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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.