Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shibori-Dyed Yarn Part 2: Shibori Dyeing

So, now that I've posted about the dyeing part of it all (at least with naturally-occurring dyes) I'll move on to the shibori part. Shibori is a specific method of dyeing that makes patterns on the thing being dyed, rather than the whole thing coming out uniformly dyed. Tie-dyeing is a basic form of resist, or shibori dyeing, but it's been taken to high art in places like Japan (where the word shibori comes from). As a child of the 60's I've been tie-dyeing for many years :) As a knitter, I've enjoyed making socks & such from fair-isle dyed yarns for as long as they've been available. The idea that I could make multi-coloured yarns similar to the ones I'd been making socks from was hanging around somewhere in the back of my brain, but it didn't coalesce until we made our first family trip to Japan in 2007.
We were in Kyoto & had decided to spend the day visiting fibre-related places. We began the day at Aizenkobo, which means "Indigo Dyeing Workshop", a place we'd discovered in the wonderful book Old Kyoto by Diane Durston (a book I highly recommend if you're heading to Kyoto). It was a slow day at Aizenkobo & I must have asked the right questions, because the owner decided to spirit me away to the back of the shop & give me a tour of the indigo vats, share album after album of pictures of indigo cultivation & samples dyed with lots of natural dyes, & pretty much tell me anything I ever wanted to know about indigo dyeing (he demonstrated the fire-resistance of indigo-dyed fabric by trying to set a scrap on fire in an ashtray...). My husband & son were reduced to playing Uno in the empty shop & wandering the street outside looking for a cold drinks machine while all this was going on, but I was very grateful for their patience. In the end, we bought a load of gifts & things while we were there (shibori-dyed sashiko thread which I used to tie a quilt with fabrics from japan for Brendan a few years later), but the biggest gift I received was the kernel of an idea that formed while I was looking at all those samples & pictures- how to make shibori-dyed yarn.

When we got home in mid-July 2007 I got to work almost immediately. I first made a chart of how many colours I thought I could get on one skein of yarn from 2 dye baths (plus a mordanting bath) & came up with four. I didn't want to put the skeins of wool through so many dye pots that they felted (out of self-preservation if nothing else), which is why I limited it to 2 dye baths per skein. I then got out Wild Color by Jenny Dean & researched all the dyes I could find around my house & neighbourhood, just to give them a try. I stocked-up on silk scarves, too, since I like to dye a silk scarf in any new natural dye pot, to give me an idea of how the colour comes out on silk (since I mostly dye wool yarn). Then I decided on my colourways- brown-based, red-based & blue-based.

Speaking of the yarns, as I mentioned in my first Shibori post, I dye with wool or wool-blend yarns because they can be mordanted & made colourfast. I go into even more depth about it in this post as well. For this series of dyeing, I used one of my main standbys: Knitpicks Bare yarns. I used peruvian & merino wools in lace weight, fingering weight, worsted weight; & wool & silk blend in fingering weight yarns for these shibori-dyed yarns.

I thought a bit about how I wanted to make the resist areas on the yarn- how to keep the dye from getting there- & decided to wrap them with yarn or string. So I went through my weaving stuff to look for different materials to wrap around the yarn. I decided that bast fibres would be best (cotton/linen/etc) because they don't take the natural dyes very well in the first place. I also came to the conclusion (as I was doing the wrapping) that thicker yarns/strings made for quicker tying, which helped my patience a lot :) One of my concerns when it came to tying was how to arrange the resisted areas so they didn't repeat (like the ombre yarns from my teen years that made weird patterns as you worked with them).  The other concern was how long to make the resist areas- short resists make for a speckled yarn, but it's not really possible to get long repeats when using yarn in skeins. In the end, I just experimented & took pictures of my experiments, so I could repeat any I liked. I used my swift to hold skeins for tying, plus experimented with tying skeins tightly around thick dowels.

Skein in the process of being untied & rewrapped for the next dye bath.
Skein wrapped around a dowel- ready for second dye bath.
By August I had collected the following dyestuffs to try: birch bark & leaves, rhubarb leaves, coreopsis tops (greens & flowers), elder leaves, onion skins, yarrow, rudbeckia flowers, & Rose of Sharon flowers (med. purple). I also purchased safflower, brazilwood, indigo, & alkanet. Of the above, I'd previously used indigo, brazilwood, yarrow, coreopsis, & onion skins before, so there was a lot of experimenting to do! I noted the colours that Jenny Dean got from the new-to-me dyes (with alum mordant, since I won't use anything else due to toxicity issues), & made sure to record my own results in my dye notebook (which I'm referring to as I write). I was careful to reproduce her suggested ratio of dyestuff to weight of goods (the weight of what you're dyeing with that dyestuff). Of the new dyestuffs, the only real dud was the elder leaves, which gave such pale results that I tossed the skeins into the safflower exhaust (2nd) bath in order for them to have any colour at all. (I talk about exhaust baths here as well.)

