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.

Green Variations

One of the great things about natural dyeing is that you can keep overdyeing until you get the color you want.


I recently dug out some green skeins of Norne that were not exactly what I had imagined, and had been sitting in the storage basket for a while. I decided to overdye them to get as many greens as possible. So I wound skeins for dyeing and kept the last part of the skein the way it was.

One skein (skein 1 in photo below) was a medium blue from indigo overdyed with a couple of afterbaths from pomegranate and weld. They gave a rather weak yellow, too weak to match the blue tone, resulting in a quite anemic green.

Another skein (skein 12) had the same problem. Again, a medium indigo blue, this time over dried mugwort dye. I didn’t know at the time I dyed this (as I do now) that dried mugwort only gives a rater weak beige.

Then there was a skein with the opposite problem (skein 5). It’s dyed with a strong (1:1) weld and overdyed with weak indigo, giving a green/Chartreuse that’s just too intense.

Finally, there’s a skein that was actually a good color (skein 9) but I just didn’t have any plans for it. I dyed it long ago with tansy and a madder afterbath to achieve a warm yellow. I wound all the skeins into smaller ones and overdyed them with indigo, weld, and walnut hulls.

Overdyeing and then some more overdyeing, to get as many greens as possible.

Skeins 6, 7, and 8 come from skein 5 and are just overdyed with stronger and stronger indigo, and there’s no surprises there. The strong yellow base ends up as a clear forest green when the indigo component becomes large enough.

Skeins 10 and 11 are yarn from skein 9 overdyed with a bit of indigo and a bit more. Here, skein 10 was a nice surprise, a wilted green, one of my favorite shades of green. I suppose I am really revealing myself as totally ignorant of color theory, but I did not know that this type of green contains such a large proportion of red.

I made a dye bath with 12 g of weld and dyed 25 g of yarn from skein 1 in it. That turned into skein 2 – not a surprise that the forest green emerges when you lift the level of yellow to match the blue in intensity.

Then I made a dye bath with 25 g of walnut hulls. 25 g of yarn from skein 12 turned into skein 13. Again, the ignorant dyer was surprised – turns out army green is based on brown. The afterbath turned yarn from skein 1 into skein 3, another army green.

Skein 4 is yarn from skein 1, overdyed with a rather intense indigo. Here, the weak yellow base gives a really nice teal. Skein 14 is yarn from skein 12 just overdyed with a bit more indigo than it already was.

Finally, there’s skein 15. The yarn comes from skein 12, and was first dyed in the weld afterbath. It didn’t change much, so I dyed it in the walnut hull bath, which had already been used twice. Again, not much change, so I dipped it in indigo. That still didn’t change much so I left it because I ran out of ideas.

Skein 16 and 17 are both dyed with stinging nettle, said to contain a green dye. In the middle of May, I picked a big dyepot full (and they have no problem stinging through thick garden gloves) and dyed two 25-gram skeins. First skein 16, then skein 17 in the afterbath, followed by modification with a bit of iron. None of the skeins 16 and 17 are green but they work really well along all the other greens. Here they all are, along with an indigo-dyed skein, wound in cakes and ready to knit:

All the green yarn cakes, ready to knit.

I am experimenting with knitting very short scraps of all these colors together, more about that another time. So far, it looks like this:

Norne cut in short scraps and knit – color changes by doubling both the new and the old yarn.

But the search for greens doesn’t stop here. In addition to stinging nettles, May is also full of landscapes covered by wild chervil and broom.

I tried dyeing with common broom last year, but picked the plant too late in the season and got very little color out of it. In their “Dye Plants and Dyeing”, Cannon & Cannon write that flowering stems of broom should be harvested in April or early May. I managed to pick them late in May, which is probably fine since the book is English and most of England is south of Denmark.

