Solar Dyeing Wool Using Natural Plants
Obtain Beautiful Color from Natural Yarn Dye
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Solar dyeing wool with natural dyes is a simple procedure that yields beautiful results. The process is fairly safe, so the whole family can enjoy the experiment. Solar dyeing involves learning which plants to harvest from the yard or woods that make dye and provide lasting color. The possibilities are fascinating and some of the colors will surprise you. When you learn how to make homemade clothing dye, you will enjoy repurposing older garments.
Pre-Mordant Instructions for Solar Dyeing Wool
Before starting with the actual dyeing process, a preliminary pre-mordant step needs to be taken so your yarn is ready to accept the dye. A mordant is a substance that combines with a dye or stain and fixes it in a material. This step does require some heat so make sure to grab the wool yarn you want to use for solar dyeing wool and a large pot for the stove. If you don’t have a stove available, you can use a solar oven and a pot that will fit inside the oven. Skipping the pre-mordant phase can result in less vibrant colors with some dye material. If you really don’t have access to any heat source, then you can just soak the yarn in vinegar and warm water. I use a half-cup of white vinegar to two gallons of water.
Mordants used in the pre-mordant phase are usually vinegar or alum. Using a vinegar pre-mordant is essential when solar dyeing wool with pokeberry. Add mordants to the dye pot during the dye phase, too. Mordants can increase the intensity of the dye or change the color slightly.
Add the vinegar to the pot of water and bring the water to a simmer. Add the skeins of yarn you want to dye. I often pre-mordant a few skeins more than I am planning on using. You do not have to pre-mordant the skeins again. I simply re-wet them when I want to begin solar dyeing wool.
Simmer the yarn in the vinegar water for 30 to 60 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before touching the water and yarn. Gently squeeze out the excess water, being careful not to wring or twist the fiber since agitation of the wool can lead to felting.
What Are Natural Dyes?
Natural dye materials are found in food, plants, and insects. Other dyes used for dying are referred to as acid dyes. Acid dyes can contain questionable heavy metals that may require special handling of the dye and some are harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly.
Collecting the Natural Dye Material
Use products from your kitchen for solar dyeing wool. Coffee beans, teas, and spices are good options. Hibiscus tea from the petals of the flowers produces a soft pink shade on wool yarn or roving. Other kitchen dyes can be obtained from onion skins (yellow), turmeric (dark yellow/golds), avocado pits (pinks), and dry black beans (blue).
Nature gives us many interesting dyes. Black walnut is a popular choice. The color is found in the outer green hull. Wear rubber gloves when working with black walnuts to protect your hands from the long lasting stain. Various shades of brown can be achieved, depending on how strong the dye is made. Leaving the black walnut hulls in the dye pot with the yarn will result in a dark variegated brown.
The berries from the pokeweed plant are another source of natural dye. Oak galls, goldenrod, tree barks, marigold flowers, indigo, and madder root are some other options. It is fascinating to try other natural dyes for wool.
Beets are often mentioned when talking about plant dyes. The juice from beets will stain most fabric. Beets are considered a fugitive dye though and the stain quickly washes or fades away. Beets and other fugitive dye plants can be fun to experiment with. Try beet dye for dyeing Easter Eggs or painting on paper.
Making the Dyes for Solar Dyeing Wool
I used test size skeins of wool yarn that had been pre-mordanted in vinegar and water. The skeins were all 25 grams and each jar contained a quart of water. If you want to increase the amount of dye for coloring larger skeins of yarn, simply adjust the amounts.
You can make up the jars of dye ahead of time. Once the jar has sat in the sun and brewed for a few hours, store the dye in the refrigerator to keep it fresh.
Turmeric — One tablespoon of powdered turmeric, half a cup of white vinegar, fill the remainder of jar with water.
Madder Root Powder — (Note: I did purchase this dye material although if you are growing madder, you could harvest and dry your own.) Two tablespoons dried dye, one teaspoon of alum, one quart of water.
Black Walnut — Black walnut is high in tannin which acts as a natural mordant. Use fresh black walnut hulls for best results. Four to five black walnut hulls, one quart of water.
Hibiscus Petal Tea — Hibiscus and Pokeberry are sensitive to heat, which makes them great candidates for solar dyeing wool. You don’t run the risk of overheating the dye and having it turn brown. One large teabag (makes a one-gallon pitcher of tea), half a cup of vinegar, and fill the remainder of jar with water.
Steps for Solar Dyeing Wool
Mix the dyes in quart jars. Place in a sunny location. You can aid the sun by lining a cardboard box with foil and placing the jars in the box in direct sun. If you have a solar oven, you can place the jars in this but keep a close eye on the temperature. Solar ovens can reach very high temperatures. Avoid extremely high temperatures since boiling the dye can lead to browner shades of dyes. I allowed the dyes to steep in the sun for three hours.
After the dyes have steeped, get ready to add the yarn skeins. If you have loose dye material floating in the jar, such as the turmeric powder, you can strain the dye through a coffee filter if you choose. This will help in the rinsing phase but is not necessary.
Re-wet the skeins of pre-mordanted yarn. Gently squeeze out the extra water. Carefully push the yarn into the dye jar. Using a wooden spoon can help as the yarn accepts the dye water. Recap the jar and place the jar back in the sun. I left my jars to sit for two hours. You can let them sit longer, even a few days. Remember, each dye will react differently and is affected by the amount of sun available, the time of year, and the heat in the air.
Rinsing the Dyed Yarns
I use a colander to hold the yarn as the dye is poured out. If you are interested in using the dye again for an exhaust bath of color, pull the yarn out and gently squeeze the excess dye back into the jar. Some dyes can have an excess color that could be used to obtain a lighter shade with another skein.
Place the jars in the sink to work. Rinse the yarn in cool water, until no more color is running from the wool. Gently squeeze out the excess water. Lay a dry towel out on a flat surface. Lay the dyed skeins on the towel to dry.
Safety Precautions When Solar Dyeing Wool
Take care to not splash the dye in your eyes. Even natural dyes for wool can be irritating. Eye protection is always a good idea when experimenting.
If you have sensitive lungs or asthma, wearing a safety mask might be a precaution to consider. Even though the substances used are plant-based, some can be irritating.
Remember that the sun can heat liquids to a very warm temperature. Use caution with small children handling the jars.
The fun part of solar dyeing wool is the varied colors and intensity you will see. Use your imagination and the steps provided to try some other natural dyes. What natural dyes do you use for solar dyeing wool? Let us know in the comments below.