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.

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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 1

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.

Alle de mislykkede og uønskede farver. Efter billedet blev taget overfarvede jeg med indigo.
Skeins of failure. They were all overdyed with indigo after taking the photo.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Dagmar tæt på at falde i grøften
Dagmar, seen moping, came close to falling into a large ditch.

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.

dryavocado
Avocado pits and skin turn red as they dry, so it’s not that surprising that the dye bath they produce is also red.

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.

Beige med lidt rødlige striber
Beige with a red streak, that’s the look of yarn dyed with avocado slime.

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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.

Dagmarplukker
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.

sortfiltet
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.

edderkop
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.

DSC_2985
Tansy flower obeying Fibonacci’s sequence.