Dye diddley I dye, doh doh

It was looking so good. We’d had lovely weather for a week or so; the sort of weather that makes you think it might be a real summer, that fills all the caravan and camp sites, that ripens reluctant tomatoes. And it was time for the annual Guild dyeing picnic. Skeins were prepared, suntan lotion was found – and then it rained.

But did it stop us? Of course not: we were going to get wet and messy anyway. Well, I was. I know what I’m like.

In the end, all you need are a waterproof, a couple of gazebos and a shed and you’re as protected as you need to be. The general (if reassuringly open) theme was dyeing coloured wool with natural dyes, and people brought along a wide variety of dye materials and skeins, plus rhubarb leaves to use as a mordant, speeding the process up for the picnic. Some skeins had to be rewound, and I guess the lesson is that if you do decide to store skeins on your head because you’ve run out of arm space, you should take them off before your friend with the camera and the blog finds you:


Unfortunately I hadn’t really prepared enough skeins for the range of dyestuffs people had brought and, unlike my friend above, I hadn’t got any extra. I had to think carefully about which dyepots I was going to use, and there was plenty of choice which didn’t make my decision any easier. I wanted to try everything, especially when I saw the pots bubbling away. But I only had six skeins.

We had onion skins, madder, sanderswood, forsythia leaves, plums, comfrey, roots of greater celandine, woad, and a mystery. A friend had some logs delivered, and noticed that some of them were a beautiful lustrous yellow. A little online searching and it seemed – possibly – to be staghorn sumac, and she peeled off the bark and soaked it. Soaked it for weeks. A little solar dyeing produced a caramel brown colour, so she decanted the rest and brought it along too. We also had jars of household ammonia, diluted with water – one part ammonia to three of water – and modified with copper:

Very smelly indeed, but very interesting – so that was one decision made. Madder and woad were also definite, and I wanted to try the mystery dye.

When I was a child I used to love being in the darkroom with my father, watching photographs mysteriously appear from nowhere. Dyeing doesn’t come with the same warm red light, but it shares some of the fascination with gradual transformation (and some of the smelliness, especially if you don’t get the lid back on the ammonia quickly enough).

This is a skein of a commercial silk/wool yarn being removed from the plum dye pot, and here is a variegated handspun one coming, I think, out of the madder:

The wide range of shades we achieved with our various yarns was fascinating. And as we began dyeing, it became obvious that there was a huge advantage to needing a gazebo or two. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that every dyeing experience should come with a gazebo. It’s the struts.

Just perfect for hanging dripping skeins, and we all soon learned to avoid them as we moved about. Well, most of the time; I got slapped in the face twice. These skeins are a mixture of woad and a couple of comfreys in the middle and something else (it got a bit like that) at the end.

And here are some of the madder, again with a stray comfrey (mmm – that grey):

I loved how well all the natural colours worked together, even if there was no thought of deliberately making them harmonise. Yummy…

And all too soon it was time to pack up, sort out our skeins (I drove everyone mad trying to find a missing skein, then someone emptied the onion-skin bath into a bush and lo and behold: my sixth skein) and restore the garden to some sort of order. At which point – naturally – the weather improved and we could actually see the fantastic view.

So what did I end up with?

Well, not an awful lot – but they’re going to be stripes on a bag which I’m intending to felt.

The original undyed yarn is the big ball; it’s a BFL-Welsh Mountain cross (maybe with a bit of Texel in there somewhere – local, anyway). Immediately below it is the same yarn dyed with comfrey. Then, round the edge from left to right, are the ammonia/copper mix, madder, woad, mystery wood, and onion skins. That one had first been dyed with the forsythia, but it was a bit nondescript over the natural colour of the fibre, so I moved it on. It probably wouldn’t have been quite so browny-yellow if it hadn’t spent four hours in the onion dye bath, mind…

So now it’s time to get out a pot here at home and try and get a brighter yellow – just what I need for an extra stripe.


8 thoughts on “Dye diddley I dye, doh doh

  1. Annie

    The joys of natural dyeing, one of my first yarny loves! Looks like you all had great fun 😀

    My most recent natural dye experiment was with dandelion petals – just the petals not the whole flower heads … I did say experment – it took ages to prepare the dye bath and the yarn ended up the colour of wee !! Over dyeing here we come!

    Love what’s going on there colourwise with your woad, mystery wood and onion combo 😀

    1. kate Post author

      It’s quite amazing how often you end up with wee, isn’t it? Or variations on a theme of khaki. So lovely to play with madder and woad! I agree about the woad, onion combo – think a brighter yellow will add something too. But of course I may end up with wee (again). First, I have to finish spinning. Slow, as everything, though better since acupuncture started – that’s something.

      (I won’t bother with the dandelions, then…)

  2. Anne

    Thanks for sharing the day ,I so wish I coud have been there. I have quite a collectionn of natural dye stuff to try before the summers out so hopefully I will get the yarns I spun for the guild day done at some point . Did the onion go yellow/gold? I get green up here with red onionskins !!! must be copper in the water I think

    1. kate Post author

      It was fab – but the onion (on my skein at least) was a bit subdued; I think it may have been a bit old. Like it, mind you…

      Green!!! I need your water!! (Mind you, mine comes from hills above us, wonder what minerals are in that? Manganese was certainly mined up there…)

  3. Knitsister

    What an amazing day you had, and of course weather never stops us doing anything here in Wales 😉 I love all your colours and can’t wait to see the finished bag. x

    1. kate Post author

      Got to spin the rest of the wool first!

      Who needs sun, anyway? As my mother used to say when I went on a whining and moaning marathon on wet Sundays, ‘You like the trees and there’s a reason why the west is so green, so put on your waterproof and get out in it’.

  4. fleegle

    What a wonderful, interesting day. Thanks for sharing!

    As for my tomatoes, they have only taken over the neighborhood, so you are definitely safe 🙂

    1. kate Post author

      It was a bit mad, but that’s what working with wool does to you (of course, I could have been a bit mad first). And I think your tomatoes are lulling you into a false sense of security while planning world domination… 😉


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