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A Bundle Dye Experiment – Colour from Foraged Plants

Winter isn't a great time for foraging. It really isn't; plants are mostly dormant, and colour comes best from new leaves, fresh growth. But I'm an impatient person through to the bone, and I'm not going to let the inopportune season get the better of my plans. 

There is colour to be found out there. I've been collecting windfallen lichen, which I'm steeping in an ammonia solution to hopefully yield deep, rich colours. (You can see me talk about and prepare the first stage of this in my podcast). There are still privet berries on the hedges, though scarce.  I recently gathered together some ivy, which grows abundantly all over the place, some fallen twigs with various lichens on them, and prunings from willow branches. 

Foraged Dyestuff

First I wanted to try dyeing with ivy. I had gathered an equal weight of leaves and berries, and wanted to see if they would yield colour, and if each would give a different shade. I'll be talking about the process in next week's podcast episode, but will show the results here! 

Ivy dyed yarn

The lighter colour is from the berries, the darker from the leaves. They're both beautiful, and the delicate creamy beige yielded by the berries is surprisingly lovely. 

Ivy dyed yarn

Once these were done, there was still a lot of colour left in the water. I decided to go a little off-piste and try out a bundle dye. This method of wrapping up flowers and leaves, often called eco-printing, is usually done on fabric and can give some incredible, intricate patterns and colours. However, I've not really seen it done on yarn so wanted to give it a go.

It was low-tech and improvised - thrown together and made up as I went along. In these processes there's unbridled joy in creating, just to see what happens. As time goes on I'm accepting much more that not everything is predictable, and some things don't work. And that's fine – it means I'm a lot more happy to play and discover.

So I mordanted a couple of aran-weight skeins of Shetland yarn in alum and cream of tartar (if ever I don't specify a mordant, assume that's what I'm using). I ripped open a shopping bag as a makeshift work surface. I pulled various weeds from the garden.

Wild dyestuff

Yarn bundle dyeing

 I laid out the skeins somewhat flat and, working from one end to the other, wrapped them around willow branches and lichen-covered branches, sandwiching dried calendula petals from the summer, garden weeds and a few rusty iron screws in the layers. 

Bundle dye with willow and lichen

Once everything was all wrapped up, I tied the bundle up tight with twine. In retrospect, I could possibly have tied a little tighter to create a resist effect, but never mind. The idea is that the colour given by each item will transfer most strongly to the area it's directly in contact with. 

Yarn bundle tied up

The bundle went in one of my big dye pots, on end with some water in the bottom to steam. The ends of the sticks prevented the yarn from having direct contact with the water, to allow for even steaming. I did turn it occasionally (not an easy feat to flip a hot bundle of yarn without burning or dripping over everything!).

After a couple of hours of steaming, I wanted to get some colour on the outside layers of the bundle. I used the leftover ivy dye liquid (still with ivy leaves and berries in the water) and immersed most of the bundle in it for another couple of hours on low heat, again turning the bundle occasionally. The heat was turned off, and the pot left overnight to soak and cool. 

On unwrapping, I was quite surprised! Most of the yarn came out a surprisingly pleasant, clear yellow, with some subtly darker, more brown areas and some grey speckles from the iron of the screws. There was a lot less variegation than I was expecting, but the result is quite lovely. 

Bundle-dyed yarn

The next development will be attempting use of modifiers for the colour. So far I've not paid any attention to the ph of the water or dye stock I'm using, and have only used a standard alum/cream of tartar mordant (with miniscule local additions of iron).

I have an iron-water batch steeping away – old, broken tools and nails in a vinegar solution – it's turning an orange-brown and will probably be ready to use in a couple of weeks. I also have a copper batch brewing: old pennies in an ammonia solution, which has turned a very satisfying deep blue!

These will be used sparingly after dyeing to shift the colours. Iron 'saddens' colours, and shifts them towards grey; copper can brighten and shift towards blue. So hopefully the wealth of yellows I'm getting will yield beautiful greens with these.

Ivy dye and yarn bundle

Left to right: Ivy leaves, ivy berries, two bundle skeins

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