In which my fingers turn black

A few things you should probably know about me: (a) I am obsessive. When I get it into my head that I want to do something, sleeping is a challenge until I get it out of my system. (b) I am dangerous. It takes a very small amount of research for me to feel I am capable of trying something.

That said, this week I did my first-ever hand-dyeing! I documented the heck out of it so someone who knows what they’re doing can see exactly what I did and make useful suggestions.

The adventures started with dye acquisition. My materials were as follows:


1. Some blackberries from Larriland Farm,

2. Black walnuts from the path behind my apt. complex (creeping the crap out of all the walking commuters who passed by, trying to figure out exactly what I was doing along the side of the path)

3. Weird nut things I found when I was getting frustrated that I couldn’t find enough black walnuts (I will call them basketball nuts; that’s what they looked like to me)

4. Acorns found various places,

5. And some very poisonous looking berries found at the edge of the parking lot of an RV repair shop while trying to find a way into the Enchanted Forest. I don’t know what they are actually called, but I remember playing with them as a child trying to make them into some kind of creepy stew, so I call them “Witch Berries.”

Separated into their constituent dye-making parts, we have them as follows:

1. Husks of ripe black walnuts (still green on the outside)

2. Husks of rotten black walnuts (fully black on the outside)

3. Witch Berries

4. Crushed brown acorns

5. Crushed green acorn meat and
6. Crushed green acorn shells (I found that the green ones were easy to separate, so I figured why not try them separately)

7. Blackberries (they looked the same.)
8. Basketball nut meats, crushed (forgot to take a picture, aren’t you glad)

9. Basketball nut husks, crushed (see #8)

I then dyed wee samples of them, about 6 feet or .1 oz of yarn, and .3 oz of whatever plant material. I used no mordants. I arranged them here in order by most interesting (right) to the most boring (left) as they looked when first mixed.


1. Rotten black walnut husks

2. Witch Berries

3. Blackberries

4. Green Walnut husks

5. Green Acorn meats

6. Brown Acorns (crushed)

7. Green acorn shells

8. Basketball nut meats

9. Basketball nut husks (not sure what happened to the picture. The water was clear.)

I somehow magically fit all of these containers into my 26-year-old microwave and nuked them for half an hour. The results surprised me:

In the same order as the containers were except backwards visually (yeah real slick, sorry) – 1. Control, 2. Rotten black walnut husks, 3. Witch berries, 4. Blackberries, 5. Green black walnut husks, 6. Green acorn meats, 7. Brown acorns (crushed), 8. Green Acorn shells, 9. Basketball nut meats, 10. Basketball nut shells.

I promptly chucked the acorns and basketball nuts, as the latter was just a whim anyway, and I really don’t care to go to all this trouble just to make a tan yarn more tan.

In a completely inexplicable fit of self-control, seeing how the berries bled to high heaven as they dried, I decided that “mordant” was not just a word that dyers made up to make even more creepy bad puns about their craft, and did another sample on the berries. With the witch berries, I clipped up bits of their stems, hoping ignorantly that there might be some kind of natural tannins in there to help. With the blackberries I threw in a bit of white onion skin.

The results were shockingly different. 1. Control, 2. Witch berries with stems (very little change) and 3. Blackberries (I doubled the amount) with onion skins (MAJOR change).

Okay. Enough stupid tests. Time to get my hands really dirty. Or, well, my hands were already black, so time to get some pots dirty.

After putting the skeins in pantihose as I saw on a blog once, into amazingly phallic little sausages, I was ready to go. I decided that I wanted one skein to be a variegated sort of brown, so I twisted the sausage up and rigged it funnily so about half of it would fit into the only stainless steel pot I own that I don’t need to cook in.

I dyed that half in 4.5 oz. of rotting black walnut husks (figuring it’d be smart to do the lighter color first) for 45 minutes

Then switched it, dying a bit more than half (I wanted it more dark brown than light) in 4 oz. of green husks for 30 minutes.

I let it cool slowly, putting it in freshly boiled water first, then switching it into new baths of the same temperature until it didn’t bleed anymore.

Then came the berry yarn – I figured what the heck, I didn’t want to make a solid yarn after all this, and stripes are cool, so I stuck one end of the other skein in witch berries.
I dyed about half the skein in 8.2 oz. of witch berries (all I had) with the skins of two white onions as a mordant, for 30 minutes.

Then flipped it over,
dyeing the other half in all the blackberries I had (about 1 lb) with the skins of two white onions, for 30 minutes.

Same story with the cooling.

After the water was nice and cool, I pulled them out of the pantihose and let them dry over my porch bannister. The results were totally wild!

I am so in love with this – the black walnuts turned the yarn a to-dye-for chocolate brown, and there isn’t as much light as I thought there would be, but what the heck. It’s lovely. I like it.

The berry skein was even more unexpected. The blackberry half turned a soft rose color, while the witch berry half turned a salmon-y orange. Not colors I’d put together, but hey! I wanted something interesting.

I know next time I’m going to invest in: 1. rubber gloves. 2. a new pot. 3. some real mordant. 4. a friggin’ BOOK.

But there will be a next time; you can count on that. teehee.

2 thoughts on “In which my fingers turn black

  1. Thanks Rebecca, I know this is an old blog piece but I still wanted to thank you because there’s not much info pics on natural dyeing… you’d think the internet would have many more results on this but ahh well! Your story was great, I love the “itch berries” thing, Where I grew up there was a woods nearby called “witch woods” which lead to some creepy stories but it turned out to be because a horse named “witch” was buried there! Hope your still doing well!


    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Gemma! I’m glad you found this post helpful. So much in natural dyeing is trial and error since there are so many variables, but we have to start somewhere. Thanks for sharing about your “witch woods”!


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