Making Brown with Black Walnuts Part Two

To re-cap, I had managed to transform linen yarns, grown and hand spun at Aker Fiber Farm in New Hampshire, from lovely shades of silvery- and golden-tan into more drab versions of same colors. This was deeply dissatisfying. But, if at first you don’t succeed… try, try again.

I thought about the factors that might have led to such disappointing color, and decided to change a few things the second time around. I was in a hurry at this point, because I was planning to deliver the yarns in just a couple days. So, I moved through some steps quicker than I normally do.

First, I made a fresh dyebath using only the very greenest of the walnut hulls that had been soaking outside. This involved finding the bucket that contained the hulls I had collected earliest in the fall, which was tucked under a table and very well protected from squirrels. It was a little bit of an excavation project. Again, I used 3 gallons of hulls to make the dyebath, but I only used the brightest green ones:

Second, I used fresh tap water to make the dyebath, not the liquid that the hulls had been soaking in. I heated the bath to about 180°F, maintained that temperature for two hours, then allowed it to cool and steep for a couple hours. I strained out the hulls while the liquid was still very warm, instead of giving it time to cool completely. I did not add any vinegar this time. The pH was 6.

Third, I re-mordanted the fibers with aluminum acetate at 5% WOG at 100° and let the yarns soak in the mordant solution for two hours. I rinsed the yarns before putting them into the dyebath. After about ten minutes in the dyebath, I decided that this situation really called for iron sulfate.

I’ve used tannin with iron on cellulose before. I have even written some blog posts about it. So I knew it would darken the color significantly. I had been hoping that with black walnut I could get a dark color without iron. But at this point in my story it was Thursday and I was planning to deliver the yarns on Saturday, so I figured I’d better go with something that I was certain would do the trick.

I dissolved 1 Tbsp. of iron sulfate in a tub containing 2 gallons of hot water. I pulled the skeins out of the dyebath and “worked” them briefly (meaning swishing them around in the solution to try to prevent blotches), wearing gloves all the while. The color shift to a dark brown was basically instantaneous. I returned the skeins to the dyebath without rinsing.

Then I continued to heat the skeins for an hour, and they cooled overnight in the dyebath.

Once again, I let the the skeins drip and dry a little before rinsing. And, here they are all washed and dried:

You can see the yarns wound into balls by Locally Dressed here.

The color of the linen shirt actually grew on me as it dried, so I left it alone. Obtaining an unbleached-linen look on linen is a lot more satisfying when that wasn’t the original color!

I do believe that the greener and more resinous the hulls are, the richer the color you will get. However, I’m positive that it was the iron sulfate that ultimately created the dark color I was able to achieve on the linen yarns. I am currently taking the Maiwa class Natural Dyes: Alchemy Chemistry Craft, so in a few weeks I will be much better informed about the chemistry of the tannin-iron reaction!

I am a lot more cautious about using iron on wool. A fresh dyebath, with no tannin or mordant at all, yielded this medium brown on Western Massachusetts Fibershed white wool singles spun at Green Mountain Spinnery:

Making Brown with Black Walnuts Part One

Fall 2023 was a bumper year for black walnuts around here. I started collecting them in October, and with very little effort filled up three 5-gallon buckets.

To prevent them from getting black and oozy, I filled the buckets with water. Being submerged under water kept them pretty fresh. I covered the buckets and stacked weights on top to discourage squirrels until I could remove the nuts from the hulls.

As noted in my last blog post, there’s always more to learn about everything in life, black walnuts included. This fall I was struck by the variation in size, shape, density of hull, color of hull, and fragrance from one tree to the next. I don’t think the differences had to do with altitude (down in the valleys versus up in the hilltowns) because sometimes two trees right across the street from each other were carrying fruits with noticeably different hulls. I don’t have any photos of those observations, but documenting these variations would be an interesting project for another year. I did not separate them by “type” or keep track of which hulls went into which dyepots.

My first dyeing effort with this fall’s abundance was a collaboration with Locally Dressed, who is participating in the Northern New England Fibershed design challenge. You can find out more about what Locally Dressed is all about on her social media and her blog and website.

Without giving too much away, I will just share that I dyed handspun linen yarns from Aker Fiber Farm. The yarns are destined to part of a garment and/or accessory woven by @marionceres. The finished pieces will be showcased on August 17th, 2024 at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire.

Here are the yarns. Lovely, right? Why mess with perfection? Rest assured, I understand that most of the fabric lets the natural colors of this linen speak for themselves. But sometimes you want a little bit of contrast. Hence my mission to make brown.

