Hello my friends,
It’s tutorial time! I don’t know how this started, but apparently I’ve gotten into the habit of showing you how to do the cool things I do. I’ve been doing this dyeing stuff for over a year now, and from the start I have depended on people generously sharing their experiences, so I hope this is as useful to someone out there in internets-land as it was to me to get tips from others. Besides, it is cool when knowledge is free!
This time, it’s pokeberries. I’ve been collecting these things like mad, and for Erntefest I started this season of dyeing with them. As I did so, I took pictures so I could share the process with you over the next week. These rules are not set in stone, of course; so if you try this and it doesn’t work, or figure out something new, let me know. Heck, if you try it at all, I’d love to know!
P.S. this took a long time, so it totally counts as like five posts. Don’t get annoyed if I go take a nap for a week.
Step 1: Pick pokeberries. You will need: ziploc bags, latex gloves (optional), and a good pokeberry picking spot.
This goes rather without saying, but you want to make sure you pick enough. As a rule of thumb in natural dyeing, you generally want about 3x-4x dyestuffs as wool. So if you have 1 lb of wool, pick 3-4 lbs of pokeberries – more or less depending on how saturated you want your color to be. One completely full gallon ziploc weighs about 5 lbs.
The best picking spots are in massively overgrown thickets. Pokeberry plants need sun, but they like to be in areas associated with woods. Since they focus on quantity rather than quality, they like to team up with bushes and things that they can intertwine with and grow large without collapsing under their own weight. Unfortunately, many of their favorite growing buddies are laden with thorns and/or burrs. (This is my personal opinion on why they are called “poke” berries).
Helpful hint: Latex gloves are optional through this entire process, because the pink does wash off your hands fairly easily. (Exception: the dyebath after mordanting will make it stick for a lot longer.) But as I learned the hard way, it is really helpful if you drove to your picking spot to be able to drive home without sticky purple crap all over your fingers.
Another helpful hint: If you are going to freeze them, Double Bag your Berries. I’m not sure why, but the fridge freezers we’ve had have not totally frozen the juice that ends up in bag of frozen berries, and ziplocs do not totally prevent that juice from seeping out. Enter the fuscia sludge that has ornamented every freezer we’ve used for the past year. It’s not that hard to clean up, but… really. It can be easily avoided with an extra bag.
* * *
Step 2: Mordanting. You will need: your wool (yarn or fiber; the process is the same), a large pot, and lots of white vinegar.
Berry dies are notoriously non-colorfast – i.e. the color goes away after time. However, after a lot of research, asking people who knew on the internet, and experimenting, this seems like the best solution (no pun intended). My oldest pokeberry-dyed yarn is over a year old, and its color is nigh unto undistinguishable from when it was first dyed, so I think it worked.
The key is acetic acid. You may have heard professional dyes called “acid dyes”, and that is because they include an acid that makes the dye bind to the wool. Vinegar, as it turns out, has about 4-5% acetic acid, and we can make it work similarly.
With the wool in the dyepot, fill it with a 50/50 solution of cold water and white vinegar. (If very hot water hits dry wool, it will “shock” it and cause it to shrink. Just don’t make your water very hot out of the tap is all I’m sayin’.)
Make sure the wool is good and submerged and wet through, then put the whole mess on the stove. Cover unless you want to choke on the fumes. Heat it to simmering, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for an hour. Then turn the heat off and let it cool overnight.
Try not to let it get to a full boil. Hot water and agitation are the main ingredients for felting, so if you let it boil, it may felt a little bit. But if this happens, it is not the end of the world. The main thing is, whether it boils or not, When your wool is in hot water, do not muck about with it. You can poke it to get it underwater, you can very gently turn it, but really, just leave it the heck alone and everything will probably be fine.
Your whole house will smell like vinegar and wet sheep for a while when you do this. Some people think it smells clean and pleasant. It makes my husband crave hot & sour soup. I am just glad it goes away quickly.
Helpful hint: You do not have to dry your wool, but if you aren’t going to dye it right away, just lay it out somewhere to dry completely. You can mordant as much as you want as far in advance as you want. But if you are going to be dyeing right away, Save the vinegar solution.
Step 3: Prep the berries. You will need: your berries, two a large pots or bowls, a strainer, and some potato mashers (if you’re of hispanic extraction, bean mashers).
Helpful hint: Dyers will tell you that you should NEVER cook food with pots or utensils that have been used in dyeing. When it comes to pokeberries, I bend the rules a little… pokeberries probably won’t kill you (though I hereby take no responsibility for any trouble you might get yourself into), and you’re not using any harsh chemicals. HOWEVER, use your brain. Anything that you’re going to use for food later, for pete’s sake, just put it through the dishwasher.
After all my fear of purple freezer-sludge, I double-bagged all 86+ lbs of berries, then discovered that our new deep freezer on its second-to-lowest setting freezes the living daylights out of everything in it. So no sludge, just solid berry blocks. Anyway, If you’ve frozen your berries, now is the time to thaw them. I usually pull out my berries after I start the mordant pot going, so by the time I’m ready to dye, the berries are ready to go. I put them in a bowl or pot in the sink to thaw.
I don’t know why I have two potato/bean mashers, but I use them both. When they have thawed, mash them until they cry. (See above about berry symbiosis. Over the past few weeks, I have had my arms scratched up by thornbushes, clothes torn up by stickers, and been attacked by a bush with giant burrs that explode with tiny spines that take multiple showers to work out of your skin. I may have been just a teensy bit vindictive at this point.)
