Waste not want not……

I was so pleased with my onion dyed hanks – I kept looking at them at thinking – Wow!!
Next day I was going to get rid of the remaining dye but when I had a look in the bath, I thought there might be some dye left. I had some hanks I had previously dyed with lichen, moss and nettles, but the colours were quite muted. What would happen if I over-dyed them with the remains of the onion dye? This would be over-dyeing and exhaust dyeing in one go. Over-dyeing as I was putting colour over an existing colour, and exhaust dyeing as I was using up any remaining dye in the bath.
So I thought I’d give it a go…….

I soaked the previously dyed hanks in rain water (it’s still raining here!!) and in the meantime added a handful of onion skins to the dye-bath, brought it to the boil and simmered for another hour. I drained the water off and I added the wool; I tied the hanks into knots to try get the ‘patchy’ affect – almost like tie-dyeing.I simmered the wool for an hour.
Here’s what I got!

Originally this wool had been dyed with nettles. It was a very pale green, as it had been the last batch in a previous nettle dye. The pale wool at the bottom of the picture is the original. When I over dyed it I got an orange/green tie dyed effect.


The next one had originally been dyed with lichen as an experiment. Unfortunately, in the lichen dyeing, the wool had taken up practically none of the dye, so the result from the over dyeing was a definite improvement.


The last one had originally been dyed with garden moss. Again the original dyed wool is at the bottom of the photo; another pale pastel green. Over dyeing gave it a definite orange colour.

I have to say I was quite pleased with the results. As there would have been some copper sulphate left in the dye-bath from the previous day, the colours were not overly bright, but they were good strong colours. In previous exhaust dyeing with onion skins, I had gotten bright yellows from the last dye bath.
The tie-dye effect creates a wonderful pattern in the wool when you make something with it.

I love exhaust dyeing; it’s a great way to get the most from your dye bath. From the 140g of onion skins I originally used I got a whole range of beautiful colours! And over-dyeing is a way of using previous disappointing dyes and improving on them.


Onions…….. not to be sniffed at!

That’s right – your common every day make-you-cry cooking onion!
They sometimes bring tears to your eyes when you chop them, and are reputed to have antiseptic qualities to help cure colds and improve health.


But in a dyers world, the paper thin skins are a remarkable source of dye. They give the most wonderful colours from deep bronze to palest yellow, depending on how much you use and what mordant.

So how do you do it…
Well first you have to collect your skins – I spent quite a lot of Saturday mornings in my local green-grocers shop peeling onions! It turned out to a mutually beneficial process, as he ended up with a lot of nice looking onions – while I got my dye bath material!
It was a bit strange on one of those mornings when a friend walked in and found me peeling them; it was even stranger the following week at work trying to explain to his wife what I had been doing; I’ve found over the years that explaining re-enactment activities takes a lot of time and patience as the stories often don’t often time travel well!
All the information I’d discovered suggested that it would take one third of the weight of wool to dye material…. those skins don’t weigh a lot so I spent quite a lot of time with my grocer friend.

Back to the dyeing.
I had 400g of aran weight wool to dye, so I put 140g onion skins into a steel pot and covered them with rain water (from the water butt); put the pot on the cooker, brought to the boil and simmered for an hour. The water turns a deep bronze colour.

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I strain the skins and keep the water. This is your dye bath. Just so you know, the dye can stain everything  from counter tops to your fingers!
The next bit is optional; I re-cover the skins again, repeating the process to get the maximum amount of colour from the onions skins. Add this to your first lot of dye.

I described in a previous blog how to mordant wool. Onions provide a substantive dye, and as such do not require any mordant. However I find that the mordanted wool gives a brighter colour and prefer to use mordanted wool.
I soak the mordanted wool in rain water – it’s at times like these I’m almost glad that it rains so much in Ireland. Pre-soaking the wool means that the dye is taken up more evenly along the wool and the finished wool doesn’t look patchy.

Add the wool to the dye bath and gradually raise the temperature. Stir occasionally; to be honest I find that the simmering water agitates the wool on its own; over agitating will felt the wool.

