To dye for

It’s funny how so many of the things I had planned and dreamed of doing but never managed in all those years on Rum have been possible since leaving. It turns out living in a house with easy access to so many of the things we didn’t have on Rum does indeed make life easier. It comes with it’s own price for sure but I’m enjoying both the actual luxury of four solid walls and a solid roof along with the luxuries that a rather easier life (in many ways) provides.

One of the skills on my very long list of things I wanted to learn was rural crafts. I wanted to learn to shear sheep, spin the fleece, dye it and make things with it. In classic reverse order I learned to crochet (I could already knit) long before I learned to make the wool, before I even had the sheep actually.

Then came the sheep, followed a year later by the shearing and thanks to a kind Rum friend a first taster of spinning. Sadly the caravan had no room for a spinning wheel and although I had a drop spindle I failed to master the skill so the bagged up fleece remained bagged up.

The following year (last year infact) we improved our shearing skills and buoyed up by this, along with a donation from a blog reader I invested in a better drop spindle and set about improving that skill too. Many hours of practise later, along with quite a few swear words and spindles and bobbins bouncing about the place I had managed to spin enough wool to form part of an heirloom blanket project for my Mum, a hat for Ady and a pair of cosy socks for when I’m ill for myself.

The notion of dyeing was there nagging at me but once again the caravan and the limitations of our Rum life made it a tricky one. We had no spare pan and wooden spoon for a dye bath, our hob ran on bottled gas which we had to carry up the hill and was a precious resource providing our cooking and hot water. An hour or more of boiling a pan just to colour some wool was not a wise investment of such a resource and the levels of condensation from an uncovered pan bubbling away for an hour would have made me very unpopular with the others.

This year though, with the bag of fleece now a wheelie bin filled with the fleeces of 8 sheep the time has come to embark on the final step of that woolly adventure skills acquiring. So armed with a pan I bought from the local re-use centre for a pound and some freshly spun wool I started learning about natural dyes.

I’m sharing here what I’ve learnt from what I’ve done rather than any sort of guidelines. I’ve not measure properly or timed anything and some of what I’ve discovered goes against some of what I’ve read, while some of it supports what I’ve read. There is not a wealth of information about natural dyes and certainly nothing definitive, there seems to be lots of contradictory advice out there. Which of course I am now adding to too!

The key things I had read were that most natural things (leaves, fruit, fruit and vegetables and their peel, berries, seeds, needles, fungi, lichen, flowers…) can be used to extract colour from to make a dye but there are different ways of treating different things to get different results. The colour you get is not necessarily the colour of what you are using eg blackberries won’t give you a purple dye, a green leaf won’t give you a green dye. Some dyes require a mordant or fixative, some will be changed again with the addition or use of a mordant.

I have read about various mordants – some you treat the wool with before dyeing, some during and some after. They range from chemical to natural. To me if I’m using natural things to dye with I wanted to be using natural things to fix it with. Natural mordants include ammonia, vinegar and iron water. Iron water is made by soaking a rusty piece of iron in water, ammonia can be urine.

I’ve read about extracting the pigment from things by soaking them in the ammonia or iron water and then creating a dye bath for your wool or fabric from that, or by adding everything together. Some things require long soakings, some require heat.

If it’s all sounding a bit like a dark art then you are concluding about the same as I did from reading about it. I decided doing was better so armed with a suggestion from somewhere that lichen does not require a mordant and having seen someone local dyeing yarn by boiling it in a pan with some lichen I decided that was my starting point.

I am lucky enough to live in the woodland which is rich with lichens of many types. I am no botanist and while I can fairly confidently call a lichen a lichen the only variety I would have a go at naming is lungwort. I was aware that different lichens give different results so I kept the three types I had gathered separate.

Almost all lichens are protected and you should not pick them from where they are growing – it can damage both the lichen and what it is growing on. Fortunately (for me) at this time of year there is plenty of windblown lichen lying around on the woodland floor so I was able to gather a decent handful or two without disturbing anything growing.

I started with a pale green almost fluffy looking type. I put the wool and the lichen in a large pan of water and simmered it for about an hour. I kept an eye on it, didn’t agitate it too much in case the wool felted and when it looked like the colour had mostly left the lichen and was staying in the wool I drained it and rinsed the wool through. The colour stayed fast!

Out to dry – thee skeins on the left are dyed, three skeins on the right are not

The wool is pure white to start with. This first lichen took the colour to a pale yellow – almost identical to what the wool had looked like before I washed the lanolin and general croft dirt out of it after I’d spun it.

Next I tried a more lungwort-y looking lichen. This had quite a bit of tree bark debris, mostly because I had gathered it off the firewood we had chopped up and bought in. I didn’t gather so much of this so I suspect a bigger haul would net a deeper colouring, but maybe not.

This gave a darker result than the first one.

Left to right – dye number two x 2, dye number 1 x 3, undyed x 2


Over the weekend we went on a walk to some local woodland which was rich with all sorts of foraging treasures. I gathered a large handful of lungwort which I had been told would create a darker brown. This was my biggest volume of lichen in a dye bath yet which no doubt accounts in part for the deep colour but look at this!

It’s just gorgeous. And the four different colours all together look stunning.

Next adventures include trying something other than lichen, experimenting with more or less lichen per bath and (very exciting) dyeing some fleece before spinning it. I have this idea that it would be cool to create some yarn with two different colours.

I also want to try knitting or crocheting something with my newly dyed yarn. Any suggestions?

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