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.


I’ve finally finished harvesting my dye plants and seeds, and it has been an abundant year in the dye garden. In addition to woad seeds, I’ve also harvested seeds of dyer’s coreopsis. I harvested some of them on September 27th, and a lot more when I removed the last plants on October 24th. I don’t know when they should be harvested, but I suppose I’ll see if any of them sprout next year.

Seeds of Dyer’s Coreopsis. Lots of them, and they are tiny.

Then there’s my Japanese indigo, which  grew really well this year. I harvested most of my Japanese indigo, 22 plants, on September 27th. I tried two different ways of drying the leaves.

First, I stripped the leaves off the stems, spread them out outside on a sunny day. They almost dried, and I moved them inside in a mesh hanger before dewfall that evening. In a couple of days, they were completely dry.

Drying Japanese indigo bunches. Only the outer leaves dry this way!

Second method (because stripping the leaves off was so time-consuming) was borrowed from Deb McClintock – I hung bunches of leafy stalks to dry inside because by then, the season had changed and the first fall storms and rains were here. But after a week, only the tips of the leaves had dried, because the thick stalks retain all the moisture. I’m sure that would not be a problem under a hot Texas sun, but this isn’t exactly Texas! In the end, I stripped the leaves off the the half-dried stalks and let them dry. So although option two seemed easier, it’s not really an option here – next time, I’ll know there’s no way around a bit of tedious work.

I ended up with a bit more than 400 g of dry leaves, and they are showing a blue tinge. Definitely a good sign.

My dry Japanese indigo leaves with a blue tinge.

The rest of my Japanese indigo, maybe 8 plants, stayed in the garden. In late September, the plants had quite a few buds, and I wanted to leave some to see if they would flower and maybe even produce seeds. I followed the weather forecast closely to see when the first night frost would come. That was forecast for the evening of October 24th, so I went to our garden that afternoon to harvest the last plants. And they did flower – but no seeds.

Japanese indigo flowering in late October.

The last crop was used for a bit of experimentation, trying to extract indigo from the fresh leaves of Japanese indigo using the instructions from Wild Colours. I stripped the leaves off the stems, washed them briefly, packed them in a pot and filled it with rainwater.

I then left it on my hot plate on low heat, switched on for 15 minutes every 2. hour. This kept the temperature around 35 – 45C, and I left it for 36 hours.

Then, I added sodium carbonate to raise the pH to about 9, and started pouring the liquid back and forth between two buckets. The reddish brown foam is supposed to turn blue (because pouring oxidizes the precursor indican to indigo) but nothing happened. Nothing. The next day, I took out a small part of the liquid, added some sodium dithionite, and tried dipping a scrap of yarn. Again, nothing. So in the end, I tossed the entire experiment. I think the reason for this failure was the very late harvest of my last Japanese indigo. So I haven’t tried my dried leaves yet, but I hope they contain some indigo! I’ll return to the extraction method next year with plants harvested earlier in the season.

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.

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.

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.





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.

Hados for Everyone

We recently had a heatwave here in Denmark, so the need arose for a project where you don’t have a huge pile of wool on your lap. I ended up knitting Hado by Olga Buraya-Kefelian, and it was so much fun that I knit three of them. The upper one in yellow/green is wool dyed with reed flowers and velvet pax. On the lower left, one with two tones of blue from woad and ordinary tropical (bought) indigo. In the hat on the lower right, woad is accompanied by orange wool, dyed with orange mushrooms of the Cortinarius family.

If you knit enough of these hats and put them next to each other, they will look like candy.

The picture below shows the different length of the hats. The blue/orange one has 1.5 pattern repeats, the blue/blue one 2, and the yellow/green one 2.5 repeats. But the picture also shows something else, very visibly. All the hats are knit with the same white background, so you can easily tell that the orange color came off.

Last year, when my daughter found these orange mushrooms for me, I was just excited about the huge amount of dye in them. But that color turns out not to be wash fast. So I’m calling this one a failure, although I admit that I would pick these mushrooms again if I found the, so I could experiment some more.

My hats have different sizes. Try not to notice how the orange mushroom color bled only the white!

The top of the hat as knit in the pattern disturbed my eye, so I had to modify it. I kept knitting the pattern to the top, but omitting the yo’s.

I modified the crown to visually fit with the main pattern.

Mushroom Dyeing of 2015


2015 is history, and it’s now 2016, but I think there’s just time to show you my mushroom dyeing of 2015, which brought a quite nice mushroom harvest.

