Kate Lynch on Wearing Wool…

Kate Lynch joins WOVEMBER this evening, to talk about the ultimate house & garden WOOL project – dyeing with plants (perhaps from the garden?) to create woollen textiles for the home!

Making it meaningful:  Thoughts on using natural dyes this Wovember.

Wovember highlights and promotes wool as a valuable natural resource. It is a versatile material which is the embodiment of quality and craftsmanship throughout all of the processes involved from gathering wool from sheep to the hand produced garments we knit and weave. Why should it end there? The dying process is an important aspect of design and industry, changing wool from a raw material into a useable colour palette for woollen creations and introducing pattern work and colour schemes.

It is important to consider where the garments we wear come from and how they are produced. Wool is a beautiful natural fibre, yet the yarns and clothing that are available to us commercially are often treated with chemical dyes and processes which add to pollution of rivers world-wide. Whist this offers the designer-maker and consumer with an unlimited colour palette to choose from, there are other more sustainable methods that we should consider.

Wovember has highlighted how the skill behind hand spun process can bring out the better qualities of wool. Working with natural dyes could only further enhance the natural qualities of wool in my opinion and it has been said that although subtle, natural dyes are ‘alive’.

They change and move not just with the course of the fabric, but through the passage of time’

(Richard Maybe, ‘Plants with a Purpose’)

The natural world has a lot of resources to offer, including a vast ever-changing palette of natural colours which can be accessed with a little time, patience and curiosity. Since ancient history natural dyeing techniques were perfected and industrialised in complex processes to attain desirable and consistent colours. Indigo has been used in the Indus Valley since 2500BC, the blue from woad became a more commonly used during the Elizabethan times, with ancient origins as a war paint, and the original ‘Robin Hood’ colour ‘Lincoln Green’ was obtained from a process involving weld and woad.  During the 1800’s Natural dyes were replaced with chemical processes, and basic knowledge of attaining the best colours from natural resources and the tried and tested processes of centuries were lost.

The heavy industry created by today’s consumerism, and the resulting environmental impact stems from Industrial Revolution. From an ecological perspective, the use of natural dyeing processes is less damaging to the environment and makes use of readily available and replenishable natural resources. There are many links between the current handcrafted revolution which we are in the midst of here in the UK, and the backlash that some artists and designers had at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Artist and Designer William Morris was ahead of his time and like many  makers, craftspeople and businesses today, he turned his back on industry and the mass-produced, veering towards what would now be seen as more sustainable and skill-based solutions to meet his design needs.

William Morris experimented with natural dyes in his printing, rug making and tapestry weaving, perhaps to give further context to his work by re-connecting with nature, which his abundant designs reflected. Some of his dyeing attempts at Queen Square on 17th November 1896 offer a seasonal insight into his process and practice and suggest some of the resources available at this time of year:

“…I was at Kelmscott the other day in that beautiful and cold weather and betwixt the fishing, I cut a handful of polar twigs and boiled them and dyed a lock of wool a very good yellow: This would be useful if fast, for the wool was unmordanted.”
                                                                                                                                         (‘William Morris by Himself’, Gillian Naylor)

This is a lovely extract describing Morris’s casual experimentation with natural dyes during a leisurely November day. Here is also a good tip that you can use poplar twigs to obtain a ‘good yellow’ dye. It also illustrates the simplest form of natural dyeing; boiling the material with a skein of wool.

“Poplar Twigs in Autumn” picture © Kate Lynch and used with her kind permission

Almost any plant will dye wool or cloth with some effect and there are many plants which will give fairly fast colours without the use of chemical fixatives, called mordants. The seasons provide their own ever-changing palette of colours and plants can be gathered whilst on a walk which is a fun and creative process that connects us with our local landscapes. In her book ‘Dyes from Natural Sources’, Anne Dyer suggests that “First experiments should be with a handful of anything that is on its way to the dustbin, bonfire, or compost heap”.  She goes on to explain that in Autumn, some plants and leaves keep their dye colour after death or leaf fall, but others such as walnuts lose it very quickly. She also suggests that ‘the late colours are often redder and richer than those in summer’. In the winter, twigs evergreens and some biennial and perennial plants are still available.

“Hawthorn Twigs” picture © Kate Lynch and used with her kind permission

“Fallen Oak Leaves” picture © Kate Lynch and used with her kind permission

Some suggestions of plants and leaves that could be gathered and used for dyeing wool this Wovember include fallen oak leaves (which will give a greenish gold), Hawthorn twigs (will give a pinkish tone), and Poplar twigs (Which William Morris obtained a good yellow from), along with a few more seasonal suggestions from Anne Dyer:

“Twigs are to be pounded and soaked and gathered in the winter. Some plants give the same colour as the mature leaves. Try ash, hazel, wild cherry and rose. Poplars give a better colour. Gather material before it is being used.”

