The Colour of the Way to the Shops

March 20, 2015

This post is part of a collaborative natural dye and mapping project with Annie Cholewa called Waysides: Local Colour from Our Home Grounds.

I finished drafting that lovely local English Leicester. I had a slightly higher twist rate than I planned but the yarn is still drapey and soft.

IMG_0114 Then I set to work dyeing. As you know, I have been rather excited about this. What wonderful colours were the waysides of my habitual routes going to reveal?

IMG_20150320_200416I began with some Ornamental Plum Prunus cerasifera leaves. We pass by a quite a few of these trees in our neighbourhood, on the way to school, on the way to the shops.  They used to be a very popular street tree with their maroon leaves and masses of pink blossom in early spring. They are short lived trees, only about 20 years and they are prone to disease and to looking very sad and ugly. Ugly or not, they are a ubiquitous street tree in our area so they were an appropriate place to start.

601px-Ornamental_cherry_plum_flowerImage by Hesperian, 2009 Source: WikiCommons

It is not easy to pick leaves from a street tree. I had staked out a particular tree that had been pruned low down and had lots of secondary growth at an easy height to pick. Then I had to go past several times over a week till it was actually alone and even then I needed the cover of my five year old daughter not to feel extremely self conscious. We picked a small flour bag’s worth and simmered them in rainwater for an hour before steeping overnight.

IMG_0200You can see my outdoor dye kitchen here. It is next to the outdoor toilet which has a power point in it and the rainwater tank. The cooktop sits on an upturned crate and my workbench is a piece of blackboard on Our Dear Girl’s wheelbarrow. This is a high tech endeavour. The next day, I added five 20 gram skeins of English Leicester yarn that had been mordanted in alum. I simmered the yarn for an hour and left it to steep overnight. Yes, it is a long process.

IMG_0137After rinsing and setting aside one skein, I modified each of the remaining four skeins thus:

Acid: simmered in a mix of rainwater and vinegar (1:1) ratio for 30 minutes.

Copper: simmered in a mix of rainwater and 6 mls of copper water (made from copper pipe offcut and vinegar/water solution and left for a year) for 30 minutes.

IMG_0144Iron: simmered in a mix of rainwater and 6 mls of iron water (made from rusty nails found in the backyard and water left for year) for 30 minutes.

Alkaline: should be left in a solution of water and washing soda till a colour is detected.  I didn’t read these instructions and simmered my skein, thereby dissolving the skein into slime!

IMG_0146As Annie Cholewa says ‘NEVER HEAT AN ALKALINE’.  Ah…traps for young players!

IMG_0212From right to left, you can see the effect of vinegar, iron, copper in relation to the unmodified one on the right.  It would seem that is definitely worth the palaver to use the modifiers as the really lovely colours are not necessarily the original dye colour.

IMG_0207I was initially disappointed by these colours. They weren’t particularly bright or exciting. But I think, my expectations are framed by the saturated, industrial colours of the contemporary world, in the same way that processed sugar spoils your sense of the natural sweetness in foods. These skeins embody the hidden colours in our world, colours from a different time, colours that take time. They must be drawn out carefully and with great labour. They are subtle. I need to remind myself that I am exploring, not trying to produce a particular outcome.  All I am doing is revealing the colours of my neighbourhood. These are the colours of my neighbourhood, irrespective of how exciting or not, I find them.

You can catch up with Annie’s progress here and see all my posts on Waysides here.


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  1. I think these colours are so autumnal and beautiful. They would look lovely knit together in a garment – very subtle. They remind me of some Japanese fabrics which are very very delicate in their colouring. Perhaps it’s the plum flowers drawing the connection though.. xo

  2. I think those colours are wonderful. And wearable! Who wouldn’t look great in those colours? And for a newbie to dying (haven’t done any dying yet) a true eye opener. I need to get some rusty nails and copper pipe and start the process off, hubby is on board too now as I read your post out to him over the breakfast table. The circle of inspiration grows!

  3. Whilst I can understand that initial reaction of disappointment, I actually think the four colours are fascinating. Real colours. I am loving this project and can’t wait to see what your next colours shall be x

  4. I am always amazed at just how different the colours are when a modifier is used…I think the copper version is my favourite although they all look so lovely together…
    Do you know what colour the alkali would have produced? Will you try it again?
    I’m feeling so inspired by this project, planning to get started myself over the Easter break (only another week of school to go!) 🙂

  5. I also think the colours are soft and so appealing and will pair nicely with any number of options. You make a good point about industrial colours spoiling our appreciation of the subtle and delicate. But with our awareness, no longer! 🙂

    This is such an interesting process to watch so thank you very much for sharing the details with us. It makes me think of my mum, who is always cooking up interesting projects in the garden that are way beyond my level of detail-orientation. I love seeing the outside dye kitchen and hearing about the various steps and missteps. I am curious to know more about the modifiers. You are an inspiration!

  6. You are having so much fun!! Is there any way to get some tree bark? Perhaps the colors derived from bark would give you deeper colors. The colors you got are indeed very subtle. How about color fastness?

  7. A big YES to what Heather wrote. I can’t wait to see the fiber made up. (No pressure from us, Rebecca).

    True, the shades are subtle, but along with the sheen of the fleece they may just capture the undertones of the tree. I’m always distracted by the showy blooms, but there’s more to the every day of that ornamental plum. I think you’ve found those gradations. Keep up the hard (and good) work.

  8. Oh, I do hope you are not disappointed for long. When I saw your colors I was in awe! Especially because they cannot be found in local yarn shops. Beautiful work! Thank you for sharing.

