Madder’s Family

Madder has several relatives that are also rich in useful reds. These plants are native here in Denmark, and have been used as red dyes a very long time back.

Believe it or not, the year is drawing to a close. So, I want to try to summarize all the many dyeing experiments I did over the year.

This summer, I searched for madder’s relatives, to find as many as possible. Madder, Rubia tinctoria, belongs to the madder family (Rubiaceae) in which you also find the bedstraws (the genus Galium).

Galium species do not contain as large amounts of red dye as cultivated madder does, but several of the species grow wild here in Denmark, and their historical use is well known.

Madder plant growing in my dye garden.

The first Galium species to present itself was cleavers (Galium aparine). It’s everywhere! Anybody who has ever walked outside surely know this plant. Or at least its seeds. They are extremely good at clinging to clothing and dog fur. The whole plant is covered with clingy hooks – the very same that cultivated madder has.

My attempt to dig up cleaver roots quickly came to an end. The roots have the thickness of sewing thread, so a lot of digging is required. But the roots are said to contain dye, so I’m keeping them on my list of maybes.

Cleavers up close. You can see the characteristic clingy hooks on the seeds. The very same that madder is covered with.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) is the plant mentioned by most natural dyeing books. I tried growing it in the garden this year, seeding it outside in the spring, but nothing grew.

Whenever you’re looking for a specific plant or mushroom, but haven’t found it yet, it’s simply invisible. But, once you find it, you start seeing it everywhere. The relationship between Lady’s bedstraw and myself developed exactly like that over the summer. Once I found it, it was everywhere! For example this coastal grassland:

Coastal grasslands with very sandy and infertile soil, perfect for Lady’s bedstraw. I took this picture in a region of Denmark called Mols.


Lady’s bedstraw truly thrives in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, along with yarrow and St. John’s wort.

Lady’s bedstraw growing in a big cluster.

Unfortunately, several walks with a shovel only yielded a very small handful of Lady’s bedstraw roots – so little that my scale didn’t register. Like with cleavers, the roots are extremely fine, and they tangle up with roots of grass etc. In combination with stony, sandy soil, the digging job gets hard. To get your hands on a larger pile of these roots, I suspect you have to grow them in a well-prepared sandy soil without obstacles. Anyway, I tried dyeing with my small handful of roots, but it gave almost no color.

But then, on a forest walk, this plant turned up – hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo):

Flowering hedge bedstraw photographed in July.

Hedge bedstraw is also mentioned by different books as a dye plant, so I brought out the shovel once more. Again, it was difficult. The forest soil is obviously full of tree roots that make digging quite impossible. But I managed to get a couple of handfuls of roots, mainly because hedge bedstraw roots are not that thin. I dug up the roots on July 9th. The next day, after cleaning, the slightly dried roots weighed 30 g.

My pile of hedge bedstraw roots, with reds clearly showing under the out bark.

I soaked the roots in cold water overnight, then dyed my usual alum mordanted 12-gram skeins of Fernris to test the dye. I removed the overnight water because Jenny Dean does, but I should have concluded from my madder experiments that it is not necessary to do so. The water used to soak the roots overnight simply contains a small amount of dye, with the same properties as the dye you extract when you heat the roots in water (the small 6-gram skein laying across the others in the picture below was dyed with the discarded water).

Then, I dyed alum mordanted 12-gram skeins in a 1st and 2nd dyebath, in exactly the same way as if it had been madder: heating up to 60 degrees C, then leaving the yarn in the dyebath until the next day. The first bath gave a convincing red-orange, which would not have been a surprise had it been madder I was dyeing with. The dye is less abundant in hedge bedstraw than in madder, but the difference is actually smaller than anticipated. Here, I used 30 g of roots on 12 g of yarn, with madder, you would get this shade with less than 100% weight of fiber.

After the second bath, which also worked well, I was evidently feeling on top of things, and threw in a 50 g skein. There was not much dye left, but to extract everything that was there, I left the bath with yarn in a jar outside. That was in mid-July.

