Friday, 20 September 2013

Berry Dyes and Colour Fastness

Don't bother dyeing with berries.  That's like telling a child not to put beans up its nose.  

Autumn berry colours are irresistible. This September there seem to be more than ever.  I just had to try another berry dye.  Or two.

I ought to know better. Last summer I made a lovely red raspberry dye bath.  Within a week, my pale pink wool had faded almost completely.  Last autumn, a fabulous dark blackberry bath - beige wool.  Soaked and simmered deep red rose hips - not even an exciting colour dye bath.  And I'm only talking about lightfastness here, the fruit dyed wool really wasn't worth knitting into something that might go through the wash.

Elderberries were the exception. Last September, I picked a carrier bag full of ripe heads, fermented them for a few days and simmered below the boil for an hour in a big pot of water, then added Texere Chunky 100% wool skeins, mordanted with Alum and Cream of Tartar.  The result was eyewateringly strong, glaring rather than deep purple. Thankfully, it calmed down to a more muted and usable shade over the next couple of weeks.  

That change can't simply be about lightfastness, because the middle of my tightly rolled balls faded as much as the wool on the outside.  I gave some of the batch an iron afterbath, by adding a splash of vinegar that had had rusty nails soaking in it.  This turned it a moody purplish gray.  The dyebath still had a lot of colour and hadn't gone mouldy, so I simmered it again with more wool and got a paler shade.  

I knitted some into a hat for my niece. The hat got worn outdoors - excellent.  Here it is, a year later, worn on a chilly evening last weekend.  Flash photography has made the colours look stronger than they do in daylight. The iron grey is still there, with a mere mauvish reminder of berries.
The same wool was used to crochet a cushion cover. This has sat on the sofa, out of direct sunlight and, oh the shame, has never been through the wash. I brought it out into the sun for a photo.  Although the purple has faded to pink, I like it, it's good for another winter.  I found a spare end of skein which has been buried in my basket for the same amount of time. The colour is noticeably stronger, but also more pink than the original purple.  I conclude that elderberry dye fades, losing the blue tones more markedly than the red.  A powerful temporary colour for dyeing boiled eggs or cake icing, ok for woolen items that won't be washed and stay in the house, if you are happy with pink.  Everything fades eventually, synthetic colours included.  No reason not to enjoy berry dyes, but I wouldn't put a lot of effort into knitting purple patterns into clothes or bags, because the colour is too fugitive.

Lycestra self seeds and grows huge in my garden.  The drooping branches give a big wet slap when you push past them on rainy days.  Pruning it to clear a path, I just wondered if the cooler conditions in a solar jar might capture the colour of the red berries. Despite all my past failures, I tried it out.  Two weeks later, faintest fawn.  Where did that red go?

You might imagine I would stick to collecting berries for pies and jams, now.  I did mean to. Out with the dog on my half day last week, I got a mixture of elderberries, blackberries and dew berries and added a few damsons from a tree in the garden.   This is the recipe for a rob, a cordial to drink with hot water when you have a cold, which I do.
Add enough water to cover, simmer for an hour, pulp with a potato masher and pour through a sieve into a jug.  For every litre of juice, add 500g sugar and whatever suitable spices you have in the cupboard. In this case, sliced fresh ginger and some rather ancient cloves, a cinnamon stick and three star anise.  Simmer for another hour and bottle.  No idea if it does any good, but it hits the spot for me.
Having bottled the rob, I found myself with a sieve full of mashed purple pulp.  It seemed a shame to waste it.  Although it had been boiled, which would destroy most blue pigments, I simmered the pulp again in plenty of water, just to see what would happen to a small skein of mordanted wool.  Not bad at all, wild berry pink.  Maybe I'll use it for a stripe in some socks. 

Had to do something to salvage the wool in the failed solar pot, so I fished out the lycestra and put in elderberries instead.  A friend said she'd heard the solar method will produce a better purple that lasts longer, though it seems more likely that the sun will just bleach the colour away again. Just maybe, the cooler solar method might bring out the blues.  Worth a go.

All things considered, don't bother dyeing with berries.  Use them for jam or rob. 

Better still, bottle them in gin for Christmas. Speaking of which, I wonder what would happen if I dyed wool with sloes?


  1. So funny! It just seems like none of can resist! The rob sounds awesome.

  2. Thanks :) The rob is good stuff - wish I still had some left.