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Dyeing cotton yarn with nettles

Nettles are at their peak now. I leave the ones that weave down through the rough grass to the marsh - they are food for butterflies and important for the life of the place. I do try and lightly control the ones up in the garden proper though. They are pulled from the borders, from the vegetable patch and from the perennial meadow.

Early tender leaves go for cooking but the bigger ones head to make plant food or into the dye pot.

This is a step by step showing how I dyed some cotton pima yarn with nettles to give a beautiful glowing olive colour.

I find that nettles give up their pigment into the first thing you put into the dye bath - so subsequent dyeings are much lighter. this can be really useful if you are looking for a range of tones, but less so if you wanted similar ones. I also find a great difference between alkali and neutral colour extraction - so if you want deeper tones it is worth adding in the extra step and a couple of tablespoons of washing soda to the leaves when first extracting the colour (but remember to add vinegar to neutralise after straining)

Preparing the yarn.

  • Lay the yarn out and fasten it with reusable cable ties. These have transformed my dyeing and I no longer spend hours detangling skeins that have turned into spaghetti. I use between 2 and 6 ties per skein - more for delicate yarns, fewer for chunky ones. Keep them loose so that the yarn can move about freely.
  • Wash and rinse the yarn.
  • Mordant the yarn in aluminium acetate - use 5-8% of the weight of fibres. Dissolve the aluminium acetate in hot water (wear a mask and gloves as it can be an irritant), add enough water to cover the skein well, add the skein, move it about and then leave overnight.
  • Add a couple of teaspoons of calcium carbonate to a bowl of water to make a chalk bath - add skein and let it absorb the chalky water a bit. If you don't have chalk you can wrap 3 tablespoons of bran in muslin and leave it in the water until it goes cloudy and use that instead.
  • Squeeze as much of the water out as possible. If it is unevenly wet the dye can be uneven.

At this point you can keep the skein wet for up to 24 hours until the dye bath is ready or dry it, and then simply soak in plain water for 4 hours at a later date.

Preparing the dye pot.

  • Pick as many nettles as will fit into your pan. You can chop them up or you can just squash them down. Stems and leaves can all be used.
  • Add water to cover, along with 1-2 tablespoons of washing soda.
  • Bring to a simmer, hold there for 30 minutes and gradually allow to cool and steep overnight.
  • Drain the liquid into a new pan or bucket and put the boiled nettles onto the compost heap.
  • Test the pH of the liquid - if it is above 7 add a tablespoon of vinegar to the pot and stir well.

Adding the cotton

Gently add the skein to the pan, holding onto it by the cable tie.

Move it around slowly to let it absorb the dye.

Gently bring up the heat of the nettles - you don't want to bring right to a boil.

When it is almost at simmering, turn the heat off, put the lid on and let it cool gradually. Stir gently whenever you pass.

Check the colour. If it is strong enough (remember it will be darker when wet) remove from the pan, let it drain and hang to dry.

checking a skein of dyed cotton by pulling it out of the dye pot

Post dye care

  • After 24 hours you can rinse the skein in plain water - this will take off any loose dye particles.
  • Dry thoroughly and put somewhere dark and dry for 3-4 weeks to allow the dye to settle.
  • Wash gently in a neutral eco-washing liquid.
  • Dry and store out of the light until you want to use it.
  • Natural dye colours will fade a bit if you leave them in direct sunlight for long periods of time so it is worth storing anything you make in a bag or wardrobe rather than on the back of a sunny chair.

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