I also find that I can get nicer yellows from yarrow or coreopsis, so I probably won't bother with birch leaves again. I was expecting yellow from the rudbeckia (black-eyed susans) but got light brown, so that was a surprise, too. The birch bark gave medium rust-brown, but it was a major pain in the butt to harvest (you use the inner bark, which has to be chipped off the logs) so I probably won't be tempted to do it again. The Rose of Sharon flowers were really interesting to work with- they dissolved into a mucousy-mush when water was added (which explains why they're not nearly as messy to grow as magnolias, for example) & gave some lovely rosy-tans, especially on silk. The problem with harvesting them is to avoid the bees... I was nearly stung twice!

I ran the dye baths from lightest colour to most intense colour, so most started with tans & yellows & then ended-up in brown, red (brazilwood), orange (onion skins), or blue (indigo). On some skeins I left white areas, but on some I dyed over the white.

Here is one skein in the process of being untied. I dyed it first in coreopsis, which gave a goldy-yellow, then untied it in some spots to expose some white areas, & retied it over the goldy-yellow yellow in some areas. Then I dyed it in brazilwood. The result was some areas of white, gold, red, & orange.
I crocheted this shawl from the resulting yarn.
Here are some of the red & brown shibori-dyed skeins, & some scarves.
Here are skeins & scarves that ended-up in the indigo pot.
I did shibori-dye some scarves, as you can see.

And here are some socks that I knitted from the shibori-dyed yarns.
And the Spiral Scarf from Norah Gaughan's Knitting Nature.

The actual dyeing went on from the beginning of August to the end of September, because I kept thinking of something else I wanted to try. The tying & re-tying of skeins was probably the most tedious part of it all, but it was so cool to see what came out when they were all untied & rinsed!

And, as you can see, I've been having a lot of fun working with these yarns I dyed myself. Please let me know if this inspires you to give it a try!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Granny Weatherwax's Frogs :)

Hi All! Another break between natural-dyeing posts, here's my second contribution to Guild Wars 2 over at the Ankh-Morpork Knitter's Guild at Ravelry. They are the very relieved frogs in Granny Weatherwax's kitchen (Guild Wars Challenge 1 is items found in a witch's kitchen). Why are they relieved? you may ask... Well, Granny fished them out of the kettle before putting it on the fire for tea (a running gag in Terry Pratchett's Disc World books).

I made them from the frog pattern in Tamie Snow's tiny yarn animals book, in 3 colours of KnitPicks' Pallette (fingering) green. I used a size C/2.2.75mm hook & small black buttons for the eyes, mouths embroidered in black Pallete. Each little (~ 2 1/2" tall) frog has a mother-of-pearl heart inside, along with the stuffing. I got in the habit of doing this when I made the guys on my main blog pic last Spring. I made the froggies over 3 days this past week, the idea for them having just popped into my mind...

Having hopped off the flowery tea cup, they are now on the shelf above the sink (making some new friends), still feeling relieved...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Natural Dyeing: step by step dyeing with onion skins

Thanks to the miracle of modern medicine (reconstructive back surgery) I was able to ride the wave of my first shibori dyeing post and run the dye pot I've been wanting to do for over a year! When I looked in my notebook, my last recorded dye session was March 2009, so it was high time to get to it again. On the other hand, having to wait until my back was reconstructed (because I couldn't even imagine lifting heavy dye pots the way it was before surgery) allowed me to save a load of onion skins Unlike some folks I know, I tend to save them over time rather than go to the grocery store & ask for what's in the bottom of the crates. So it takes a while to save them up (although I'm pretty meticulous about saving them- there's a ziplok bag in the kitchen where I put them as I make meals, which gets emptied into a bigger bag in the basement).  I decided on Monday to start the process & fit the rest of it in & around my activities on Monday & Tuesday.  Today, as you can see above, I have 8 beautiful skeins of onion skin-dyed wool. I thought I'd document things as I went along, so I could blog the step-by-step process that I use to turn onion skins & wool into beautifully coloured wool :)

I learned what I know about natural dyeing from books mostly, & from some communal dyeing with friends from my local spinning guild. The main book that I use is Jenny Dean's Wild Color, with an understanding that natural dyeing is the least reproducible of the arts, & what may seem like unexpected or disappointing results from one perspective can be beautiful colours from another. In other words, I haven't always gotten the results Dean publishes in the book, but it's a very good place to begin, technique-wise. I have been natural dyeing for more than 10 years, and documenting everything in a notebook has resulted in the best resource possible for natural dyeing :) I try to record results as well as process, so that I won't forget, for example, that silk needs to be removed from a brazilwood dyebath before it boils or the colour will leech right back out.

