Natural dyeing and mordanting cotton fabric + avocado dye

It has been a while since I have written here! I have been using this blog a lot though as an notebook I go back to when I need to fresh my memory on some natural dyeing I have done. Just because I have not written here doesn’t mean I have not done any natural dyeing life just has been really busy. I have been active on my Instagram though @_theeasyblues_. Lately I have done more cellulose fabric dyeing and eco printing and I’m experimenting with some new things at the moment. I though it would be good to write them down here, so I can come back to them when I need to, and if someone else finds them useful even better.

I think mordanting fabrics and yarn before dyeing is important, so that the fiber will take the dye in better and that the colours will be brighter and last longer. Some colours are okay without mordanting but some really need that extra boost. I have done a post about how I mordant wool yarn with alum before, I will put a link here. I do the almost the same mordanting with alum to cotton, but because cotton is an cellulose fiber it will need some tannin to work better. There are many ways of mordanting cellulose fiber, what I use is tara powder which made from the seeds of a tara plant native to Peru and it has lots of tannin in it. I think some people use soymilk and iron also has natural tannin in it as well.

The following instructions to using tara powder are from Finnish Riihivilla online shop website where I buy my tara powder from.

200g of tara powder is enough to mordant 1kg of cellulose fiber fabric (cotton, hemp, linen) together with alum. I first mordant with tara powder and then with alum. Tara powder will give a small hint of beige to the fabric, but I have never found that to be a problem.

I dissolve the tara powder into 60°C water. I pre soak the fabric in water before adding them into the pot. Make sure there is enough water for the fabric to move around. I let the temperature rise to 90°C and then keep it there for an hour and let the fabric lie in the water until its cooled down, usually until the next day. I rinse the fabric carefully. After this I mordant with alum. Keep in mind that you need douple the amount of alum to cellulose fiber than wool (20g/100g of material). Its good to remember to weight the fabric dry before you soak it in water, I have done that mistake couple of times in the past. You can use the tara powder liquid for the second time and this time add only half of the amount of powder you used before.

And then on to dyeing! Dyeing cotton really doesn’t differ from dyeing wool much so all of the posts that I have done about dyeing wool yarn with different things will work fine. Lately I have been loving dyeing with avocado skins. I have used this very usefull post from Rebecca Desnos.  This post has really good tips on how to get really good pinks from avocado skins. She uses soy mordanting. I really need to read her book to learn more about that!


I have been very specific about cleaning the skins from the flesh really good to get bright colours. I also made the mistake of storing my avocado skins in a glass jar (they go moldy) so now I store them in a cardboard box. I also checked the ph levels in our tap water and made it more neutral with some baking soda. I have gotten nice pinks, but like always with natural dyeing you can never know exactly what you will get. Above I have two different pinks from two different times. I’m also writing about eco printing at the moment. Lets see if I can keep up this documenting thing!

Natural Dyeing: Colours from the Supermarket

This is the second part of my roundup of all the different natural dyes I have been experimenting on during the past year. The first part was about collecting yourself from the nature, but not everybody has the luxury of getting to collect from nature themself’s.  There are a lot of choices in the normal supermarkets as well. I love dyeing outside on the open fire when I´m at our summer cottage, but most of the time I live in small flat in the city. All you really need is a large pot that is used only for natural dyeing, strainer, some mordants like alum, kitchen weigh, maybe a thermometer and a visit to a supermarket.
from the kitchen

Onion skins are probably the best know source of colour and I think they are pretty amazing. There is so much pigment in the skins and the colours are really strong and varied. I tried both regular onion skins and red onion skins.  Black beans where an interesting experiment. There where some hits and misses but the blue colours where beautiful, you can read about part one and two here and here. Turmeric was a very spontaneous experiment and the colour came out strong. Beetroot and red gabbage where interesting but the colours are sadly fugitive. What should I try next?

bought from the shops

I also did some online shopping and bought walnut shellsmadder powder and cochineal. The colours are pretty, but for some reason the dyeing process is not a satisfying for me if I just order things online. It’s a lot more fun to make the dye yourself. I quess I love the hunt.

