A Study in Scarlet

Back in April and early May I was madly mordenting yarn for our spring Natural Dyes workshop.  Falling and breaking my leg kind of got in the way of that.  We had to cancel the workshop and refund everyone's money.  Fast forward to late September and early October.  I got a call from a wonderful lady we have seen at fiber festivals in central Texas.  She wants to weave a couple of triangle shawls using natural dyed wool.  Could we dye some wool for her?  Of course, we can!

If I was going to get natural dye materials cooked up and ready for a dye day, why not do a really big dye day?  I pulled out the yarn I had mordanted in the spring along with the new yarn for this particular project and got to thinking about what materials to dye with.  Marigolds for sure, then probably cochineal.  Here is what the cochineal bugs look like.

How about logwood?  And I have had a bucket of black walnuts soaking since last November.  The goldenrod isn't quite ready to pick yet so that will have to wait for now. 

As usual, I had mordanted my yarn with alum, copper, tin and chrome.  Each of these does something a little different with the natural colors.  Tin brightens the color, copper turns in more towards green, chrome more towards orange and alum gives the most natural colors.  Which one I love the best changes since with natural dyes you just never know exactly what colors you will get.


I tested each dye bath with my handy dandy test bundle to see what colors I might expect to get.  The basic color group of the dye is determined by the material used but each batch of flowers/bugs/wood is different so the exact color will be a bit different.  The marigolds may be more brassy, more orange or lean towards green but will always be in the yellow family.  The cochineal will always be scarlet but may be slightly more red or more purple.  So, enter the test bundle.  It is pieces of yarn that have each been mordanted differently along with one piece of yarn with no mordant. 

You can tell the individual pieces of yarn apart based on the knots tied at the end.  You can pick anything you like but here is my list...

No knot - no mordant

1 knot - alum

2 knots - copper

1 large loop up high - tin

1 hangman's noose - chrome

Then you toss the test bundle into the dye bath and let it cook for as long as you intend your yarn to cook - about an hour at a very low simmer.  As usual, I got impatient and pulled them out more quickly than I probably should have but I still got good differences in color.  That gave me an idea of where to toss my chrome mordanted wool as opposed to the alum mordanted wool.

So, here are the scarlet colors from the cochineal dye bath.  Notice how some of the yarn is deeper in color and some is lighter.  Some is bright and some is more somber.  One skein leans towards red while others are more pink or more purple.  That has to do with all the variables - type of fiber, how the yarn in spun, what mordant I used and how long in the dye pot.  Everything matters to the color you get in the end.  I love it.

There were all sorts of yarn in the mix of mordants - Merino wool, BFL wool, silk, superwash Merino, bamboo.  Each yarn takes the dye just a little be differently than other yarns.  Here is what came out of the logwood dye bath.  There is the expected purple but also blue, brown/black and a stunning variegated skein of grey and brown.  You just never know.  It's one of the things that keeps me coming back to natural dyes.