I was consulting two different sources in this process, Jim Liles’ book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing and the how-to pages on Botanical Colors’ website. Their directions differ somewhat, plus daily life imposes its own limits. What I describe here is what I ended up doing, but I’m not saying it’s the best way to go about things!

To start with, I scoured the skeins. Well, actually, first I weighed them and recorded the weights on waterproof labels. For scouring cellulose fibers I often use a liquid scour, but I didn’t have any on hand. So, first I just hand washed them with my regular laundry detergent, then simmered them with soda ash at 2% weight of goods (WOG in dyer’s shorthand). I heated the skeins in the soda ash solution until it reached 180°F, then held at that temperature for 30 minutes, then removed promptly and rinsed.

The next step was a tannin treatment. I had a few options for tannin, and decided to use chestnut tannin at 10% WOG. I dissolved the tannin (which comes as a powder) and soaked the fiber overnight at room temperature in the tannin solution.

Next up, mordanting. Even though I did have aluminum acetate on hand, I decided to go with the aluminum sulfate/soda ash combo described on the Botanical Color website here. Yes, the mixture does “bubble vigorously,” just as they describe! The fibers soaked in this mordanting solution overnight, with no heat applied.

Then, back into the tannin solution for another night. Then, because of pot re-arranging, they went back in the mordant bath. This was just a storage issue for the various liquids in their various stages, not a purposeful decision.

As I mentioned, the black walnuts had been soaking submerged in buckets of water since October, and this linen-dyeing project got underway on November 16th. I didn’t mention that I was also dyeing a linen shirt in this process (the one with the weird pink-stained arms, if you saw that post on Instagram back in August 2022). The total weight of the fibers was a little over 15 ounces, basically 1lb.

For my first try, I used about 3 gallons of hulls (removed from the nuts, which I just tossed out for the squirrels), and filled up the dyepot with the water they’d been soaking in. I heated the hulls until they reached about 180°F and maintained that for 2 hours. Jim Liles says to add vinegar or other acid, which I did, but he doesn’t specify a pH. My pH was 5. The hulls steeped about 24 hours, then I strained out the hulls and topped up the liquid in the dyepot. I think it’s cool how you can see the texture of the walnut shells inside the hulls:

I rinsed the fiber after the tannin-mordant-tannin process, which perhaps I should not have done. Ah, well. Here are the prepared fibers before dyeing:

Then I added the damp fibers to the dyebath. As before, I heated the pot up to about 180°F then maintained that for one hour. Then I let it steep overnight. I like to do a delayed rinse, so I let the fibers drip-dry for a day or so before rinsing.

Then I rinsed them. And…. Come on, now. Would you call this brown? I would not. I would not say that it’s any darker than the original color.

The date by which I had agreed to deliver the yarn was drawing closer. Not much time left to try again, but try I did!




First Woad Vat of 2014

Due to one thing and another, I am not growing a lot of woad this year. I’m a little bit sad about it, but there it is. Nonetheless, I ran my first woad vat of the summer on Friday August 8th and had some interesting results. In the morning I picked 3 and a half pounds of leaves, which I did not expect to make a very strong vat.

Some blue color appeared in the stems as I ripped up the leaves, which was a good sign.

blue woad stems

Continue reading “First Woad Vat of 2014”

Exhausting the Weld Bath Part Two

After those intense, vivid colors on 40/2 linen yarns from the first and second weld exhaust baths, I assumed there was still quite a bit of color left in the bath. I thought it would be fun to try a couple experiments. My first experiment was to put a mordanted cotton-linen blend skein in the weld bath overnight, but not to heat it at all.

Why would I even try this? Well, the answer is kind of a long story. Even though my usual method is to apply heat when extracting color and dyeing fiber, I am very aware of the fact that this requires energy. Way back in 2006 I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Kyrgyzstan along with feltmaker Karen Page, to work with a group of women in a village who wanted to develop a crafts business. My part of the project was to teach them what I knew about natural dyeing, and Karen’s job was to teach them new felting techniques. Continue reading “Exhausting the Weld Bath Part Two”

Exhausting the Weld Bath–Part One

After my dyeing workshop at Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom I had two strong dyebaths left over. One was weld and the other orange cosmos.