Natural dyeing: Early Bird Gets the Worm

The spring is on it’s way and I know that it’s much further away in other parts of the world that are more south. Spring and the early summer are ideal time for natural dyeing. When you are collecting different leaves and plants that’s when you get the strongest, the most vibrant colours. Snatch the plant’s early in the growing season.

In Finland the best time to collect plants is around the end of May and the beginning of June. Sadly this year I’m going to totally miss this time, because in this month I’m going on a road trip across the US and I wont be back to Finland until the end of June. But that’s okay because I couldn’t be more exited about the trip. This doesn’t stop me from giving tips to other people. I thought that I would look back at my first year of natural dyeing and all the different things I have used in dyeing. To this first part I have collected the things that I collected from the nature myself.

greens from the leaves

Yellow is the easiest colour to achieve with natural dyes. I think that most green leaves and plants give yellow colour (not all and some more than others). Most greens that I have got (above) are green because I have used grey yarn instead of white.  Only exception is the lupine, the yarn was originally white and the colour turned out pale green. I have seen an almost neon green/yellow colour from lupines that where picked up early in the summer. As I said earlier the better. The birch leaves and the heather where dyed early in the summer, meadowsweet, fireweed and cow parsley much later. Obviously other factors have a lot to do with the end results, like where the plant has grown, in what kind of soil and how much you collect them. Natural dyeing is not exact science.

colours of earth

I got some lovely brown colours from lichen and juniper bark. Every country has their own laws, in Finland you need to ask permission from the land owner if you are going to collect moss, lichen or subshruds such as heather. Everything else you can collect from where ever you want, but it’s good to respect nature anyway. I was very lucky that the back yard of our summer cottage offers lots of different kids of plants to use. When the fall came I went to the woods to hunt cortinarius semisanguineus also known as suprise webcap. The colour that you get from them is so pretty! I want to find more of them next fall. I also need to find an old and mossy spruce forest so I can find bloodred webcaps. And I feel that I’m going to experiment with mushrooms more in general.

Natural Dyeing: Cochineal

A couple of weeks ago I dyed some yarn using cochineal. I did try cochineal a year ago, but I used the powder and this time I used whole dried cochineal bugs.

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I had now idea how to use these so I followed instructions from Riihivilla blog, I bought the cochineal from Leenas web shop and she has written a really comprehensive and detailed blog post about it (read it here) both Finnish and English and I’m not going to repeat it here. In short cochineal is an insect that has been used for centuries in dyeing things red, it originates from South-America. You can get it also in powder form, but as Leena says in her blog post it’s easier to clean up the equipment when you use whole dried ones and after trying both I agree. Cochineal has a lot of pigment in it and with the powder everything tends to get red. Plus I think using the dried bugs is more interesting although maybe also a bit more gross.

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The dried out bugs interest a curious cat who interrupts my photo-shoot session.

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With the whole cochineal bugs you have to let them soak in hot water overnight to  maximize the colour. You can get the exact measurements from Leenas blog. The other thing I found interesting is the fact that when dyeing with cochineal you should actually use quite high temperatures unlike with madder. I usually keep the temperature under 80 °C so the wool yarn will not suffer. This time I forgot to monitor the temperature and the dye bath actually started boiling. The yarn was okay though and before when the temperature was lower the colour of the yarn was definitely more orange. I guess the red pigments fix to the fibers in higher temperatures.

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I used the dye bath for a second time and got a lighter pink colour. After this I could clearly see that I wasn’t going to get anymore colour out of the dye bath. It was very neat and clean, just shift the cochineal bugs away, give the pot a little wash and your done. I took another good advice from Leenas blog and I let the yarns dry first before rinsing them, she says that that way the colour sticks better to the yarn.

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Natural Dyeing: Red Onion Skins

January has been a very busy month for me and I haven’t had time to do anything creative. I’m hoping that things will change in February. I did have time for one experiment though. I did dye with normal onion skins last summer (read about it here) but I didn’t try red onion skins until now. I heard that the colour you get from them is green. I think mine turned out more brownish with a hint of yellow.

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You need a quite a lot of onion skins if you want to dye yarn with them. I don’t eat that much onions so I headed to a big supermarket. I know that they have these boxes underneath the onions where all the onion skins will drop. I asked from the saleswomen if I could get them for myself as they are going to the trash anyway. She was very helpful and I got three plastic bags full of normal onion skins and one with red onion skins. The cashier did give me a very curious look when I turned up with my treasures, I think I’m in danger of getting a bit of a crazy reputation.

