Stinging Nettles.

Stinging nettles; I have spent years pulling these out of my garden, and now I find I have a little patch of ground saved where I grow them for plant dyes. Strange how things work out!

NettlesNettles are a common weed, found in moist areas in Europe, Asia and North America. The plants  are perennial, and can grow up to four feet in height. The leaves and stems are very hairy, and are covered in both stinging and non-stinging hairs. The stinging hairs break off in the skin when touched, and inject a variety of chemicals into the skin which cause a painful reaction. Traditionally the sap from a dock leaf will ease the pain form a nettle sting.

‘Dock in, Nettle out,
Dock rub nettle out’

Nettle can be used to make a soup. It also can be used as a plant fertiliser.
But for me, nettle leaves make a lovely green dye. With  an iron mordant, the dye supposedly  turns black; copper produces a lovely grey-green (like for camouflage), and the roots can be boiled with alum for a nice yellow dye.

I had run out of green wool, so I decided that I’d use the nettle in the garden to make some dye up. I gathered 900g of nettles. I tried to use mainly the leaves and non-woody stems. One tip here; wear long sleeves and gloves. They sting like crazy, and the stinging sensation seems to remain, even after using dock leaves!

I chopped the nettles up quite so they fitted better into the pot, added rainwater, and left to soak for several days.

NettlesTo help break down the plant fibres, and to extract more dye, I simmered the pot each day for about 20 minutes. I drained the dye from the pot and re-covered the nettles ( I was trying to get as much dye from the crop as possible). This new batch of nettle dye-stuff I left for another day and then I drained that dye into the original batch.

As usual I had mordanted my wool with alum. I added 200g of the mordanted wool to the pot. This was a ratio of 4:1. dye stuff to wool.

Nettles added to dye potIt appeared to turn a yellow/green colour. To be honest, it didn’t look very promising. Anyway I brought the pot to the boil and simmered it for an hour. The resultant wool was green/yellow in appearance.

Nettle with Alum MordantIt was actually a pretty nice colour, but I wanted a green; full on, in your face green! So I added two teaspoons copper sulphate to the dye bath. And got……….

Nettle with Alum and Copper Mordant - 1st dye bathGreen!!!! Lovely colour, just what I wanted, and very like the colour from last year. And just to use the last of the dye bath, I added another 200g of alum mordanted wool and a teaspoon of copper to the bath. This is the result from that bath.

Nettle with Alum and Copper Mordant - 2nd dye bathThis wool is more of a brown/green, and again is like the colours from the dye last year.

Have fun with the nettles; just be careful of the stings!

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Ivy as a Natural Dye Material

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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……..

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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;

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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!

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