Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dyeing with Weld and Indigo

This last week my daughter and I went to another Wooly Wednesday in my friend Leticia's back yard. It was a wonderful afternoon playing in the colors! Leticia is a master gardener, and has dye plants growing. She needed to harvest her weld, and let us help.

Of course, when you visit her back yard, you really need to take a tour of what she has going currently, and say hello to the chickens. She had them penned up this time, so they wouldn't jump in our laps to see what we were up to. Hello, Ladies!

Then we put our yarn and roving in to some water to pre-soak while we got to work.

Leticia and Rose went back to the corner garden.

This is the plant they were looking for. Weld looks kind of like a weed, but has been a prized dye plant for centuries. It was used in Medieval Europe, but was known at least as far back as the 1st century AD, when it was mentioned as a dye plant by the Greek writer Dioscorides.

They cut the leaves off the plant, and then we tore it up into bits. It felt kind of like we were making salad, except we weren't going to be eating this mess of greens.

We tossed the weld salad in a stock pot, filled it with water, added alum, and set it on the stove to simmer for a half hour or so.

Then Leticia pulled out a bucket that was left over from a class on indigo dyeing that she took last October, I think she said. She removed the lid, and we peered inside. Down at the bottom of the clear water were particles of blue.

She put that pot on the stove to simmer too, adding a tablespoon of this stuff to revitalize the pot.

Then we gabbed and spun yarn and toured the garden and generally killed time while the magic happened on the stove.

After awhile, we remembered that we were supposed to be playing in the colors, not just trading stories and goofing off. We took the lid off of the indigo pot first. There was a yellow/green tinge to the water, and an iridescent purple sheen on the surface. That was what we were looking for!

We dipped yarn into the pot, swirled it gently to make sure it all got wet in the dye bath, and pulled it right back out again. Sure enough, we got to watch it turn blue right before our eyes as the indigo oxidized in the air. I love indigo! Pretty soon we had some beautiful skeins of yarn dripping dry on a nearby tree.

Then it was time for the weld. We strained the leaves out, and found that the water had turned a vibrant yellow/green color.

The leaves went into another bath of water to simmer again, to make a lighter color dye bath. That left the first pot of dye open for business. In went the yarn to simmer for awhile. If you notice, in this picture one skein is dangling over the side of the pot. That is my sock yarn. I dunked it in the weld pot for about 2/3 of the skein.

Then I flipped the skein over, and dunked it about 2/3 of the way into the indigo pot. (You can dye indigo over other colors, but don't try it the other way around. Putting indigo dyed yarn into the weld would contaminate the weld pot.)

Yellow + blue = green, right? I ended up with a beautiful variegated skein of sock yarn. I can't wait to see how it will crank up.

I also made some solid colored skeins, which will be stripes in a hand woven scarf. On the left is the indigo dyed skein. On the right is the weld dyed skein. The middle skein is indigo over weld. Can you believe that all three of these colors are appropriate to the Medieval time frame? No, they didn't all dress is in drab earth tones.

By this time, our planned projects were dyed, and we still had color left in the pots. So we went a little crazy, dyeing anything we could get our hands on: cotton head scarves...

...arming caps...

roving for spinning...

...and even long suffering dogs who happened by at just the wrong time. Yes, her tail ended up lightly blue. But at least we made sure the pot was cool to the touch before she got dunked in.

My daughter snapped this shot of me with my afternoon's work. The lighter color blue skeins were from the indigo pot after we had dyed several object in it. You can get several different shades from the same pot as the color becomes exhausted.

In fact, here are the skeins from Estrella and from this Wooly Wednesday hanging in my studio window. From left to right: cochineal shifted with vinegar, cochineal, indigo, exhausted indigo, exhausted indigo over semi-exhausted weld, indigo over weld, cutch, exhausted cutch, weld, and exhausted weld.
Aren't they beautiful? Natural dyes are wonderful fun to play with!


  1. Yes, these are really beautiful!! I've never dyed with natural dyes--wish you lived closer! :D xo Cait

  2. *goes over to blog to check...* Yes, New York might be just a tad far to pop over for a Wednesday dye day. But if you ever get out this way, we can play!