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In the end I had 65 g of red onion skins that I put into a pot, added some water and let them soak for a day. Then I boiled the skins in the same water for two hours and forgot the skins for another day. Then I shifted the skins away and added some yarn.

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I used 50 g of 100% wool yarn that I had previously mordanted with alum and the cream of tartar. I kept the temperature under 80 °C. I think the colour is a bit olive. It’s weird because the yarn looks greenish in daylight, but brown in electric light, that’s natural dye for you.

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Into the same pot I threw in a tiny bit of unmordanted wool to see the difference. And that yarn is definitely more reddish brown colour.

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I forgot the dye bath for couple of days and though that I try to dye some more yarn in it. This yarn was also premordanted with alum and the cream of tartar. I accidentally let the temperature get higher then with the previous one. Wool doesn’t really like temperatures that are too hot but the colour turned out stronger and browner then the first one. I think I could have tried to dye more but I ran out of yarn.

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Natural Dyeing: Madder

It’s the New Year and it’s time to say goodbye to Christmas decorations (which I still haven’t had time to clear out). I did the first natural dyeing experiment of 2015 using madder powder. I have used it couple of times to give a little kick to some other dye baths but I have never dyed just with it. Madder powder is made from madder roots which is one of the oldest sources of natural dyes. I’ve heard that it’s possible to grow it in southern Finland. Some day when I have a garden I will give it a try.

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I had a small sample piece and a recipe I followed. I dyed 100 g of 100% wool yarn. I had mordanted the yarn previously with alum and the cream of tartar. I put 10 litres of water into a big pot and added 20 grams of madder powder in it. I added the wet yarn to the pot and let it stay in the pot for 1 hour. I kept the temperature quite low around 60-70°C.

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I was expecting more of an orange colour but the end result is actually pink. But that is the interesting part with madder. Apparently with low temperatures you get more red colours and with higher temperatures more yellows and browns. I tried to reuse the bye bath, but the colour was not getting very strong so I added more madder powder into it. I want to have another try to get orange/brow with madder with using higher temperatures.  Although I really like this pink colour aswell.

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Experiments and Woolen Socks

I have been interested in the lightfastness of natural dyes for a while. I have understood that all natural dyes are somewhat fugitive but that some are more than others. And with fugitive I mean that time and light will fade the colours. I wanted to see this with my own eyes, so I did a little experiment. Now this experiment is not the most scientific and I probably should have done it in summer time when there is actually natural light in Finland. In the end of September I collected some samples of the yarns I had dyed naturally. I covered half of the yarn stripes with cardboard and left the other half bare. The samples have been facing “the sun” (there is not a lot of sun at the moment here) on our balcony for about two months now.

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And these are the results here. I’m not sure how much you will be able to tell from these photos, but basically the left side is the one that has been covered. Black beans and beet root are the ones where you can really see the difference. Lupine, birch leaves, heather, onion skins and lichen have not faded away. Surprisingly also red cabbage is pretty much the same as before after two months. I thought that it would be the first one to fade away.  Other than that the results are pretty much what I expected. I’m a little sad about the fact that the colour from the black beans fades so quickly. I should probably repeat this experiment again in summer time when the conditions are more “extreme”.

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In other news I knitted my first pair of woollen socks in over ten years. I discovered that knitting a heel is not like riding a bike. I think that the pattern I used is different from the way I learned to knit a heel in school (also I’m not very good at following instructions, I tend to do thing my way which is not always the right way.)  I had some struggles with these socks, but I feel like I have now done all the mistakes and the next pair will be  an improvement.

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I used the yarn that I dyed with lupine in the beginning of the summer to knit this pair. I really like the colour and these socks are warm and cosy just in time for winter. I went for a really simple striped pattern. For my next pair I want to do something a little bit more creative, I’m thinking of some kind of fair Isle pattern and I still need to properly tackle that that bloody heel!

