Natural Dying Workshop

At our July meeting, we traveled to Ten Mile Fiber, for a hands on workshop on dying with ‘natural’ substances.  Our workshop leaders were Sheri Franz and Lynda West.

Preparation Day

The mordants were ‘brewed’ earlier in the week and an assortment of yarn weights were prepared for dying by heating for specified times in the specified mordant bath. Since were schedule to dye in three days, we left the yarn in the mordant bath.

We decided to use Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), Copperas (ferrous sulfate), and Tin (stannous chloride) as mordants.  We also had Ammonia on hand to modify some of the dyes once we used them.

Alum is one of the most commonly used mordants for ‘casual’ natural dying as it is non-toxic.  Alum does not effect color. Both Copperas and Tin are harsher and toxic and have somewhat modifying effects on color.

Paying attention to safety is critically important.  We wore face masks while any mordant or dye was still in powdered form and gloves the entire time.  Even with these precautions, Sherri wound up with a minor burn on her face.  The day was hot and we were sweating.  She reflexively used her knuckle to push up her glasses.  She had a knuckle-sized red spot by evening and a blister the next day.

There are three types of dying: hot, cold and solar.  We used the hot dying method and prepared the mordant accordingly.   Since the majority of our fibers were wool, we took care to raise and lower our kettle temperature slowly and steadily both when mordanting and when dyeing. Cream of tarter was added to mordant solutions to assure bright colors and to modify harshness especially in the Tin.

All mordants were prepared based on the weight of wool to be mordanted.

Yarn prep included soaking the skeins in room temperature water prior to adding to the mordant bath. We tied each skein with additional figure eight ties and used 1 knot for alum, 2 knots for tin and 3 knots for coppertas.  This allowed us to put a variety of pre-mordanted skeins in each dye bath and to compare colors when they were removed.

Preparing Alum Mordant

We used 10% alum by weight of fiber. So we prepared 10 grams of alum per 100 grams of wool.  We mixed the alum into very hot water.  We added 5 grams of cream of tartar per 100 grams of wool. Once the powders were thoroughly mixed and completely dissolved, we stirred the mixture into the room temperature water in the vats.  We gently squeezed the water from the skeins and slowly added them to the waiting mordant baths.  We made sure that water was completely covering the yarn.  We raised the temperature slowly to a simmer (about 180F) and held it at that temperature for about an hour.  We removed the fiber to a waiting plastic bucket.  (This alum solution could be reused by adding 5 gm of alum and 2.5 gm cream of tartar per hundred grams of fiber.)

Preparing Tin Mordant

We used 25% tin by weight of fiber.  This recipe calls for 25 grams of alum per 100 gm wool.  Following the same procedure as for alum including adding cream of tartar, we prepared the tin mordant and then mordanted the wool for 90 minutes.

Preparing Coppertas Mordant

The same formula was used for coppertas, followed by the same timing for the mordant bath.  After each vat cooled slightly, wool was removed to a waiting bucket.

Preparing Dyes

The dye baths set ups were also prepared at this time:

Brazil nut shavings were soaked in Isopropyl Alcohol for two hours to dissolve the dye pigments then water was added to the mixture and simmered for one hour. Since we were dying later in the week the pot was allowed to cool.

Cochineal dried carcasses were ground in my ‘coffee’ grinder and covered with warm water to form a paste.  I covered the paste so it wouldn’t dry at the surface. The dye bath would be prepared and heated on dyeing day.

Indigo liquor was prepared and covered tightly in anticipation of heating for vat dying on dying day.  It is important to keep the vat tightly covered to minimize contact with air and oxidizing the indigo before it has a change to dye the fiber. Check the internet for detailed instructions on preparing a vat of indigo. Indigo is not water soluble so ammonia is added to the powder (alkaline ) and a reducing agent (sodium dithionate – Rit dye color run remover is good here) is added and reacts with the indigo.  The resulting mixture is added to water and a yellowish-greenish solution is made.   After the yarn is added, heated, ‘simmered’ and finally removed, the yellow green oxidizes and blue is produced! Some sources recommend soaking the yarn in a weak ammonia water solution. We didn’t do this this time.

Madder Root gave us a couple of choices.  We could use the roots as is and weight out and put into ‘knee high nylons’ or grind the roots and make into a powder then into a paste.  We elected to use the roots in full form.  Once bagged, we put into a dye pot, covered with water, and put the lid on the pot.

Onion Skins were weighed out, placed in a zippered lingerie bag, and set aside until the night before dying day. The resulting liquid would be added to a vat of water and blended on dye day.

Osage Orange shavings were weighed out and placed into light colored ‘knee high nylons’. We put these in the bottom of a dye pot and covered with water about 2 inches over the dye stuff bundle.  Since it was very hot out, we covered the pot and left in the dye area.