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I kept the dye bath simmering for an hour and then removed the wool. You can still use the dye bath but as you will have already used some of the dye in the water, the next batch will be lighter in colour; this is exhaustive dying; where you exhaust the dye bath of colour.

DSCF2895These are hanks of wool I had dyed previously by exhausting the dyebath.

Todays dyeing gave me some beautiful colours! The hank on the left is colour I got after simmering the wool for 1 hour. I was experimenting today; a Danish dye friend had told me last year that you can get interesting ‘patchy’ results by twisting the hanks of wool like the hanks above, and then adding them to the bath.
The hank on the right was my result from tie-dyeing today. Look carefully and you can see that the wool is not a uniform colour throughout; Result!!!!!

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I was so delighted with my results that I decided to experiment a bit more. There were two hanks still in the dyebath, and I knew that you could add copper sulphate as a mordant at the end of the dyeing process to change the colour.
I added 3 teaspoons to the dye bath and simmered for another hour and got this;

1-DSCF2977It’s the the most wonderful bronzey brown!

I thought there was still some colour left to be had ; I’d dyed some wool before Christmas with Walnuts, but the result had been very disappointing.
‘What the heck’ I thought, so I added two hanks of that to the bath. Just to be on the safe side I added a handful of onion skins to deepen the colour.

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The hank on the left was the walnut dyed wool; on the right was today’s over dye result. Definite improvement!

So there you have it; my guide to dyeing with onions.
I’m delighted with the results; a wonderful set of colours!


Mordants, wool and natural dyes.

Have you ever tried dyeing wool with something that had thought would give a brilliant colour?
You’ve looked at the way it looks or stains and thought to yourself ‘Ohhh that’s a good one  – I’ll try that out’ only to dye with it, and get a colour nothing close to what you had expected. Or worse still no colour at all!
I have!
I use wool for nalbinding for viking re-enactment, and thought it would be a good idea to use natural dyed wools to make my socks, hats, mittens and cowls.  So I went looking for information about wool and natural dyes. An early find, and a great book for any natural dyer is Jill Goodwins book ‘A Dyer’s Manual’. It’s an older book, first published in 1982, but the information is still relevant. She also includes a list of dye materials and the mordants that they need.  I have found other books, but this is the one I keep returning too!


There’s also a wealth of information on the internet. The Woolery is an online site that has information on natural dyes and mordants


I found that all natural dyes are either substantive (which need no mordant) or non-substantive (where a mordant is needed).
Substantive dyes include onion skins, acorns and walnut shells. Non-substantive dyes include elderberries, ivy, ragwort and ivy.
So what’s a mordant? Well, a mordant makes the dye ‘stick’ to the wool. It comes from the Latin verb ‘mordre’ which literally means ‘to bite’; the mordant helps the dye ‘bite’ into the wool.
You can use the mordant in several ways;

1)      On the washed  damp yarn before dyeing,
2)      In the dyebath itself when you are dyeing the wool,
3)      After dyeing in the dyebath,
4)      Or for real colour fastness before and after dyeing.

So the next question I had was ‘what do I use as a mordant?’
Historically there are quite a few that our ancestors could have used, and you can still use them today. These included;

stale urine
wood ash in solution
oak galls
raw alum
water  in which rusty iron has been soaked
willow or oak bark
copper pieces that have been soaked in ammonia for about 2 weeks.

I’ve tried some of these, but they can be time consuming to source.  Oak galls are hard to find… and if you’re curious about what they look like…

1-Oak Gall

And as for the stale urine; I can assure it smells as bad as it sounds! And you have to collect it……….

So being a modern minded Viking I found some modern versions. These are mainly metal salts, which are thought to make the wool more porous. This makes the wool more able to absorb the dye and improve the fastness of the colour, even with the substantive dyes. There are several but I’ve only mentioned the ones that I use.
I mostly use Alum (aluminium sulphate). You can get it from most chemists. It’s used in combination with Cream of Tartar (3-4oz alum to 1oz cream of tartar) which brightens the colour and keeps the wool soft.
I use Jill Goodwins recipe from ‘A Dyer’s Manual’ pages 32-36.

