This is going to be a bit different post from my previous ones. I do do other things in life as well as natural dyeing, although this particular hobby of mine has a lot to do with plants as well. I live in the city, but I’m a country girl at heart. Someday I would love to own a real garden but for now I have to make do with my balcony. In the beginning of the summer my flatmate and I started a project “city garden” and gave our balcony a makeover. I wish I would have a before picture but maybe it’s enough to say that the primary use of the balcony was to storage extra stuff. We wanted to have nice place to relax, maybe read a book and place where we could grow our own herbs.
I think we managed to do a pretty good job but not everything went according to plan. Before this summer I hadn’t realised that our balcony is quite shady. There was plenty of light in the spring but after the huge birch tree right outside our window got leaves, there was less and less light. On top of it all June was a very gloomy and a rainy month and that’s how most of the plants I had planted from the seed tragically died. Only the strongest ones survived and even those have suffered. It’s really hard to get anything to bloom on our balcony. Fortunately at least some of our herbs survived even though they are not even the half the size they were in the beginning of the summer. It’s so nice to use fresh herbs in cooking though.
My flatmate build a climbing tree for her cats from these old branches. Our balcony has glass windows so the cats can spend time here too, which they like to do very much. I had this idea of a vine growing up the tree trunk and it did kind of work. I grew these runner beans from the seed and they were one of the only plants to survive the gloomy June. They are still suffering a bit and they did not bloom at all, there was not enough light. The flower in the birdcage has done all right by the window. I believe that it’s called Sutera cordata ’Snowflake’ (lumihiutale in Finnish). It’s been blooming alright the whole summer but not so much anymore. The grey balcony carpet has been really great because the concrete floor feels really cold even in summer and the pillows make the place even more comfortable. It’s nice to have a nap here or read a book. I really feel we have used this small space well this summer.
Early in the spring I started dreaming about this kind of ladder where I could grow the herbs. These ladders can be quite pricey though (for a student budged). Luckily my dad is very handy and he build this ladder for me out of old windowsills. I love it!
So this is our little summer city garden. There have been good moments and sad moments with it. Have you got any experience with a shady balcony garden? What kind of plants would you recommend?
There was one small juniper tree that had come to the end of its journey growing at our yard. I was interested to try what kind of colour I could get from its bark. Stripping the trunks was surprisingly easy. All I really needed to do was to pull the bark out with my bare hands. I let the bark soak in water for one day before boiling it for one hour. Rest of the process was similar to dyeing with lupine (read about it here.) Boiling juniper bark smells really good! I’m serious, if somebody develops a juniper scented perfume I’m the first one to buy it! The colour was pretty too.
I think this brown colour is really pretty. All the yarns I used are wool yarns and were mordanted beforehand with alum.
I reused the dye for the second time but added madder powder into it . This gave the yarn it’s redness.
I did a little weekend trip to the summer cottage and dyed with heather for the second time. I was curious to see what the difference is when I use heather from the beginning of June and from late August.
I don’t think this is the most scientific of experiments, but I did collect heather from the same place I collected the last time and I also used the same wool yarn. The yarn on the right is from the early June and the one on the left is from the middle of August. The colour was definitely more intensive in June, but the second colour is still beautiful.
I also coloured grey wool yarn and the result was beautiful green colour. Heather has quickly become one of my favourite plats to use in natural dyeing.
I have noticed that this Norwegian wool yarn (Viking Naturgarn) repeats the colours really beautifully. I mordanted the yarn beforehand with alum (read about it here). Before starting to boil the heather I let it soak in the water overnight, after that the process was similar to dyeing with lupine (read about it here.)
Dyeing with lichen differs from the ”normal way” of plant dyeing. It’s kind of like making a trifle. I have tried dyeing with lichen before, but I used the kind you find in trees and I found that the results where pale and more greenish. Using lichen from the rocks is a different story, I really loved the colour. Now I’m must say that I’m really bad at identifying different kind of lichen. I just collected “a lichen cocktail” from all the different kinds of lichen I could find. I think in dyeing the most commonly used lichen is called kiventierra in Finnish. If anyone can tell me how these following lichen are called, either in Finnish or English, I would be very interested to know!
Useful tip for collecting lichen from rocks (or from trees): It’s best to do it on wet weather, preferably when it has just rained. Dry lichen does not want to let go of the rock. You can also create fake rain by using spray bottle and that will make collecting easier.
As I said the dyeing technique is like making a trifle. Take a pot and make the first layer with lichen then add a layer of yarn, then lichen and so on. In the end the yarn should be completely covered in lichen and in direct contact with it. Then add enough water so that the water almost covers the top layer.
I brought the water to a boil and after that lowered the temperature. You don’t want to keep temperature too hot because the wool yarn might get damaged. I dyed the yarn for two hours. I’m not going to lie – the smell was interesting and I was happy I was working outside, but the result was beautiful. The difficult part is to clean up all the rubbish from the yarn. The last part is to rinse the yarn in cold water.
As I said the result was a beautiful reddish brown colour. In fact I got so excited about my first try that I collected some more lichen and used a bit bigger 10 litre pot.
On the left you can see the colour I got from my second try. I saved the colour liquid from that batch and coloured the yarn on the right as normal by boiling the yarn in the colour liquid for one hour. The yarns I used here where wool yarns I had pre mordanted with alum. You can read my post about mordanting here.
