Friday, 10 January 2014

Dyeing Wool and Alpaca with Mahonia Berries

A box of frozen mahonia berries has been lurking in the bottom drawer of my freezer, thanks to an autumn trading session with dyers on Ravelry.  The berries are reputed to give a purple dye, though I have been warned, more likely grey. Not a problem, I love grey, it's a very flattering colour.

Here's a photo of a mahonia bush, growing just down the road from me.  I noticed it because the bright yellow flowers have been dazzling against a dark green clump of holly.   I believe the berries ripen in autumn, certainly none there now. Wild, wet and windy last weekend, I had a snotty cold, was fed up with work and not looking forward to dismantling the Christmas decorations.  The house always looks so bleak without them, no more fairy lights dispelling the gloom of the long dark nights. A new dye project cheered up my packing away and cleaning.  I've not previously dyed anything with frozen material nor tried using any part of a Mahonia bush, so quite exciting stuff.  Plus, I wasn't just dyeing wool.
Among my many blessings, reasons to be cheerful and not a miserable old cow, is this fabulous box of alpaca.  Last summer, I entered a couple of patterns in a TOFT design competition for using up small amounts of yarn.  One was judged a runner up and this prize arrived just before Christmas - two kinds of alpaca fleece and a ball of alpaca yarn blended with silk.  So fine and soft and light. Alpaca is surely destined for lace knitting.  
The 50g ball is 230m long.  Searching lace knitwear, I found ete chic, a French pattern for a narrow summer scarf which required only 175m yarn.  Perfect, the lace band is only 12 stitches wide with an eight row repeat.  How far wrong could anyone go?

The brutal truth is that I am not destined to knit lace. At least half of the repeats in this band had to be unravelled.  It is a very good job that the end of each repeat is clearly defined by two cast off stitches.  If I had had to go back to the beginning every time I got it wrong, I'd be at it still.  Some of the yarn in this lace band ended up seriously mutilated, grey and sweaty.

The body of the scarf is plain sailing, garter stitch is surprisingly pretty in a fine yarn.  It really did only need 175m, so I still have some of my ball left over. When TOFT announce their competition results, I'll be looking to see how much yarn the winning project needs.  Til then, lacework can wait for bright sunshine to improve my temper and the visibility of fine twisted stitching.

The mahonia berries weighed 200g.  Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colour suggests an equal weight of fibre to berries.  Hoping for a deep purple/dark grey, I only used 100g fibre - the 40g alpaca scarf and two skeins of handspun wool, weighing 50g and 10g.  I washed the alpaca gently and scoured the wool vigorously then mordanted the lot with 10g alum. This was to be a one stop dye bath, extracting the dye from the berries at the same time as dyeing the fibre.  Wild Colour recommends simmering mahonia berries for 45 minutes maximum.  I poured all the berries into the water with the fibre and started to heat it up slowly.  No colour seemed to be showing when I peered at it.  Damn - forgot to crush the berries!   Not a problem, they were floating on the surface, swollen up like sultanas in brandy.  Great fun to squish, they popped like bubble wrap and obligingly sank down out of sight.  Lots of orangey colour started to swirl out, but a dye bath often looks different to the colour the fibre takes on.  In between carting boxes back up to the loft, frequent visits to check progress meant I kept the temperature almost exactly 90 degrees centigrade for precisely 40 minutes before turning off the heat and leaving the lot to soak overnight.

Oaths and imprecations unsuitable for a Sunday morning. Yet again, I have created beige. The wool has gone a warmer colour than the alpaca/silk mix, which is interesting to know, but hardly substitutes for even a temporary purple result.  Not so much as a lavender tint.  


Right, try soaking the little skein in a soda ash alkali after bath, see if it goes a soft green, like the book says. It did go greenish, but frankly, the contents of my hanky are more appetising. 

Some weekends, the nicest thing that happens is discovering a forgotten Toblerone while wiping down a bookshelf.

I've saved a few seeds from the frozen berries and put them in a pot of earth outside.  If any germinate, I'll have a handsome winter flowering plant.


  1. "Yet again, I have created beige." Yes, I have done that, although I imagine the color that might be there if only the light were a little different.

  2. Dear Fran
    I was lucky enough to learn Shetland Lace knitting from Elizabeth Lovick's course which I bought online from her (Northern Lace on Ravelry). Somewhere in the tips she provided was how to use a LIFELINE - a yarn of a different colour that you feed through the loops on your needle so you have a marker row to unravel to if you make a mistake. You pull the lifeline out after, say, every repeat of the pattern and re-insert, so even a numpty like me can make progress.

    Hope it helps.

    Kirsty in New Zealand - a beginner spinner who got carried away and bought a whole alpaca fleece to practise on..... eeek!

    1. Thank you - I will ask for that course for my birthday. I would love to knit lace patterns. I am cracking on with the alpaca, though it has taken ages, I am on the last lap.