I’ve been busying myself this month with the unplanted wild(ish) harvest of our back garden. I tend to get a little compulsive about it this time of year: When a gift like this comes so bounteously my way, it feels rather churlish to let ANY of it go to ‘waste’. On top of that, this year I realised that not only do we get free food without effort, us dyers get nature’s version of a ‘bogof’ (buyonegetonefree) – we get colour from fruit AND leaves… (and roots, if we go that far).
So I’ve picked, boiled and strained, and in return I’ve been pricked, burned and stained for my trouble… but now I at least have a well stocked shelf of preserves:
Needless to say, the berry supply easily trumped my jam-making stamina and started making inroads into the prime real estate of the freezer. Once that was filled to the gunnels, the procrastination had to be over: It was time to hit the dyepot.
More pricks and scratches later, I had a dye-pot worth of berries (830g to be exact):
…and a catering size pan full of blackberry leaves (500g):
Then I considered the fact that blackberry dye is reportedly prone to fade quickly to a (rather lovely) grey. Some sites recommend sugar or salt to help with lightfastness, but I decided that ‘lovely grey’ is a nice possibility and just went the mordant route. I heated some washed fleece and a length of fine wool ‘nun’s veiling’ with 8% alum mordant and 7% cream of tartar and let it simmer for about an hour and cool overnight, then rinsed and resoaked it. (I’ve since learned that cream of tartar for dyeing is different from the catering type, which I used… but I comforted myself that much of my dyeing and soaking happens in an aluminium pan which boosts my alum %).
Meanwhile, I covered the berries, and the leaves with water (I estimated what would cover the fleece and fabric so I don’t have an exact measure for this) and heated the dye pots to around 190 degrees fahrenheit (just under a simmer… I got a little obsessive about temperature because somewhere I read that if you boil too hot the tannins in the dyestuff can be released lending the dye a brownish tinge(?) I let both dye pots cool overnight and steep – for 24 hours (blackberries) and 3 days! (blackberry leaves). The blackberry dye was a predictable purpley shade and the blackberry leaves lost their colour to the pot, which turned a rather good sort of ochre-green:
The next evening I strained the dyestuff off and heated up the dye pots to just under a simmer for about an hour, then left them to cool and steep for another 24 hours. By this point the kitchen had been smelling wonderful for about three days in a row – a heady combination of rich berry pudding and blackberry leaf tea (a sort of green tea-ish scent). The whole process spanned over about a week, and I was beginning to realise at this point that dyeing-by-night is the only way I can keep food and dyestuff safely separate… so now we segue into shots with dodgy artificial lighting:
The blackberry leaf dye came out a rather brilliant ochre-y green-yellow, particularly deep in tone on the nun’s veiling and a good colour on the fleece – it prompted a little girl visiting us to wonder why she hadn’t “seen yellow sheep before”.
But by far the nicest surprise as I’ve started carding, is the lovely blackberry leaf tea scent that still lingers in the dry fleece.
Meanwhile, the promising purple vat of blackberry dye impressed me less: The fabric sample came out a good purpley colour but not as rich as I’d hoped, and the fleece, which I’d thought was nicely dark, suddenly drained to a very pale lavender as I took it out of the deep purple dyepot. So I decided to give half the blackberry dyed fleece a second stint in the pot to see what difference that would make, with a handful of extra pre-steeped berries added in for good measure. I should add that this was a few days later, by which time the dyepot was beginning to smell a little ripe…
The result was deeper, but browner, almost rust-coloured (the bottom sample above). Interestingly, the nun’s veiling has a crumple-pattern of both shades because it was a bit scrunched up in the pot.
There are still berries out there beckoning me, but I’m thinking perhaps I should leave them to the birds now – I have plenty of carding to get on with…