Friday, 17 August 2018

Dyeing Wool and Silk with Deep Pink Hollyhocks

Last year, I planted half a dozen Double Maroon Hollyhocks and never saw a flower. It was a damp spring, the leaves succumbed to rust fungus and by June all the flower spikes had been completely destroyed. This year, expecting the worst and hoping for the best, I bought just a couple of young plants, put them out in a new location and watched with high anticipation as they flourished in the heat wave. Oh yes, soon I'd have the fun of dyeing this sequence of blues again. Only my lovely, healthy plants weren't Double Maroons after all. In July, the flowers opened to show deep pink rather than dark red petals. I was quite peeved and said as much to my companion, Elinor Gotland.

"Curse that garden centre and its staff of  gibbering bloody chimpanzees, more interested in servicing the tearoom than labelling their plant pots correctly. Now I'll have no blues again this year, just mouldy yellows and greens. A pox on those unbotanical idiots and their slapdash, carrot cake ways."
"Fair play, I'd torch the place, Beaut."

It's a great comfort to have a sympathetic friend. 
As the first pink hollyhock flowers passed their prime, I stuffed them into a jar of water with a length of alum mordanted tops. Might as well see what solar dyeing would do. The water turned an impressive purple, but I didn't get overly excited.

Reds and pinks are fickle flowers, promising much and giving little. Geraniums make a beautiful dye bath. Couldn't resist trying them again this year and as before, the bright red water in the jar soon faded to tea colour, leaving me with a bit of brown wool. The purple jar of hollyhocks had at least stayed colourful.
"Hey, Elinor, come and look at this. My hollyhock dyed wool has gone all stripey." 
After a few weeks in the sun, the colour in the jar of pink hollyhocks wasn't half as dull as I'd expected. I tipped out the flowers onto the compost heap and laid the tops out to dry.
"I've had splodgy, uneven colours out of solar jars before, but I've never seen anything dyed in stripes. Must have been visited by the fairies."
"It wasn't wool tops you put in there, muppet, that's wool with silk fibres blended in. If you ask me, it's the wool that dyed greeny yellow and the silk has gone pinkish. I'm not gonna lie, they both look crap."
I wasn't so sure.

By this time, a fair pile of flowers had fallen from the hollyhock plants. Heating them to hand hot in a pot of water made another purple pink dye bath. I've read about safflower dyes, where you have to go through a number of steps, dyeing wool to clear the yellow pigment, changing the dye bath pH and using cotton to pick up pink pigment before changing the pH again to release it into silk. Wondering if the wool had been a necessary adjunct to dyeing silk a hollyhock pink, I divided the dye bath into two pots and put a strip of silk fabric into each then added some mordanted fleece to the larger pot.

After gently heating them for an hour and leaving the pots overnight, I found the wool had come out a dingy beige together with pale purple silk, whereas the silk heated alone had taken up more dye and come out deeper purple. So the wool wasn't clearing any yellow colour, seems to me that the same dye simply comes out a different colour on silk.

I thought I'd play about with the pH anyway. Putting two samples of the dye bath into jars, I added vinegar to acidify one jar, which promptly turned brown/green, then used soda ash to alkalinise the other, which went deep pink. Soaking one end of the paler silk strip in each jar, after ten minutes, the ends had changed to green and deeper purple.

My companion came outdoors to find me getting busy with two paint brushes. 
"I'm using vinegar and soda ash to paint this silk with a green vine and purple flowers. Only it hasn't come off how I wanted."
"I've told you before, leave art to the artists. Stick to what you're good at and put the kettle on, Beaut."
Elinor has a thing about silk and from the speed she swathed herself in this lot, I suspect she rather liked the colours after all. One way or another, I don't think I'll get to keep these pink hollyhock dyes for long. So fragile and fugitive, I daren't rinse the silk, even ironing it seemed to dim the colours. Still, it's been altogether more interesting than I expected. 

Tea in the garden was considerably more artistic than my companion expected. I just bought a new tea set in Llandeilo. It's called 'Everyone looked up to Lisa' and it was made by Lindy Martin. I can't tell you how much I love it.
"One lump or two, then, Elinor?"


  1. lovely tea set! and nice turnout with the pink and green!I've nearly given up with pinks and reds - and hollyhocks suffer rust here, too:( hibiscus works, but I'd have to buy it from the syrian shop in town - not hot enough for proper flowers here! dyeing would be so much easier, if yellows and beiges suited me better:)

    1. Thanks. The tea set is huge, had to reorganise the sitting room to display it, tremendously pleasing in every respect :)

  2. Thank you Fran, I do love seeing that they've gone to a good home! and I love your colours, techniques and philosophies. Though we're working in different disciplines we've definitely got a similarity in ideas.

  3. Replies
    1. Might just try growing several varieties of hollyhocks next year - hoping the rust doesn't get them. I think I have a lot more to learn.

  4. My black Chatly ruffled hollyhocks gave me a deep grey with a green tinge. Vinegar turned it a gorgeous purple---which immediately changed back to deep grey with a simple rinse.....and in the sun, all faded to brown.......

    1. aaaah ... transient as the sunset ... shame, though, isn't it?

  5. I have Black Watch hollyhocks. I always have problems with rust, so frustrating. I tolerate it because the dye from it is beautiful. It comes out a stunning shade of purple.

    1. Sounds fab. Off to google Black Watch hollyhocks - they look really dramatic, I'd prefer them to pink in my garden :)

  6. how do you get color with hollyhocks (on wool) I tried using an alum mordant. Water was nice rosy pink. I got nothing. Absolutely no color whatsoever.

    1. Not even a yellow/green? If you still have the wool, try soaking a bit in an alkali solution - just dissolve a little washing powder or some baking powder in a jar of hot water. That might bring up a shade of yellow