Helpful hint: Pokeberries do wash off stuff pretty well, so you don’t have to be anal about your surfaces or your clothes or anything. However, wiping purple junk off everything in the kitchen five hundred times gets old. Work accordingly (i.e. do everything you can in the sink).
When you think they are mashed enough, pull out another big pot (it’ll save you a step if it’s the pot you will use for dyeing), and strain the seeds and pulp out. I like to mash it up more in the strainer to get everything I can out of the suckers.
This is where that 50/50 vinegar/water solution you saved from earlier comes in handy – your dyebath should have about the same acidity as your mordant water, so if you didn’t save that solution, you will have to use more vinegar. This extra step just helps make sure the dye sticks as well as it possibly can. Pour enough solution in that you will be able to soak all your wool, and stir to combine. You now have a dyebath.
Step 4: Heat. You will need: your dyebath (presumably in a dyepot) and your mordanted yarn or fiber.
Heat helps the dye to fuse to the yarn. But how you heat your dyebath will determine what color you get. Pokeberry has a wonderful range of color: from pinks and fusicas to reds to oranges to salmony-browns. Here’s the primer:
- Pinks and fuscias: The saturation of the final color depends on how many pounds of pokeberries you use; a 3:1 ratio of berries to wool gets you a bright fuscia-hot-pink. Less berries will make a paler hot pink; more will get a darker fuscia, even a beautiful deep maroon. Some people like solar dyeing; this more or less means you leave the pot out in the sun for a few days and you get what you get. I’m a little afraid to do this, but let me know if you try. I still like to put it on the stove, but I watch it pretty closely. I just want the water to be very hot to the touch, not hot enough to burn myself in. Once it gets to that temperature, I turn the heat off.
- Reds: This is the hardest color to get, as you have to watch the pot like a hawk. Your goal is to have it just barely simmering for about an hour.
- Orange-salmony-browns: This is what you get when you let your dyepot get to a rolling boil for any length of time. The more you boil it, the lighter and browner it gets. Do note that these colors are not as fast as the others; I couldn’t tell you why. (I usually get them by accident and do not like them.)
- You can mix and match to your heart’s content; when dyeing yarn, I always leave some out or pull some out sooner so it’s more of a semi-solid.
Helpful hint: Fiber content also affects saturation. So far I have found that wool takes colors most deeply (middle in above picture) while silk, acrylic, and angora (blended with wool in the yarn on the right) do not turn out as dark. I think that’s pretty neat. If you are dyeing fiber and it’s not perfectly clean, often the greasier tips of a fleece will turn darker than the cleaner butts. Know your yarn or fiber and plan accordingly.
No matter what color you use, when you have heated it according to your desires, let it sit overnight. Just one more step to give the dye a chance to bind as much as possible.
Step 5: Rinsing. You will need: your dyed wool, a sink, and rubber/latex gloves. (The dye is most likely to stick to your hands both at this point and when it is in the dyepot.)
Rinsing is my least favorite step, but it is so important. You really want to rinse your wool until it the water runs fairly clear, and that takes a long time and a lot of running water. I have tried various ways, but this is the fastest I have found, and it took me about half an hour to rinse 1 1/2 lbs of thoroughly saturated wool. I just let the tap run, take some of the stuff in my hands, let it fill with water, and squeeze. I repeat until it runs pretty much clear, then move on to the next bit. It takes ages, but if you don’t do this, the dye is much more likely to rub off on other things when you are using it, and that is really not something you want. If you feel badly about the water usage, skip a couple showers to feel better.
* * *
Step 6: Drying. You will need: Your rinsed wool, a drying rack (optional), and a couple towels you don’t care about.
This is pretty self explanatory. Lay it out to dry until it’s dry; it’ll go faster the more you spread it out, and if you use a drying rack (it’s on my wish list). Let me just state loud and clear, though: Do not dry naturally dyed things in direct sunlight. Natural dyes are not that lightfast (acid dyes aren’t as lightfast as you think, either). I put it out in the evening and let it dry overnight, though again, make sure you don’t know any Amalekites you might have to go to war with.
Step 7: Care and Use.
You now have a beautiful, naturally dyed something-or-other that you’ve worked very hard to make, and for which you’ve wiped purple juice off God-only-knows how many surfaces, and washed your purple fingers who knows how many times. I imagine you want it to stay bright and beautiful for as long as possible. (If you’re wondering, the above was dyed with a rather higher pokeberry concentration than usual, and if anything, it’s even darker in real life than in that picture. It was probably a 6:1 ratio of berries to wool by weight.)
Light: I will keep bringing it up: Don’t leave it in direct sunlight. I don’t mean you can’t wear it outside or anything, but when you store it, put it in a closet or something, and for the life of you, don’t let it sit out by a sunny window for a week.
Washing: This is not going to be machine washable. Period. Full stop. Wash by hand in cold water. I have not tried washing pokeberry dyed things with soap yet, so I don’t know what the ph of soap will do, so if you do use soap, use baby shampoo or wool wash. (And let me know what happens.) I prefer to just add a dash of white vinegar to the wash water.
Be Chill: Back in the day, when everything was naturally dyed, and you couldn’t get fancy chemicals or massive amounts of vinegar for cheap, colors faded. That was just the way things were. So every year, folks would just pull out their faded clothes and dye them over again. Knowing that makes me feel a little better about holding my naturally dyed colors with an open hand. It is good to accept that colors fade – natural or not. I have heard, from people who know, that if you dye and take care of your naturally dyed things as I’ve described, they should last for 30 years or even longer. But try not to sweat it if they change a little. Besides – now you know how to dye them over again.