Friday, 24 July 2015

Dyeing Wool with Pink Hollyhock Flowers

Harvesting dye plant flowers for storing is best done on a dry day, but we simply haven't had many of those this month.  At least it saves time watering the garden pots. These pink hollyhocks grow in a raised border with plenty of manure and have responded to the wet conditions with multiple flowering spikes, lower blossoms going over as higher ones unfurl.  My past experiments with maroon hollyhocks suggested that the range of colours the petals contain may be much diminished by freezing and also that red varieties, when dried, give yellowy green dyes. Plants from seeds I sowed two years ago had a serious savaging by slugs early in their lives and the pots got mixed up in a rescue mission, so I've had to wait til now to find out what colour the survivors would be.  This week, there seemed to be plenty of pink to collect, so I squidged about in the rain, gathered eighty soggy, spent flowers and decided to use them fresh.   I just simmered them gently til the colour had leached out, producing a rosy pink dye bath.
Hoping these salmony pink flowers might contain numerous constituent types of dye molecule which might give a series of colours,  I added just 15g of merino tops, mordanted with 10% alum, brought the temperature up to about
60 degrees centigrade, let the bath cool, then repeated the process two more times with another couple of small quantities of merino.  The first sample was greeny yellow, the second sample yellowy green and third, just a paler version somewhere between the two.  These pink flowers do not seem to have such complex colour constituents as the maroon ones.  Then I remembered that hollyhock dyes are very sensitive to pH, the previous
red flower dye going brown with acid and green with alkali.  The remaining dye bath tested as pH neutral and adding half a teaspoon of dissolved soda ash caused an immediate and obvious colour shift from pale pink to green. Putting some of the merino from each of the original samples back into the dye pot for half an hour of reheating, I expected their colour to become greener and stronger. Alkali did brighten up the
weaker second and third samples, but not as strikingly as I recalled happening before and I was not ecstatic at the prospect of spinning up these samples. Adding some iron water to the dye bath, I heated it up one last time with another piece of the three pH neutral portions.  All of them turned deep green.  Very nice. This could be worth trying as a background for contact dye on some extortionately expensive wool gauze I have tucked away.  I went back out on yet another rainy afternoon to salvage the next lot of
spent pink hollyhock flowers and added them to the same pot along with the woolen fabric, rolled up round coreopsis and dyers chamomile flowers with hardy geranium leaves.  The wool fabric is not as green and did not take such a detailed impression of the plants as silk, but the effect is pleasing.

Pleasing, but not exhilarating.  It gets hard to look on the bright side while dark clouds perpetually cover the July sky.  Particularly when the slugs have ravaged the woad leaves, black fly cluster on the stems of madder and chamomile and a bored puppy just bit one of the Hopi sunflower plants down to a stump.  My companion, Elinor Gotland chose this moment of carnage for her return from Montreal.

Steering well clear of the dog, she headed upstairs to unpack.
"Cheer up, Beaut.  I've brought you back some instant sunshine.  Maple syrup.  In the morning, we're making waffles."


  1. please translate this commentar.. ich färbe immer wieder.. herr schweppes schrieb, man darf kein alaun mehr ancer wolle haben bei stockrose. ich habe seide violett damit gefärbt, dazu habe ich schwarze stockrosenblüten in alkohol gelöst ( preiswerter wodka geht gut ) und dann die seide, viele male nach dem beizen gespült, zwischen die blüten gelegt, alles in einem glas, und das ganze langsam im wasserbad erwärmt..gab schöne rosaviolettfarben liebe grüße wiebke

    1. The translation sites do not make complete sense, but I think you are suggesting not to use alum, to extract dye using alcohol with silk gently warmed together with the petals. I shall try this, so long as Elinor does not get at the cheap vodka before me. Thanks very much for the advice.

  2. Do you have a pond in your garden? Frogs are great at clearing out slugs. Kinder than nematodes too, possibly.

    Blackfly and aphids can be squirted off plants with a high pressure spray from a hose, just using water. If you only have a few plants then just 'squidge' them with your fingers!

    Not sure about the puppy. Keeping them occupied must be like having a small child - with sharper teeth.

    Is it just me? I thought those hollyhocks might produce a pink/red dye.

    1. No pond. I have thought about it, and himself was quite keen, but there isn't much space in the garden and the prospect of clearing out algae didn't appeal. Perhaps I should rethink, though the frogs could wax exceedingly plump this year. I did rather hope for pinks from the hollyhocks, or at least lavender, but no, more yellow/green. And now, I had better walk the dog before she eats any more plants.