Friday, 16 August 2013

Yarrow Plant Dye

Yarrow, arrowroot, knight's milfoil, staunchweed, woundwort, bad  man's plaything, devil's nettle or death flower. Officially, Achillea millefolium.  An herbaceous perennial, native to the Northern hemisphere, spreading by rhizomatous growth.  An invasive wildflower, as you might say, but not an unwanted weed.  In my 'Complete Book of Herbs' by Lesley Bremness, it gets a wonderful write up. Yarrow speeds up the composting, activates disease resistance in plants growing nearby and staunches bloodflow from wounds.  I have been looking out for it for ages.  Last summer, I found a few plants along the edge of the playing fields. While I was waiting for the seedheads to mature, the man on the mower 
drove along six inches nearer the fence and had the lot.  I couldn't even find seed for sale, so  I bought one of its larger relatives, Achillea Coronation Gold, which is doing very well in the garden.  Walking home last Saturday, I suddenly noticed wild yarrow, flowering all along the kerbs on our street. 
 I suppose that it was there all the time, getting mowed with the grass verge, only able to flourish now because of the July heat wave.  The dry weather turned the grass brown all round the edges. The yarrow must have coped better and sprung up faster with the rain we have had since.  You can see the little feathery basal leaves at grass level. 


Sunday morning early, taking the dog for cover, I strolled out to pick a basket full, before the song of the mower could be heard in the land.  No-one was wounded and bleeding, I don't need anything under my pillow to help me dream of my husband and nor do I plan on using the stalks to read my fortune in The Book of I Ching. Instead, I soaked the lot in rain water, ready to make a dye bath.
These are two 50g skeins of wool I spun from the fleece of a local Suffolk sheep.  Although they look quite cuddly and creamy, up close they are more 'durable, but discoloured'. The fleece's value is more in the intangibles, being a generous gift, the origin of my suint vat and having grown on a sheep who lives not much further from home than the yarrow. Whatever colour came out of the dye bath was likely to be an improvement.  As for any other properties the plant might impart - well, who knows, the resulting knitwear might sort out heavy periods and protect against witchcraft. So many powers are ascribed to one small flower.  It used to be a 'sacred herb'.
The wool was mordanted with alum and Cream of Tartar and the chopped, soaked yarrow was simmered for an hour or so on Monday night.  The two were combined for a simmer and left overnight to soak.  Three cold rinses, hang up to dry and voila - golden brown wool. The yarrow made it smell lovely, too.  The compost heap got the benefit of the leftover plant material.  I'll just have to wait and see if it does rot down any faster than usual. 

Steve pointed out that our very own kerb had a strip with yarrow leaves visible, though badly set back by his weekly lawnmowing.  Very sweetly, he dug out some lumps of turf from his cherished verge and laid them in a bit of border I had cleared. Not in full sun, but safe from the mower.  Next time I slice my finger while cooking, I can smile through the pain and nip out to pick a leaf and see if it stops the bleeding.  
I shall knit Steve magic socks. When he wears them, his inner Druid will release power to foretell the weather and he will never get caught without an umbrella again.   At any rate, his feet will smell nicer.




7 comments:

  1. Thank you for your information on Yarrow. I am boiling a pot as I write this to dye some wool myself. The Navajo Indians are known to use Yarrow for their wool rugs.

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    1. Hope it went well. The socks are in regular use and the colour has lasted well.

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  2. Oh my goodness that basket is the most beautiful thing.

    Do you sell your creations?

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    1. Not so far, but when I retire I'd like to have a little Etsy Business/show stall. Happy dreams ...

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  3. Do you have a formula for calculating the amount of alum and cream of tartar to wool?

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    1. Ten percent the weight of wool - either just ten percent alum, or seven percent alum together with three percent CoT. Using the combination seems to make the mordanted wool less harsh to touch. So 100g wool needs 10g alum to mordant it, or 7g alum plus 3g CoT. As a rule of thumb, one large teaspoon alum crystals will mordant 50g fibre.

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