A couple of times, I heated the entire jar over a water bath to give the process a helping hand, but the rest of the time, it was just standing there. I turned over the yarn to get an even dye, and for a while, it also fermented. Both time and fermentation should help release the dye. Also, I imagine that a skein of yarn in the bath will soak up the dye as it is released, permitting more to come out (alizarin has a rather low solubility in water). In any case, my large skein stayed in the jar for 6 weeks, and turned out a pleasing coral color. And, the dye bath ran clear, so there was probably nothing left in the roots.

Dyeing with roots of hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). 1st bath (left), 2nd bath (middle), and the large skein on the right is fermentation of the 3rd bath. The small skein across was dyed in the water used to soak the roots overnight.

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Tansy Experiments

Among some natural dyers, tansy is seen as quite boring. It’s a common plant, easy to find, easy to dye with, and it contains the so-common yellow – just like so many other plants. But tansy has a long cultural history, and its yellow dye is of high quality!


Tansy’s common name is simply an abbreviation of its latin ditto, Tanacetum vulgare. I recently ran into a nice (and plausible) explanation of the name in an old Danish book by an important author on natural dyeing, Esther Nielsen. She writes that Tanacetum is probably a derived form of Athanasia (a-thanasos means immortal). Supposedly, the immortality is a reference to the fact that the flowers keep their strong yellow, also when dry.

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare.

Tansy has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. The plant is poisonous, especially to insects, and was used against intestinal worms. Today, eating tansy is not recommended, and it’s now known that its toxicity comes from the alpha-thujone content in all parts of the plant.

Nevertheless, it was used as a herb in the past, and it does have a very strong smell. I usually boil tansy dye baths outside!

As a natural dye plant, tansy has a lot of advantages. The plant is very common, so you’ll find it growing at just about any roadside – at least here in Denmark, which is in tansy’s native range. Since the plant is so common, it’s completely fine to harvest as much as you need, as long as you cut the flower stalks of, leaving the rest of the perennial.

The yellow color from tansy is very light fast, in my light tests, it always comes out as more fast than weld yellow, which is known for its good light fastness.

According to this paper (Phytochemistry 51, p. 417, 1999), tansy flowers contain a lot of apigenin and luteolin, the same yellow dyes that you find in weld. The leaves contain slightly different compounds (that are similar to luteolin, but not exactly the same). So it makes perfect sense that leaves and flowers give slightly different yellows. I’m not sure, though, why the light fastness of tansy yellow is better than that of weld yellow in my experiments…

After reading about dye extracts (somewhere), I decided to try making a tansy extract. Extracts are obviously a compact way to store dyes, but I thought that they might be interesting for other reasons, for example printing on fabric.

I even found a paper where the authors described concentrating tansy extract to the point that it became a powder. So this is what I tried:

500 g (just over a pound) of fresh tansy flowers and leaves (picked August 11th) were boiled in enough rain water to cover them. I left the pot until the next day, strained out all the plant material, then boiled the extract to concentrate it until it didn’t loose any more water. I also dried it in the oven at very low heat. And the result was a small amount of extremely sticky tansy syrup:

Tansy syrup – dark brown, smelly, poisonous.

So my extract clearly didn’t turn into a powder, but a very dark and sticky syrup. Ages ago, in organic chemistry class, I was taught that syrup means impure product. But I guess that is expected in this case, since I just concentrated a crude extract of the plant, which is a mix of many different compounds.

To test my syrup, I simply dissolved it in water and used it to dye 100 g (3.5 oz) of wool (Fenris) instead of exploring more exciting options. I wanted to see how the dye was affected by being turned into syrup and back again. Here is a comparison with 100 g of wool dyed with 500 g of fresh leaves and flowers (left), 500 g of fresh leaves and flowers dried and then used (middle) and tansy syrup dissolved in water (right):

Fenris pure lambswool dyed with fresh tansy (left), dry tansy (middle), and tansy syrup (right).

The picture above shows, that the color from tansy is the same, whether fresh or dried flowers and leaves are used. And that is good to know – drying does not affect the dye.

The skein on the right, dyed with tansy syrup, is a bit browner than the two others. But other than that, the syrup treatment didn’t really affect the dye potential. Next year, I want to explore plant syrups more!

