only a madder of time

This post is a celebration of finally doing some dyeing on my own. I’ve taken a few classes on fiber properties and different types of dyes, and have experimented with natural dyes in a classroom setting, but only really enough to make sample swatches or yarn, and I think for some reason my brain was stuck thinking that dyeing had to be relegated to a formal studio. Stuck no more!

Madder Dye on Merino, Silk, Cotton Muslin
sneak peek: madder-dyed fibers

This dye project came out of necessity– in the sense that I needed a specific color and yarn to complete a holiday knitting project. A relative need, but I had a vision! I wanted to make a pair of Hearth Slipper socks for my partner and wanted them to be in lush, cozy Pioneer, the California merino collaboration between my local yarn/fiber shop A Verb for Keeping Warm and eco-textiles legend Sally Fox. AVFKW had a limited number of skeins and by the time I went to stock up for the socks, the red color was gone! I considered my options. A lovely pea green, rich mauve, heathered grayish brown, dark brown, natural white, but I couldn’t get the red out of my head. AVFKW sells packets of natural dyes and mordants, so in a moment of stubborn determination (and forgetting the already limited time I had to complete the socks by the holidays), I picked up a packet of madder and some alum.

Over the course of the next week I consulted Harvesting Color, plotted out the steps and set up involved, made a list of tools I needed, and decided to dye some more fiber to make good use of a whole vat. I chose to add some silk salvaged from a vintage dress that was damaged, and unbleached cotton muslin that was half-sewn into test garment.

Pioneer yarn and vintage silk before dyeing
vintage silk pieces & Pioneer yarn before dyeing

My steps for dyeing were roughly as follows:

1. gather tools and fiber
2. mordant and prepare fiber
3. create dye vat
4. dye fiber
5. wash and dry fiber

*safety note: aluminum acetate can irritate your lungs and nose, and even though natural dyes are plant derived they can be harmful when boiled and inhaled. I wore a bandana over my nose and mouth while working with any of the powdered materials, kept windows open for ventilation at all times, wore gloves, and marked all my instruments with tape so that I’ll never confuse them with kitchen gear.

To make all this possible, I needed a vessel. I headed to Goodwill hoping to find a large, clean pot. Jackpot: an unused and enormous canning pot, complete with jar rack. It was $20 and a little bigger than I had bargained for, but it seemed like the best option, and fellow shoppers had high praise (compliments, canning envy, and a vision to use it for making tamales). Back at home I filled the pot with enough water to submerge the protein fibers (silk and wool):

canning pot as dye vat

I decided to mordant the protein fibers first (wool and silk), because they needed the same mordant, alum, which required a hot bath. I did some quick math and referenced the recipe in Harvesting Color which recommended 10% of mordant per fiber weight. I had 2 oz of wool and 4 oz of silk = 6 oz of fiber, so I needed .6 oz alum, or about 3.6 tsp. Bring the vat of water to a boil, add the mordant and stir to dissolve it, then add the fiber and simmer for about an hour, stirring periodically to make sure everything is submerged:

wool and silk in mordant bath
steamy alum mordant bath

After an hour, you can remove your fibers from the mordant and rinse them. Here is one place I can do this better next time — when you rinse the fibers, you should try to recapture the water because it will have unbonded mordant which can be reused. Unfortunately I don’t have a good bucket or anything to hold extra mordant solution, so I just let it go down the drain. When you rinse you need to be careful not to “shock” the wool because a sharp change in temperature will cause it to felt. I let my fibers sit in the (empty) bath tub to cool down a bit, then when they had cooled enough to handle, I rinsed them in water that matched the fiber temperature. I hung them up to dry, and prepared a cold water mordant bath for the cotton.

Since cotton is a cellulosic fiber, not a protein fiber, it probably take much dye with alum as the mordant, so I got a packet of alum acetate, and referenced this website (see “aluminum acetate” section) as a guide. I seem to have lost the scrap of paper with my weight to mordant ratio calculations, but I do remember that filled an old salsa jar with hot tap water, stirred to dissolve the mordant, and then added that to the pot which was sitting in my bathtub filled with enough hot tap water to submerge the cotton. I stirred it around, put the lid over the pot, and let it sit overnight.

