Friday 13 June 2014

A Trial of Comfrey Plant Dye on Wool with Alum, Iron and Copper Mordants

Every garden needs a patch of comfrey.  It has big tap roots that suck up nitrogen and potassium locked in the depths of the earth, making its leaves rich in the good stuff that other plants love, but cannot access.  Though it disappears in winter, it is always waist high by the end of spring.  I cut this patch back only a few weeks ago and look at it crowding the place out again.  The first lot of foliage is festering in a lidded bucket, to make tomato food.  As I have also started a fermented suint vat, the tomatoes should be riotously well fed this year, with fleece rinse water to wash down their comfrey juice.  The greenhouse is going to honk.
I am sure I tried dyeing wool with comfrey a couple of years ago, getting a beige that faded.  Jenny Dean's book 'Wild Colour' says it gives sage green.   Last year, dyeing with a 10/1 ratio of bracken shoots gave a beige that kept its colour better than a previous, weaker dye bath.  As I had 1.5kg comfrey leaves, I looked out three 50g skeins of wool.  First to hand came 50g chunky yarn from a Welsh Mountain fleece, mordanted with 10% alum.
Then I rediscovered a bag of 50g skeins of hand spinning which were sold off at a Christmas Craft Fair.  A retired spinner had had a turn out of her old stash.  This wool is evenly spun about double knitting weight and the skeins were already secured with loops, ready for dyeing, though stiff with well aged lanolin.

I gave them all a hot soak with washing up liquid and a few hot rinses, then premordanted three skeins in a pot with a cupful of iron water added - vinegar and water in which rusty nails had been soaking - which turned the wool a pale rusty orange.  The other three were premordanted in copper water - same vinegar and water mix which had had bits of copper piping soaking in it for months.  These turned palest green.

The comfrey leaves were simmered for an hour and left to cool overnight.  Once the bag of leaves was squeezed out, I used them as a mulch for my woad plants.  Even if there is not much goodness left in them, they will help keep the soil damp.  Next day, I simmered one skein with each mordant all together in the brown dye bath. 

The results are greenish - more so than the photo has picked up.  From the left, copper + comfrey next to an undyed copper premordanted skein.  In the middle, iron + comfrey next to an undyed iron premordanted skein and on the right, the alum skeins. Comfrey on alum mordant gave the most herbal green.

"I'd keep that comfrey for your tomatoes, Beaut.  Cut back the mint, that's full of vitamins and minerals too.  You could benefit from some lovely green Creme de Menthe.  Proper tonic. It's kept me going before now."
"Your interest wouldn't have anything to do with the vodka involved, would it?  How long do you think that lovely green would sustain you for these days?"
"Grow the right herbs and you could make Chartreuse.  Best green of all."
"They say the monks had a secret recipe with 130 ingredients. Nice to know you have so much confidence in me, but 130 pots might be more than the patio can take."
"How about absinthe!  Would you have any wormwood wanting pruning?"
"In the tub behind you, Elinor.  Stop sniffing it. You can't start distilling your own absinthe, I need that wormwood to fumigate the dog basket." 
"Awful waste. I've heard it's everso good for you.  Ahh, the smell takes me back to my modelling days in Paris."
"Haute couture catwalk, was it?"
"Artist's model, Beaut.  Poster girl, me."  
"You never were."

This must surely be a wormwood fume hallucination.


  1. Ha ha, think it's time Elinor wrote her autobiography . . . or has she done that already as well? Great poster! Oh, and the skeins aren't bad either. Actually, my favourite is the undyed iron-mordanted one. I got an OK green from comfrey last year; think I used a copper pan to dye it. Hmm, must go and check. Memory starts failing when you get to my age.

    1. I think her working title is 'The World, my Ashtray.'

  2. Great poster Fran. I used wormwood in a moth repelent mix, I think they really enjoyed it. In Jill Goodwins "A Dyers Manual" she used copper, iron & c of tartar together for dark greens.

  3. Wow, bet that was colourfast! I use wormwood to temporarily overwhelm the odour of ancient labrador, specially if we have visitors.

  4. After 20 years of plant dyeing I'm still learning. I pre soaked a load of nettles over a week, strained it, dyed my lovely handspun in it, then realised the odour around me wasn't coming from the fields... even over dyeing in woad followed by many washes and lavender conditioner, my yarn still smells like I stepped in something. Eww!
    Scarves for enemies?

    1. Perfect for someone who admires your 'little hobby' and goes on to tell you how they snapped up some fabulously cheap handicrafts on their marvelous holiday in Portugal.