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Natural dyeing: Sweet Cicely

dyeing wool yarn with sweet Cicely Myrrhis odorata

Using foraged plants to create natural dyes is always a bit of an experiment. The soil, the weather, the time of year, even the water collected for the dye pot, all make a difference to the end colour.

However my quest to get good colour from Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) was more of an experiment than normal.

Sweet Cicely is one of the thugs in my garden - a self seeder that spread from three plants to cover every bit of blank soil in the Spring. Using it up in recipes and to dye yarn seemed like a good way to put a positive spin on a plant that was becoming a pernicious weed.

But last year - though the linen dyed to a good zingy lime green, the wool was a very uninspiring pale yellow (left hand skein in photo) - it didn't fade, but that was just about the best thing that you could say about it.

My elder daughter had requested a stripy jumper made from wool dyed with the plants that grow here - the dull yellow brought down all the other colours, so I determined to try again with a different technique.

Getting lime green from Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata)

I had a hunch that the colour - or lack of it - on the wool was something to do with pH. You can't put wool directly into an alkali solution or it changes in texture and becomes like wire wool. So I experimented with creating an alkali dye bath and then modifying that to neutral before I added the wool.

It is very important that you do this step and don't start enthusiastically adding your yarn to the pan and frizzling it.

It also means that you need some way of measuring the pH. I use paper indicator strips which are inexpensive to buy.

You need

  • As many Sweet Cicely leaves as you can get - this is a dye which benefits from lots of dye material.
  • Non reactive dye pan (stainless steel works well)
  • Indicator strips
  • Washing soda
  • White vinegar
  • Colander
  • Bowl or second pan
  • Stove
  • Mordanted yarn (I use alum at 8%) soaked and drained
  • Rainwater (if you have to use tap water leave it for a couple of hours to settle)

Method

  • Add enough washing soda to your pan of water to modify the pH to 9. This is likely to be 1-2 tablespoons but obviously depends on the amount of water.
  • Add the sweet Cicely leaves to the pan and heat the water to just below a simmer and keep it bubbling gently for half an hour. Allow the liquid to cool naturally and drain through a colander into another pan or bowl.
  • Measure the pH of the dye in the pan and gradually add enough vinegar to bring it back to neutral. Do this step outside as the chemical reaction causes fizzing and fumes.
  • Add the yarn, gently heat to hand hot and then allow pan to cool naturally.
  • Rinse the yarn and hang to dry.
  • When completely dry put yarn somewhere dark for 2-3 weeks for all the dye pigments to settle.
  • Wash yarn in a pH neutral detergent and dry.

downloadable PDF instructions on how to dye with sweet Cicely

sign up to natural dye tips library

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