But once I got started with tansy experiments, more followed. While cleaning up my dyestuff storage, I found some dry tansy leaves from last year (2016). I wondered if long storage would affect the color – in the picture above, there’s no difference between yellow from fresh and dried tansy, but I only stored the plants for a couple of weeks.

I also wanted to answer another question: In order to extract the dye, is it more efficient to finely crush plant matter, or is it OK to throw whole leaves in the dyepot? So I powdered some dry 2017 leaves in my mortar to see if the color intensified, and the result:

12-gram skeins of Fenris, each dyed with 25 g of dry tansy leaves. Whole 2016 leaves (bottom), whole 2017 leaves (middle), and powdered 2017 leaves (top).

The skein dyed with powdered 2017 leaves has exactly the same color as the skein dyed with whole 2017 leaves, so there’s no gain by powdering the leaves. Luckily, since that process is really cumbersome. The 2016 and 2017 leaves don’t give exactly the same yellow, but very close. I don’t think this small difference is caused by an extra year of storage – rather, the fact that the plants didn’t grow in the same place, the difference in weather and harvest time might have caused the small difference in color.

Spring Cleaning

In the summer, when all the plants stand tall, I usually collect good bundles of tansy, yarrow, and other wild dye plants. And they have to go before the next harvest.


My dyestuff stores from last year contained big bundles of mugwort and tansy, a smaller amount of yarrow, a box full of dry velvet pax, and dry pomegranate shells (among other things).

Spring has shown itself from its worst side this year, but I’ve managed to get outside with my little stove on an extension cord, working to bring down the amount of stored dyestuffs.

First, velvet pax. I found quite a nice harvest of this mushroom last year, more than half of what i found was from driving through a small forest, spotting the mushrooms, and hitting the brake!

I had 190 g of dried mushrooms. On 100 g of wool, that gave a good green (middle skein in photo below) and the afterbath a green-beige (right). I could not capture the color in the photo, but I was pleasantly surprised how well the dried mushrooms retain the color potential, including the green tones. In conclusion, velvet pax is a very good dye mushroom, fresh or dry.

There’s a beige skein on the left in the photo below. That’s 100 g of yarn, dyed with enough dried mugwort to fill a large dye pot completely. I even gave it an iron afterbath. Thinking back, this is actually the second time i get dull beige from dry mugwort, and the conclusion is that it does not dry well. The fresh plant, on the other hand, gives a nice yellow-green.

From left: dried mugwort and iron, dried velvet pax, 1. and 2. bath.

Next up, pomegranate shells. I had saved a very modest amount of shells, from just two fruits, weighing 85 g dry. I followed Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour” and put the shells in a plastic bag and pounded them with a hammer. To test the new (to me) dyestuff, I wound two 12-gram skeins of Fenris (100% wool) and a small 5-gram skein of Bestla (silk-merino).

The pomegranate shells gave nice yellows on wool and silk. I modified one of the wool skeins with iron, and that gave a darker, greener tone, that actually looks a lot like the color from velvet pax.

Next time people eat pomegranates around here, the shells will be saved. They give a nice color, and they are available during winter, where little else is there in terms of fresh colors.

Pomegranate shells on silk-merino (back) and wool (middle), and modified with iron (front).

Several large bundles of yarrow, tansy, and mugwort turned into the yellow-beige first dye for a new round of matrix dyed yarn for Baby Vindauga kits. The second yellow os weld, and the skeins are overdyed with indigo as usual to produce the 9 different blues and greens.

Matrix dyed wool in blue and green.

And once I got started, a matrix in purple and blue, using cochineal and indigo, also appeared.

Matrix dyed wool in purple and blue.

The matrix skeins turned into contrast colors for new Baby Vindauga Kits, you can see them at my Etsy shop:

Purple-blue Baby Vindauga Kit.
Green-blue Baby Vindauga Kit.

Seasonal Color Variation

An experiment with yellow to green tones of birch leaves over the summer. I didn’t see any difference, but most experiments do have different outcomes than expected.


