How to have fun with a bag of nettles

Every year, summer is marked by the dyeing picnic held by our Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (and by terrible patterns in Designer Knitting, see last post). I’ve now been to three, and as far as I’m concerned every year is also marked by messy fun combined with sea mist, rain and/or frostbite. No, I’m being unfair. The first year it wasn’t raining.

It didn’t really rain this year, either. But the mist was rolling off the sea in a rather determined way, very fast and very low at times, and it was no comfort to know that about half a mile uphill it was bright and sunny.

It didn’t really matter, though; as long as the dyed skeins of wool – no, I’m getting ahead of myself. I love dyeing, and (even) I manage to produce some good colours at the picnic.

At home, however, I am the Baroness of Beige. And khaki – let’s not forget khaki. Also faded mud. Slime. I can do slime.


We always have a theme. My first time, it was basically indigo. Last year it was overdyeing naturally coloured fleece / fibre, and this year it was dyes from the kitchen: not Kool-Aid or food colorants but natural dyes. Hence the huge carrier bag of nettles which greeted us on arrival, together with jars of saffron and turmeric, freezer boxes containing old tea bags, a large tub of wild plums and one of bilberries, boxes of fruit tea and coffee bags, another bag full of bay leaves…

My contribution was a sealable freezer bag full of crushed elderberries left over from making my elderflower cordial last autumn (it’s very good cordial – extremely high in Vitamin C, stops colds and coughs in their tracks, very restorative – though that might also be because it contains half a litre of rum). The berries dyed the kitchen purple at the time, so I reckoned the colour would also stick to wool and shoved them in the freezer.

Before long a variety of dye pots were bubbling away under the shelter of a garden gazebo:

The ancient iron pot in the background – which should probably be in St Fagans – was being used to add iron as a modifier for the nettles. I was probably most sceptical about this one, as it looked rather too similar to the dye pots I create at home: highly unpleasant, with slimy bits of greenery and a strange yet penetrating smell. I also knew that a nettle-based dye had been used during WW1 to dye uniforms – khaki.

And yet, and yet…

This is the nettle in the foreground, the lovely deep dove grey. It changes on exposure to the air, oxidising as you lift the skeins out of the pot, and continues to do so for a while. Happily, the iron makes all the difference.

One of the first dyes to go on was turmeric. Maybe I hadn’t had enough breakfast; maybe the lunch which was being spread out inside had affected me, but I found it quite appetizing. And it smelled good.

And the colour was amazing, both before and after:

(the paler ones here were dyed with tea). You can quite understand how turmeric replaced saffron as the natural dye for monks’ robes.. It really is magical. It is, however, notoriously un-fast, so we’ll see how long it lasts. Don’t care. Love it.

One of the reasons dyeing appeals to me so much (and to everyone else, I’m sure) is the whole transformative thing. I took along ten skeins of cream wool and off-white mohair, and I came back with a range of surprises. Everyone did. All the skeins were different of course; some had been prepared differently, some were from different breeds of sheep, some contained mohair or silk, some had been commercially scoured. And every variation made a difference to the colour. Ah, natural dyes…

For myself, I had a mixture of homespun BFL cross and commercial cream mohair; those are my skeins at the right, I think. So, in detail and as an aide memoire for me for later, when I’m in full-blown mud-and-sludge, depressing, Khaki Queen mode:

these are tea, onion skins, turmeric, saffron, bay leaf, nettle, blue corn, elderberry, bilberry, bilberry exhaust and plum. Most were mordanted with alum, and the only modifier was that iron pot used to cook up the nettles. Not a hint of khaki. Well, maybe a hint


14 thoughts on “How to have fun with a bag of nettles

  1. knitsofacto

    Brilliant. I don’t get busy enough with my dye pots these days and I really should try harder to make time as it’s just so much fun. That’s a fabulous depth of colour you got from the elderberries … I’ll be interested to hear how fast it turns out to be 😀

    1. kate Post author

      I’d always imagined that natural dyes were sludgy (er, that was MY natural dyes, evidently). We did mordant, so that should help. I’m just about to dye some more fibre with the elderberry exhaust – that’s a laugh, it looked pretty lively to me – so I can knit something larger than a square, so it will be interesting to see how quickly it fades.

      (Part of me will be surprised if I don’t end up with khaki anyway…)

  2. Lindsay

    I’m with knitsofacto – I can dye, I just don’t get round to it despite it being such good fun. Lovely to see these scrumptious shades – khaki-free…

    1. kate Post author

      That’s why I love the dyeing picnic, it’s the only time of the year I really get round to dyeing (hangs head in shame). Fingers crossed for those colours lasting…

  3. karibu57

    What a fab and successful day you had, I simply adore those little skeins in the last photo…the colours are utterly delicious 🙂

    1. kate Post author

      I’m really pleased with them. I now have to think what I can possibly knit! (Am dyeing some more purple up to help. Soon.)

  4. Lydia

    Wow, what a wonderful day you had! I love the colours you have produced. How did you get such beautiful purples? Here I am surrounded by eucalypts in all directions – I seem to always get shades of brown and yellow with them at the moment. However, very excited when I tried purple carrot – although not your beautiful purples. I love natural dyes too – I have all my yarn mordanted and ready for me so perhaps your post will give me a big shove to get on with it all! Anyway, have fun with all your experiments….

    1. kate Post author

      I’m normally a ‘fan’ of those greens and yellows too, so the purples were refreshing! They are from elderberries (on an alum mordanted skein), and two from a bath made with bilberries – one from the full dye and one from this mis-named exhaust. The first one (the full dye) was on an unmordanted skein as apparently it’s a substantive dye; the exhaust – the slightly paler skein – was mordanted, which may be why it doesn’t look much different from the one dyed in the full-strength dye bath. It will be interesting to see if there’s much of difference in fastness…

      The very pale one was the plums. They’d been in the freezer since last autumn, and were well mashed up. Too pastel for me really, but a good contrast in colour work…

      Have fun with your experiments too!!

    1. kate Post author

      They’re soooo pretty I want them to stay that way for ever… but as they’re natural dyes, I guess they won’t. Oh well…

    1. kate Post author

      Aren’t they lovely? We had a relatively new dyer in our group (apart from me, that is) and she’d been told that you couldn’t get strong colours with natural dyes. Ok, maybe they don’t stay that strong, but I have hopes for the elderberry… we’ll see…


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