Friday, 24 August 2018

Dyeing Wool with Hemp Agrimony

Madeleine Jude recommended I grow Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). As you will read in this link, she used the flowering tops to dye yarn a strong yellow green. I was particularly interested when, in conversation on a Ravelry forum, she told me that unlike many dye plants, Hemp Agrimony likes damp conditions and copes with shade. Wonderful plant for a garden in Wales. I sowed a packet of seeds last Spring and the young plants did indeed thrive. I watered them regularly during the unusually hot weather in July and they grew about two feet tall and actually flowered this month.
Earlier this summer, I found plenty of hemp agrimony plants growing wild along my regular dog walking route. What is more, lurking round the back of the greenhouse in my own garden, I already had a mature plant, which grew about eight feet tall and fell over before I spotted it. Never let it be said I am too tidy a gardener. 
Once I was aware of all these established plants, I saw them flowering much earlier than my newly grown ones. In the heat of July, I was able to stuff a jar with flowering tops, which solar dyed some wool fibres vivid yellow, a colour much like Madeleine Jude's yarn. Which made me very pleased to have grown my own and a bit surprised that the plant isn't better known. There is little or no information about dyeing with hemp agrimony either online or in my books. Further exploration seemed well warranted.


Last week, I cut 300g tops from my young flowering plants and simmered them for an hour. The dye bath looked pale yellow (centre jar), adding vinegar made it go pale pink (left), while adding soda ash to make the dye alkali deepened the yellow (right).
Rummaging for some test fibres, I found three 50g skeins of Cheviot wool yarn which I mordanted with alum ages ago. Madeleine used a 1:1 ratio in her dye pot, this was a 2:1 plant to fibre ratio. The skeins were soaked and simmered for an hour and left in the dye overnight, but next day, their colour was dimmer than I had hoped.
I gave one skein a rinse then a soak in water with a little dissolved soda ash and its colour did brighten somewhat. Not as good as Madeleine's, but in retrospect, I now remember that this yarn does not pick up plant dyes particularly wellThe two remaining skeins were heated again, one with copper and the other with iron solution (see below, right and left). 
Next year, I'll definitely be dyeing some nicer yarn. Now I appreciate how big they grow, I'd better move my young hemp agrimony plants to give them more space. Probably, as older plants, they will flower earlier and maybe that will also help in getting stronger dye colours in future.

Finally, one of those eeeek!!! moments. I asked himself to uproot the huge plant and clear the area behind the greenhouse. Major event next month, the old greenhouse will not have to be patched up again this winter, it is coming down before it falls down. Thanks very much, Mum, I have decided to squander my inheritance on a state of the art greenhouse of considerable size, beauty and style. 

Sod's Law, the same evening the big agrimony came out, I saw a fascinating snippet on Gardener's World. Last week's programme showed a group of women from Asia with a shared allotment in the UK where they grew hemp agrimony especially in order to dye fabric a purple blue with the seeds. Astonishing - I've sent an email to the BBC and if they ever do put me in touch with the group to ask about their method, I'll be having a go at that next year.

10 comments:

  1. hm, I'd be careful with that plant! I grew one from seeds - and it thrived... so well in fact that it spreads like wildfire in the garden:( I am a bit doubtful about the purple blue from seeds, because I'd guess that info should have spread like the plant itself - it has huge flowerheads over here and plenty of them, so dyeing could be prolific? reminds me of the so-called blue with elecampagne:) but - if you do find out, please share, because I'd love to have a plant that readily gives that colour range without a vat! maybe I should try a bit of that yellow on my teeswater top? the plant has toppled over in the recent storms and is blocking the back entrance to my polytunnel just now:)
    happy dyeing!
    Bettina (from ireland, where we seem to have similar growing conditions to wales?!)

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    1. Well, it's been pouring with rain this Bank Holiday, but if my plants manage to set seed, I'll be saving them. They are very tiny seeds on bits of fluffy stuff, hard to imagine they could hold much dye - but if I ever hear of a method, I'll try it and let you know how I get on :)

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  2. Hi Fran,
    Your comment about the Asian women dying fabric purple with Hemp Agrimony seeds struck a real cord with me. I have used the flowers and leaves separately to dye wool with but I really now want to know how those ladies get purple from the seeds. If you ever do hear back will you please post and let us all know. I have just put on a pot of the last of this year's flowers and seeds to see what colour dye will come out of the pot this time. Do you have any idea of what could be used to turn the dye to purple. If I find some ammonia I will try that but gotta get some ammonia first.

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    1. I've got a jam jar of seeds that I poured boiling water over and left on the windowsill. The water just looks brownish so far. I'd guess that pH shifts might do something to the colour, vinegar did seem to make the flower dye bath look pinkish - but it seems a long way to get from yellow to purple :)

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  3. I saw that programme and was surprised to learn that hemp agrimony seeds can be used for an indigo-type dye. If that works, it will be brilliant, as hemp agrimony is much easier to grow than Japanese indigo.

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    1. No reply so far, if they ever get back to me, I will give it a go and blog whatever result I get. Lots of people are interested, it would indeed be brilliant if it worked :)

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  4. I'm about to drye wome norfolk horn and shetland natural white with the hemp agrimony that grows like the blazes in our little garden. ctually its a bit of a nightmare plant as its root system is incredibly invasive and is causing a short garden wall to collapse so you might want to keep an yeye whre you lant it. We've been trying to dig it out the past some years but it keeps coming back, feeling glad that at least I might get a littel use from it. xx

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    1. oo, thanks for the warning, best I bear that in mind

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  5. I've just seen your post about your trials with the Hemp Agrimony. Well done you. The wool from the first batch is just like mine - as you say.

    Regarding the Gardeners World programme and purple from seeds... I think we will never hear any more about it which is a shame. I am wondering whether they were talking about woad seeds which are easy to collect, but even then you would never get the deep purples that were shown! More pinky tan colours I think.

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    1. No response from Gardeners' World yet - I think you're right, I too suspect terminological inexactitude

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