  9. Imagine how difficult it would be to achieve this subtle colour palette using commercial dyes. Maybe using the same natural material will always give harmonious results. Design by Nature!
    I have been trying to use some Magnolia grandiflora bark from a fallen limb; no one mentioned the indescribable smell of the fermenting mixture after a week of soaking…

  10. I love the way that you are allowing us to share your journey. As others have said, the colours do work together and being so creative, I know that you will come up with something amazing with the finished skeins. Have a great weekend! Regards Lisa

  11. I’m impressed that you have had your iron water and copper water steeping for a year, this is no flash in the pan operation. I like the way the modifiers are a little bit like eye of newt or lizards liver. The resulting colours are really beautiful, the secret colours hidden behind the dark leaf exterior. Will you try dying with the flowers in spring?

  12. Hi, I’ve just come across from Annie’s blog. I love the subtle colours, so soft and gentle. I tried out spinning yesterday, I loved it but I think I need to do more research and practice a lot! X

  13. Rebecca, these are so beautiful! I can so empathise with your initial reaction, that gap between what we imagine the result will be when we start a process and the actual result can often seem more like a chasm. But when we cross it … ! Then the magic starts. I am loving the opportunity to take this journey with you.

  14. I concur with Linda…do not be disappointed! And with Rachael…WHAT, you had copper and iron in jugs for a year 🙂
    These colours will look good in a Fair Isle type pattern, I love them.
    Do you have Japanese Maples there? That maybe a misnomer as we have them here and the maroon leaves dye a Brilliant Yellow with alum. Crazy. Thanks for keeping us posted on your journey.
    You are ‘making’ me look around to see what is going/growing on here…nothing yet!!

  15. Gorgeous mini skeins! Loved reading about the effects that different mordents have on colours. I can remember my mum playing around with natural dye solutions way before Gaywool and Landscape dyes arrived. I prefer acid dyes as at the moment I don’t have to time to put into natural ones. That will be something to play with in years to come I think.

  16. These are beautiful, sublte colours; I would not be dismayed.

    The process is long and could be daunting to some (a year prepping copper and iron mordants!), however it’s one of those mindful, meditative tasks that I think are so important to the connections we feel when working with these methods.

    I have done but a smattering of natural dyeing, but it’s preparation and alchemy strongly remind me of other things, like painting with oils, or raku ceramic glazes.

    You just never know what you are going to get at the end! (and I embrace that 🙂 )

  17. Yes, I think most of us are so used to seeing the super saturated colors of acid dyes. The natural colors are more appealing for me personally.
    I think you did a beautiful job!

  18. I love your sugar analogy, it’s exactly right. Natural colours are subtle but no less striking for that. And with experience you will find it easier to manipulate them.

    I too am having to remind myself that what I get is what I get … I’d love a pink or a purple but at this time of year in Wales I’m going to get browns, tans and yellows.

  19. I too think these colours are beautiful and will work really well together. I chortled at your description of needing your daughter for cover to pick leaves from a street plant – I’d feel the same. Am very impressed with the outdoor dye station! Do you think that the mordants you used changed the texture of the wool at all? It’s a long time since I did any natural dyeing but I seem to remember that some mordants weren’t just very nasty to handle but coarsened the fleece. Your finished fibres certainly look beautifully soft to touch.

  20. These are great, and quite on par with a lot of naturally dyed colors I’ve seen. The copper transformation is especially pretty.

    I liked your sugar analogy. I was on a low-carb diet that restricted a lot of things, including fruit, and I will never forget how the first strawberries I had tasted after that. They tasted like candy, I couldn’t imagine how I had ever felt the need to dip them in sugar or bake them in pies, they’re incredibly sweet on their own!

  21. Hi Rebecca, I came across here from Annie Cholewa’s blog. Lovely colors in your dyes remind me of the gum nut babies books we read when I was a kid. I grew up in Queensland and these faded colors look quintessentially Australian to me – drained by the sun, aged gently.

  22. Simply beautiful, Rebecca, though I have often been drawn to these softer, gentler colours – I like how these colours are more in keeping with their gentler process 🙂

  23. I have been thinking about your dyeing project a lot and have really enjoyed your (and Annie’s) posts on the subject.

    I think the colours you have been getting are really fascinating and beautiful. But I also think your initial disappointment comes from more than just living surrounded by industrial colours. The natural world is full of vibrant colour and I can understand why humans of any time period would be hungry for that in their own clothes. Think of all the vibrant saturated colour that surrounds us in the natural world: sunsets, autumn leaves, flowers and fruits, plumage of birds, butterfly wings, gemstones, blue sky or the ocean shimmering in the sun. Of course, most of these colours are transient, flowers and leaves fall and die, the light changes, the birds or butterflies fly away. Humans have been trying to hold on to the colour they see at the least since they started drawing. But when we try and pull colour out of the natural world it is often much more muted because many of the compounds naturally break down. But humans have always wanted colourful clothes because nature taught them with its brilliant colours. And so they would do all kinds of labour including harvesting tons of shellfish to get a single drop of purple from each and so on. Our desire for vibrant colour long predates the discovery of synthetic dyes.

    However, you make a good point. It is all so easy and cheap now and we take for granted all the work and knowledge that dyeing used to take. And every colour you can pull out of your dyepot and learn about connects you to human history and your own environment and that is so special and beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  24. This is much richer colour than I have had from prunus leaves. Recently I have managed to get some lovely results from them using the eco print method. Using them the way you did–much less!

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