Back in October I was walking to the ferry on the Peaks side. The weather turned crisp and wood-smoke smells were in the air. I spotted a flash of earthy, rustic bright orange bobbing down the hill to the ferry. My eyes latched onto the flash of color and I followed it as far as I could on the ferry. I went to bed that night dreaming, processing, planning just how to use my natural dyes to get that color. I’ll dye with cochineal, then fustic, then maybe a dip in black walnut…. I wanted just the right shade of orange. I drifted off to sleep.
Three months later I’m planning a dyeing day for when I finally dye small samples of the lichens I’ve collected, which you can read more about here. Remembering I have 10 ounces in the form of four skeins I spun of the P.E.I. wool I'd brought home, and thinking about the shortage of hand-spun/plant-dyed yarns I have in my shop, I plan on using madder root powdered extract to spice up the color range in the shop.
In preparation for dyeing, I cleaned the kitchen and got it ready for dyeing: choosing the pot and utensils, and reading up about madder root in my books. I have an extensive collection of dye books, about 20. None of them talk about dyeing with madder root extract. Processing the plant, yes, but not using the extract. What I was looking for were the amounts of extract to use for a certain tone. Last year, while in one of my dyeing frenzies, I dyed an enormous amount of madder on loose fleece. I ended up with a gorgeous color, bright brick red, but paid for it as it all croaked on my hands -- something that can happen with natural dyes, especially indigo. This, though, was a bit much. A sweet lady at the camp where I'd been teaching bought a skein of hand-spun island wool, madder-dyed. She asked for an exchange, as the red was getting over everything. Mortified, I knew I needed to do something different next time. So here I was determined to more carefully review measurements. In a very old copy of an earth hues manual, which runs just a few pages, I found a small chart. Excited about the brick red, I made notes, then noticed that on the madder root page it said: orange with cream of tartar. I thought about it for a few minutes and thought, well, that’s curious, as I hadn't heard of or experimented with this yet. I changed my plans. It also stated that when dissolving the extract to use 160F water. The dye molecules can be destroyed if the water runs any hotter. With the entire process I kept everything precisely measured. It wasn’t until the yarns were cooking that I realized I'd found that orange I was searching for!
Here is the recipe and procedure I used.
Items I used:
Stainless steel pot
10oz hand-spun P.E.I. wool
wooden skewer for mixing extract
large stainless-steel spoon for checking yarns and turning yarn over
17g (which is 6% WOG) cream of tartar
17g (same as above, 6% WOG) aluminum sulfate
digital kitchen scale
small stainless-steel measuring spoons
glass mason jar
kettle for boiling water
Orvus paste- link
3T (for a medium shade) extract of madder root The suggested amount for a medium shade for a lb of fiber is 4T. Because I had 10oz of fiber I made an educated guess and dropped it to 3T.
Scour: wash your fiber.
The previous night I cleaned my sink and filled it with room-temperature water. I checked this by holding the underside of my wrist under the faucet, adjusting the temperature until I couldn't feel the water because it felt about the same as the air. This is important -- use room-temperature water so you don't shock your wool. Doing so will compromise the integrity of the wool, possibly making it sticky or scratchy and generally less soft. I used maybe a teaspoon of Orvus paste. This is important, as it’s a pH neutral soap and will not change the pH of your fiber. I let the soap dissolve without the water running, so not to make suds. In went the wool. I let it sit overnight -- not necessary as about an hour will do fine, too, but I really wanted to be as thorough as I possibly could (not my usual technique). Also, scouring your fiber before dyeing will remove any access oils or chemicals from mills (lanolin will remain). This will help with even dyeing.
Prepare Dye Bath
I then got to work making the dye bath. I filled the pot with water. The amount of water does not affect the color, but you want plenty to let your fiber swim freely for an even dyeing.
When I dye, I always mordant and dye the fiber in the same bath. It’s a wonderful time saver and does not affect the results.
I have a handy battery-powered digital kitchen scale. I realized for the first time this morning that in ounces, it is not exact, as it will weigh in fractions, i.e. it will read 2 3/8 oz. Too much for my brain, so I switched it to read in grams, which is more exact anyway, then used a handy app on my phone to convert the units for me. So I apologize for measurements being in three different units!
