The color outside my door

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Green and brown leaves.

Turkey Tail (back), lichen (front) and leaves found on a fallen tree limb.

I always enjoy exploring the process behind the yarns featured on Indie Untangled. Caroline of The Noble Thread, based in North Carolina, has provided a fascinating walk through the world of naturally-dyed yarn.

I would like you to do something for me. Put a sweater on, open your front or back door, and take a walk in your yard, or around your neighborhood. Look around you. There are leaves at your feet, acorns crackling underfoot, mushrooms, a few last minute blooms if you live in warmer climates, fallen branches covered with lichen and maybe even walnuts still in their green husks… This is the world of color that awaits you!

For thousands of years, people have used what was around them — minerals, insects and plants — to color yarns that would become textiles, reeds that would be woven into baskets.

Certain colors even became a status symbol like the Tyrian purple, a color extracted from snails, which was reserved for royalty. But the color that I find most amazing is the color that everyday people created with what was available to them.

Green, lacy leaves.

Resurrection fern on live oak.

When we look at the embroideries of early American settlers, though their designs were originally inspired by Jacobean crewelwork, it is the world around them that made their work uniquely theirs. Their designs were grounded in the scenes they saw every day, and their colors were the ones that surrounded them.

Fall is a wonderful time to harvest local dyestuff. When I go harvesting, I always do so with moderation. The squirrels need acorns, the birds need berries and the bumble bees, flowers! I only harvest lichen that has fallen from a tree because lichen grows so slowly.

A bee on white flowers.

Pollinators on Loquat blossoms.

People have recorded recipes. I have my own, and maybe after you read this article, you will start your own recipe book!

Natural dyeing is very different from chemical dyeing. For one thing, there is no label on the dyestuff, but more seriously, the color you see may not be the color you get! When you dye with natural dyes, there is always an element of surprise.

If you look at gloriously red amaryllis blooms, which grow year after year in my yard, you could think you would be getting red dye. Instead, you would get a pale yellow! Experimentation is key, and so is the recipe book!

Green, yellow and brown leaves.

Grape leaves.

The colors that are most readily created with natural dyes are yellows and tans. Green cannot be extracted from the greenest leaves or the greenest grass. Your first experiments will most likely result in shades of yellow and tan, but your heart will beat faster when you identify the plants that can give you reds and purples!

Once you start experimenting and dyeing with natural dyes, you will never look at a leaf, a flower, a berry or a mushroom in the same way!

Plant pieces scattered on a table.

From left to right. Top: oak leaves, grape leaves, oak leaf. Center: turkey tail, ganoderma, chestnuts husks, and chestnut. Bottom: acorns, juniper berries, pecans, lichen.

So let me share the fruits of my harvests with you! I live in Wilmington, a coastal North Carolina town. Our summers are tropical and our winters mild. Deciduous and non-deciduous trees make for an amazing landscape. Glorious camellias bloom in December! Fall comes late here, but it does bring beautiful changes to nature. Every morning, for the last few weeks, accompanied by my faithful dog, Brioche, I have gone foraging.

I have found walnuts, pecans, acorns, bits of fallen lichen, loquat leaves, pokeberries, goldenrod and mushrooms… Together, these natural treasures form my unique fall palette.

With the use of alum and iron, I not only fix the colors, but I can also change them. Yellows become khaki greens, pinks become purples, and tans become greys from the lightest pearly greys to the darkest charcoals. If I add a bit of indigo, I can create luminous greens and aquas. With indigo and walnut, I make antique black. By varying the fibers, at times dyeing on a natural cream, a natural grey or a tan, I can create an endless range of colors from the most luminous, sun-infused colors, to the warmest tones of fall.

Bright hanks of yarn arranged in a circle.

A rainbow of naturally-dyed yarns.

Now, look outside your door again, grab a basket, and go foraging! Get a book on natural dyeing from the library, so you can dye safely. Pick an old stainless steel pot and some wooden spoons that you will use only for dyeing, gloves, a few rusty nails, alum from the grocery store, a mask and of course, yarn. Simmer away, and take lots of notes in your recipe book. You will create your own unique palette, one that connects you to your region, to your neighborhood, to the land, and in some ways to the millions of people who throughout the ages have created magical colors with natural dyes.

Yarn dyeing, hands on

dyeing-setup

You would think that as someone who runs a website devoted to indie-dyed yarn, that I would have had some experience actually dyeing yarn. Well, believe it or not, I didn’t — until very recently.

A few weeks ago, Stephanie, a knitting blogger who runs one of my NYC knitting groups, organized a dyeing workshop at her apartment. While I had been tempted to take a dyeing class before, I had never followed through, and this was the perfect opportunity to try it out.

Stephanie had a few different bases to dye with, including BFL/nylon sock yarn and Bulky Targhee, which is what I ended up working with. She set up a soup pot on her stove for kettle dyeing and also had the option of hand-painting yarn on her counter. After seeing one of the knitters dye a gorgeous silvery gray sock blank and a couple others create a beautiful variegated colorways, I decided to try my hand at both methods.

dyeing-painting-1

After pre-soaking the hank, I started adding the color, a mix of black and blue to get gray. Then, after the dye had penetrated, I removed the yarn from the pot and set it out on the plastic-wrapped counter to begin my painting. Using eye droppers, I covered a bunch of the hank with dark purple and then added a dash of yellow. I had wanted to include some green, but the yellow was a better choice, as it ended up turning green in the spots that the blue dye came through — my kindergarten color education definitely paid off!

dyeing-lisa-yarn-process

After “cooking” the painted yarn in Stephanie’s crockpot, I rinsed out the yarn in her bathroom sink and hung it up to dry in the shower.

dyeing-lisa-yarn-drying

Stephanie said the colors became much more vivid as the yarn dried, and snapped a great photo of it in the hank before she wound it in a cake that I can knit from.

dyeing-yarn-hank

I’m thinking of making a hat with an interesting stitch pattern to break up the colors.

Of course this doesn’t mean I won’t leave the majority of the yarn dyeing to the seasoned pros who post to Indie Untangled, but I’ve definitely been bitten by the dyeing bug.