Before I begin the step-by-step, I want to mention some terms & procedures. The first is "weight of goods" (sometimes abbreviated as "WoG"). Weight of goods refers to the weight of what you're going to be dyeing, & it must be weighed dry. WoG is used to determine the amount of mordant used to fix the dyes in that material, & sometimes used to determine how much dyestuff to use as well. Another very important thing to remember is when handling wool & boiling water, always go from cooler temperature to hotter temperature. If you plunge wool from a boiling vat into cooler temperature water, it will felt. But if you always go hotter, you minimise felting. And although you do stir the yarn in the dye bath, doing it slowly not only minimises felting but prevents scalds from splashing boiling dyebath. When weighing things, I use the metric system- partly because it's easier to calculate percentages in a base-10 system, & partly because all of my scales are metric. Mordanting requires precise measurement, but if you have to estimate a bit, estimate higher so you don't under-mordant your materials.

And, of course, what is mordanting? Well, you can boil wool with pretty much anything & get colour to stick, but unless it's a particular dyestuff (like rhubarb leaves, black tea, or black walnut, which all contain tannins) the colour will be fugitive, or non-lightfast. Protein fibres, like wool & silk, will take dye the best- bast fibres, like cotton & linen, are harder to prepare in a way that natural dyes will stick to them, hence the need for (& popularity of) aniline dyes. The best way to make protein fibres lightfast is to mordant them with chemicals that create a chemical bond between the dye & the thing being dyed. Many mordants use heavy metals & are extremely toxic, but a few- like the above-mentioned tannin-containing materials- as well as alum, are much safer.  Rhubarb leaves are toxic when ingested, so keep it away from the kids. Of alum, black walnut, & black tea, alum is the only one that doesn't act as a dye on it's own. so it's the best choice for mordanting anything you don't want to turn brown... :) Alum is used in conjunction with cream of tartar- I didn't really understand why until recently, reading an article at Geek Mom that explained that cream of tartar is a mild acid. I think that the cream of tartar (or "CoT" in my shorthand) balances the pH in the face of the alum, which is a mild base. Protein fibres take up dye better in an acidic environment, so this is my theory as to the use of CoT with alum.
alum & cream of tartar for mordanting

The first step in dyeing is to prepare what you're going to dye.  I decided to dye some Lion Brand Fisherman worsted wool. This is one of the yarns I usually choose because it comes in big, 8 oz (227g) quantities, is affordable, & I can buy it at my local JoAnn Fabric store. I decided to dye both white & natural grey Fisheman wool this time, just to see what I'd get. My other favourite yarns to dye are from KnitPick's Bare line of yarns. These are also affordable, in large-sized skeins, and in a bunch of different weights & fibre contents. This time I went for 2 fingering-weight yarns, the Gloss 70% merino/30% silk & Peruvian wool. These are in 100g put-ups, already skeined, but I add 2 more ties to prevent tangling. The Fisherman needs to be put into skeins before dyeing:

And then the skeins tied loosely (I alternate between the ends of the skeins of wool as ties & crochet cotton) in a figure-8 tie:

I use my niddy-noddy to put them into ~230 yard skeins, dividing each 8 oz ball in half. I also add tags made from washable interfacing, labeling the name of the yarn & the yardage or fibre content:

Because the Fisherman yarn still has some lanolin in it, & lanolin inhibits uptake of dye, I scour the Fisherman skeins before mordanting:
To scour wool, I run the hottest water from my taps into a basin or kitchen sink. Once the water's in, I add a few squirts of grease-cutting dish soap & gently swirl it around (trying to minimise bubbles here, folks). Then I gently sink the skeins into the soapy water. Then I wait at least an hour for the water to cool down. It's a bit smelly at this point, but it's a nice smell :) When I can safely put my hands into the water, I lift out the skeins, gently squeeze, set them aside, empty the sink, & fill it again with hot, hot water. No soap this time, just sink the skeins back into the sink & push them under. Wait, again, & then when you can put your hand in, they're ready for mordanting. If you don't scour (& I don't scour the KnitPicks yarns because they don't have detectable grease in them) you still have to wet them thoroughly before mordanting, so I tossed the KnitPicks skeins into the rinse water with the Fisherman skeins to really wet them.