I took class on natural dyeing in the beginning of the summer and I though I share some of the things I dyed there. All of the plants I used for the colouring where collected in the beginning of June. Beginning of the summer is a great time for plant dyeing because the colours are more vibrant the earlier it is in the plants growing season (at least here in the north). The yarns I used where all 100% wool yarns and they were mordanted with alum. Read about mordanting here.
I used about 280 g of heather and dyed 108 g of wool yarn. First I soaked the heather in water over night. Then I boiled the heather in the same water for two hours. After that I dyed the yarn by boiling it in the sifted colour liquid for one hour.
For these yarns I used the liquid dye that was made out of onion skins. This was the third time that liquid was used. I added 3 g of madder powder and 1 g of cream of tartar to the liquid and I dyed 40 g of yarn. This really brightens the orange colour up. Check out my post for dyeing with onion skins here.
I used 319 g of birch tree leaves and dyed 73 g of wool yarn. You do need a quite a lot of leaves for dyeing a lot of yarn. I boiled the leaves in water for two hours and then I dyed the yarn by boiling it in the sifted colour liquid for one hour. To get a bright green colour like this, it’s important to use early leaves from the beginning of the summer.
Before I started experimenting with plant dyeing I needed to mordant the yarns I was going to use. I collected all the white and grey coloured wool yarns I could find from my own closets and from the storage room of my childhood home. Some of the yarns where really old. I think that some of the curly ones are from my late aunt’s collections. The yarn might be from a pullover that was unraveled, so it could be made in to new things (everything needed to be saved).
Most of the yarn I used was 100 % wool yarn which is perfect for natural dyeing. Wool and silk absorb natural colour the best. In my experience cotton and linen and more difficult to dye, protein fibers work the best. Do you have any experiences with different materials? I noticed that there is a huge difference in how different kinds of yarns react to natural dyes.
But back to mordanting. Why is it important to do mordanting? This step is to ensure that the colour will stick to the yarn better and that it will be stronger. I wanted to pre mordant the yarn, because I have heard that the results are better that way. It’s also possible to mordant the yarn at the same time as dyeing it. But I think it is handy to get this step out of the way so I can concentrate into more fun parts of natural dyeing. First I winded the yarn into skeins and tried my best to keep them from tangling too much.
I used this very large pot that we use to boil water at our summer cottage (I’m struggling to find an English word for it). The amount of alum is always around 10% of the weight of the dry yarn. I had 1 kg of yarn so I added 100 g of alum. I let it dissolve into small amount of lukewarm water and then mixed it with the rest of the water. I made a mintage here with the amount of water, it should be 5 litres of water towards 100 g of yarn. I didn’t use enough water but it seemed to work anyway. I soaked the yarn in water beforehand so it was wet when I added it into the pot. I brought the water to a boil and after that kept the temperature at around 80 °C. Wool yarn does not like to be boiled and boiling can also evaporate the alum into the air when the alum should be absorbed into the yarn. I just checked that the water was not bubbling and let the yarn stay in the pot for one hour. It’s important to stir the yarn every now and then to ensure an even distribution of alum.
The weather was as grey as the yarn I was working with and it also started raining, but I got the deed done. I dried the yarn for later use, but I always soak the yarn in water to make sure it’s evenly wet before adding it to the colour liquid, that way the dyeing result is going to be even.
There are other things one can use for mordanting than alum, but I like alum because it doesn’t change the colour of the yarn the way iron or copper do. Unless that’s what you want to do. Copper changes the colour into more greenish and iron brownish colour. Later I discovered that many people also use cream of tartar together with alum. Cream of tartar should help the alum dissolve better into the water and to absorb better into the yarn. Live and learn! Next time I’ll do things differently but even so I think my way worked fine as well. Have you got any mordanting experiences? What has worked for you?
Ps. Make sure that the pots and other tools you use for mordanting and dyeing are only for dyeing not for cooking.
I think onion skinss are amazing. It’s incredible how much colour they have in them. I used about 115 grams of onion skins to dye these yarns. I got the skins for free from my local supermarket. I might have gotten couple of strange looks while I was going through the onion box, collecting loose onion shells but it was definitely worth it.
I let the onion shells soak in water for one day before boiling them (in the same water) for two hours. For dyeing I used a variation of old wool yarns that I had mordanted earlier with alum. After shifting the dye bath I boiled the wool yarn in the dye bath for one hour (I kept the temperature at about 80 °C). After that I rinsed the yarn. Onion tends to release a lot of excess colour so it’s good to add some vinegar to the last rinsing water. I used wool yarns that I had previously mordanted with alum.
The first yarns on the left are from the first dyeing batch (88 g). I saved the dyeing liquid and dyed another batch of yarn in it(100 g). This batch is the yellow one in the middle. After that I used the colour liquid for the third time but added one teaspoon of madder powder and half a teaspoon of cream of tartar. These are the yarns on the right(77 g).
I think this is a good example of how different yarn qualities effect the dyeing result. I used both white and grey coloured yarns. With white yarn I got lighter oranges and yellows and with grey yarn stronger oranges and greens. I used ordinary onion shells but I also want to try red onion shells. I hear you can get a beautiful green from them. Has anybody tried red onion skins?