A fresh new year calls for a new, big series of dye experiments, but I’m going to begin with an old one that was going on for so long that I never wrote about it.

“Yellow can be many things, so for each plant, I will  specify the particular yellow it gives. There will always be differences, the tone being more green earlier in the year.”

This is what Ester Nielsen writes in her introduction to natural sources of yellow in her book “Farvning med planter” (Dyeing with plants). This Danish book, published 1972, is full of useful information, but such a claim as this is just begging to be tested. I decided to use birch leaves for the test.

Birch leaves. It’s impossible to tell from the outside that they contain a good, warm yellow color.

To test the claim that colors are greener early in the growing season, tending towards yellow later, I made two 10 g test skeins of supersoft wool. I dyed each of them with 40 g of fresh birch leaves, since Ester Nielsen recommends 4 times the weight of fiber in fresh plants (twice the weight of fiber if using dried plants). I picked the first portion of leaves on May 11th, the second on July 4th.

The picture below shows the result. The skein in front is dyed with the leaves from May, the back one with thw leaves from July. They’re almost the same color, so my little experiment didn’t back up Nielsen’s claim…

Wool dyed with fresh birch leaves. The front skein is dyed with leaves picked in May, the back one with leaves picked in July.

To check for other possible differences, I tested the light-fastness of the two skeins. But again, no difference. The only thing worth noting in the light test shown below is a really good light-fastness of both yarns. The test took place over more than a month of summer.

Light test of wool dyed with birch leaves picked in May and July.

My conclusion: the time of harvest does not affect the color achieved with birch leaves. But that may only apply to birch leaves. It is possible that other plants to have a variation from yellow-green to yellow as the summer passes.

Amazing Dyeing Failures 2

The topic of my last post was failures in dyeing, and here’s more. First, my most serious and most annoying failure as a natural dyer.

3: Organic Indigo Failure

A while back, I experimented a bit with an indigo vat with fructose, but my results were not very convincing, in the sense that the amount of blue I got out of the vat was completely underwhelming given the amount of indigo that went in. Mona of Thread Gently on the Earth suggested trying another type of indigo vat that uses madder and bran. So, using what Mona wrote and what her source of the information, Aurora Silk wrote, I tried the madder/bran vat, since I’m still very interested in a natural fermentation vat for indigo.

In the beginning of May, I mixed 34 g of indigo, 17 g of ground madder, 17 g of wheat bran, and 116 g of sodium carbonate. I used at pot with a well-fitting lid, and filled with water so there wasn’t much air in the pot. We had a very warm early summer this year, so I just put the pot outside the house, where it was 27C during the day. But nothing happened. I had suspected that, since the pot would cool off during the night.

My next setup consisted of a simple electric hot plate for cooking. After a bit of experimentation, i figured out that on the lowest setting, and switching it on for 15 minutes out of every 2 hours with an electric timer plug, I could keep the vat around 37C. After a couple of weeks, though, I was forced to admit that nothing much was going on there.

So I started a bit of wild experimentation. Could it be lack of reducing power? I added fructose and more base, but that didn’t get the vat started. I then transferred part of the vat to a large jar, and tried warming it on a water bath. The jar was full and had a tightly closed lid, and that did improve things. The color didn’t shift to yellow-green, it was still blue with just the slightest green tinge (you can see it on the spoon, top left image above), but the jar vat developed the coppery film of a working indigo jar. I dyed small skeins, and they came out a lovely dusty blue.

Indigo dyeing with a madder/bran vat with a sprinkle of fructose along the way. The vat became slightly green-tinged (top left), but did develop the coppery film that shows it’s working (top right). Bottom, a small skein of yarn dyed dusty blue in the indigo jar.

So it’s sort of working – but not amazingly so. I can only dye very small skeins in this jar, but I did a lot of troubleshooting which may bring me closer to running a fermentation vat properly and over a long time. For now, I do consider it a failure, since I got so little blue out of my 34 g of indigo, but I’m clearly not done with this. Maybe one needs to set up a larger vat, using an amount of indigo that makes abandoning the vat unthinkable.