‘Allow 3-4oz alum to 1lb of wool (so you’d need about 1oz of cream of tartar). Dissolve the alum and cream of tartar in a little boiling water and add to the pot. Add the damp wool and bring to a simmer point over about 1 hour. Simmer for a further 1 hour, stirring gently from time to time. Use immediately, or rinse, dry and store for further use’.

One thing to note; don’t stir the wool continuously as your wool may felt (i.e stick together).

I also use Copper Sulphate. Be careful when handling this one as it’s poisonous. It’s also an unpredictable mordant, and tends to ‘sadden’ or darken the colours. Used on its own it gives the wool a greenish blue colour.


Again from ‘A Dyers Manual ‘the recipe I use is

‘8oz wool,
2gals soft water,
2 teaspoons cream of tartar and
4 teaspoons copper sulphate.’

I’ve made some mordant from rusty iron – and had the same effect from dying in an iron pot. This one also saddens the colour. I found this recipe to make an iron mordant on the internet;

‘boil 5 litres of water with 2 cups of vinegar and 1 cup of rusty nails for one hour. Leave it to stand for 24 hours and then pour off the water. This water is the mordant.’

Don’t use a pot or any utensil that you use for cooking for mordanting wool in as the mordants can be toxic !! And rubber gloves are a good idea too.
When I mordant wool I use a steel pot and utensils that I store separately fro my cooking utensils.
Also using an iron or copper pot can affect the colour (almost as if a mordant had been used!). I also use rain water we collect in a water butt.
Finally, because many of the mordants are toxic, be careful when disposing of them. I tend to store them for future use.

One further word of warning – dyeing can become addictive! Once you’ve tried it and enjoyed it, plants around you take on a whole new appearance!!

Viking days at Birr!!

ImageBirr Castle, Co Offaly; strange location for a viking adventure, but the Fingal Living History Society had been asked to put on a viking village display at the National Game & Country Fair in 2011, so we found ourselves camped next to this spectacular castle. It is the home of the seventh Earl of Ross and his family, so the residential areas of the castle are not open to the public.

ImageAs the Fingal folks set up the little village, Bob soon had our tent and viking bed up! After years of sleeping on the floor of the tent I had finally put my foot down and decided that I needed a bit of comfort; I am a viking lady after all!! It proved to be a very comfy addition to our home from home!


For the weekend, Fingal put on a living history display of how a viking village would have been. The group re-creates a viking tented settlement; this is something that they are excellent at. There are cooking displays, net making, the armory, bone and antler carving, nalbinding and hand crafts and a blacksmith to mention just a few of the activities on show.

ImageFingal also provided a viking fight display at Birr. This highlighted the weapons that the vikings would have  used and the way that they would have fought.
It’s a wonderful spectacle that also has an educational side to it! The lads explained about the different weapons, the way they were used and also the infamous shield wall. And yes those swords are made of steel – but they are blunted for safety purposes!

ImageWe escaped from the village from time to time. There was so much to see; displays in the main arena, the Tudor village next door and the gardens are spectacular! I particularly loved the waterside areas; very tranquil.


In a corner of the field we made a wonderful discovery; boar! A local farmer had started to farm them and was selling the meat to selected butchers and restaurants in Ireland.He’s brought some to the Game Fair as a display.

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Watching these boar dig through the turf was amazing; those snouts are really strong and they had ploughed up their pen pretty thoroughly!
If you have never tried boar, it’s like a game version of pork, but much richer and drier than pork.
He gave us some to take home; I roasted it with some cider and apples added to the pot ………… it was absolutely delicious! Quite dry as there was very little fat in the meat – but very tasty.

And our nights were filled with campfires and song – great time had by all!!!


Moesgard Moot – Viking holiday of a lifetime!


I’ve been lucky to travel to some wonderful re-enactment events here in Ireland, in the UK but perhaps my favourite will always be the Viking Moot at Moesgard Strand in Denmark.


