Friday, 29 August 2014

Making Black Eyed Susan Dye from the Plant to the Wool

Black Eyed Susans often get cited as dye plant sources of green.  I thought the name referred to those little annual climbing vines with orange flowers. Delighted to find out that the dye plant was really Rudbeckia, I love yellow daisies and already had a couple of patio pots full of Goldsturm.

In 2013, I split up the rootbound clumps and replanted them along the path of my new Dye Garden. There were only a few flowers last summer, but this April, when I came to plant out the annuals, the Rudbeckia leaves were coming up thick and fast.  By July, a rich river of yellow daises had grown, a bit taller than is ideal for having right by the path.
A few fallen plants could be considered self selected dye materials.  I had noticed some people on the Ravelry forum 'Plants to Dye For' got olive green colours on wool, while others' results were beige. Time for a careful read of Jenny Dean's book 'Wild Colours' so as to achieve that green.  
To get the colours out of Rudbeckia, the book says the plants need a couple of hours at a proper boil, several days to steep, then another boil before sieving the bits out of the dye bath.  I mordanted some white fleece and a piece of silk with 10% alum and added two tiny skeins of wool, one mordanted with iron, the other with copper. The ratio of fresh plant weight to dry wool and silk was over two to one.  I prefer to think of the outcome as 'cafe au lait'.
Maybe Goldsturm was the wrong variety. Back to the books. Rita Buchanan clearly specifies Rudbeckia hirta Goldsturm in 'A Dyer's Garden' and makes two encouraging points -the flowers give more green than the whole plant and a high ratio of plant to fibre works better.  Sixty flowers weighing 200g went into Dye Bath Mark 2.  Through the whole boil, steep, boil process, this must surely turn 50g alum mordanted wool green?

Beige.  That yarn is three ply, took me ages to comb and spin consistently, twist matching the crimp, just like it says in The Spinners' Book of Fleece.  One of the little test skeins from the first dye bath was a bit more interesting, only I forgot to put knots in them to remind me which was mordanted with what.  

Back into the dye bath with 40ml from the jar of copper piping steeped in vinegar water. No change after half an hour on the heat.  Another splosh from the rusty nail jar to add iron and tadah!  The photo on the right shows olive green/khaki wool, only you have to take my word for it because the camera hasn't picked the colour up properly.

Here is Elinor, wearing Thelma the sheep's Down type fleece spun and dyed with Black Eyed Susan plus copper and iron.  The hat pattern is called Cinioch by Lucy Hague. Knitting her celtic cable designs requires concentration, but I'd say the results are well worth the effort.  The hat was a bit big on completing the knitting, but looks quite modern worn slouchy.  I name it Thelmioch.

It shrunk to the proper size after washing and blocking.
"Now your daughter has such a career in knitwear modelling, it hardly seems worth her going off to University."
"Wow, where did you get that hat?"
"Just a little something Jean Paul put together for me.  I do prefer a more classically contemporary style."


  1. I am just searching to find how to dye, what I thought were rudbeckia flower heads but they do not look quite the same as your splendid photos. I am envious of your knitting skills and the Celtic pattern is a great improvement on my wooly hats that I knit in a day!
    Way back in the l970s when I started spinning and knitting I dyed my handspun wool and commenced to knit in the round a shetland, wooly hat but did not realise that taking the different coloured wools required attention to tension - it was very beautiful but the only thing it fitted was a lavatory roll! We have had many laughs over the years recalling my disappointment.
    I have been saving coreopsis heads and have in the past been able to get neon yellows and oranges but that will have to wait a few more weeks until the plant starts to die back.
    Thank you for your posing.

    1. Your rudbeckia might give more green than mine, so I wouldn't worry if they look like a different kind. Know what you mean about those projects that don't go according to plan. How my family love to recall mine...