Then, knowing the weights of the combined skeins of yarns from the label (3x 227g balls of Fisherman + 2x 100g skeins of KnitPicks wool= 881g WoG) I measured my mordants. The ratios I use are 10% WoG for alum & 5% WoG for cream of tartar, so I measured ~90g of alum & ~45g of CoT (using an old yoghurt cup). I half-filled my big mordanting pot with hot water & added the mordants, stirring well. Then I added more hot water to ~3/4 full. I added the wetted skeins to the pot, stirring them gently but completely into the water. It's important to keep the skeins moving as you go, so they don't take the mordant (of the dye, for that matter) unevenly. I use an old metal spoon for this, but an old wooden spoon, dowel, or anything heat-resistant will work. Then I put the pot on the stove & put the heat to high. I use an old rag or cottage cheese lid as a spoon rest while dyeing.

A brief word about tools- never use food cooking pots for dyeing, not matter if you're using food-safe dyes (or dyes that are food...). Although I can get a bit lassaize-faire with my measuring equipment when using alum, etc, I routinely use dye pots (& spoons, bowls, colanders, etc) for dyeing & keep them in the basement when I'm not dyeing. Dye pots get stained over time, too, & not all dyes are safe around food, kids, & pets, so it's just sensible to be careful.

Back to the mordanting:
The wool tends to float to the top when it gets hot, so that's another reason to stir gently every 5-10 minutes. Also, the skeins need room to move so try not to over-fill the pot. Nearly 900g of wool was pushing it a bit even for my big pot, so stirring regularly became even more important. It can take up to half an hour to reach boiling, so I put the lid on to speed things up. Don't leave a pot near to boiling or you'll have a mess & maybe more. I once left a simmering pot (distracted by my then-small child) & smelled gas about 15 minutes later. The pot had boiled over, put out the flame, & my kitchen was filling up with natural gas (!). I was able to ventilate things & disaster was averted, but I learned an important lesson! Bring a book or something while you wait. Once it reached a boil, I set a timer to 1 hour, turned the heat down low, put the lid back on, & let nature take it's course :)

If you are inclined, you can make the dye bath while you're waiting. I didn't have time on Monday, so I turned the heat off after an hour & just let the pot sit for the rest of the day (safest way to handle hot skeins is to let them cool first :). My understanding is that the mordant is completely taken up during this process, so you could reuse the leftover water for another mordanting session, (add more mordant) or even for making dyebath, if you want.

On Tuesday morning I excavated the onion skins from the basement where they'd been waiting for so long. I actually had 2 shopping bags full of them, but was reminded that onion skins have a mind of their own, being so crackly, light, & fluffy. So I was only able to jam one bag full into my big dye pot.
I added water until I could see it (the skins floated up some), but made sure it was a good distance from the brim, because I didn't want any boil-overs. Then I put it on high heat:
Here's the pot with the steam just coming off. When not taking pictures I put the lid on (to speed things up & save energy):
When they reached the boil, I did the same as with mordanting- gave them a stir, turned down the heat, put the lid on, set the timer for an hour, & let nature take it's course. Here they are at the end of an hour:
Then I prepared the strainer while the skins cooled a bit. I took the cooled skeins out of the mordant & set them in a bowl so I could use the mordant pot to receive the strained dye. I used cheesecloth because I had some hanging around, but muslin works well, as do old curtains :)
Do let the skins cool for at least half an hour before straining them, because they really splash when they're hot & you could be burned.
I let the whole thing sit in the strainer for a few hours (I had some errands to run) before gathering up the cheesecloth & squeezing it out by hand (thus staining my hands orange for the rest of the day...).

I added water to bring the pot to 3/4 full, stirred it, then added the still-wet, mordanted skeins. I only added 5 of them- 2 white fisherman wool, 1 grey fisherman, & both KnitPicks skeins. I saved the other 3 skeins for the exhaust bath, for lighter shades.  I added the skeins as quickly as possible, because I've had mordanted skeins pick up the dye so quickly that easing them in slowly caused uneven shading.
The dye bath looks a bit murky, doesn't it? Onions skins are one of the few dyes I use that doesn't completely exhaust (ie: the colour gets all used-up) & it always has this murky look- who knows why. Anyway, I put the heat on high, put the lid on, & stirred every 5-10 minutes until it reached a boil.
You can see (through the steam) that the murkiness clears up as the dye is absorbed into the wool. It's amazing to watch- the skeins get oranger & oranger & the dyebath gets more translucent as the heat gets higher. I simmered the skeins for an hour, then turned off the heat & carefully lifted the skeins out with a spoon.
Before the dyebath had a chance to cool too much, I added the remaining 3 skeins for the exhaust bath.
And then I repeated the same process for them. Meanwhile, I ran hot water into a bucket in the basement & put the first dyebath skeins in to rinse:
After half an hour, I repeated the rinse (lifting the skeins out before emptying & refilling the bucket). By the time the exhaust skeins were done, I could take the first bath skeins out & rinse the exhaust ones. Then, once rinsed, I spun them all on the "spin-only" cycle of my washer & hung them to dry overnight.
From left to right: top row is first bath- KnitPick's Peruvian wool fingering, KnitPicks Gloss fingering, 2 skeins Lion Brand Fisherman white, 1 skein Fisherman in grey. Bottom row is  the exhaust bath skeins- 2 skeins of LB Fisherman in white, 1 in grey.