4: Common Broom Failure

I have tried – and failed – to grow dyer’s greenweed (Genista tinctoria) a couple of times. The seeds need cold stratification, which I have tried to give them, but they never sprouted. Dyer’s greenweed is supposed to grow wild in my part of Denmark, and I have searched for it, but not found it.  Then in June, the landscape was dotted with yellow: it was common (or Scotch) broom (Cytisus scoparius). This plant is considered invasive in many places, but not in Denmark, where it occurs naturally. But it has been spreading in a new way for the past 30 years, so picking it is definitely fine, just keep in mind that the seeds are poisonous.

I studied my old flora a bit, and since both dyer’s greenweed and common broom belong to the legumes (family Fabaceae), I convinced myself that common broom would be worth a try in the dye pot. At that time (June), the flowers were already past their prime, but i picked some branches at the roadside.

Common broom is spreading, adding splashes of yellow to the roadside.

The result was not impressive – good old failure beige once again:

Wool dyed with common broom – hello beige…

I would have called it a failure and left it at that if I hadn’t come across an entry on common broom in John & Margaret Cannon’s excellent book “Dye Plants and Dyeing” (I recently bought a second hand copy). This book tells you that the part of the plant used for dyeing is young branches, picked in April or early May, not the flowering stalks picked in June as I did. The young branches should produce shades of yellow-green with alum and green with copper. I might try this again next year.

“Dye Plants and Dyeing” also mentions some confusion in the dye literature between common broom and dyer’s greenweed, since the latter is sometimes referred to as dyer’s broom. Not surprisingly, Cannon & Cannon (in a book published in association with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) recommend that the dyer relies on scientific nomenclature for dye plants. Actually the same conclusion is reached by Catharine Ellis in her run-in with “broom”.

5: Reindeer Lichen Failure

During my summer holiday, I gathered some lichen of the Cladonia family, I believe it’s reindeer lichen (Cladonia portentosa). In “Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book”, Casselman lists this lichen as a boiling water method lichen that should give a “leaf green” color. So into the dye pot it went, with a test skein of unmordanted wool, since lichen dyes are substantive. The result is not what I hoped. Beige, despite the fact that I used a large amount of lichen relative to yarn:

Reindeer lichen (Cladonia portentosa) and yarn dyed with the lichen.

6: Cold Dyeing Failure

Mommy is a witch. Check out my cauldron, a dye pot with mushrooms and wool.

At some point, I tried dyeing with old polypores, in the usual hot dyeing process, and that actually gave me a good yellowish brown. Recently, when cleaning up outside, a big hoard of old polypores surfaced. I don’t have enough space to store dyestuffs inside, so they were outside and were damp and looked like they would spoil.

I had a thousand other projects going, so I wasn’t really ready to dye with them – so I decided to try a very lazy experiment: cold dyeing (which I normally never do because it seems to me that it doesn’t really work). The experiment amounted to throwing the polypores into a bucket with rainwater that was just standing there, then put in a small, 12 g test skein of alum mordanted wool, and then letting it stand there for about 3 weeks. You have probably already guessed that it produced a smelly skein of beige wool, which I cannot even find now (I think I overdyed it with indigo). So all I have to show for this experiment is my 6-year old Dagmar’s drawing showing that “Mommy is a witch”. I am taking it as a compliment.

PS: Just as I wrote this, light samples of both the cold dye and hot dye with old polypores surfaced on my desk. None of them have the light-fastness achieved with fresh polypores in a hot dye bath.

Curly Dock Mordant

Dock or sorrel are useful plants for mordanting – this was a fact that I’d gotten from reading and made a mental note of. I couldn’t remember where I read it, so I decided to just go ahead and try it. I picked curly (or curled) dock (Rumex crispus) in the roadside around July-August. Curly dock is a tall plant with a reddish seedhead.

The seeds of curly dock.

Curly dock can be distinguished from other related species from the fact that its seeds are enclosed by three petals that have a growth on the outside that looks like a seed but is not.

Enclosed seeds of curly dock.

