With two little ones running amok in the Milholland household, we are big fans of hands-on history, and the more energy it consumes, the better.
When my parents took a trip to Williamsburg last year, they brought back the usual gifts of history books and toys, but also a very unique gift—a skein of wool hand-spun from Williamsburg’s heirloom-breed Leicester Longwool sheep. With it came a request that we work with the kids to dye it using natural materials.
It seemed like an easy enough project, and in its initial conception, indeed it was. The kids kept busy gathering marigold blossoms in late summer, which we dried until they would be needed. But then I started the deeper research, and realized that this simple project has profound roots in the sweep of world history, from botany and chemistry to international trade, from the ancient Romans to the rise of German industrialism that set the stage for the First World War.
So let’s unravel this skein with the simplest aspect of this project: the part where your family gets to be old-timey like the colonists and pioneers. It introduces kids to the beauty of nature and shows how hard the settlers would work just to have something beautiful.
Basic Dye Project: Marigolds
What child doesn’t love marigolds? One of the legendary stories in my family centers on the mysteriously dying marigolds that my mother had to replace repeatedly. Soon after, my little brother was caught naturally fertilizing/killing the cheerful yellow blossoms with what is known in the dye trade as “urea,” and what medieval dyers referred to as “pisse,” paid for and collected daily by the dyers’ guild apprentices. If your kids would prefer to capture, rather than enhance, their lovely yellow color, here is what you need to get started:
• 1 pound* of undyed white wool yarn
• 4 ounces of Alum* (available at United Art and Education)
• 1 ounce of cream of tartar* (available at the grocery)
• A quantity of fresh or dried marigold blossoms (the more you have, the deeper the color)
• An enamel pot (other pots are okay but may affect the color)
*Weigh your yarn and then scale the alum and cream of tartar correspondingly. For example, I used about ¼ pound of yarn, so we just needed 1 ounce of alum and ¼ ounce of cream of tartar, along with a quart of marigolds. Yellow onion skins could also be used, and will produce yellow or orange with alum. All these materials are fairly edible, which means you can use a regular cooking pot.
Now, there are several steps that need to happen, from “scouring” the yarn (basically cleaning it with a touch of mild dish soap) to “mordanting” with the alum and cream of tartar (mordant comes from the Latin, “to bite,” and it is a chemical that helps the dye to fix strongly to the yarn) to the actual dyeing. I followed the process outlined in Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, here. This outstanding book should be in every gardener’s library. Basically you simmer the clean wool in a mordant solution for an hour or so, you simmer the marigolds in water for an hour or so, and then you simmer the mordanted wool in the marigold dye after straining out the plant matter for half an hour to an hour, always being careful not to shock the delicate natural fibers by putting it somewhere it is too hot or too cold, but rather heating or cooling it gradually.
As you can see from the photograph below, the three skeins of yarn on the left are alum mordants, and the darkest skein is a copper mordant, which I will address below. The Williamsburg yarn ended up being the palest, while the first and third skeins (from the left) are the exact same yarn, but the first one was put in the dyepot first and thus is slightly darker. There are so many variable with natural dyes that it is difficult to control for a specific color.
Here are some good questions for discussion:
• How would the settlers ensure they would have a supply of marigolds for their dye projects?
• How many plants would they have to grow so that every member of the family could have an article of clothing? How much work would this be?
• How much work would it take to raise sheep and produce yarn for a dye project?
• Why were the settlers willing to do so much work just to have something beautiful?
Advanced Dye Project: Mordants and Herbs
If you have an ambitious older child, or if you spin, knit, weave or crochet, you may want to produce a more complex palette of colors.
By using a variety of mordants and plant materials, you can come up with a gorgeous array. The five major mordants are alum, chrome, iron, copper, and tin. You can also use a variety of “assistants” such as cream of tartar or vinegar to achieve certain effects. Tin is a brightener, iron is a “saddener” or darkener, and chrome and copper help to bring out greens. (WARNING: all the mordants except alum are poisonous, especially chrome, which I would not recommend for casual projects or projects involving children. Make sure you use the others in a very well- ventilated area, preferably outside, and use pots that will not be used for cooking.)
The photo below shows the range of colors we were able to achieve in the dead of winter, with little access to plant materials. We used three separate mordants: alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), copper (copper sulfate, available as root killing crystals), and iron (ferrous sulfate, available as lawn fertilizer). For the dyes, I bought annatto seeds at the local international grocer, scrounged some rag-tag herbs out of my garden and pots, skinned 4 lbs. of yellow onions, and I happened to have a dried mullein on hand.
From left to right, it shows:
• Taupe: Dried mullein leaves/Copper mordant (accidentally touched, just barely, with iron, which will immediately and irreversibly affect the color)
• Pale green: Fresh sage/copper mordant
• Green-brown: Fresh rosemary/alum mordant
• Butter yellow: Onion skins/alum mordant/exhaust (or second) dyebath
• Golden yellow: Dried marigold blossoms/alum mordant
• Pale orange: annatto seed/alum mordant
• Dark orange: yellow onion skins/alum mordant and copper mordant
• Dark gold: dried marigold blossoms/copper mordant
• Black: sage/too much iron mordant
• Top brown: tea/no mordant
• Bottom browns: yellow onion skins/copper mordant
This picture shows just the onion skins with the range of mordants: alum, copper and iron. Note that the Leicester Longwool is a much paler shade of orange (alum, first dyebath, and iron), so even the type of wool yarn you use will affect the color. The more intense colors were made with the first dyebath, while pale buttery yellows are made from the exhaust dyebath.
Finally, here is a closer view of the cooler range of dyes:
Our family is eagerly waiting for spring, when some interesting dye plants will be making their return, including stinging nettle, milkweed leaves, bloodroot, tansy, dandelions and yarrow. You can find a comprehensive list of dye plants starting on page 173 in the Rodale Encyclopedia.
The historical importance of dyes
Although we got a wide range of colors with the limited materials we had access to, you probably noticed that there are no blues, reds, or purples. And this is where the broader sweep of history comes in. In future articles I will address the importance of these colors for international history.
For more information about fiber arts in the Fort Wayne area, please visit the Flax and Fleecers Spinning Guild.