Natural dyeing

Dyeing with Plants: Bracken, Ivy and Apple Leaves

I took up knitting a few years ago for something to occupy myself with in the evening, and despite its ‘old lady’ image found there’s a lot of lively, young knitters out there in the community and a ton of yarny inspiration to be found online. From knitting my own garments I got interested in dyeing the yarn myself, and had been wanting for a while to experiment with natural dyes, produced from plants and barks and other natural sources. Dyeing with plant materials is time-consuming though, something that takes days rather than hours to do properly so I never got around to it. But then the lockdown happened and I suddenly had time available.

I’d read enough to know the whole process is trial and error, and the results are unpredictable. Natural dyes tend to be subtle and many plants just give shades of yellow and tan. But as long as I got any kind of colour I was going to be happy! I’ve done three batches now, using plant stuff from my garden and surrounding woods.

1. Bracken
I soaked approx. 220g of bracken overnight and mordanted 100g of Regia for Hand-Dye yarn with alum and cream of tartar. It was then left to simmer in the dyebath for 1 1/2 hours. The colour was very uninspiring – a nondescript yellowy-beige. So I added 1/4 cup of iron water and after 10 mins the yarn had turned a pale silvery-olive colour. I was happy with that!

2. Ivy
Simmered a panful of ivy cuttings for an hour, then added 100g of Regia for Hand-Dye yarn, pre-mordanted with alum, and simmered the whole thing for an hour. It barely looked coloured at all, so I left it in the dye bath overnight to see if it would take on a bit more colour. It didn’t really. The next day I strained out the leaves and added some soda ash to the dye bath and simmered it for 15 mins. The end result was a soft greeny-yellow. Not very exciting, but again I was happy with it.

3. Apple tree prunings
This was the biggest success so far! I soaked a pile of leaves and twigs in rainwater for 5 days then simmered them for an hour and left it overnight. The next day I added 100g of Regia for Hand-Dye yarn, pre-mordanted with alum, simmered it for an hour with the leaves and left it all overnight. The next day I added a little soda ash, and the result was a lovely mustardy yellow with a pinkish undertone. I’m very pleased with that!

Interesting things I have learned:

1. Boiling bracken leaves for 2 hours STINKS. The whole house reeked.
2. Left to soak in a bucket of rainwater for 4 days, apple tree prunings start to ferment, and the house smells like a cider brewery.
3. You have to use at least three or four times as much plant material in relation to the yarn to be dyed, despite what the books tell you.
4. It’s frustrating but addictive!

In the image above, left to right: undyed yarn for comparison, ivy, bracken, apple leaves/twigs