all. How many of us have bits from workshops sitting in drawers?

Now this is just a taster of creating dyes, it can be very technical, and if you want to create uniform results then you need to weigh and measure, and make notes. There are some excellent books out there, Jenny Dean has produced several, and Natural Dyes by Judy Hardman and Sally Pinhey is another of my personal favourites.

If you fancy having a go  then Hembra Crafting are planning a second workshop in February, details can be found on their Facebook page,and  I am planning workshops of my own later in the year, some in the Midlands, some in Wales. And if you are trying it out for yourself please be aware, some dyes and mordants are toxic, wear gloves, be in a well ventilated room, and dispose of the liquids responsibly. Check if you are not sure.

Here are a few more pictures from the day.

Orange wool is madder, the yellow is weld. Quite spectacular on the fleece!

Cochineal! Finished as a lovely deep pink.

Weld simmering in the pot, strain before adding wool!!