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Natural Dyes: Dyeing wool with Plum bark

dyeing wool with tree bark plums

Next to the airstream caravan is an orchard of plum trees. It is a small orchard, there are only five trees, but it is a beautiful space, especially in the spring with white narcissi and snakehead fritillaries flowering under plum blossom.

Four or five years ago there was a bumper crop of plums, far more than I could pick, and the birds feasted, dropping the stones on the ground. There must have been some animal gossiping about the bounty available for a red squirrel arrived and spent her days in the tree tops picking out the best, throwing the rest to the ground.

The result has been a thicket of saplings, joining the suckers that huddle at the bases of the trees to provide perfect material for the dye pot.

I simply had to chop them up into pieces, soak for a few days, and then simmer gently to get beautiful colours.

Plum is a dye which will give different colours depending on the pH of the original dye pot so it is great if you want four colours from a single collection of dye material.

In the photo the yellow and the pale green are from pH neutral dye extraction. The orange and dark grey are from pH alkali extraction.

You need (all items should just be used for dyeing, not for cooking)

 

  • Small pieces of plum twigs chopped into pieces
  • Pail or large tub
  • 1 tablespoon washing soda (approx)
  • 1 tablespoon of vinegar (approx)
  • Rainwater or tap water that has been left to settle overnight
  • pH indicator paper
  • Dye pan
  • Large sieve or colander
  • Wool mordanted with alum at 8% of weight.
  • 2g iron sulphate

 

 

Method

Put the chopped twigs in a large tub of water and leave for soaking for 2-3 days.

For alkali extraction (orange and grey)

  • Decant half the twigs and water into a dye pan.
  • Add the washing soda and heat to just below simmering for half an hour.
  • Let it cool overnight.
  • Removing all the twigs and strain the dye and test the pH with the indicator strips.
  • Add vinegar a bit at a time, stirring well and test to make sure it is pH7. Slightly more acid is fine, but alkali will make the wool rough.
  • Soak the mordanted wool and add it to the dye pot, stirring well. Gently heat the dye pan until it is hand hot and then leave the wool in the pan for at least two hours - you can leave it overnight.
  • Rinse the wool until the water runs clear.
  • To make an iron rinse dissolve 2 g ferrous sulphate in 2 litres of water and add the wool for 5-10 minutes until the colour changes. Rinse extremely well.

For neutral extraction (yellow and green)

  • Decant half the twigs and water into a dye pan
  • Heat to just before simmering point for half an hour
  • Let it cool overnight
  • Remove the twigs and strain the dye
  • Soak the mordanted wool and then add to the dye pot, stirring well.
  • Gently heat the dye pot until it is hand hot and leave the wool in the pan for at least two hours - you can leave it overnight.
  • Remove the wool and rinse it well.
  • To make an iron rinse dissolve 2 g ferrous sulphate in 2 litres of water and add the wool for 5-10 minutes until the colour changes. Rinse extremely well.

 

I find plum bark to be relatively colour fast - there has been very minimal fading from tests done three years ago and left in the light. Always wash naturally dyed materials in pH neutral eco washing powder and do not leave in full sunlight.

get access to the dye cards

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For if we stopped, paid attention to ourselves, to the world around us, let everything sink in - well that might be very scary.
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But I do think it is the most important skill - a five minute pause, a checking in.  I'm not talking about meditation here - nothing as formal as that - just a stilling and listening and paying attention. Appreciation, recognition, renewal.
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It is something that I am very bad at by nature - but I have been taking lessons from Dixie. 

For if a spaniel can relax into stillness, nosing into a shaft of sunshine, then I'm sure I can.
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Teasel isn't quite there yet.

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It’s the same with business - a lot of things happen that are due to the ‘weather’ of the world. We can pivot and turn, change our tactics, Google ‘how to make reels’ and so on - but we can also choose to embrace and lean into what is working well. 

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Each year I have a personal project running.  Something just for me. Something that allows me to experiment and play. 
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The first year that I became obsessed with using the plants here to dye textiles - back in 2019 - it was twelve skeins of a raw slubby silk yarn that I  had been hoarding for decades. They became a patchwork cable blanket that now sits on the back of the sofa.
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In 2020 it was double knitting yarns, in dozens of colours, knitted into a stripy jumper to keep me cosy in the Studio.
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This year I am using mini skeins - in an attempt to keep it more manageable - and exploring the differences in colour caused by the pH of the original extraction. 
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There are four skeins for each plant, two for neutral extraction, two for alkali - with one of each pair being dipped in iron to 'sadden' the colour.
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If science had been like this at school I might have paid more attention . . . .

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In Myanmar the military junta have begun to execute activists arrested after the coup in February 2021. The brutality and violence continue, the quashing of democracy, the corruption. 

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You won't usually find much out about Myanmar in the 'fed to you' media, but this week there has been reporting and a Dispatches programme about mass killings  was on Channel 4 on Monday.  The Guardian has consistently been the newspaper reporting most on the aftermath of the coup and you can also follow hashtags like #whatishappeninginmyamar here. 
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This is the actual physical Studio.
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The Studio Club is closed to new members at the moment and the doors will open to new members again on the Autumn Equinox. 

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Twenty minutes with a cup of tea, the binoculars and a lawn full of early birds and their worms.

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