Saturday 30 March 2013

A Trial of Daffodil Petal Dye

Is there anyone not heartily pissed off with this endless, bitter chill?  It is scant consolation that the slugs limp trembling cross the frozen earth and torpid are the snails, in shelly fold.  Numb are the Rushworth's fingers as she pots on her chamomile seedlings.  The prospect of getting them outdoors seems impossibly distant.  

It has been a fabulous year for the daffodils. Clumps I thought overcrowded and liable to go blind have been blooming since St David's Day and still look fresh. The woods and the verges on the Industrial Estate are awash with floral sunshine. Archetypically Welsh, I thought, but no.  It turns out the Romans probably brought the bulbs here from Spain and Portugal and daffodils only became a national symbol  when the Victorians decided  they would be much prettier to pin on their lapels  than the leek. Checking things out for this blog is proving deeply disillusioning. 

I had read that a yellow dye can be got from daffodil petals and given the wealth of raw material, it seemed a great plan to salvage some of the glory.  I was sure the flowers would be fading by Easter, but here we are and not many of them have gone over.  Yesterday, I decided to do a proper trial run with a small quantity, 4oz (100g) of somewhat wilted or damaged petals picked that morning. I soaked them for a  
 couple of hours, brought the water up to a simmer (90 degrees) and kept it there for 30 minutes. Thanks to the members of the Plants To Dye For forum on Ravelry for advice on this and also on how to alkalinise the dye bath, since they were agreed that this would work better than my usual acidifying with vinegar.  To alkalinise, I put half a teaspoon of soda ash in at the end of the simmer. Bicarbonate of soda (a baking powder), or a drop of ammonia would do just as well.  The yellow in the dye bath immediately looked deeper. 

There seems to be a bit of controversy among natural dyers about mordants.  These are chemicals you simmer the wool with beforehand, to make it take up dye better. Tannins from bark or rhubarb leaves will do the trick 'naturally' but they also add their own colour.  The other mordants I have read about all contain metals of various toxicity. Salt has sodium, which shouldn't do much harm, though you wouldn't want to pour it on the garden.  The most commonly used mordant seems to be alum, which contains aluminium.   The amount needed can be minimised by combining it with Cream of Tartar, another baking powder.  If you buy this in the supermarket, check the packet to see it really is potassium bitartrate, I bought one called Cream of Tartar which I found was actually a different chemical, when I read the label.  Chrome and zinc mordants are said to give brighter colours, at the cost of leaving a more toxic waste to dispose of. 

I tested the dye on 2 oz (50g) wool, so the ratio was twice as much weight of fairly fresh petals as dry wool.  The first two skeins are 100%  wool double knitting weight, previously simmered with alum and cream of tartar, the next is a bit of unmordanted homespun and the last is 100% chunky wool, washed but not mordanted.  I soaked the wool in water while I was making the dye bath, when it had cooled,  I put the wool in and brought it back up to a simmer for an hour or so.  When the bath had cooled back down again, I took out all except one mordanted skein and added a few dissolved copper sulphate crystals to see what happened.   I expect you can buy these, but I am lucky enough to have a relative who was given a chemistry set last birthday and is a dab hand at crystal growing.

The wool had three rinses in tap water and dried overnight.  This morning I have gushed over the thrill of it to frankly uninterested family members, wound it into lovely little skeins and taken this photo.

The orange skein had copper in the final simmer, the yellow is mordanted wool, a proper daffodil colour. Just like it says in the books, without a mordant, the chunky wool took up much less dye.  Because my homespun wool was unmordanted, it just got a pale yellow glow.  Here is the test skein sitting on top of a ball of the original.  I shall find out how light fast the colour is by leaving a strand on the window sill. 

In conclusion, mordanting is indeed worthwhile, though a right faff with no instant gratification.  Daffodils do give a lovely yellow wool dye. It will definitely be worth saving all the petals when the time comes to do the dead heading.  If I have not got a specific project in mind by then , I shall dry them and keep them in a paper bag.  They shall not be gone, these daffodils fled away into the summer.  Sorry, Keats, better you than Wordsworth.


  1. just found your comment on downsizer forum- plenty of us there blog too!
    Come back and introduce yourself on the Welcome section-there are plenty of ds-ers within physical reach of you (as opposed to online) and we'd love to meet you. Plenty you can talk to about dyeing as well :D

    1. Thanks - I have now done just that. Hope to talk to you again.

  2. I love the alum/CoT daff yellow. We're collecting daffs for our annual dyeing day at Guild in June. Fingers crossed ours comes out as well as yours did.

    1. I actually used my saved daffs this weekend, some dried, some still fresh, but I didn't keep tabs on the total fresh weight. 6oz of homespun white wool with alum/CoT has come out half almost overpoweringly yellow, the other half with copper sulphate went gingery green instead of orange. Probably there was a bit too much plant material in the pot, but I expect it will mellow with time. Best of luck with yours!