Friday, 14 June 2013

Dyeing with Young Bracken Shoots

Sheep don't eat bracken.  I seem to be its only local predator. 

The Latin name is Pteridium Aquilinum.  I read it has been around for over 55 million years and is classed as a noxious weed in Great Britain. Vigorous and invasive, it can be cut to the ground twice a year and still thrive.  There are recipes for cooking the new shoots or fiddleheads, but the sheep are not daft.  Bracken dominates miles of moorland because of its toxicity to other plants and animals.

On the plus side, it makes pretty good compost, some butterflies like it and I still think it's beautiful.  The bracken here seems to have sprung out of the ground in the last fortnight and the wool is rising.  The weak link between last year's growth and the new wool is letting the old fleece fall off the unshorn sheep on the moor in tatty lumps.  

Jenny Dean's book Wild Colour says bracken dye is yellow from new shoots, going to olive green in mature plants.  Last July, I got a brilliant zingy lime green.  This year, I intend to try a bracken dye bath every month through the summer.

Whatever the shade, bracken is a fugitive dye.  

Last summer,  I made a striped bag with wool dyed with comfrey, nettles and bracken.  As you can see, all the green and gold shades are now so muted as to be barely visible except in the sunshine. I still use the bag all the time, but only the handles dyed with red onion skin have kept much colour.

Since I can go at it like a prehistoric monster with no ecological qualms at all, I shall be trying to get the strongest, fastest colours from bracken by using a ratio of 10/1 plant weight to wool weight.  I picked 1.5kg bracken on Thursday, soaked it through Friday, simmered it for two hours on Saturday and left the pot to cool with the bag of plant material still inside.  I soaked four skeins of total weight 150g overnight, and on Sunday, put them into the dye bath.  Three are texere wool 
and one is another of my practices at blending Gotland and Jacob.  All were mordanted with alum and Cream of Tartar.  I brought them up to 90 degrees centigrade over the course of an hour, simmered for over two hours and left them in the pot for another 24 hours.  This is my best shot at capturing a fugitive dye. 

And the colour was  ...

Maybe it is a concentrated yellow.
An alkali afterbath made the skein at the back slightly greenish.

 I shall tie a bit on a card in the window and see how fast daylight makes it fade to palest beige. 
Not too downhearted, these herbal dyes don't have the eye catching blaze of synthetics, but even the drab ones can be remarkably flattering to wear.  If you spot a predatory dinosaur on the moor in a brownish cardigan, it could be me.


  1. I dyed with bracken tips this week, and got a miserable, wishy-washy goose-turd yellow. And in the past, I know I've got bright lime green.

    So I gave up, and have been doing bright madder/logwood and brilliant yellows.

    1. Green with envy. But I did my first weld dye today and seem to have serious sunshine in the pot - I'll fish it out tomorrow. Only three years til I can harvest my madder roots ...

  2. I'm still in love with that basket! I seem to keep stumbling upon it whilst searching for other non-wool related things.

    I love that you're using plants to dye your wool with! I'm a botanist/herbalist/gardener :)

    1. I just read your blog - bookmarked for the future - very interesting. Would you like me to make you a bag with wool dyed with herbs? They don't give strong colours, but I think you like the faded ones? I need to firm up a pattern for that bag, keep losing notes I make, they have all come up slightly different, but it is a very functional shape.