Getting started in natural dyeing: daffodil yarn!

As a keen gardener as well as a knitter, I am fascinated by the potential in plants to create colour in yarn and fabric.  Last year, I attended a one-day class on natural dyeing with plant based dyes, given by Julia Billings of Woollenflower.  The class covered the range of plant materials which can be used for dyeing, how to prepare yarn, how to prepare dye stuffs, and techniques for modifying colours, amongst many other things.  I travelled up from London to Glasgow Botanic Gardens, where the class was held, and I thought it was well worth the journey.  Jules is a generous and knowledgeable teacher, the venue (this amazing glasshouse) was excellent, and my fellow classmates were a lovely group of people.

Glasgow Botanic Gardens

Life then got quite hectic for several months, and it was only this spring that I decided to pick up my notes from the class and put into practice some of what I had learned.  After planting lots of bulbs in the garden last autumn, I had a plenty of daffodils.  I knew that daffodils could be used for dyeing, and as I would have to deadhead the flowers anyway, I decided to keep all my deadheads.  I stored them between sheets of paper to dry out.

I also looked around for a big pot in which to dye, as dyeing pots should be kept separate from pots in which food is prepared.  Luckily for me, my mum had recently replaced her hob and couldn’t use some of her old saucepans on the new hob, so I inherited her old stockpot!

Over the recent Easter weekend I decided that I had enough daffodil flowers.  I was planning to dye a skein of dk weight superwash merino that I had got from Jules after my class.  In order to help the yarn take the dye colour, you can mordant it, which basically means treating it with a chemical.  This can be a metal (such as alum, which Jules had used).  It’s also possible to mordant yarn and fabric with soya milk, and I’m interested in reading more about this in Rebecca Desnos’s book on natural dyeing, Botanical Colour at \your Fingertips.

Deadheads and yarn soaking

I began by putting my yarn in water to soak, and then made up my dye bath by steeping my daffodils in boiling water.  I used a mixture of different daffodils.  The weight of flowerheads was about 110% of the yarn I was planning to dye.  (I’m going by fresh weight, but about half of them had been gathered earlier and dried.)

Within an hour or so, the dye bath had a strong yellow colour.  I left the dye bath to steep in a warm sunny place for about 12 hours (by which time it had gone the colour of strong, cold tea) before straining the plant material out of it and then putting my yarn into the cold dye bath.

Yarn into dye bath

I then brought it to a simmer for about an hour before leaving it to cool overnight.  In the morning, I took it out carefully and squeezed out some of the water before letting it dry.

This is how it looks now it’s dry…

Daffodil yarn.JPG

I’m really pleased with the colour of the finished yarn.  It was fascinating to see how the colour of the dye bath developed, and how the yarn took the colour.  It also smells of honey, which I really wasn’t expecting!

I’m definitely going to have a go at natural dyeing with some other plants.  I’m tempted to try alder cones, as there’s an alder tree on the road outside, and also avocado stones, as I like the idea of using things which would otherwise be thrown away.

If you’re tempted to try natural dyeing, I’d recommend doing a bit of research (or maybe taking a class) and having a go!  I really enjoyed the whole process, and it’s satisfying having a skein of hand-dyed yarn at the end of it!

If you’re an experienced dyer, I’d be interested to know any plant materials which are favourites of yours or resources you recommend.

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