Friday, 22 May 2015

A Green Walnut Hull Dyebath used for Dyeing a Silk Ecobundle Leaf Print

This bowl of walnut hulls resurfaced when I was clearing up in the garage. Originally, the walnut cases were green and must have fallen before they were ripe, because we picked them up off the grass last July, while visiting the gardens at  West Dean.  I put them in this bowl with some water and they stayed green for weeks, til I rather forgot about the whole idea of dyeing with them.

"I'm sure I have heard stories of princesses smearing their faces with walnut juice to darken their skin."
"What, like spray tan?"
"No, Elinor, it was a cunning ruse to disguise themselves as simple country girls while running away from wicked stepmothers."
My companion looked sceptical.  She stood her teacup back on the saucer and said firmly,
"Never mind the bedtime stories. Chuck that lot on the compost heap."
Where would I be without Elinor to supervise the garage clean up?   
"Mmm, well, I suppose a princess would have had to lay her plans well ahead if she did want the juice out of this lot." I slooshed the thick black residue round the bottom of the bowl. Then, just to assert my independence, I took it to the kitchen and poured in a kettle full of boiling water.

The fluid appeared very dark, as if there were a good deep brown dye in there.  I simmered the old hulls for an hour with a small amount of alum mordanted fleece, unmordanted wool yarn and a scrap of unmordanted white silk. Yup, it all ended up more beige than San Tropez.  Brown wool I can get straight off the sheep, but the silk gave pale beige a sophisticated sheen.  This walnut dye bath seemed fit for an experimental silk leaf print.

Last autumn, I tried painting the fluid from my jam jar of water, vinegar and festering rusty nails, onto various leaves before rolling them up in silk and simmering in a dye bath.  Few actually made a recognisable pattern.  One of the better effects came from alpine strawberry leaves, which are presently growing faster than I can weed them out of garden paths.  
When they are simmered between two layers of silk in a dyebath with iron in it, my usual geranium leaves make a  clearer iron dyed outline from their upper
surface and let more of their own greeny yellow dye colour out from the underside.  It's hard to be completely sure which side was which, after an ecobundle has dried out and can be unrolled. The strawberry leaves didn't give any dye colour last time, so in hopes of jazzing this scarf up, I fetched
out some dried coreopsis and dyer's chamomile flowers and some dessicated flakes of fermented Evernia prunastri lichen and soaked them in hot water before laying them on the wet, alum mordanted silk.  Some of the strawberry leaves had iron water painted on the topside, others on the back, though this takes a bit of brushing as the fluid tends to bead on the undersurface.
Rather than rolling the piece longways, which means there are many layers of silk for the dyebath to penetrate, I folded it end to end, putting more layers of plant material on, before rolling it sideways round a big plastic flowerpot, so the innermost silk only had three layers above it. Tied up with garden string, after
an hour or so simmering in the walnut dye bath, a night left in there to soak and a couple of days to dry out, my ecobundle looked like this.  The silk then had all the plant material picked out of it and three warm rinses to get the loose dye off, before going through the washing machine on a silk and wool 30 degree cycle with a pH neutral detergent.  Pressed while damp with a medium hot steam iron, finally, I could have a proper look at the prints.

This bit comes from a folded part, it shows that a leaf with iron painted on its underside gave a spotted print where the iron water beaded, below it is an outline from its top surface, showing where the iron leached over the edges. The yellow flower print comes from the dyer's chamomile, the orange from coreopsis and the pink from the Evernia prunastri. Leaves painted on their topside gave the most detailed prints, this might be formed by the walnut dyebath coming up deeper where mordanted with the iron.

My daughter kindly put the scarf on so we could admire the full effect.
"I think printing a band along both ends of the scarf worked out fine, because you don't really see the bit round the back of her neck."
Elinor Gotland was unimpressed.
"Hmm, well, I didn't see mummy's little princess helping clean out the garage.  I think that scarf would suit an older person better."
"Someone with grey fleece?"
"And timeless natural chic, Beaut.  Get that girl to put the kettle on."


  1. I love the colours and patterns you created, its very attractive. Jill Goodwin once said, never compost a plant without testing it for dye.
    I'm off to St. Davids for the Really Wild Festival this weekend,
    lots of foraging to be had and some spinning.


    1. I just googled the festival - I'd love to go foraging. Must look out for that next year. Have a good time.