Natural Dye: A Tale of Failure and Redemption

So a few months ago I was flipping through a friend’s copy of Jenny Dean’s The Craft of Natural Dyeing. I was most excited when I got to the page about using apple bark. Aha! I thought. I know someone with an apple orchard.

The orchard in question, conveniently located in the Misty Mountains. I mean Himalayas. Same diff.
The orchard in question, conveniently located in the Misty Mountains. I mean Himalayas. Same diff.

Dean claims that a range of colors can be obtained from apple bark, from yellows (meh) to reds and purples (oh yeah). But I was skeptical, because (1) the color swatches are just printed patches, not photos of actual dyed goods and (2) it is always wise to be skeptical of dye recipes claiming any result other than yellow. Or brown. So I got on the internets to see if I could find anybody who’d actually tried it, and lo and behold, found a blog post by some folks who have a textile studio nestled in an apple orchard outside of Manali and live there half the year. Curses! Why does somebody always have to steal my dream?

Anyway, they didn’t get such great results (pale yellow) but of course that didn’t stop me from trying anyway. You never know. So one of my first tasks when I got here was to scrape bark off some pruned branches and set them soaking in a brass pot in a sunny spot in the yard. After a couple days’ soak, we put the pot on the tandoor to heat.

Ranbir is very curious about this project.
Ranbir is very curious about this project.

Not much seemed to be happening, so we let the wool soak for a few more days and also gave it a second boil. I know it’s bad form to let the dye-pot boil, but the wool we have absolutely refuses to felt, so it wasn’t a problem. But it was a lot of work for this result:

Yay. Yucky yellow. Ranbir gave me no end of shit for this.
Yay. Yucky yellow. Ranbir gave me no end of shit for this.

After this initial disappointment, we got to work with some walnut bark (which seems to be the only dye material any of the locals are familiar with). Since the bark contains much less dye than the hulls that I usually use, we got…yellow. But it’s a much nicer yellow than the apple bark. I also salvaged some rusty nails from the wood pile and set them soaking in some lime juice, so I did an iron after-bath on half of each yellow. They shifted to two very nice greens, so finally: yay for natural dyes.

Top to bottom: walnut, walnut + iron, apple + iron, apple.
Top to bottom: walnut, walnut + iron, apple + iron, apple.

Möbius, Maybe No

Last winter when I was working on an infinity scarf, a friend became fascinated with the idea of knitting a möbius strip. He asked if it would be possible to knit a möbius with diagonal stripes flowing into each other. So I played around with some strips of graph paper and determined that no, it’s not possible because the slope of the diagonals would flip from positive to negative (or, depending on how you look at it, the other way around). But you COULD, I decided, knit a möbius with chevrons that flow into each other. And if you CAN knit it, you MUST knit it, right?

Like all my best ideas (actually, like all my ideas, period) this one lay dormant for about a year. But eventually I broke out those graph paper bits again and got to work. I knit, and checked, and knit, and checked, and knit, and was just so pleased with myself. I got to the point of grafting and got set to figure out how to graft in pattern. Back to the graph paper…and I realized that it wouldn’t work. The knits shift to purls at the transition. I can’t figure out how I screwed this up–I checked so many times! I was so tickled at exploiting the inverse relationship of knits and purls! I thought I was so badass!


So, back to the drawing board. I think this time I will just knit diagonals, which will form one big set of nested chevrons when twisted and grafted. Which will probably look cooler than this would have anyway. At least that’s what I’m telling myself…

Not Fade Away

Continuing adventures with alkanet: partial success. The color faded a lot as the skeins of yarn were drying/airing. I re-oiled a couple times, and after close to a month of airing, rinsed out the oil–which meant, more alkaline baths! This process has been very harsh on the fibers, especially the wool, which started to felt. I had two skeins of each fiber, so I gave half of them a vinegar soak. It did indeed shift the color back to red (well, since the dye had already faded so much, pink). Unfortunately, the pH change also seems to have made the dye even more fugitive! Here are the test skeins:

left to right: silk, wool, cotton; re-acidified and not
left to right: silk, wool, cotton; re-acidified and not

Part of the wool skein didn’t seem to get as much vinegar. It stayed more purple, and also retained more color. But they are all still very pale, and it was a lot of work for not much color in the end. I’d say it was most successful on the silk, but I think all the alkalinity would ruin the luster on a shinier silk than what I used here. I’ll cut short samples off each of these skeins, and then try overdyeing to see what happens. Maybe be able to get some greens and oranges?

Ratanjot Reprise, Surprise

So some of y’all may remember the ratanjot experiment, which didn’t work out so well. But I still had Ideas. I’d seen that the ratanjot (also known as alkanet, Alkanna tinctoria) does indeed turn oil red. And I remembered reading in my favorite natural dye book about Turkey red, which uses madder (another red root) with an oil-based mordant. And I thought, what if I did the oil process with pigment-infused oil? I read up on the Turkey red process, which is rather lengthy and involves rancid oil, alkaline emulsions, and optional dung. I’m forgoing the dung (you’re welcome, housemates). Otherwise, I am not one to be deterred from a project which promises to make a big mess of the kitchen. So.

I procured some rancid olive oil, and put some ratanjot in to steep. It started turning red right away.


And got redder, and redder. Here it is after one week, and after several weeks–this is as intense as the color saturation got, so I moved on to the next step, making the oil emulsion.


This, I thought, would for sure at least turn some fiber pink.

Or it could turn blue and precipitate out of solution.


Fun with home chemistry. I threw some fiber in anyway to see what happens next, and it does seem to be absorbing the color, so there is (maybe) hope.


The wool (top) is taking the color the most evenly. Cotton (middle) is quite uneven, but with the most intense saturation in sections. Silk (bottom) is taking on a slightly greenish cast.The Turkey red process that I’m modifying requires several oilings and airings, taking about a month, so it will be a while before I can really test for fastness. It’s also possible that the repeated workings will even out the color a bit. And, maybe if I do an acidic afterbath, it will shift back to red?