The next day, I prepared the dye vat. I wasn’t sure exactly how to work with the powdered madder because Harvesting Color has recipes and instructions for using fresh madder root, and a lot the websites I found talked about dried madder that still had chunks of root, for which they recommended you basically make a big tea bag and steep the dried root to release the dye. The madder I purchased (I think it may be this one) was ground finely and was a bright red color, so my instincts told me that it was already fairly processed and would release the dye readily. The dye packet said it contained 1 oz. madder which would dye 2 lbs. of fiber, and I had just under 1 lb. of fiber total, so I used a little less than half the packet (I had exact calculations on the lost scrap of paper…). I roughly followed these instructions though as I mentioned I skipped the “tea bag” method, so I basically just put the powdered madder into the pot of water and boiled it until the color had deepened (about an hour), then I let the dye rest for about 4 hours.

While the dye was resting I decided to try some shibori on the cotton to achieve some pattern on part of the muslin garment. I found a scrap of wood in my backyard and tightly wrapped the cotton with some scrap yarn (acrylic, a hand-me-down) and scrunched it down. The idea is to create stripes by exposing part of the fabric to the dye while part is covered by the yarn. Tension is key. Since this was a last-minute decision it could definitely have been planned better — in the past I’ve used wide pieces of PVC pipe to wrap the fabric around, and thin rope, and I think that yields better results. Please excuse the poor quality of this dimly-lit photo to illustrate the wrap-and-scrunch:

shibori tying process

Nearly 1200 words into this post and we are READY TO DYE! With the dye vat on the stovetop, I added the mordanted fiber:

adding fiber to the madder dye vat

The yarn kind of looks like spaghetti in the dye:

wool in madder dye vat

I got the silk and wool situated and submerged in the bath, then added the cotton, and then added the shibori experiment which was scrunched down on the wooden board as much as I could get it to scrunch. With the board leaning against the edge of the pot the dye vat wasn’t quite deep enough to cover the all of the cotton, so I raised the water level by filling two old spaghetti sauce jars with water, screwing on the lids, and placing them in the dye vat. I simmered the dye vat for about an hour, stirring and checking the color regularly, and then i decided to cut open the shibori piece so that the stripes would be a variation in dye shades rather than undyed/dyed:

shibori in the dye bath

I simmered the dye for another 15 minutes or so and then turned off the heat. I removed the fibers individually and rinsed in my laundry room sink. Again you have to be careful not to felt the wool with a drastic temperature. It takes what seems like a LOT of water to rinse the fiber because you want the water to run clear, and you should use a bit of neutral soap at the end to make sure all the dye is out (in dye studios I’ve used synthrapol and I’d like to get some for home use, but I just used some delicate, natural laundry detergent that I had on hand). I hung my fibers up to dry in my bathtub and then my kitchen window the next day (very hard to find cat-proof, ventilated drying spots!):

Madder-dyed yarn hanging to dry

And voila, the dried fibers are ready for their projects! From left to right: Pioneer wool, vintage silk, cotton muslin (the shibori markings are subtle):

wool, silk, cotton dyed with madder

It was so great to get over my mental obstacle that was holding me back from experimenting with dyeing at home. Thanks to a bit of setup, some book and internet research, and plenty of planning, I was able to get vibrant results that I’m very pleased with. The process reminded me of how much water dyeing utilizes, so I’m definitely curious if there are more efficient processes. I want to look into that for next time, and have a few more suggestions for improvement as well:

Tips for next time (notes to self)!

  • Use a fan in the kitchen (facing outward) to improve ventilation
  • Save & reuse the mordant solution
  • Decide on shibori beforehand and set up a small (catproof) workstation
  • Research water-conserving ways of rinsing the fibers; wash fibers with synthrapol
  • Dye fibers in the morning and hang outside to dry
  • Have more PFD (prepared for dyeing, i.e. mordanted) fiber available to use the dye vat to exhaustion

Have you done any dyeing at home? Are they any projects you’ve been waiting to try // what’s stopping you?


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making things & asking questions

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