Friday, 4 May 2018

A Trial of Ivy Leaf Dye

Allowing the front garden to grow wild looked delightful earlier this Spring, a succession of bulbs bloomed in the lawn to the admiration of at least some of my neighbours. Now things are getting that bit too shaggy, crossing the line between naturalised and neglected. Ivy has grown over the wall and nobody appreciates walking into a wet slap of leaves. After I cut back the worst, it occurred to me that I had read somewhere you can make dye from ivy leaves. Taking a tea break, I found a page all about ivy in Jenny Dean's book, Wild Colours. Jenny writes that ivy leaves and berries will dye an equal weight of material and are best suited to animal fibres.
There were few berries left on the pruned branches, though easily enough leaves to fill my dye pot. They weighed about 300g. Adding water, I put the pot on the stove to simmer and went looking for some test fibres to soak ready for dyeing. Lifting the lid an hour or so later, the leaves had softened and the rising steam had a tang of rhubarb about it, so something was being extracted, although the water in the pot had no apparent colour at all.
Testing a sample with pH indicator paper showed the ivy had at least made the clear fluid acidic. Adding dissolved soda ash to another sample worked like magic, a lucent yellow green instantly appeared in the jar. A teaspoonful of soda ash brought the pH of the dye pot up to neutral, green colour appeared and convinced me there was dye in there, so I added my trial fibres in with the ivy leaves and turned the heat back on. Giving the pot a stir ten minutes later, the green glow in the water had all disappeared again and the fibres hadn't taken on any colour at all. That rhubarb smell in the steam must mean acid release, because indicator paper showed the pH had already dropped back down to acid. I added another teaspoon of soda ash, completed the hour of simmering and left the pot overnight.


Next morning, the fibres had gone green and the dye bath fluid looked brown, though when I retested it, once again, its pH had become acidic. I suspect that my two teaspoonsfuls of soda ash provided far too little alkali to counterbalance the acidity from stewed ivy leaves and that my attempt to alkanise the bath had had little effect on the overall ivy dye process.
Here is how the fibres looked straight from the dye bath - from the left, two skeins of alum mordanted wool yarn, next, one iron premordanted skein and one copper premordanted skein and the piece of linen mordanted with alum acetate. The unmordanted cotton fabric had not taken up significant colour. I divided one of the alum mordanted skeins into two smaller skeins and one short length. The short length was soaked for 20 minutes in an alkali solution. One small skein was briefly reheated with an iron solution to modify its colour and the other was modified with a little copper solution. 

Here is the final result of ivy leaf dye using twice as much weight of leaves as wool. On the left, alum premordanted skein with a bit on top that was modified with alkali after dyeing - far from improving the colour, it diminished it. Bottom row, a brownish version on the iron premordanted wool and a good green from the copper premordant, then just to mix things up, the two small skeins on top show a bright green from alum premordant and copper modifier and a dull green from alum mordant and iron modifier.


Ivy leaves are plentiful, more are coming over the wall already, it's good to know I can make green dye all year round. In future, I shall not be adding any soda ash, just trusting that the colour will develop once the wool is in with the softened leaves. I would certainly consider copper a useful premordant. As a modifier, copper took effect much more quickly than usual - I am only just realising that to modify dyes well with copper, you really need to add it in an acidic bath.

Here's a green wool heart for the Green Man as he dies and lives in the force of Spring.

6 comments:

  1. A very rewarding trial, I should say. I like the colour of the alum mordanted and the copper mordanted skeins most. What a useful home plant!
    What did Elinor have to say to this successful experiment?

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    1. I'm very pleased, Elinor has yet to pass judgement, she's been away lately.

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  2. What gorgeous greens! But how fast is it? I wonder if the reason's this isn't more well known is because it doesn't stay green?

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    1. Good point, I'll have to knit a couple of samples and try washing and exposing one to sunlight before I dye with ivy again.

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  3. Oh how wonderful, I have lots of ivy :D

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    1. I wonder it never occurred to me before, when I think how much less reward I've had with trying to get dye from other garden prunings :)

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