I used about 100 g of stalks with flowers for a test skein of about 12 g of wool. I boiled the curled dock the first day and let it cool off. The next day, I heated the yarn in the sorrel bath to just under boiling, then let the yarn cool off in the sorrel bath (for a couple of days in the end, because I had other fish to fry). After the sorrel mordanting in the dark red sorrel soup, the yarn was coral red.

The concoction of curly dock, and yarn treated with it.

Finally to the dyeing part of the experiment. I dyed my sorrel mordanted yarn plus two other 12-g test skeins (one unmordanted and one mordanted with 10% alum, my standard mordant) with madder. The dye bath was 40 g of madder root in rainwater, and you can see the result below. As expected, the alum mordanted wool is an intense madder red, but the unmordanted and sorrel mordanted wools are the exact same shade of orange (and a nice orange I think). But I’m going to call this a failure, since the sorrel mordant didn’t make a difference from no mordant.

Alum treatment gives the usual madder red – no mordant or treatment with curly dock both give orange.

So what went wrong? In the end, I realized that I read about sorrel mordant in India Flint’s “Eco Colour”, the exact information she gives is:

“Dry and grind the roots and mix with water to make a tannin-rich soaking solution. The leaves of this genus are also rich in oxalic acid. Even the dried seeds have mordant qualities.”

This doesn’t completely solve my mystery, though. The roots contain tannin, which only works as a mordant on plant fibers, not wool. But I used the flower stands with leaves, which (like rhubarb leaves) contain oxalic acid, which should work as a mordant on wool. Maybe the amount was just too low? I have to try tris again next year.

My Dye Garden

Summer is leaving us, and I feel like summing up my gardening for the year. I had 2. year woad plants, and just a few plants gave me a big pile of seeds. That’s despite the fact that I moved those plants last fall. This is just some of the seeds.

Lots of woad seeds.

I also grew dyer’s coreopsis, which gave me these lovely orange shades a couple of years ago.

Coreopsis orange on wool.

But dyer’s coreopsis is also a pretty bicolor summer flower, and much visited by pollinators:

Coreopsis blooms in red and yellow.

Unfortunately, I was a bit late in harvesting my coreopsis, so I just took a few stalks of the freshest flowers. I left the rest for now, to see if I can get seeds out of them. It make take a while longer, judging from a comparison between my flowers and this excellent overview.

This year, I’m attempting to grow weld for the first time. I expected tall flowers to attract loads of butterflies, but the plants only produced these leaf rosettes. Looks like the stalks will come next year.

First-year weld rosettes. Can you tell that I weeded around them just before taking the picture?

I’ve also started growing madder for the first time, and my plants are rather scrawny. I hope they’ll do better next year, if they survive winter, that is.

Madder, not doing that well…

My Japanese indigo, on the other hand, is really having a good time. This year, I’m planning to dry the leaves and try this method.

Japanese indigo, doing really well!

Late Summer Greens

This summer, I’ve dyed a nice pile of green wool using reed flowers and velvet pax – two dyestuffs that are a highlight of the dyer’s year. Reed flowers because they give such an electric green. You have to admit it’s a bit strange that these red flowers dye wool a wild green, but only if you get them into the dye pot absolutely fresh. If the flowers have opened or are not freshly picked, they will only give yellow. Velvet pax because its dusty greens are so lightfast. The two skeins in the back are dyed with velvet pax, the three in the front with reed flowers.

grøn green
Greens from reed flowers and velvet pax, the essence of late summer dyeing.

I’m becoming better at finding velvet pax. The first couple of years, I looked for it too late in the season. This year, I’ve found it growing several places, for example this archetypical plantation, where Dagmar is picking a big one. Just the kind of place that velvet pax likes to grow.

Dagmar picking velvet pax (with the arm that’s not broken).

Velvet pax can be found in August, and this year, everything was early, so it was there at the beginning of August. And the mushrooms were huge – I found some that were 25 cm across.

Characteristic brown tops of velvet pax, captured in a typical habitat.