Many of the books on the subject of natural dying contain different recipes, and conflicting tales. A basic recipe is outlined by Richard Maybe in ‘Plants with a Purpose’ states that you should use 100g of plant material to 5 litres if water for small jobs, and suggests the quickest method is to place the dyestuff in a muslin bag and simmer along with the item to be dyed in water in an enamel or steel pan, until you have ‘the colour you want’. Natural dyes can be obtained from cutting fresh plant material, or buying prepared and dried material at any time of the year. Other sources include garden plants, vegetables, and items found in the kitchen such as turmeric, carrot tops and onion skins if you are being experimental.

The uncertainty of casting precious thread into unknown colours can put some people off but the best approach is to be experimental and realise that your outcome will be unique. The colours obtained can depend on the time of year, location, and growing conditions and one plant may not yield the same colour as another of the same species. Outcomes can be less frustrating and more interesting when we stop trying to manipulate nature and work with what is available and being offered. Another tip is to work in small batches, dyeing enough skeins of wool for your project together in the same dye bath. Even if the colour you have reached is not the desired outcome, at least the colour you have gained will be the same shade throughout your project. The type of container used to boil the plant and material in can also have an impact on colour, so stainless steel pans are suggested. I see all of these variables as part of the fun of experimentation and the colours obtained from your pickings will create a narrative specific to you and your garment.

Most plant dyes need a chemical fixative to make them ‘fast’ and this can also boost or change a colour during the process. William Morris seemed disappointed that he had not used a mordant to ‘fix’ the ‘good yellow’ he achieved with poplar twigs. However, in his book ‘Plants with a purpose’ Richard Maybe states that ‘if you are prepared to enjoy rather than resent the delicate fading results when you don’t use metallic fixatives (mordants) and to confine yourself to items like scarves and socks , you will only need very small quantities of plant material.’ I am interested in the fading results and changing colours that might occur and small garments could even be re-dyed using material available at the time, keeping them ever-changing and interesting like the seasons!  Batch production becomes difficult because of the vast amount of plant material needed to extract strong enough colours. However, if you are working on a bigger project, or want the colour to be fixed, the recipes suggest using alum with cream of tartar as a ‘mordant’.

Dyeing consistent colours on a larger scale is not easy or reliable. William Morris spent untold hours experimenting for the dyeing of wool for his magnificent rugs. This was a more industrious process in comparison to his leisurely pickings of poplar twigs. He worked with the help of Thomas Wardle in Leek, Staffordshire. Frustrating accounts such as ‘I lost my temper in the dye-house’, highlight the uncertainties associated with dyeing with natural dyes on a larger scale, which lead ideas that ‘I don’t suppose the dyeing of our wools will ever be a profitable business to anyone, and no doubt it will be a troublesome one’.  However, through determination and patience Morris was largely able to obtain satisfactory colours. From Leek in 1896 he wrote: “I am dyeing yellows and reds: the yellows are very easy to get, and so are a lot of shades of salmon and flesh-colour and buff and orange; my chief difficulty is in getting a blood red…” (Extracts taken from William Morris by Himself, Gillian Naylor).

“William Morris and his woven woollen rugs created using natural dyes”  picture © Kate Lynch and used with her kind permission

There is no doubt that the time, craftsmanship and effort William Morris put into dyeing the wool for his magnificent woven carpets and tapestries paid off.  His choice of natural materials such as wool and natural dyes gives his work has greater meaning and context which has stood the test of time. Some of his rugs can currently be seen at the Tate Exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde’ which runs until 13th January 2013.

It seems appropriate that delicate natural dyes should be used to colour wool that has undergone such skilled processes to transform it to a useable yarn with unique properties, however natural dyeing is perhaps best suited to individuals experimenting at home and when knitting and weaving one-off items. By choosing to work with natural dyes we can take the processes back to basics to create truly unique and more valuable outcomes; with meaning behind the making. There are many books on the subject and it is worth looking up the process up in more detail if you decide to do some natural dyeing this Wovember and beyond.

“Research books” picture © Kate Lynch and used with her kind permission

Bibliography and suggested books:

Natural Dyeing:
‘Spinning, Dyeing and weaving’ Penny Walsh, Self-sufficiency series, New Holland Publishers 2009.
‘The Craft of Natural Dyeing’ Jenny Dean, Search Press 2005.
‘A Dyers Manual’ Jill Goodwin, Pelham Books 1985.
‘Plants with a Purpose: A guide to the everyday use of wild plants’ Richard Maybe, Collins 1977.
‘Dyes from Natural sources’ Anne Dyer, G.Bell and Sons Ltd 1976.

William Morris Extracts from:
‘William Morris by Himself: Designs and writings, Edited by Gillian Naylor, Time Warner Books, 2004