Ivy as a Natural Dye Material


Ivy; there’s tons of it growing over my yard wall, and Bob had asked what colours we would get with the leaves and berries. So I decided to give it a go.


I had tried this a couple of months ago without the berries. But this time I wanted to include them so I needed to wait until they had ripened. I hadn’t taken any photos last time, but the results were much the same.

I used the same procedure as with the other dyestuffs; twice the weight of dye material to wool. Also I let the twigs, leaves and berries soak for a week to get the maximum amount of dye in the pot.


As usual I had pre-mordanted the wool with Alum. I wanted to dye 300g of Aran weight wool.
When I added the wool initially there was no significant change to the colour.


After an hour, there was a definite change in colour, but not the green I had hoped for. Instead I got a yellow; nice but not what I had wanted.


So I added copper sulphate to the pot (2 teaspoons per 100g wool), and continued to simmer for a further hour. This gave a better result. It’s green, but still not the green I had wanted. In real life it’s a slightly darker; below is a photo I took in natural daylight the following day, after the wool had dried.


Last year using the same ivy plant I got a great green that I used in a hat for Bob. This was a different type of wool, and a different year, so that may account for the difference. My little nettle patch is growing, so I plan on trying those for a green……..

Blackberries………… to dye for!

1-blackberriesSo it’s spring, and like all good 21st century vikings I recently did a quick spring clean; well actually I had to defrost my freezer as it had become very badly iced over!
Anyway, while cleaning out the drawers I came across a box of frozen blackberries. I had bought them with the intention of making a Blackberry Crumble but must have forgotten them. They had passed their sell-by date by quite a long time, and so with the principle of waste not want not, I decided to use them to dye some wool. At the same time I could justify using another fruit as a dye stuff.

I had previously mordanted some wool with Alum.


As in the previous dye experiments, I was so hopeful when I added the wool to the dye-bath; it looked like I was going to get a beautiful rose pink.


But as in the previous experiments, what you initially appear to get is not always what you end up with . This time we got a blue/gray (the photos don’t show the colour exactly)!

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So there we are; another dye experiment completed.
Quite a nice colour, quite similar to the one I got from elderberries, but to be honest I might use the blackberries for the crumble next time………………

An unexpected blue!!

This dyeing lark can becoming a bit addictive!! Since I started I find myself looking at plants in a whole new light; where before I thought about texture, colour and where the plant would fit in my garden, I now find myself looking at a plant and wondering what colour would it give to my wool? This now also seems to apply to the vegetables I cook!


After my beetroot experiments. someone mentioned red cabbage as another plant that gives unexpected results. Naturally I had to give it a go, so I went back to the greengrocer (he really is a lovely man) and got some cabbage.

While I have no proof that the vikings would have used red cabbage as a dye stuff, it is another example of a colour which my be achieved from using natural dyes.

I used the same principle as the beetroot (twice the weight of dye material to the weight of wool), and the same method of preparing the dyebath.

I used some wool that I had mordanted with alum before, and when I first added the wool I was quite hopeful of getting a pinky rose colour; it looked quite promising.


But one thing that natural dyeing has taught me is that things are seldom as they appear; after half an hour the wool had changed colour again…….. to a more slate blue.


After simmering for an hour, washing and rinsing, here’s what I got…………….. blue! A very nice blue.

It’s another good colour to add to the previous ones.

However I have been told that red cabbage is not completely light fast (and that it may fade in colour). I’ll just have to keep an eye on it and see if that’s true or not.

Now, what else have I lying in my fridge?

Beetroot……..not what you might expect!

Beetroot stains………everything! It stains chopping boards, fingers, dishcloths and white cotton material a deep crimsony red. So as a natural dyer you’d be forgiven for thinking that you wouldd get that colour if you dyed wool with beetroot. Sorry guys – not gonna happen.

I figured the best way to show this would be to dye some wool with beetroot and share my results.

First thing to do was to get some beetroot, so I headed back to friendly greengrocer and bought some.
All the literature I had read suggested twice the weight of dye material to weight of wool. However I wasn’t feeling overly confident about this project, so I bought 900g beetroots to dye 300g of wool.

After a quick wash, the wonderful colour was more apparent….. maybe it would work; after all my fingers were now red!


I chopped the beetroot up, covered with rain water and boiled for an hour. I use rainwater as it is more natural than the tap water in my area.
Then to extract as much dye as possible, I drained that off, re-covered the beetroot and repeated the process. In the pot the water had turn a wonderful shade of crimson.

In a previous post about mordants, I had commented that some dye materials do not stick to the wool. Beetroot is one of these.  So I decided to do a little experiment; dye one hank in the half the dye-bath with un-mordanted wool. It looked so promising, however as soon as I took the wool out of the pot the colour went; I now had a very pale beige colour.
One thing I should point out is that the photographs are not exact replicas of the colours I’ve achieved, but they should give an indication of what happened.

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It wasn’t a colour that really appealed to me. Anyway, after boiling for another hour, I got this;


It’s a very pale beige colour. And there you have it; dye extracted from beetroot will not stick to wool that is not mordanted.
But would a mordant make much, if any, difference?

I’d already mordanted some wool and I added that to the dye-bath. Still no vivid red, but at this stage any colour would have been good; this looked more promising.


When I took the wool out of the pot, the colour held. Not the brilliant red one would expect from beetroot, but a soft peachy gold colour.


I left the wool simmering in the pot for an hour. I let the wool cool, then rinsed it through in cool water. When i was finished I had two hanks of peach gold wool. They’re quite a nice colour actually.


As a comparison, this is a photo of the mordanted and unmordanted wool together. The colours in the photo are not as true to life as I’d like them, but I think they give an idea of the colours achieved and the need for a mordant if using beetroot as a dye-stuff.


This was quite fun to do.
As a dye material, beetroot will not give you a vivid red (unfortunately) but it will give a rather nice peach gold colour. Would I use it again – yes!

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!