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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Solar Dyeing with Native Plant Trimmings


The Solar Dye Method  is a simple technique that uses a minimum of equipment and energy - and is fun to do.  You can try it with most  native plants commonly grown in local gardens.   You can even use non-native plants, garden vegetable plants and weeds.   Be sure to check (on-line is best) that the plant is non-toxic before you use it in solar dye projects.   Plants in the Sunflower family are not only good dye plants but they also are also safe to use.


·         Large, clear glass/plastic jar (at least 24 oz ; gallon size is better) with a lid* - you may need a second, smaller (at least 16 oz.)  clear jar with lid for mordanting

·         Old cooking pot (equivalent or larger volume than the large jar; enamel or stainless steel is best – aluminum is fine)**

·         Old spoon or stick (sturdy; wood or stainless steel best)**

·         Sieve/colander

·         Plastic dishwashing tub or plastic bucket (for rinsing dyed yarn)

·         Kitchen scale or measuring spoons

·         Hot pads

·         Heat source (stove or burner); optional – see Instructions

·         Rubber household gloves

·         Small mesh lingerie washing bag or mesh paint straining cloth (optional); helpful for containing plant materials /straining the dye bath)


·         Wool or wool-blend yarn (natural color/white/un-dyed; at least 20% wool content– 50% or more is best) -  one or two 100-gram (3-4 oz) skeins/hanks).  

·         Native plant clippings (see below for suggestions***); enough to fill your jar about 2/3 full; woody stems  should be cut into 2-3 inch long pieces

·         Alum mordant - potassium aluminum sulfate (potassium alum) or ammonium aluminum sulfate (pickling/spice alum) : 10% of the weight of the yarn;  for example, if dyeing a 4 oz skein of yarn, you’ll need 10% of the yarn’s weight (0.4 oz) of alum) -  or use a skimpy Tablespoon of alum per skein.

·         Cream of tartar* (5% of the weight of the yarn; in the example, you’d need 0.2 oz of Cream of Tartar to mordant the skein of yarn);  or one level teaspoon of cream of tartar per skein.

* try Smart & Final                  ** try thrift stores if you don’t have these
*** Anything in the Sunflower family (Encelia; Annual Sunflower; Rabbitbush; Coyote Bush; Mule Fat;   Goldenbush; CA Sagebrush; Goldenrod; Telegraph Plant; Yarrow); Black Sage; Toyon; Ceanothus,   Juniper


Preparing the yarn  (can be done ahead of time) 

Rewind yarn into loose skein/hank.  Tie yarn ends together,  then tie skein loosely in three places (use white cotton string or pieces cut off the yarn).  Moisten the yarn thoroughly in lukewarm water (at least 30 minutes).  Squeeze yarn gently to wet.

Dissolve alum and cream of tartar in 1 1/2 cups of very hot water (from the tap or heated).  Wear gloves when handling mordant.  Stir to completely dissolve, then cool to lukewarm.  Place solution in the either the cooking pot or the smaller jar.   Add wet yarn and additional tap water (as needed) to cover.  Swirl yarn gently in the solution.   Cover the pan with plastic wrap (or put lid on jar).  Place in a hot, sunny spot for 2-3 days.

Remove yarn (wear gloves) & rinse well in tap water. Gently squeeze  to remove rinse water.  Dry yarn for later use or put it directly into the prepared dye bath.  Dry, pre-mordanted yarn is good for up to a year; store in a labeled plastic bag until ready to use.


Preparing the dye bath
If needed, cut branches/twigs into 2-3 inch pieces.  If desired,  place plant material into a mesh lingerie washing bag.  Then either: 1) put the plant material in the jar, add tap water to cover and place  in a sunny place for dye extraction, or ; 2) heat the plant material for a short time prior to putting it in the jar.  Note: if  preparing dye from Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) , Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) or Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) use method 1 or heat the dye bath outdoors.   These plants produce cyanide fumes (smell like bitter almond) which are toxic.  

To pre-heat, put plant materials in the old pot and cover them with tap water.   Bring to a boil on high, then turn down heat and simmer 20 minutes.   Cool to lukewarm and transfer material & liquid to the jar.  Cover with lid.  Place jar in a warm/hot sunny place for 5 to 10 days.  Swirl the water every other day.  Dye bath is ready when there’s no more change in color and/or the plant materials appear tan or pale.

Remove plant materials from the dye bath. Strain out small pieces using a strainer/colander or paint straining cloth.   The dye bath is now ready for dyeing.


Dyeing the yarn

Pour dye bath back into the jar.  Soak pre-mordanted yarn in lukewarm water for at least ½ hour; gently squeeze out water.   Place wet yarn into jar; add more water if needed (so the yarn floats freely).  Place capped jar back in the sun and let the sun’s rays work their magic!  Be sure to swirl the contents of the jar gently every day.

It takes 5-14 days to complete the dye process.  You’ll know that dyeing is complete when the yarn remains the same color for several days. Remove the yarn and gently rinse in cool tap water.  Grasp the yarn and rinse using an up-and-down motion.  This rinses and straightens the yarn.  Rinsing is complete when the rinse water remains clear.  Use the rinse water (and the mordant & dye baths) to water your plants.

Dry yarn in a shaded place; fluff occasionally as it dries.   Re-wind yarn into a ball and use the dyed yarn for knitting, crochet or other craft projects.

 Come to a free Solar Dyeing Workshop at Madrona Marsh Nature Center on December 8th (see 'Classes, Lectures and Workshops' page for details).

To learn more about Solar dyeing see 'Solar Dyeing with Native Plant Trimmings' (November, 2012) at :

Questions?   Ask us at:

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