Failure in natural dyeing is commonly defined as not getting the result you expected. Beige, off white, baby yellow and other tones of grime are all examples of colors I have made no attempt to acheive, and yet, I have a big pile of skeins just like that. But there’s actually a lot to be learned from failures. Some give new ideas of what to try next. Others just tell you what not to do. Below, I’ll describe some of my failures – actually, I’ve failed so many times that this will only be the first installment, more to follow.
1: Bark Failure
Several books on dyeing will tell you that different types of barks are good dyestuffs. For example, Jenny Dean’s “Wild Color” mentions these barks and the color they should produce on alum mordanted wool: alder (brown-green), barberry (yellow), ash (bright yellow-green), apple (warm yellow), oak and willow (beige), and finally elm, birch, cherry, pear, and plum (pink).
For a while, the theme of my walks was bark; in the end, I found enough of these three to try them as dyestuffs:
- Birch (Betula) – I’ve used birch leaves several times for a sunny yellow, but not the bark. Some trees were cut down near our house, and I jumped at the chance. The trees had been left in a big pile, which I obviously had to climb to get to the good parts, and since I was of course wearing clogs, I fell down from that big pile in the end. With 60 g of birch bark in my pockets.
- Another day I hear some men working outside, shredding logs. On their day off, I casually walked by and managed to peel a good amount of bark off. The logs turned out to be alder (Alnus), the kind with the tiny cones. 70 g of bark.
- Last one is some bark from a forest walk. I jumped over a big, big ditch to get this. I’m pretty sure it’s beech (Fagus). My daughter jumped it too, so I had to save her afterwards. 94 g of bark.
I used Jenny Dean’s general dyeing method for bark. She says that “barks are best soaked for several days or even weeks in cold water before processing. Then simmer them for one hour. Never boil bark, as this will release too much tannin”. So that’s what I did – left the three types of bark to soak for a couple of weeks. That was long enough that they started fermenting, and I can tell you that it didn’t smell that good.
But when I simmered 10 g test skeins of alum mordanted wools in the three bark dye baths, the color in the end was pale beige. I didn’t even bother taking pictures (because when you’ve seen one skein of pale beige wool, you really have seen them all), but you can see one sticking out between the pale pink skeins in the left side of the first picture above.
I have seen other dyers experiment with bark (for example, at my wool group’s dyeing day) and also get pale beige or off white. So right now, I’m not even convinced that it would ever work, and I probably won’t try it again unless someone can tell me what went wrong (please comment below if you know or if you’ve had good results dyeing with bark).
2: Slimy/Moldy Avocado Failures
There are established procedures for dyeing with avocados, but I’ve been experimenting with slightly different ways of doing it. I suppose to make the procedure easier and better, but of course ending up making it messy and complicated.
According to Carol Lee, avocado pits should not be allowed to dry before use because they will become so hard that they are impossible to chop. Instead, they should be frozen until use. I wanted to find a way to dry them anyway because my freezer is small.
So I chopped the pits and skins and then left them to dry. This worked well on a couple of occasions, but most times it did not because they became completely overgrown with mold before they had time to dry. Moldy materials may still work as dyes, but I think it is generally unwise to handle them repeatedly around the house, since many molds produce toxins that may be inhaled. So I went back to freezing the skins and pits.
Another experiment was to ferment the pits and shells for a looong time to see if they yielded more color that way. I used my dry material, soaked overnight, but I suspect the results would have been the same had I used frozen dyestuff.
I usually ferment avocado pits and skins by heating them up once in brine, then just leaving them. Normally for a few weeks or a month, this time for six months. And the dye bath did develop a deep red, but it also became extremely slimy.
Despite the sliminess, I tried dyeing a small test skein in this dye bath, but it didn’t yield good color. My guess is that the slime prevented good contact between yarn and dye. But I’m not convinced that a long fermentation couldn’t yield good color. I’ve been adviced to put avocado pits and skins in jars, close the jars, heat them up, and then ferment. Such jars should not go slimy. I’ll try that next time.