I find it really interesting how different wools will take the dye differently.
The LB Fisherman white skein on the left is a slightly different tone from the KP Peruvian in the middle, & the Gloss fingering (with silk in the blend) is a golder shade.

And here are the LG Fisherman skeins, L-R: exhaust bath white, first bath white, first bath grey, exhaust bath grey. All these different colours from the same dye bath! This is why I just love natural dyeing! It takes some work, but it's like watching a miracle as it's happening.

If you happen to try this, please share your results & observations in my comments section. Thanks!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nanny Ogg's Best Hat Tea Cozy

About a month ago I joined Ravelry at the suggestion of a friend, & I've been having a lot of fun there ever since- mostly because I discovered the Ankh-Morpork Knitters Guild group, all of them folks dedicated to the works of the author Terry Pratchett, particularly his Disc World books. We were introduced to Pratchett's books when a good friend gave Brendan the Bromeliad Trilogy for his birthday when he was 7 or 8. We read it out loud to him & have been enjoying Pratchett's interesting mix of humour, sci-fi, & fantasy in a desultory fashion ever since. While recovering from back surgery I was looking for something to read, & after discovering the A-M Knitter's Guild at Ravelry, I decided it was time to read more Pratchett, so I've been reading them at the rate of 1 every 2 or 3 days for the past couple of weeks on my iphone's Kindle app. So much fun! Brendan has followed suit on his ipod, so we've been having a lot of fun discussing the books, & we're planning some out-loud reading with dad in the future, plus I've been recommending the books to friends :)

Well, over at the Ankh-Morpork Knitter's Guild they've been having needlework challenges called "Guild Wars" & today I threw my hat (or, actually, Nanny Ogg's hat) into the fray for challenge 1 of Guild Wars 2. The challenge is to make something that would be found in a witch's kitchen, with added points if the item is witchy-themed. Nanny Ogg is one of the witches that Pratchett features in many of his books, & her best hat is mentioned in the book Lords & Ladies. The idea to crochet her best hat as a tea cozy just popped into my head, & I happened to have a well-aged skein of scarlet Brown Sheep Nature Spun worsted yarn hanging around (plus the red, brown, & green for the cherries from Knitpick's Palette). I used an I/9/5.50mm hook for the hat proper, & a C/2/2.75 hook for the cherries, stems, & leaves. Nanny's hat has wax cherries, but I crocheted them (based on the radishes in Stanfield's 100 Flowers to Knit & Crochet because I didn't want to knit the cherries...) for obvious reasons. I suspect I could have put a lot more cherries on (Nanny Ogg is not known for her restrained good taste) but I didn't want to burn out before finishing it. I did block it (on the forced-air duct, over the tea pot) to keep the hat brim from curling, & the hat does stand up on it's own with no reinforcing in the point- hooray for firm crochet. I expect the air trapped in the point will help insulate things when it's actually used as a tea cozy... The final measurements are 18" circumference (measured where a hat band would be, if it had one) & 9 3/4" tall. I worked the worsted yarn at 4 sc & 5 rows per inch.

It was a lot of fun to dream up & make. Plus, I had never in my life crocheted a ring, joined (being careful not to twist) and then crocheted something in the round, although I've done it hundreds of times while knitting. I learn something new every day...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Splashy Flowers Shawl

Before I get to part 2 of the shibori dyeing, I wanted to post the shawl I finished this week. It's based on the Splashy Flowers Scarf from Kathy Merrick's Crochet in Color. The shawl in the book is made from Noro Silk Garden. I made it from Lion Brand Amazing, which has similar long colour shifts, but is fuzzier, less expensive (!), & is supposedly machine-washable. This part worried me a bit, because usually machine-washable yarn doesn't block well, but I wanted to try anyway. Fortunately, it blocked just fine :)
shawl blocking after a soak in the dishpan & a spin in the washer