Fall is my favorite time of year. Always has been. It’s the colors, the scents, and the long forest walks. We go to the same plantation in the northern part of Denmark every year, and this year was no exception. Part of the area has recently been turned into a test center for wind mills, but luckily, the windmills didn’t disturb the mushrooms! And they actually please the eye, the windmills, as they peek over the trees – especially when you consider their part in ensuring that Denmark will actually live up to its climate goal of 40% CO2 reduction in 2020.


My family already picked mushrooms before I was born, but always for eating, and always from a small, safe repertoire of about 5 species, with the main emphasis on the chanterelle, because it is very tasty and very easy to recognize.

We still hunt for edible mushrooms, and we are even training the next generation. See what an expert chanterelle hunter my 5-year old is:


But these days I also hunt mushrooms for dyeing, and that makes it even more fun to walk in the forest – I always find something interesting! This is the yarn I’ve dyed with mushrooms this fall:


I’m really happy with this lot, and I’m thinking about a project where I could use all these colors together.

From right to left, they are dyed with common eartball (brown skeins, 900 g of mushrooms on 150 g of yarn), velvet pax (green-grey), Cortinarius semisanguineus (rose), some mixed Cortinarius ssp (tan).

I don’t know which mushroom the orange skein is dyed with. I didn’t take pictures of it, but I think it was a species of Cortinarius. Here’s the orange skein seen on a page of my big mushroom book with some species that it could possibly be, most of which are really poisonous. It’s hard to tell different types of Cortinarius apart, and some of them very poisonous, so always keep them apart from food mushrooms!


The light yellow skeins were dyed with common rustgill (Gymnopilus penetrans). It’s a very common mushroom, and after walking through an entire forest of them, I finally picked some. After trying it in the dyepot, I don’t think it’s a spectacular dye mushroom. There’s a number of ways to achieve this yellow color, and it’s not very abundant in this mushroom.


I also found a lot of sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) which I find to be a mediocre dye mushroom, since it gives just another yellow, and not even a lot of it.


The last skein is best described as “off white”. I tried to dye it with amethyst deceiver although I sort of knew it wouldn’t work.


They look so pretty on the forest floor, but unfortunately, you’re best off just leaving them there. The purple color is indeed deceitful. It vanishes when you store the mushrooms for a couple of days, it even vanishes if it rains on them while they are still growing. This last fact tells you to give up right away. Predictably, even a large amount of mushrooms give no color on yarn, but I guess sometimes the true experimentalist has to verify the obvious.







Fructose Indigo Vat


Quite a while ago, I knit this little pincushion, the physical evidence of my experiments with an organic indigo vat. It’s knit in Fenris 100% wool, 450 m/100 g.

The pattern is free, Peerie Pin Cushion by Ellen Kapusniak. You’re supposed to sew it together, but I, of course, grafted it closed.

I normally use a chemical vat with sodium dithionite as the reducing agent, which reliably works for me without crocking or anything of the sort. But it stinks, and I don’t like mixing the chemicals in the same house as my children.

Another problem I’ve experienced with this relatively harsh reducing agent is that the color doesn’t deepen with successive dips. This is a known problem with this type of vat. It is just as efficient at depositing indigo on your fiber as it is at stripping it back off.

And then, I was also inspired by my visit to the natural dyer Kenichi Utsuki at Aizenkobo to try the real thing myself. He holds nothing but contempt for indigo dyeing that, although it uses natural indigo, uses an artificial, chemical vat for the dyeing process. According to him, the complexity of the final result depends on the slow build-up of layer after layer of color – as does the light-fastness.

I tried using a fructose vat, using the ratio found in Maiwa’s instructions (there’s also instructions for the same type of vat here). Here, one uses the fructose as a reducing agent, since fructose is a reducing sugar. It’s not nearly as potent as the dithionite.

The instructions say 1 part indigo, 2 parts lime, 3 parts fructose. Or at least I thought I used their instructions – they say 20 g of indigo, but I decided that I would try with 5 g. That gave very little blue on my yarn, but lots of blue was left at the bottom of the vat. You can almost see how weak the color is here:


I was later advised by the knowledgeable dyers of Ravelry that the fructose vat doesn’t scale. You have to use at least 20 g of indigo, and that should give you a living vat that you can feed more fructose and base and keep using for months.

I tried scaling it up, but the results I got were not what I had imagined. Sure, I dyed yarn blue, but the amount of color I got out of the vat still just didn’t correlate with how much indigo I put in. There was still a lot of blue sludge at the bottom of my vat.

I would love to run this vat much longer and get a continuous process going, in order to transform more of the indigo at the bottom. The vat has to become a living thing, and you have to dip and redip and so on!

I want to try this type of vat again because it is much more people and eco-friendly, and it is much closer to traditional methods of indigo dyeing than the chemical vat is.