Walnut Husks again provided choices. Some sources recommend peeling the nuts and making sure the husks are in small pieces.  Walnut husks stain everything.  It is super important to wear protective gloves unless you like long term stains on your hands!  They are also slightly caustic and can cause burning sensations on your skin.  Since our nuts were well aged, dried-out, and flaky we decided to just put the whole lot into a cheesecloth sack and soak at least overnight.  The cheese cloth was an OK option but I should have used several layers as bits were small enough to pop through places in the mesh.  Once again we made sure to put a lid on the pot.

As a rule 10 – 15 husks will make a gallon of strong brown dye.

Dyeing Day

Brazil Wood Shavings

            On dyeing day, we removed the alcohol soaked bundle and set aside to dry for use on another day, added water to the three quarter mark  in the vat, added the moist pre-mordanted yarn, raised the temperature slowly in the liquid and held at about 180F.  We removed yarn and added another batch realizing that there would be color differences between each successive batch of fiber.  We didn’t lower the temperature between batches although the ‘rules’ would have us do that.


On dying day, we thinned the paste with more water several times until thin enough to mix completely with the warmer water in the dye pot. Once the cochineal was thoroughly mixed, we added it to the boiling water in the dye pot.  We lowered the heat and added the moist pre-mordanted yarn and began to gradually lower  the temperature of the liquid to simmer and held at simmer for 35 – 40 minutes.  We removed the yarn to cooling pans.  Participants had lidded glass vessels that they could place their yarn in so that it would cool slowly. We allowed the bath to cool slightly, added ammonia to the dye bath to push the red to magenta.  Once stirred in, we added more yarn and raised and held the bath at a simmer for 40 more minutes. Tiny bits of ground cochineal were on the yarn removed from the dye bath.  We should have removed the hot yarn  from the dye pot and placed it in a hot ammonia after bath.


            Indigo vat dyeing doesn’t require pre-mordanted yarn but we decided we wanted to see what if any differences there would be.  We initially added mostly un-mordanted yarn. We were very careful to not introduce oxygen but after the second batch we added the phiox reducing agent to ‘revive’ the indigo.  We kept using the vat until it was exhausted.  We really enjoyed watching the yellow to blue transformation.

Madder Root

            On dyeing day, we removed the bundle of roots from the vat, set it aside for drying and use on another day and added water to the three quarters mark.   We knew that the madder root solution was temperature sensitive but let it come to the boil rather than holding it under a simmer at about 140F.  When we removed our first yarns, we wound up with brown red rather than the turkey red or scarlet we expected.  This was a consequence of the higher temperature.

Onion Skin

            On dying day, we removed the soaked bundle of onion skins and diluted the resulting dye bath.  Some sources say that no mordant is needed to set this color so we used both un-mordanted and mordanted yarn in the dye bath.  The first several skeins were deep orange and the final ones were pale yellow.  This dye bath had the greatest range of colors of all the dyes we did.

Osage Orange

On dying day, we removed the sawdust bundle from the bath and set it aside to dry for use on another day.  After we added water to the soaking liquid, we added the mordanted yarn and brought the temperature up to a simmer.  We held the fiber in the dye pot for 60 minutes for each batch


On dying day, we carefully removed the bundle of shells from the from the dye pot.  There were lots of bits of shell in the dye bath.  Walnut dye doesn’t require pre-mordanted yarn but like indigo we wanted to see if there were any differences in the results.

We brought the dye solution to the boil and let it simmer for 45-60 minutes before adding any yarn.  Depending on the depth of shade we wanted we left the yarn in the simmering dye bath for up to an hour.

Hickory, pecan, and buckeye husks also make great brown dyes.

Day After Dying Day

I rinsed my skeins of yarn in lukewarm water until there was no dye runs.  I soaked the clean yarn in Eucalan spun it out and hung it to dry.

Yarn Choices

Workshop participants had the option to bring yarns of their own choice (some chose to bring cotton for the Indigo, Onion, and Walnut pots) or to select yarns that Sheri and Lynda prepared in advance.

Single Fingering Weight Merino Yarn: Alum, Copperas, No mordant or Tin

Two Ply Sock Weight Merino Yarn:  Alum, Copper, Tin

Two Ply Sport  Weight 80% Alpaca 20% Silk Yarn: No mordant

Worsted Weight Andean Yarn:  No mordant

Color Choices

Brazil wood shavings – Salmon – Mordant Required

Cochineal (Dactyloplus coccus) – Red, Scarlet, Mordant Required; Pale to light Pink – No mordant; Magenta (with afterbath  of Ammonia);Red/orange Tin Mordant

Indigo – No Mordant Required

Madder Root – Dark Red – Rust – Mordant Required

Onion Skins – Light Orange through Yellow – No Mordant Required

Osage Orange – Yellow – Mordant Required

Walnut Husks – Deep Brown – No Mordant Required

Winter Meetings

The Guild meetings in December, January and February are informal “get-togethers”.  Bring your wheel, needles, cards, combs, hackles, looms or what ever project you are working on and share a companionable couple of hours with like minded individuals.  Bring your own refreshments or some to share.