Friday, 15 May 2015

A Trial of Dyeing with Sweet Woodruff Leaves and Roots

Chelsea Flower Show is on next week.  This means that it must be nearly time for planting out all my seedlings from the greenhouse.   Rain is forecast for the next few days, the moon starts descending next Wednesday and I will have Thursday off work - what a perfect conjunction of events.

Much of the garden is getting replanted with plants that give dyes. When I got round to reviewing the official 'Dye Garden', which was left bare last autumn, the alpine strawberries and sweet woodruff had struck back, stopped lurking down the shadiest end and surged forward to get some Spring sun. 

Such a lovely, fresh, green carpet.  I hardened my heart, being a woman with special needs and a lot of pots of coreopsis and dyer's chamomile to find homes for.  Much digging later, there were only a couple of oriental poppies spared and a few tulips left to die back naturally.

From the name 'sweet' woodruff and the Latin version Galium odoratum I expected the plant to have a strong perfume.  It doesn't actually smell of much til it has wilted.  I've read that the roots give a red dye, like a weaker version of madder.  Shaking the dirt off, they did have an orange tinge to them, so I spent ages untangling woodruff from all the associated weeds, til I had half a bucketfull.

I couldn't find any details of dye methods, so I separated most of the roots out and treated them just as I did the madder, alkalinising the bath and adding calcium carbonate before warming gently, while the plant tops had the usual hour at a simmer.  There was a fair orange tinge to the root bath plus a lovely scent.

I have mordanted a great length of superwash Merino with alum, planning to dye my own tops for spinning.  Even after the gentlest sloosh in a cold mordant bath, the fibres were getting disorganised, but at least they don't seem felted by heating in the dye baths. Palest pink came from roots and a soft green from the leaves.  My photos never do show the green properly.

I transplanted other clumps of woodruff into a bare area revealed by himself, brutally pruning back a camellia bush. Going to see if they had survived the move, I found Elinor Gotland making her own inspection.
"Wow, that hat is special."
"Just trying on my outfit for Chelsea."
"OOO you lucky thing!"  I paused for thought.  
"Wouldn't you be better off with comfy shoes and a rucksack?"
"Hardly.  I shall be attending the Charity Gala Preview.  All I need to take along is fresh lipstick, as Alan Titchmarsh will probably want to interview me."
Back in the house, it dawned on me that her outfit had been co-ordinated to match a silk scarf I dyed in the remains of the root bath, with hardy geranium leaves and some dried up bits of fermented Evernia prunastri.  As she waltzed off in a swirl of pure Habotai silk,  I called after her,
"At least take an umbrella, Elinor.  It is definitely going to rain on Monday evening." 
"Not in the President's Marquee, Beaut.  They don't let rain dilute the champagne."  
I don't think there will be any point asking her about the Show Gardens.  I'll just have to wait and see them on telly.


  1. I am really enjoying reading your posts on dyeing and spinning too

  2. Hi Fran, Great blog as usual, I've never experimented with woodruff. With superwash wool, the chemicals used affects the colour slightly. I've got an old Spin Off magazine that features a comparison on wool tops using spices & herbs.

    Susan (Pembs).

    1. Ahhhh. I got superwash hoping to avoid felting the tops while dyeing and never thought about the impact on dye uptake. I'll have to put some in a dye bath with other wool and make a comparison. Thanks,