I turned it from scarf to shawl by adding one more set of motifs, making it 5 large motifs across (including side motifs) and 4 small across, to fill in the gaps. I used a K/10.5/6.5mm hook as well. It ended-up about 72"x18", 5 large motifs across & 14 large motifs long, which works fine for a shawl. It took me 4 days to make it. The only other change I made was to begin each motif with a magic circle, which is often used in Japanese crochet. I'm not fond of crocheting into the first chain to make circles- don't like how it looks- so I prefer this method, although it takes longer to tighten up the ring of yarn (especially with fuzzy yarn). There were loads of ends, too, but I worked them in as I went, so when I was done with the last motif, I was done with the whole shawl, except for blocking, & that doesn't happen very often.
shawl in progress- you can see the gaps where the small motifs fill in

Colour-wise, I had 1 skein each of a bunch of colourways of Amazing sitting around (which was what really inspired this project- yarn looking for something to become) so I used 3 different colourways (Ruby, Wildflower, & Aurora) for all of the large motifs. I decided that making all of the small motifs in one colourway would look best, so I used Rainforest- it stays some shade of green throughout, which pulled the other colours together nicely I think.

It turned out really well- soft, fuzzy, drapey, & fun to wear. I liked making this project a lot, but it may end up as a gift, because what I really want to make from these motifs is a poncho. So, I have more Amazing in the house, & after a bit of a break, I'm ready to give it a go. Stay tuned...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shibori-Dyed Yarn part 1: Natural Dyeing

It's taken me a while to get around to posting about the yarn pictured near the top of my blog, but thanks to an inquiry from a natural dyer from ravelry I decided it was time. One of the things that drew me to fibre arts in the first place was the idea of making something from bits of things, particularly if they're bits of things you find laying around... Considering all of the yarn, needles, hooks, tools, wheels, looms, I-could-go-on-forever that I have in order to satisfy this desire, I think the closest I actually get to fulfilling it is with natural dyeing. Although I have bought large enamel pots for dyeing, I also use cast-off aluminum pots (given to me by friends who have read about the dangers of cooking in aluminum...) plus old bowls, colanders, sheets, wooden spoons, chopsticks, etc have also been called into service. Many of the dyestuffs I can grow or harvest myself (or attempt to), and I get my mordants from the local bulk-food supplier for cheap.

Considering the time & energy it actually takes to use plants (& bugs, etc) to dye yarn, you may wonder why bother? I could say, why bother to weave, or knit, crochet, or spin? The answer would be pretty much the same to all questions- because I like doing it. So I do. In my particular case, the interest may have something to do with the nearly 10 years I spent working as a microbiology lab tech. I love learning & understanding how things work, so the chemistry behind natural dyeing isn't voodoo to me (& I have taken dye workshops with folks to whom it was voodoo... !). Maybe this understanding makes me successful often enough that I keep on doing it. Mostly, I just looooove the colours you can get with dyes found in nature. The colour you get from onion skins makes me wish for a revival of the popularity of colours with names like ochre, burnt orange, & rust. Sigh.
From left to right (top): brazilwood (2 skeins), brazilwood exhaust (4 skeins) , yarrow (2 skeins), onion skins, (1 skein) yarrow exhaust (2 skeins).

The other fun thing about natural dyeing for me is that it's unpredictable (often in interesting rather than disappointing ways...) and that it borders on the magical. Ever exploit the pH qualities of certain dyes to get different colours? When I used to teach natural dyeing workshops I would use just 2 dyes, but everyone would go home with at least 8 skeins of yarn dyed  in 4 or more colours because we'd dip the pH-reactive brazilwood-dyed skeins in vinegar (for shades of rust & brown) or ammonia (for shades of fuscia & bright pink). Plus, using exhaust baths (already-used dyebaths that still have colour in them) will give you lighter shades. And there is really nothing to compare to the chemical magic of indigo, coming out of the vat green & turning blue when the air hits it. I still get a thrill, after ~10 years of doing indigo.
Silk & wool blend yarn, leaf-patterned knitted mitts, yarn-dyed in indigo.