The original weld bath was made with 6oz. dried plant material from second year plants in bloom. I had originally divided the bath in half because I wanted to add calcium carbonate to the bath in which I dyed the cellulose cloth swatches, but not to the bath in which I dyed the protein swatch books. I’m not sure that the calcium carbonate would do anything bad to the wool or silk, but I consulted my notes from a workshop with Joan Morris and according to my notes we hadn’t added it to the protein dyebath. I decided not to experiment this time around. Continue reading “Exhausting the Weld Bath–Part One”

Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom

On March 8th I presented two workshops at the annual conference of Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom. You can check out their website here. One workshop was on growing and processing flax, and on ways to incorporate flax into the school curriculum. The other was on growing a dye plant garden at school and using dye plants with kids.

Based on an idea from Joan Morris, shibori artist extraordinaire, I decided to make two swatch books for the dyeing workshop. Each book had five small cloth samples sewn together. The dimensions were 3 inches by 1.5 inches. One swatch book was made up of cellulose (i.e., plant-based) cloth samples, including three kinds of cotton cloth, a linen-rayon blend, and a 100% linen piece. The other was made of protein (animal-derived) cloth, including silk satin, raw silk, and three weights of wool. I mordanted the cellulose swatch books with aluminum acetate at 5% WOG (weight of the goods, or fiber). I mordanted the protein swatch books with aluminum sulfate, at 1 tablespoon per 4 ounces. The protein booklets weighed about 6oz. altogether, and interestingly the cellulose booklets weighed almost the same. Continue reading “Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom”

Madder the Inexhaustible Subject Matter

You may recall that for a few weeks back in November, I was focussed on two madder-related questions: “How did I get orange from the first exhaust bath?” and “Why did my second and third extractions of the madder roots produce such pure, clear pinks with no browning or dulling of the color at all?”

In my quest to corroborate the opinions I developed based on my own experiences, I found myself pulling all the dye books off my shelves and re-reading the sections on madder and madder-relatives. It was fun and informative, but a little dizzying. Madder roots can produce an enormous variety of colors depending on the soil in which the roots were grown, extraction procedure, mordant, pH, fiber, water chemistry, and other factors. I tried to stick to certain parameters in my research (obtaining red and pink as opposed to orange, dyeing cellulose fibers, using an alum mordant) but it’s hard not to get distracted by beauty. Continue reading “Madder the Inexhaustible Subject Matter”

Madder the Inexhaustible Root–Part Two: Pink

If you read my last post, you may be wondering why I wasn’t totally content with my orange linen, as bright and cheery as it was. Basically it’s because I wanted pink. Light pink, to be exact. Light pink 40/2 linen, to be exact, and lots of it. Why? Well…!

A fortunate side-effect of my successful show with Amanda Quinby at the Shelburne Arts Co-op in Shelburne Falls in October was that I sold all of my usual inventory of naturally dyed linen bookmarks and hand-bound books with hand-woven cloth covers. Hence, I need to weave more! My main objective with this madder exhaust project was to create light pink 40/2 linen yarn for weaving heart-motif bookmarks in Huck Lace. I must confess that all the other lovely colors I obtained were just happy by-products in my quest for pink. Continue reading “Madder the Inexhaustible Root–Part Two: Pink”

Madder the Inexhaustible Root–Part One: Orange

Earlier in November, another teacher at school wanted to dye some cloth to create kid-sized monarch butterfly wings as part of her classroom study of butterflies. Her initial dyebaths, composed largely of marigolds combined with some orange cosmos and wild bedstraw roots, had not yielded the color she wanted. I suggested over-dyeing the cloth with madder roots, even though they weren’t from our garden at school. She decided to use some chopped roots that I had bought from Aurora Silk a few years ago, and was pleased with her results.

I asked her to save me the exhausted dyebath and the roots, which she very kindly did. I spent every spare moment of the next two weeks happily creating various shades of pink and orange on linen and cotton-linen blend yarns. I was well-satisfied with my efforts! Here they are:

drying rack madder yarns Continue reading “Madder the Inexhaustible Root–Part One: Orange”

Small Woad Vat

This summer I have spent most of my time and energy on weaving, but I didn’t want to let the summer end without at least a little bit of dyeing. So, last Friday I ran a woad vat, following my usual routine based on Rita Buchanan’s directions in A Dyer’s Garden and A Weaver’s Garden. The woad plants in the bed that self-sowed, and the transplants from that bed, were still pretty small. I lost about half of the plants in the bed affected by club root, which left one short bed with decent-sized (though a bit moth-eaten) leaves. I picked from all the beds, and collected two and a half pounds of leaves. I was worried that there wouldn’t be much color in the leaves yet because they were still small, but you can see the “breaking blue” as it oxidizes here on the cut stems:

cut woad stems

This is always a good sign. Here I am rinsing off the leaves.

rinsing woad leaves

Continue reading “Small Woad Vat”