As a spinner and knitter, I have also edged into natural dyeing in recent years. I am fortunate to live in a place where sources for natural dyes are ample. However, I have struggled to find clear step by step instructions for how to dye with specific plants. I think a lot of dyers have just experimented with what they have for centuries and hope for nice results without a formal equation or step-by-step guide.
In an effort to make natural dyeing a bit more tangible for those who are intimidated by experimentation (I’m one of those people), I offer here the process I used to dye some wool yarn using juniper. Juniper is a great plant for a beginning natural dyer because it is usually an abundant and easy to identify plant where it grows and it does not require a mordant, which simplifies the dyeing process. I put together this process using information I gleaned from Wild Color and A Garden to Dye For.
- Fiber to dye (I used wool)
- Plant field guide for your region to help you correctly identify juniper (or a person who knows)
- Non-reactive dye pot (not something you cook in–I used an old enamel-coated lobster pot. You could also use stainless steel.)
- Long non-reactive spoon (e.g. stainless steel)
- Fine mesh strainer
- Weigh the dry fiber you want to dye. Ultimately, you’ll want equal weights of juniper and fiber.
- Find an abundant source of juniper. No one should select any plant or plant part for natural dyeing that is not abundant. You’re going to aim for the new growth of the plant, so a good time to collect the tips of the plant is during the summer. I collected mine on August 5, 2017.
- Bring a basket, a scale, clippers, gloves, and a plant field guide if you need help identifying juniper. Juniper is sharp so protect your fiber art-making hands! There’s also no need to get more juniper than you need–bringing a scale ensures you get the right weight so you can stop clipping when you have enough.
4. Cut about three inches off the tips of the plant. This will give you the newest growth while still allowing the plant to keep growing in future years.
5. Chop up all the shoots into smaller pieces. This provides more surface area to extract the dye from
6. Double-check its weight to be sure you have the same weight as the dry fiber you’re going to dye.
7. Simmer. Put all the juniper in your pot and almost cover with water. Less water makes a more concentrated dye bath–you can dilute later if you want to. Let simmer for about an hour.
8. Meanwhile, prepare the fiber. Wash your fiber using a bit of dish soap (don’t overdo it). If you’re using wool, be careful to avoid felting. This can be accomplished by washing in cool or lukewarm water and not agitating the fiber.
9. After simmering juniper for an hour, strain. Pour through a fine mesh strainer, reserving the liquid.
10. Prepare your dye pot. This is where you have some experimenting room. If you like the color of your strained dye liquid, let it cool to room temperature. If you’d like a lighter color, you could add some cool water. I like bolder natural dyes to start as some can fade over time, so I did not add water. It’s important not to put wool straight into hot liquid or it can felt.
11. Dye. Put your washed and already wet fiber into the cooled dye bath. Slowly bring to a simmer and let simmer for at least a half hour–the longer you let it simmer, the more the color infiltrates the fiber. Be sure to stir the fiber (but do not agitate–this can cause felting) regularly. When it reaches the depth of color you like, turn off the heat and leave the pot covered overnight to encourage even more color to stick.
12. Remove fiber from dye bath. Fiber should not be hot at this point. Run it under cool water until the water runs clear. This can take awhile. But it’s worth the effort so you don’t bleed dye again when using and caring for this fiber!
13. Let dry out of direct sunlight. Outside in a shady, breezy spot is ideal. (The above yarn was in the sunshine just long enough for me to get good picture. It went back into the shade, I promise).
14. Use your beautiful fiber! See the darker variegation in the yarn at the bottom of this sweater? That’s where the fiber came in contact with rust due to chips in the enameled pot I was using–a neat effect!