This wonderful event, just on the outskirts of Arhus, has been running for many years, and is possibly the oldest viking market in Europe. The site is small; a field surrounded on three sides by an ancient forest and on the fourth by sea……. and the most wonderful beach!!!


Every July a hoard of vikings descend there for a week of viking fun and frolics. During the week as you sit in the campsite there is the sound of battle from the woods as the warriors train to perfect their skills before the battles over the weekend.
But there is also the market, where you can buy jewellery, hand-dyed wool, bone and antler trinkets, swords and many of the things that no modern day viking cannot do without!


The event is invite only due to the limited space in the authentic viking camp, but those who are invited travel from all over the world to be there. Fingal Living History Society from here in Ireland  have been regular visitors over the last few years.
The battles can be tough; there is no quarter asked and none given. The atmosphere as the battle looms is such that as you stand at the edge of the battlefield and listen to the sound of the approaching army as it makes it’s way through the ancient forest, you could understand what it felt like all those years ago as the vikings approached your village……. Run!!

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It is a very emotive feeling; some say that these emotions are amplified by the location of the site – all four elements are there; earth, water (the sea is adjacent to it), fire from the cooking hearths and the wind coming off the sea.

And then there are the Horse people. They have been bringing their Icelandic horses to the event since the beginning!!
These tough beautiful little horses are the descendants of the viking horses; bred to carry weight over long distances. They differ from most of our western horses in that they have an extra gait, which makes the long distance riding much easier. Riding them is a unique experience; I’ve ridden Thoroughbreds, Irish Drafts, Connemaras and other native breeds but I have to say that they are among the most comfortable horses to ride….. once you get over the fact that they are only about 14 hands high and have very short necks!!
The horse people put on displays over the weekend to show their riding skills and the Icelandic’s breed attributes.
They have recently started a new part of the show where they take some of the horses into battle against a small group of fighters.I was lucky to have had the pleasure of riding one these wonderful horses in 2010; I hope I get another offer to ride one again in the future………



I have so many happy memories of this place, and one thing is always the same; I don’t want to leave at the end of the week!

What Aine did next…….


Thinking back to that day in Birr Castle, it’s hard to believe that viking crafts would become such a part of my life. Audhild taught me some of the basic stitches and left me to my own devices (the teaching part was complicated by the fact that she was left handed and I was right!!) I’d knitted when I was younger, but this was a whole new concept. Nalbinding is done with short lengths of wool that you felt together, and there is only one needle. And that needle looks like a darning needle!!!

Perseverance is the key to many things. We packed up on the Sunday evening and I went home to that well known viking search device – Google! I found this wonderful site https://sites.google.com/site/neulakinnas/home

Every question I had was pretty much answered! There were videos I could watch and replay…… now I was truly hooked…….. and so I spent the winter making stuff. Still use the site as there is so much in there………

This is one of the hats I made that winter – like a little tea cosy – warm and snug,



Where to start?!!

I guess it all began when I met Bob!

When we met he forgot to mention he was a viking re-enactor! He asked did I want to join him and his friends in their adventures! ‘Fine’, I said, ‘but I ain’t doing fancy dress!!’

Before long I realised there was more fun to be had in ‘fancy dress’ than sitting on the sidelines. So I asked a friend to make me some viking clothes and next thing I was having a viking wedding at sunset on a beach at Moesgard in Denmark! Wonderful memory…….

Time went by, and a friend decided to show me how to Nalbind. That’s viking looped  knitting to you and me…………
I agreed and we spent a weekend in her tent awning at Birr Castle with Audhild teaching me. Great fun  – from there I read everything I could about nalbinding and taught myself more of the stitches. Someone asked if my wool was naturally dyed? No but I though I could try that too!

That was three years ago – and now I find myself looking at plants with a different perspective. Not that they are pretty or things like that……. now I want to chop them up and put them in my dye pot!!! And the weeds that had a been a bane when I loved gardening are now my specials that give glorious colours!

Been a great journey so far and looking forward to seeing where it takes me next……..