Big, fat spiders are another joy of late summer. This one, which is possibly the fattest spider I’ve ever seen, lives outside our house. When I was sticking my camera right in its face, the neighbor’s big dogs started barking. Immediately, the spider lifted its front legs as if to attack. I chose to run away, so I only got a good shot from underneath the spider, where its pattern looks a bit like eyes. I think it’s a very light colored cross spider, since its body is pointy at the back. After reading that they can bite if provoked, I think my decision to flee was not a bad one.

My pet spider.

Summer is also the time of year to test light-fastness. I tested a handful of colors on the windowsill from early July to mid August, and their light-fastness was quite different.

  1. Old polypores, the two top ones warm baths and the lower one a cold bath that brewed outside for some weeks. None of these yellow browns are very light-fast.
  2. Velvet pax, the color didn’t change. I’ve seen this light-fastness in previous test, so it really is that good!
  3. Orange Cortinarius mushrooms, I don’t know which species. Not that light-fast
  4. A matrix of madder and indigo, showing that saturated colors are much more light-fast than pastels
  5. Sorrel root, not very light-fast
  6. Birch leaves. Surprisingly light-fast
  7. Weld. Surprised by the fact that it’s less light-fast than number 6…
  8. Henna on alpaca. I’d say this is a medium light-fastness
  9. Calendula flowers. Surprisingly light-fast
Light testing summer 2016.

I’ve also dyed with tansy, which doesn’t give green, but “just” yellow on alum mordanted wool (no pictures of that). But when I admired the flowers, I suddenly wanted to check if they really do stick to Fibonacci numbers.

The Fibonacci series begins with two ones, and then the next numbers are found by adding the two previous ones:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc.

The last time I thought about Fibonacci numbers were for calculating the numbers of my Vindauga blanket where rectangles obey the golden ratio, approximated by the ratio between neighboring numbers in the Fibonacci series, eg. 55/34 = 1.61.

Below is a close-up of a tansy flower. And as promised, the numbers of rows of tiny buds are Fibonacci numbers – 13 clockwise rows and 21 counter-clockwise.

Tansy flower obeying Fibonacci’s sequence.

Summer Rain

This summer passed in a big cloud of rain, which has been lovely for plants and mushrooms that came out early and in huge numbers. We went on lots of day trips, for example Skovsnogen Artspace:

Skovsnogen artspace, a forest full of sculptures.

My mom has managed to finish a couple of knitting projects with yarn that I’ve dyed. An Elizabeth shawl designed by Dee O’Keefe in Einband that I’ve dyed with madder. This Icelandic wool is wonderful to knit with and to wear, but it also takes color beautifully. She also knit a pair of socks, the pattern is Laurel by Wendy D. Johnson, the yarn a sock yarn I’ve dyed purplish blue with indigo and a twist of cochineal.

My Mom’s knitting successes, using yarn that I dyed with madder and indigo.

We went on a day trip to the hilly landscape at Rebild. The sheep are a perfect match for this landscape, and in the end, it is their grazing that maintains the heath (blueberries though, they don’t touch). I don’t remember ever seeing such steep hills anywhere else in Denmark – it tells you about the power of the melting waters from the end of the last ice age.

The hills of Rebild.

Rold forest is close by. There, we saw the unusual old beech trees, called “purker” in Danish. They have multiple contorted growths because they were cut down repeatedly for firewood. Fallen logs are left to rot, giving mushrooms and insects a much needed habitat.

The ancient forest of Rold.

We also encountered biodiversity on the island of Livø. We went on a guided tour of the organic test farm, where experiments are made with growth practices for organic farming, as well as testing new crops such as quinoa and buckwheat.

It’s always a good thing to see a field of crops with lots of other plants in it, such as clover and cornflower. I’ve always loved cornflowers, but I do see them in a new light after reading about their color in “Handbook of Natural Colorants” by Berchtold & Mussak. The color comes from a supramolecular, self-assembled, complex of cyanidins, flavones, and metal ions (Mg2+ and Fe3+), and that’s why it cannot be extracted for dyeing. The complex comes apart, and the individual parts are not blue. This could be the case with other pretty colors that are impossible to extract? The amethyst deceiver failure comes to mind.

On the island of Livø, off the coast of mainland Denmark.

