Friday, 22 November 2013

Dyeing Wool with Galls, Acorns and Oak Leaves

I have been collecting oak galls, whenever I see them, with a view to using them for dyeing.  Their high tannin content is supposed to mordant wool at the same time as giving it colour.  While reading over this section of Jenny Dean's book, I saw she advises oak galls be used fresh. Mine were already pretty dehydrated in their dish on the windowsill, though I hadn't yet made any plan to use them. 
Part of my Dorset Poll fleece went through a suint vat that made it sticky and greyish, instead of cleaning it. Even after two goes in the washing machine, it was impossible to comb the locks out. Dried up galls and manky fleece - not much to lose on either count.

No careful advance soaking.  I bashed up the galls in an old envelope and boiled them in a small pan, stuffed about 200g of fleece in a big pot, filled it with water and poured in the brown fluid from the galls. Brought the lot to a simmer, only let it cool to 60 degrees, then drained the whole shebang into the sink, hoping the hot water and tannin might strip away some more of the grease on the wool.

About half the wool went back in the pot with hot water and a slug of iron made from rusty nails kept in a jar full of vinegar. Short simmer and the same again.  I rinsed the locks and laid them out to dry.  When I tried combing again, it did go much better.  Not light, relaxing strokes and easy drafting, but perfectly manageable.  I spun two fingering weight skeins, scoured them and had a good look at the yarn.  It was harsher than yarn spun previously from the best part of the fleece, but not bad.

I thought I would salvage the rest of the greasy wool and get a range of oak tones by going through the same process using a bowlful of crushed up acorns, then dyeing the remainder with a bucket of chopped up fallen oak twigs and leaves, come down after a big storm.  I did soak those for a week, while occupied with something else.  All the wool ended up very similar colours.
I'd reckon any tannin rich dye bath is likely not only to mordant, but also to degrease fleece.  After this experiment, I think it's possible you could go from dry, raw fleece to clean, dyed locks in one easy simmer. I do enjoy a measured, day by day process. Even so, this winter, I might try a shortcut or two with a bark dye bath and some raw Welsh Mountain Fleece.   

Steve has been angling for a new cardigan, bit of a pout when I said there wasn't enough of this wool, pink would not suit him and the iron dyed part was really too rough.  I tried carding rolags combining half silky, white Polwarth fleece and half the oak and iron dyed locks.  Spun with medium twist on the 10/1 wheel ratio and two plied to about double knitting weight, I got a soft yarn in pale brown shades.  
Though the combination worked out well, it was a bit of a pain in the arse to to tease out and card these locks.  I decided two balls of 50g each was as much as I wanted to do.

Looking for a scarf a serious cyclist could wear in winter, I found a free pattern called The Age of Brass and Steam on Ravelry.  I needed my knitting directory to make sure I did the yarn overs and the 'make one right, make one left' bits correctly, so it was slow going at first.  The way it all turns out is really cunning, easy when you have done it once.  

I call this The Age of Oak and Iron v The Age of Goretex and Lycra.
I used the fingering weight yarn I spun originally to make another kerchief on a smaller needle size, pictured here going back to its roots beneath the oak tree. 

Here are both my bat-like creations, returning to the wild.


  1. Beautiful!
    Can you dye using Horse Chestnuts?

  2. I had the same experience with Polled Dorset and FSM. And I'd been wondering what would happen with just galls and iron, I've only done it with oak leaves as well, so thanks for clearing that up, LOL.

    GZ - you can dye with the green shells from horse chestnuts, but you have to use a lot of ammonia to extract it in my experience.

    1. Thankyou-just wondered if you could capture that luscious chestnut colour..

    2. Thanks both - chestnuts are another thing I have not yet tried.

  3. So interesting.Thanks! I tried fermenting in oak bark for a few weeks one summer. Then I moved the yarn to another bucket fermenting with fresh plant material. I didn't get much of a color, but that wool was really soft!

  4. Thank you for the article! Want to clarify - did that first picture of the beautiful pink color you got come from the first dip before mordanting with iron? Thanks again

    1. Hi Kelly
      The pink did come before mordanting with iron but I ought to tell you, in the years since I wrote this post, when I have dyed with galls and acorns, the result has been more brown than pink - the colour may have had to do with that particular fleece and its traumatic history. What has given me a reliable and I think nicer pink is silver birch bark - have a look at this post

    2. Great - Thank you for the info!