Since natural dyeing is basically using chemicals from nature, one of my first concerns when I got started was safety. My lab training helped, of course, but so did the second-hand Merck Index that I found on a used book site. (ok, I was just looking for an excuse to own my own copy, after years of thinking longingly of the one I left behind in the lab... great lunchtime reading) The main area of toxicity when it comes to natural dyeing is the mordants, which are the chemicals that allow the dyes to become colourfast. Different mordants also affect the resulting colour you get with natural dyes, but many mordants are heavy metals like copper & iron, & you have to be exceptionally careful not to inhale them or contaminate anything else with them because they are very toxic. I simply prefer to expand my colour possibilities using means other than heavy-metal mordants. I do read occasionally of folks who say forget mordanting & just enjoys the colours while you have them, but that just isn't practical to me. If I'm going to go to the trouble to do it, I want it to stick! This attitude limits the plants (etc) that I'll use for dyeing, for example, the colours from berries & beets don't mordant well, in my experience, so I don't use them. Sometimes experimenting with these limits have led to success, which is really fun. For example, I'd read that turmeric is not lightfast with alum mordant, which is the safest mordant & pretty much the only one I use. So I decided to try mordanting it with black tea, which is a mordant because of the tannins. I have a nearly -10-year-old multicouloured shawl (see below) that can attest to the lightfastness of turmeric mordanted with black tea (& I have the notes I used to do it, so I can do it again if I want!).
The gold stripes at top & bottom are turmeric.

Which does lead me to one of the often-cited downfalls of natural dyeing- reproducible results. Factors such as where the dyestuffs are grown, growing conditions from year to year, what parts of the plant are used, and how the dyestuff is prepared will lead to differing amounts of the chemical that does the dyeing to be present. This does not lead to reproducible results. As I mentioned above, I like the element of surprise that comes along with natural dyeing, but I also keep careful notes, & my notes over the more than 10 years I've been doing this have allowed me to streamline some aspects of the dyeing process. For example, usually I mordant all the fibres I'm going to dye at the same time. I weigh all the fibres, calculate the amount of mordant needed, & then use one of the big aluminum turkey roasters over 2 burners to mordant the world... I mean wool. However, I've also found myself in situations where I need to dye some yarn & I don't have anything mordanted, & time is of the essence. I've learned that, if you do it right, you can mordant at the same time as you dye, or even after (as in the case of dyeing over indigo, which doesn't require mordant) & it works. I also write down what didn't work so I don't forget & do it again :)

If there is a limitation to natural dyeing that I find a bit frustrating, it's the fibres that you can dye with natural dyes. Basically, it's really hard to mordant plant fibres, such as cotton & linen, so they're colourfast, which leaves pretty much indigo. I've heard that anatto works on plant fibres & I have some, but I haven't tried it yet. (stay tuned...) I also find that silk is a lot pickier about lightfastness, & I have yet to get indigo to stick properly to silk, although I try it all the time :( I can get it to stick to silk & wool blend fibres just fine, but pure silk is another story. So I'm still investigating & learning, as you can see.
Cotton throw dyed in indigo.

So, when it comes to dyeing with anything but indigo, I dye wool & silk in various forms & combinations. I have dyed raw fibres for spinning, but prefer to dye already spun yarn (just a preference, really). If I'm experimenting I always dye a mordanted silk chiffon scarf along with the yarn, so I'll know how the colour takes on silk (& to add to my very colourful collection of silk chiffon scarves :). All skeins are figure-8 tied loosely-very important!- usually with cotton string or yarn for the ties because they won't felt or shrink- otherwise you end-up tie-dyeing your yarn. The ties keeps the yarn from tangling impossibly during the dye process. Speaking of felting, a lot of people worry about putting wool through so many pots of boiling water in order to dye it, & although it does felt a little (gives it a fuzzy finish), if you remember to always go from cold to warm you will minimise felting. In other words, you can do about anything you like except plunge hot, wet wool into cold water. Don't do that if you want to use the fibre afterward... I also label the skeins I'm dyeing, using washable interfacing & sharpies, with cotton strings, because it's amazing how different yarn can look after you've dyed it. When the skeins are dry I replace the dyed tags with paper ones, recording the dye used along with the weight, fibre content, & yardage.

The main dyes that I used for dyeing are: brazilwood for reds & oranges (& occasionally cochineal, which is really bugs, but for all that is very safe, but expensive!); indigo for blues; tansy, yarrow, & golden marguerite for yellows, onion skins for rust/oranges; safflower for brighter (practically fluorescent...) oranges & yellows; and black walnut or alkanet for browns. I have gotten some very nice tans from birch (inside bark or leaves) & Rose of Sharon (from purple flowers-watch out for bees!), & a softer tan from rhubarb leaves (also works as a mordant). I get purples & greens by overdyeing reds & yellows with indigo. I have tried many other plants- goldenrod, woad, weld, tomato plants (!), logwood, and others I've forgotten right now, but with unspectacular results. You could say that the above listed dyestuffs are my stand-bys, & many of them are sitting in the basement right now, waiting for a hot pot, some water, & wool :) As mentioned above, I mordant using alum & cream of tartar, which are both used in food & perfectly safe. All of the dyestuffs above are also safe in the kitchen, but none should be ingested, & yarrow & tansy work best outdoors because of the smell.