I obviously couldn’t walk outside an entire summer without looking for lichens. I’ve added two books to my lichen library, one is a small and useful Danish pamphlet, “Laver i Tisvilde Hegn” by Hørnell, Jeppesen & Søchting. The other is the elaborate, somewhat academic “Lichens, An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species” by Dobson.

I always find the most common lichens: Evernia prunastri, Ramalina fastigiataXanthoria parietina, and Hypogymnia physodes which I’ve already experimented with for for dyeing. So this summer, I’ve looked for Cladonia species.

I’ve often seen the funnel shaped lichen (top left in the image below) on the ground and on dead trees, and I believe it’s Cladonia fimbriata. I haven’t collected this lichen, since I’m not sure how to. One funnel at a time? Also, Casselman’s “Lichen Dyes, The New Source Book” does not mention this species.

Then there’s the reindeer lichens. Until recently, I thought they were mosses, but it’s never too late to learn something new. I found Cladonia portentosa (top right) in several places this summer, and my books do say that it is common, so I’ve collected a bit for dyeing.

I’ve only seen the bottom row lichens once each this summer, so I only took photos. Never pick a lichen if you don’t know if it’s rare. On the left, I believe, Cladonia rangiferina, and on the right, Cladonia coniocraea. Casselman does mention Cladonia rangiferina as a bwm (boiling water method) lichen that dyes shades of red to brown. Maybe it’s more common in other parts of the world.

Different Cladonia lichens.

Home again, I’m beginning to prepare for the workshop on natural dyeing that I will teach the first weekend of October.

Blue Harvest

This summer, I grew Japanese indigo

japaneseindigoplantsand woad


in the garden for the first time. I harvested all of my plants on September 28th (already a long time ago, lots of stuff has been going on here) except the woad plants I left to let them grow a second year in an attempt to get seeds.

After harvest, I had 465 g of Japanese indigo leaves stripped off the stems and 433 g of woad leaves. I’m pleased with this harvest, which came from two rather small patches of land with maybe 12 Japanese indigo plants and a similar number of woad plants.

Following the instructions from “A Dyer’s Garden” by Rita Buchanan, I poured just-boiled water on the woad leaves (it smelled a bit radish-like) and hot (was 44C) tap water on the indigo leaves, then heated them slowly on a double boiler to 71C. It smelled a bit minty almost.

At that point, you strain the leaves out of the dye bath and add base. I used what I happened to have around the house, which was sodium carbonate (it seems that the actual base used doesn’t matter, all that matters is that you must raise the pH). I added 2 spoonfuls to each dye pot.

Then comes the magic! By pouring the dye bath several times from one container to another, you introduce oxygen, which oxidizes the precursor indican into the blue form of the indigo molecule. During this step, my woad dye bath changed from reddish brown to dark green and developed a blue-green foam, and the Japanese indigo bath changed to a classical indigo blue with this lovely blue foam on top:


After oxidation, I added one spoonful of sodium dithionite (reducing agent) to each dye bath and let them stand undisturbed until they presented the yellow-green tinge that they should, which took about half an hour. Then it was time to dye! I left my yarn in the dye bath for about 2o minutes.

As expected, there was much less color in the woad bath, which I only used for one 100 g skein. The Japanese indigo bath dyed 3 100 g skeins, and the last one was as intensely colored as the woad skein.

I then tried the used leaves of both the woad and Japanese indigo on 10-g test skeins of alum mordanted wool, using a standard dyeing method (so just keeping it hot but not boiling for an hour). And here they all are:


Bottom – yellow/green skein is Japanese indigo leaves on alum mordanted wool, the tan/beige one above is woad leaves on alum mordanted wool. Then the 3 skeins dyed with Japanese indigo, the first and darkest one is the lower one. Finally on top, the skein dyed with woad, maybe you can see its slightly green tinge mixed into the blue.

Seeing these colors that I not only just dyed, but also grew in my garden, I feel such a sense of accomplishment!!! And I have a renewed respect for blue. Imagine the trouble people went through in the past to get this color.

Conclusion: I will be growing Japanese indigo again next year for sure. I’m not sure about woad, since the dye content is a lot smaller.