Farm to Closet:
The Joys of Dyeing Naturally

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Published on September 16th, 2013  |  Discuss This Article  

Megan Latour

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in our ongoing Farm to Closet series where we’re following the journey of a sheep’s wool from a sustainably managed ranch in Patagonia as it’s spun, dyed, and knit into a finished beautiful piece. Read the first and second posts.

I’ve gathered my other knitting geek friends to embark on the next stage of my journey with me: natural dyeing.

Our circle of friends has dyed yarn before, so it was not a completely foreign concept. We’d used synthetic dyes though – those chemicals easily provided us with the even, vibrant color we were seeking (and a lot of stained towels and utensils that we were not) without a lot of effort.

The problem with that sentence isn’t “stained,” it’s “synthetic.” As you’ve gathered, I’m not a fan of fake, and for this project, I wanted to follow an organic a process. Our ancestors didn’t use dyes made of triphenylmethane and phthalocyanine (what is that stuff, anyway?). Dating as far back as the Neolithic Era, they used what they had – plants, fruits, nuts, bark, even insects – to produce color before synthetic dyes were discovered in the mid 1850’s. If they could do it, so could I.

First, I gathered my dyestuff. I found it essential to utilize things I found tasty, for obvious reasons (one in the dye pot, one in my mouth. Two in the…). To really get down to the source, I paid a visit to Berke’s Organic Blueberry Farm in Stratham, NH. Farmer Rick Berke took me through his over 1,200 blueberry bushes and spoke about the joys of watching the multitudes of pollinators that help his plants thrive and produce huge, sweet, delicious berries.

Berries for dyeing

Those little flying fertilizers help create what have to be the tastiest blueberries I’ve ever had. Needless to say, Colony Collapse Disorder is a worrisome topic for folks like Farmer Berke. All the more reason to keep his farm certified organic: it makes for happy, healthy bees.

After I secured my blueberries, I chose a few more delightful items for color: Raspberries and blackberries for red, spinach for green, turmeric, the ever-so-flavorful Indian spice, for yellow.

For dyeing: Raspberries and blackberries for red, spinach for green, turmeric for yellow.

The concept is easy – just a little time consuming. Smoosh, simmer, strain, steep. It’s a blast for kids, and makes for an excellent and engaging activity that yields real results. You can even perform all of the steps outside, which to me seems essential with mixing children and staining colors. So now I give you…

MEGAN’S COMPLETELY INCOMPLETE GUIDE TO NATURALLY DYEING YARN

1) Smoosh your berries and veggies, pop them each in a pot with some water and boil.

Smoosh your berries and veggies, pop them each in a pot with some water.

(That’s my buddy, Heather, stirring the spinach. Thanks, Heather!)

2) Once boiling, reduce to simmer on all pots for an hour or so.  This extracts the juice (and color) from the plant material.  Once you’ve simmered your dyestuff within an inch of its life, it’s time to strain.

Using a cheesecloth, strain liquid into a large mason jar.

3) Using a cheesecloth, I strained the liquid into large mason jars (you’ll find out why in a moment). Then I filled the jars nearly to the brim with water. The cold water helps bring down the temperature of the dye. This is of vital importance when dyeing natural fibers, as heat is a very fickle friend. In many instances it is needed in order for the yarn to soak up the dye. At the same time, heat can denature the fibers. Let me tell you, nothing is more disheartening than finding out at the end that your yarn is ruined by the heat.

4) When your jar is ready, it’s time to steep. Add your yarn, top off with water, shut the lid and put the jars in the sun.

Steep: Add yarn, top off with water, shut the lid and put the jars in the sun.

The heat from the sun slowly drives the absorption process. Depending on the time of year and your exposure, you can leave them out for a matter of hours or a matter of days. We were near the beach, so naturally we toted our jars (and ourselves) down to the sand for maximum sun-steeping:

Sun steeping!

5) The next day I pulled the fruits of my labor (no pun) from the jars, carefully gave the yarn a thorough rinse and then laid the skeins out to dry.

Give the yarn a thorough rinse

The turmeric blew my mind. My friend Brianne called it “yellow spaghetti.” The color came out incredibly rich and ever-so-slightly variegated depending on where in the skein a particular strand sat. The blueberries produced more tan with gray/blue undertones — slightly unexpected, but still natural and beautiful.

Blueberry in front and an undyed skein in back

(Blueberry in front and an undyed skein in back)

The raspberry and spinach attempts were a bit of a bust. I think more dyestuff and longer simmering to extract the color would have helped.  Hey well, live and learn!

In the end, the process of dyeing naturally was fun, challenging, tasty and overall, yet another great reminder that nature provides us so many benefits. I feel closer to our planet knowing blueberries and turmeric will keep me warm this winter!

Up next: See the finished product! — and learn five reasons why knitting rules. Read the final blog post »

[All images © Lori Johnson]

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Comments: Farm to Closet: The Joys of Dyeing Naturally

  •  Comment from Brianna

    What an awesome article! I love that The Nature Conservancy is taking time to research and write about this sort of thing. As an avid knitter/crocheter I really enjoy reading about natural options for this craft. Absolutely fantastic!

  •  Comment from Debbie Phillips

    I think most dyes require something to fix the dye. Vinagar is one way.

    •  Comment from Megan

      Hi Debbie!

      Yes, you are correct. I didn’t touch upon it in the blog, but I did actually treat the yarn beforehand so that the dye would fix. I simmered it in water with a mixture of vinegar and cream of tartar! Thanks for mentioning this.

  •  Comment from nicole

    wonderful post series! i hope this blog does more of theses sorts of investigations. as a passionate organic knitter, and plant based dyer, i applaud your efforts! just a heads up, turmeric fades with the sun (it actually will fade not in the sun too :( sorry!), so be careful not to let it dry in the sun!

    •  Comment from Megan

      I actually didn’t know this, Nicole. Thanks for alerting me! Now it won’t come as a surprise down the line. The upshot is, if it fades, I can just redye it. Score!

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