(I modified the pattern a little bit but the original pattern for these socks is from a Finnish sewing/knitting magazine. Suuri Käsityö Lehti Marras-joulukuu 2004)

Natural Dyeing: Walnut shells

This experiment has been a long one. It started a month ago when I bought these crushed walnut shells from Riihivilla Web Shop. Leena has a wonderful online shop and a very informative blog about natural dyeing (also in English). The instructions said to soak the walnuts for a month before dyeing, apparently it takes a long time for walnut shells to release colour. So I did soak them for a month and quite soon the walnuts started to ferment ( I think). I wouldn’t recommend doing what I first did; I put the walnuts into a plastic container and closed it with a lid. It’s a good thing I did check on them every once in a while because pretty soon the whole thing would have exploded. So no air-thigh containers. I learned that just in time. Also after a month the smell is pretty strong.

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After a month of soaking the shells, I sifted the walnut crust away and dyed 100 g of unmordanted labswool yarn. Apparently walnut contains tannin which is nature’s own mordant and using alum as mordant would not make the colour stronger, in fact just the opposite. I kind of forgot to boil the walnut shells before dyeing the yarn and that’s why my first try was lighter than my second try  where I added the walnut shells to the dye and boiled the dye for one hour.

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To dye the third skein (bottom right) I used the dye again and the result was the same as the first colour. I read that if you add an iron after bath you could get the colour even stronger. I have to try that sometime.

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Natural Dyeing: Turmeric

I recently read a blog post by Mari at Gather and Grow, she had dyed with turmeric using solar dyeing and without any mordants. I had a look around in my spice rack and found a jar of turmeric powder that had expired four years ago. I decided to have a go with that. I used mordanted wool because that’s what I happened to have (alum and cream of tartar) and I also used heat. I heated the water and mixed the turmeric powder into it. When I added the wet yarn the dye immediately dyed the yarn and I only let the yarn be at the dye for 15 minutes. I used the the dye again and dyed another 100 g skein of wool and it came out exactly the same colour. Turmeric is strong stuff! I feel like a much less turmeric would have been enough and that I could still dye a lot of yarn with the dye. I have it saved it case I want more. The only downside is that the smell stays quite strong in the yarn, even though I rinsed it a lot.

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Natural Dyeing: Mushrooms (Webcaps)

There is a one area of natural dyeing that I haven’t tried yet and that is mushroom dyeing. I have never liked eating mushrooms and so I have never been really interested in mushroom picking. Also that is why I’m pretty bad at naming different types of mushrooms. Chanterelle and  fly amanita  where the ones I knew for sure before my great mushroom adventure.

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I have been reading a lot about mushroom dyeing lately and I have been especially interested in different cortinarius species (webcaps).  These mushrooms are not edible, in fact most of them are poisonous and some are even lethal but for dyeing they are excellent. In the end of September I packed my bags and traveled to my parents place where there is a lot more forest and asked my dad to show me his best mushroom places. And this is what I found:

Cortinarius semisanguineus (In Finnish: verihelttaseitikki)

This is the bad boy that I most wanted to find. In Finnish its name means “the blood gill webcap” which pretty much sums its appearance up. Wikipedia says that in English it’s called either surprise webcap or red-gilled webcap.

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At first it was very difficult to recognize it, but towards the end I got pretty good at spotting it. All webcaps have this little tip at their hat, many of them look similar from above, but when you turn them over you can check from the colour of the gills which one it is. In this case the gills are blood red although they turn more brow when older. The stem is firm and at the bottom it has a hint of red. This red-gilled webcap is an interesting dyeing mushroom because the hat contains red colour and the stem yellow. So you can have two colours from one mushroom or mix them up and make orange! In Finland these mushrooms grow in pine forests and I noticed that I could find more of them from dryer spots.

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Cortinarius cinnamomeus (In Finnish. Kanelihelttaseitikki)

I’m pretty sure these mushrooms are cinnamon webcaps. They like to hang out at the same places as the red-gilled webcaps do. They also look very similar to them except for the cinnamon brown colour. They are more common that red-gilled webcaps so I found quite a lot of them. I heard that you are supposed to get brownish colour from them, but either my source is wrong or I didn’t pick the right mushrooms, because I don’t think I got any colour from these. Now I don’t even remember where I read about these.

