Friday, 17 June 2016

Dyeing Wool with Clematis Leaves

My companion, Elinor Gotland, must have been exhausted by her sailing holiday.  She slept for two days solid, drank a pot of tea, then dozed off again in the garden. Waking with a start, she stared blearily at the mountain of greenery I had piled onto the lawn.
"Did I drop off?"
"Sleeping Beauty, you are.  To paraphrase Tennyson
"She snores, her breathings are loud heard
In palace chambers far apart.
Fleecey tresses snortily stirr'd
That lay upon her charmed heart."
"And who do you think you are, a handsome Prince to my rescue, slashing away all rambunctious with your secateurs? Can't a ewe have a little nap in peace?  And I do not snore."
"Oh eyes long laid in happy sleep!
Oh happy sheep, in garden bed!
Oh happy snore, that woke thy sleep!
Oh sheep, thy snore would wake the dead!"
"Oh, give over.  Before you ask, this princess would rather be woken with a cup of tea than a kiss.  You've not so much pruned as gone machete mad, Beaut.  What is this wasteland of savaged foliage?"
I stuffed a huge bag with tangled clippings, ready for another trip to the skip.
"Thorns, ivies, woodbine, mistletoes, And grapes with berries red as blood, All creeping plants, a wall of green Close matted, bur and brake and briar - all to surround you, oh Sheeping Beauty.  Well, mostly, this was a very vigorous clematis.  Next door had started worrying about their roof tiles being invaded. I've never really been sure what time of year to cut back a montana and it got away from me rather."

Truth be told, the pink clematis made the back of our semi look like a fairytale cottage every May and I hadn't had the heart to exercise proper control.  The flowers were over, half the plant is down now and the place looks awfully bleak.  Still, we both agreed the kitchen seems much lighter and brighter, now the back door is no longer approached through a tunnel of leaves. Though I hadn't heard of getting
any dye colour out of clematis leaves, there was little to be lost in trying.  I crammed a pot as full as I could, added water and simmered it for a couple of hours.  After sieving out the wilted leaves, the water had turned a pale ginger - see centre jar.  Adding vinegar to acidify the jar on the right made the fluid slightly paler, adding dissolved soda ash to alkalinise the one on the left definitely deepened the colour.
"Look, Elinor, when I alkalinised the whole pot, all the froth turned green!"  My companion did not get up to see, she just waved a limp hoof in a dismissive gesture.
"'Fran prunes, scarce knowing what she seeks: she boils the plant, drops wool in there. If colour flies into her yarn, She trusts to light on something fair.'  Misplaced trust, I'll bet. Heaven knows why you don't stick to the classic dye plants, usually beige from the others, isn't it, then Beaut?"
A skein of white wool weighing 60g and premordanted with 10% alum was simmered and left to cool in the dye bath.  I always worry that prolonged soaking in alkali will harshen wool fibres, but this Cotswold yarn seemed to cope ok and came out greenish yellow.  Not a bad result, next time I prune the clematis, I will
put a smaller weight of wool in the pot and see if the colour comes up better.  A silk scarf was contact dyed in the remains of the dyebath with a little iron solution and came up greener that the camera shows.  The leafprints were made by various hardy geraniums and new leaves from coreopsis plants not yet in flower. At the sight of silk, my companion finally got off her arse, hauling herself up among the clematis shoots with much fuss and groaning.
"I'd have thought you'd be all fit and limber, after a week climbing the rigging and tacking to and fro, sailing around the Mediterranean."
"Catamaran, motor, autopilot, party boat." With this, Elinor slumped into a fold of the scarf and shut her eyes again.  
All precious dyes, discover'd late,
To those that seek them issue forth;
For iron in sequel works with silk,
And draws the veil from hidden worth.
And o'er the hills and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim
Beyond the night, across the day
We chase those colours, bright or dim.


  1. LOL...She must have been having rum on the dead man's chest by the sound of it!

    If she would like a more physical holiday send her here... my three Chihuahua's will soon see her right.


    1. I think Elinor is more apres ski than energetic, she'd probably only agree to be hauled along as if they were huskies. Thanks for the thought, I shall dwell upon it next time she winds me up.

  2. I used to throw everything green into my dyepot - but I eventually stopped that, because I had so many beigey-yellows as result:) there were a few surprises though - dark purple violets gave mint green, so did dark blue delphinium flowers, dark lupin flowers and dark aquilegia! I jumped on the "looking for nice greens" train and used reed flowers etc. - but I have to admit that I do still prefer reds, blues and purples. unfortunately not so easy to dye with natural colours. if you like an acid yellow - go for fuchsia flowers, that start to bloom around here now!
    I do like the result of your eco prints - even though the colours are not really mine, they make up for it by the lovely leaf prints!

    1. Think I'm with you on the colours. Got to give the remaining three year old madder plants a season of bulking up, but plenty of younger ones coming for the future and only a month or so til its indigo time. Spring and early summer are yellow/green dye time, they aren't such exciting colours to look at but surprisingly flattering to the mature complexion.

    2. not sure about the mature complexion - which I have, but yellows and greens don't do anything for me:) you could of course overdye the yellows with indigo - or madder!

    3. Now there's a plan for later this summer, when all the japanese indigo and woad is screaming to be used. Thanks.