A trick my friend Bristol taught me, way back when she was teaching me how to dye with acid dyes at the Portland Fiber Gallery, is to use a small amount of plastic wrap, fold it into a 5x5-inch square, and you have a little plate to set your powders on the scale.
Weighing Alum, Cream of Tartar, and Madder
After calculating that 17grams was 6% of 10ounces, I weighed out the alum, poured it in a glass mason jar and with the water that just boiled in the kettle, filled the jar and stirred with the wooden skewer, You could also use stainless steel. Neither give a chance of altering your final colors. The difference could be finite but since I was trying my best here, I thought I’d go the whole way. Good habits to get into anyway. Once the alum was dissolved I poured it into the pot. Next came the cream of tarter. 17grams is a lot. I realized I need to get my hands of this stuff in bulk. I followed through with the same procedure as the alum, dissolving it in hot water and then pouring it into the pot. Next was the madder. I measured out 3 Tablespoons into the jar and in a separate jar, tested the temp of the water making sure it was not over 160f. Once it hit I poured it over the powered extract and mixed with the skewer until dissolved. Then poured into pot
I gently put in one skein at a time and set the burner to medium, as I wanted this to heat up slowly. I monitored the heat for two hours, making sure it did not go over 180F. It reached 150F or so…. about every half hour I checked to make sure the pot wasn’t boiling, and to turn its entire contents. At the bottom it’s the hottest, and unless the pot is stirred, the fiber at the bottom will dye a deeper color, making your entire piece dye unevenly. I also kept the top on the pot to minimize vapors into the air -- though I’m not too worried about madder-root extract, alum, or cream of tartar. And as always, once in the liquid state, toxicity is next to nothing, if I can call it that. I do, however, leave the fan on high the entire time for ventilation. If it were the warmer season I’d have windows open or even be doing this outside on the porch with my electric burner.
Another important note for best and most color absorption, leave your fiber in the dye bath over night to cool naturally. Trust me, I know how tempting it is to pull everything out after an hour or two, rinse, and let dry. With this cooling over night method, though yes, so much longer, it really is the best way to go in insure a few things- your fiber stays in tact in terms of structure, the fiber absorbs as much pigment as it's going to in that dye pot, and you won't burn your hands getting all excited about your fiber. Just let it be. Get on with your life and in the morning, you have something to look forward to.
I was so happy with the color.
The next morning I restarted the process. This time, gathering a smattering of fibers from my studio to be scoured first and then dyed in the 2nd dye bath.
2nd dye bath. From Top left to right; vintage doily, silk square shibori prepared, strip of lace, a funny gathering of various fabrics I sewed together a few weeks before. The shiny orange is from my flower girl dress's made from rayon I think. A nuno felted piece, a skein of mohair, small vintage doily.
Three clumps of Irish Texel and Maine Island wool. I love how everything dyed up in this 2nd bath. SO much dye left.
Dyeing with left over baths is a lot of fun because you get more varying colors and which are often surprises. It's also less wasteful. As I said before, so much energy was put into the preparing of this extract. It's best to use up every last droplet of pigment.
3rd dye bath; A set of 4 damask napkins and a small table cloth. I think I may embroider on them all for a set this summer. I love the coral color that came out.
4th dye bath; clumps of washed Irish Texel and Maine Finn wool. Drying over the fire right now. I'll use the texel for needle felting and the Finn for spinning. I'm really excited to hand card these fibers.
What's in the 5th dye bath right now? A square of cotton for a future embroidery project, a square of silk for testing, and a really beautiful vintage linen poach of some kind. I have no idea what it was used for. I'll add pictures here once dried.
This may be the last bath. Because the pigment will be all used up and because alum is also what is used in our water supply to help keep it clean, when done, I'll pour it down the drain, which is completely safe.
I have had so much fun discovering the varying depths of this color. Taking my time choosing fibers and fabrics and the general patience that needs to happen while I wait for the dye pot to do it's magic.
If you have any questions or things to add or other discoveries you've had with this extract, I'd love to hear about them. Leave me a comment and share.
Blessings and happy dyeing,