On alum mordanted Fenris (pure wool), common broom gives me the greenish-beige that Cannon & Cannon promise. They show an almost black with copper, so I tried modifying with copper water for a few minutes. I have a jar that contains the innards from an old wire in household ammonia, and I just added a bit of it. This gave a very pretty green, which is leaning towards brown.

Wild chervil (also picked in late May) gave the expected fragile yellow with a touch of green. To some eyes nothing special, and for sure, there are many ways to get such tones. But I do find it lovely, it just captures the freshness of spring and early summer. Modified with iron, the color darkens and completely looses the freshness.

Yellow and greens dyed with common broom and wild chervil. The large skein on top is dyed with wild chervil, the one below the same but modified with iron. The third skein is dyed with common broom, the fourth common broom and copper.

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.

Germination Test

I harvested seeds from my dye plants last year, for the first time. So instead of just counting on the seeds, I decided to test their germination before spring truly arrives.


Last year, I harvested seeds of dyer’s coreopsis and woad from the garden, not a big surprise there. Coreopsis is an annual, and will make huge numbers of small seeds. My woad plants were in their second year, so their seeds were also expected.

The surprise was my Japanese indigo. When I harvested my last plants on October 24th last year, several plants were flowering. On a whim, I potted a plant that I had just ripped out of the soil with roots, and brought the pot inside. There, it calmly kept growing, actually until we went to London for Christmas – the plant had died when we came home. When I was going to throw it, I noticed the seed, good numbers, actually. But it did spend the summer outside with the bees.

Japanese indigo seeds.

I tested the germination of all my dye seeds by placing 10 seeds in moist kitchen paper towel in a ziplock bag that I put under the microwave oven where it’s warm and dark. From January 31st, I let the seeds germinate for a week, and got this result:

Coreopsis, harvested September 27th – 5 out of 10.

Coreopsis, harvested October 24th – 6 out of 10.

Woad – 5 out of 10.

Japanese indigo – 9 out of 10.

Not bad! That was on February 7th, so I decided that this was still too early for the coreopsis. Also, I just sewed it directly last year. So I tossed the sprouted coreopsis for now.

The sprouted woad and japanese indigo, on the other hand, went into seed-starting pots where they now grow. Last year, I found that I was too late in the season, and that was with germination beginning on  April 16th. My notes are sporadic, but it seems they grew in the seed-starting pots for about a month, and in larger pots outside for another month before I transferred them to the garden. So that would have been mid-June.

Various sources disagree on when to start seeds indoors, maybe because they are written for different climates? Recommendations range from early May, 2-3 weeks before the last frost to 6-8 weeks before the last frost.

According to (the authoritative?) “Handbook of Natural Colorants” chapter 7, “Indigo – Agricultural Aspects”, Japanese indigo should germinate inside in April and be transferred to open land in June – and that just happens to be what I did last year (although I hadn’t read that chapter yet). The book goes on to conclude that Japanese is a good crop for Central Europe, but not for England and Finland because the growing season is too short.

I imagine that it’s possible to beat the short season by transferring well grown plants, and doing it earlier than June. So that’s why my sprouted indigo is allowed to continue growing indoors, and more seeds are germinating. Even though this is what it looks like outside:

The frozen wasteland…

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.


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.

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.

The Dye Plants are Sown

Today, I’ve sown some of my dye plant seeds in small pots indoors. The night frost has almost gone, you see…

Last year, I had luck growing Japanese indigo and woad from seeds that I cultivated indoors before planting outside, so I’ll do the same again with Japanese indigo this year. I’m skipping woad because Japanese indigo has a much higher dye content. Also, I have some woad plants growing from last year, so they might flower and produce seeds.

I’m also sowing seeds of weld and madder, and that’s the first time I try those. Weld seeds look like poppy seeds, but the plant is related to cabbage and mustard. It is said to have exceptionally fragrant flowers the second year, so I hope it’ll survive that long!


Madder seeds are a bit special, angular and sticky


Now, all the seeds are in their little pots. Madder seeds just under the surface, weld and Japanese indigo seeds just on the surface.