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Cortinarius sanguineus (In Finnish: veriseitikki)

I was so surprised to find these bloodred webcaps. They are named so because they are completely red, you can’t mistake them to anything else . I heard that this has not been a good year for them (too dry) and that they are more common in the more northern parts of Finland than here in the south. And that might be true as I only found seven of them. Mostly they were hiding under fir trees as they like to grow in old fir tree forests. This is amazing webcap, it gives out an amazingly strong colours.  Apparently only 33 g of dried bloodred webcap will dye 100 g of yarn and even 5 g will get you a pink colour. Sadly I didn’t find enough of these to have a try.

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 Cortinarius croseus (In Finnish keltahelttaseitikki)

I also found a few saffron webcaps which have yellow gills. The mushroom is yellowish overall and surprise, surprise you can also get yellow colour from them. I only found a few of these.

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I have understood that most of these species are European and some of them grown also in North-America. Correct me if I’m wrong. I mostly found cinnamon webcaps and red-gilled webcaps and I quickly realised, that you need quite a lot of mushrooms for dyeing, several kilograms. Because the mushrooms need to be dried before dyeing the weight decreases considerably. Unfortunately I wasn’t very lucky with the amount of mushrooms I found.

First I chopped the mushrooms into little pieces (the smaller the pieces the quicker they dry) and laid them on newspapers (some kind of airy net would have been better). You can use ovens or boiler rooms or even special vegetable dryers for dryeing but I used a sauna (being Finnish). Apparently you shouldn’t use too hot temperatures, I lifted the temperature to 40 °C and then let the sauna cool off.  The mushrooms dried quite quickly over night. I must say though that the smell of the drying mushrooms is not the nicest. In the end I ended up with 26 g of dried  red-gilled webcaps together with the few bloodred webcaps I found. I also got 44 g of what I though where cinnamon webcaps.

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For dyeing I used a large 10 liter pot. I put the dried webcaps on the bottom and added little water (apparently the colour will dissolve better like this then with lot of water).  I boiled the mushrooms for 30 minutes and after that I sifted the mushrooms away from the dye.  I added water to the dye so that in the end I had 5 liter of dye. I had some lambswool yarn that I had mordanted with alum and cream of tartar beforehand.  I wet that yarn and squished most of the water away and then added the yarn to the dye bath. I put the mushrooms inside old tights (pantyhose) and added them also to the dye. I used thighs so that the mushrooms would not be in direct contact with the yarn and make the colour uneven. I kept the temperature below 80 °C and kept moving the yarn every once in a while for one hour.

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This is the colour that I got from the red-gilled webcaps, 26 g of them dyed 100 g of lambswool. I really really love this colour and I think its gorgeous. Very similar to the yarn I dyed with beetroot.

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The cinnamon webcaps didn’t work so well. I did exactly the same thing with them, but I noticed that I wasn’t getting any colour out of them so I added to the dye the leftovers from the red-gilled webcap dye. I think that is where the most of the colour really came from.

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Most of the information I found about mushroom dyeing I got from a Finnish mushroom dyeing book (Sienivärjäys) written by Anna-Karoliina Tetri. She has an online shop where she sells all kinds of things you need for natural dyeing and she has written several books  on the subject (in Finnish). I met her briefly last spring before my natural dyeing adventures started and her shop is where I bought the alum and stuff to get started with all of this. Visit her web shop Tetri Design here.

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I feel like I might need to point out one thing. I know that there are people from all around the world who read my blog and I have understood that in some countries it’s illegal to do mushroom picking or it’s regulated. However in Finland and other Scandinavian countries as well as Baltic countries we have a thing called “every man’s right” or “freedom to roam”.

In Finland this means that it is every man’s (or woman’s) right to walk, ski or camp in nature as long as you don’t disturb people or destroy nature. You are also allowed to pick berries and mushrooms as long as they are not protected species. I’m now talking about both public and privet forests and also National parks with the exception or protected lands. It’s prohibited to collect moss or lichen without permission from the owner though. I mention this because I wanted to make sure my mushroom picking is all right and actually very popular hobby in Finland. The best thing about mushroom dyeing was the part were I walked in the forest, enjoyed the nature and found places I otherwise would have never found. 

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