This brings me to an important safety point: always segregate your equipment! In other words, what you dye in is never used for food (& vice-versa). I do most of my dyeing on the stove in the kitchen, but I'm very careful not to use anything- pots, measuring devices, spoons, even scales for measuring- that I'm going to use for food. If I accidentally grab something & use it, it automatically becomes part of my dyeing equipment. I no longer cover the kitchen counters with newspaper, as I used to, but I'm very careful about spillage. Most of the clean-up takes place in the basement stationary tub, too. I have an old, big crock-pot that I use for small batches of tansy or yarrow on the back deck. If I'm dyeing in the basement, I always cover everything with dropcloths because my dye area is also the laundry area, & never the twain shall meet, when it comes to dyes... it's surprising how well something will stick to unmordanted cloth if you don't want it to. I also wear gloves, old clothes, old shoes, & aprons when I dye. Pretty much the whole world knows what I'm up to, in other words.

My main resources for natural dyeing, book-wise, are Jenny Dean's Wild Color (the old one) and Rita Buchanan's A Dyer's Garden. I may have some other books laying around, but these are the ones I actually use, along with my dye notebook. I have enjoyed exploring Jenny Dean's book for some years. although I may not get all of the colours she says she's getting, from all the plants she suggests (plus I'm not using all the mordants she lists because of the toxicity thing). But I use her recommendations for mordanting & concentrations of dyestuff & it's been a good solid resource. I have also tried Rita's direct-dyeing method for indigo, but, in trying to use woad from my garden, my success was hampered by lack of the amount of dyestuff you really need to make it work. My neighbour grew Japanese Indigo last year & had some success with it, though.

My other dye resources, in terms of dyestuffs, depend on the dye. I usually get exotic stuff, like brazilwood, from Carol Leigh or Dharma. (Dharma also has a nice line of yarns for dyeing) Brazilwood usually comes as sawdust or wood shavings (it's the heartwood of a tree from, you guessed it, Brazil) & is a by-product of the violin bow-making industry. I usually double-strain brazilwood sawdust before putting the fibre in the pot because the bits stick to the fibre & won't come out easily.  Herbaceous dyestuffs, like tansy, yarrow, turmeric, or alkanet I get from Mountain Rose Herbs, when I don't grow them myself. I have gotten indigo from both Carol Leigh & Dharma, but Paradise Fibres carried instant indigo, which is freeze-dried indigo crystals right from the vat (John Marshall talks about it at this page) and ready to go, which really simplifies the process, especially if you're doing it with groups. The biggest pain of dyeing with indigo without using instant crystals is that it's hard to find powdered indigo, & powdering the rock-like lumps of indigo usually sold is one of the messiest jobs I've ever done. So, look for powdered indigo! (or use crystals :) I have very little experience with the dye extracts some people make & sell. I think they're really expensive & most of the time I would rather go through a little extra trouble rather than pay exorbitant prices.
Some yarn & silk scarves after natural dyeing.

Another word about indigo- as I sort-of mentioned above, indigo doesn't need mordant to stick. That's because it doesn't interact with the molecules of the fibres the same way that natural dyes do (in the presence of mordant, I might add...). It's deposited on the surface of the fibres, which is why your denim jeans get wear marks on them. You can dye most anything that can be dyed, in indigo, which is really fun. However, it's not all fun & games. Indigo is sensitive to temperature, pH, & amount of oxygen that is introduced to the vat by the process of dipping things in it. When this balance is lost, the indigo stops being deposited & the vat no longer works. Some ways that I overcome these while dyeing with indigo is to have a heating pad under my vat (under plastic to protect it from getting wet) & adding insulation around the vat as well (styrofoam packing "Peanuts" work well, also under plastic). A friend used an aquarium heater to keep her vat warm over time. As with any dyeing, you have to we the fibres before dyeing, so I wet them in hot water when using indigo, to help maintain the temperature of the vat. Since I'm wearing rubber gloves I don't really notice the heat. Pre-wetting the fibres is one important way to avoid bringing too much oxygen into the vat, & I'm also very careful about squeezing the dipped fibres below the surface of the vat before lifting them out, to avoid splashing the vat, & then wring them out over a nearby bucket. Over time, when re-dipping cooled fibres for deeper colours, it's inevitable that the vat will cool down, but I have re-used vats by re-heating them & sprinkling some RIT dye remover in to remove excess oxygen. After 15 minutes it should be ready to go again. It's really hard to fully exhaust an indigo vat, so it may be worth trying to revive it.

I'm not going to be specific as to how to dye with natural dyes in this post, since the resources I've mentioned are a very good starting place. In part 2 I'll explain how I used natural dyes to shibori-dye yarn.