Category Archives: plants

dyeing with avocado pips

A few years ago, after reading on Ravelry dye threads and other blogs about the dyes held in avocado pips and skins, my friend Nandi and I collected a whole lot of pips and got together for a day of dyeing. Carol Lee, one of the great American dyers, had established that the colour is best extracted slowly in an alkali environment so we’d chopped the pips up to increase the surface area as much as possible and left them to soak in a 50/50 water and ammonia solution for a few weeks. Then came the time to see the results of our patience! We heated the dye bath (leaving the dyestuff in) and yarn and waited patiently as the fibres took up the dye… but the end results were unspectacular shades of beige- after seeing and hearing all about the pinks and rusts that other people were achieving, we were more than a bit disappointed. After washing and squirrelling away the pips for months, I turned my back on avocados as a dye ; )

But, after seeing the lovely results that London-based plant dyer Rebecca Desnos achieves with both pip and skin on cellulose fibres, I recently decided to give them another try and set up a large jar on our kitchen windowsill- I half-filled it with water and enough washing soda (sodium carbonate) to take the pH to 10 and , as we finished each avocado, I chopped the pip finely and added it to the jar, ending up a few months later with a jar full of pip in a very dark rust-coloured solution. Over the period of collecting, the solution naturally began to ferment, in turn resulting in a drop in pH so I regularly tested and modified the pH to keep it up around 9-10. Other than that, I just let it do its thing.

Preparing the pips for soaking

Preparing the pips for soaking

The colour emerging on contact with oxygen

The colour emerging on contact with oxygen

A few weeks ago, it was time to try dyeing with it. I added the solution and pips to a dyepot, gradually heated it and let it sit at around 70C for a couple of hours. I then let it cool overnight, repeated the process the next day and then, the following day, I strained out the pips and set them aside and added yarn to the pot. Avocado pips are rich in tannins which acts as a natural mordant, however, after my last experiment dyeing with it, I really wanted to maximise the results and so used yarn mordanted in alum- two sample skeins of Shetland, one white and one grey, and two skeins of one of the yarn bases I’ve been dyeing with, a blend of alpaca, silk and cashmere. I again gradually heated the solution to 70C, held it there for around 90 minutes and then turned the heat off and let the whole lot sit overnight.

The next morning, I pulled out the yarn and was thrilled with the soft salmon colour! However, the solution was still dark in colour and the pips that I’d strained out the day before were the colour of cooked quinces- a rich red. So I added them back to the dye bath and put the pot back on the stove to resimmer and then dyed a whole lot more yarn. In the end,10 pips dyed over a kilo of yarn!

Silk/ mohair, alpaca/ silk/ cashmere and Shetland, all dyed with avocado pips

Silk/ mohair, alpaca/ silk/ cashmere, alpaca/ linen/ silk and Shetland, all dyed with avocado pips

Silk/ mohair, alpaca/ silk/ cashmere and Shetland, all dyed with avocado pips

Silk/ mohair, alpaca/ linen/ silk, alpaca/ silk/ cashmere and Shetland, all dyed with avocado pips

shetland

Silk/ mohair, alpaca/ linen/ silk, alpaca/ silk/ cashmere and Shetland, all dyed with avocado pips

I modified some of the skeins with iron, which transformed the salmon-peach to soft, warm greys and complex purple-greys.

Greys from avocado and iron

Greys from avocado and iron

And, as avocados are rich in anthocyanins which are very sensitive to changes in pH, next time I’ll also try adding them to an alkali bath after dyeing to try to achieve the dark reds and purples that Carol Lee mentions.

So why did I (and many others) have such bland results when I first tried dyeing with avocado? I think slow extraction in the pot over a couple of days of heating and cooling is crucial to build up good colour. I also suspect the the difference in pH (and minerals) between the water of Glasgow and that of Melbourne may be responsible for the more interesting colours achieved this second time… or perhaps it is the soils that the avocados we buy here were grown in that did it. Either way, needless to say, there is a new collection building in the jar and I’m really looking forward to using this wonderful dye again.

If you’re interested in learning more about dyeing with natural materials, I have two upcoming classes at Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens on Sunday August 14 and October 9. And I’ll be adding these skeins to the shop as part of an update in the next couple of weeks so, in case you can’t be bothered collecting pips and dyeing your own, keep an eye out on here, Instagram or sign up for the newsletter for notifications!

oban, argyll and benmore

Scotto had a birthday recently and both our mums, knowing how much we both treasure presents that are experiences, rather than things, and remembering what it’s like to be away from family, gave him some money towards something that we’d love and remember in years to come- a fantastic daylong boat trip to Lunga and Staffa to see the thousands of puffins and other seabirds nesting on the tiny islands, as well as seal pups, amazing landscapes and the famous Fingal’s Cave!

We hired a car for a couple of nights and headed up to Oban, pitching our tent in the beautiful Sutherland’s Grove, a small forestry park with a towering stand of Douglas firs, some up to 45m and planted in 1870. We snuck in a quick walk in the twilight, soaking in the damp beauty of the place, before the rain set in. It continued all night and, although snug and dry in our tent, we woke up with a nagging suspicion that things might not be looking so bright for our day on the boat! Alas, the notoriously wet west coast weather had set in for a good few days and the tour was cancelled… SO sad. Still, there is a reason why Scotland is so beautiful and mossy and green and it requires giving up the expectation of reliable good weather and we’re getting used to that! So the puffin plans are on hold until next spring ; )

As we’ve already spent a bit of time in Oban, we decided to head down into Argyll Forest to have a wander through its stunning oak forests and rivers and to see if we could get to Benmore Botanic Gardens, a place I’d heard about and had been keen to visit… Benmore is a part of the RBGEdinburgh, a place envisioned for species of plants better suited to this wet coastline than Edinburgh; it houses many species of conifers and broadleaf trees from western USA, Asia and Europe and extensive collections from Japan, Bhutan, Chile and even Tasmania. A major drawcard to the gardens is the amazing avenue of Giant Redwoods which were planted here in 1863 and stand at over 50m…

Avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Redwood), Benmore Botanic Gardens, Argyll

Avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Redwood), Benmore Botanic Gardens, Argyll

Avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Redwood), Benmore Botanic Gardens, Argyll

Avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Redwood), Benmore Botanic Gardens, Argyll

And there are many other younger redwoods planted across the gardens, ensuring an ongoing population here- not that there is any expectation of the older specimens dyeing anytime soon as they can live up to 3000 years!

I always enjoy seeing species that I’m familiar with a very different habit to normal; this English Oak is growing amongst quite tall firs and spruces, which has encouraged the development of a tall, straight trunk with very little branching. And, interestingly, the bark on the lower branches is white and thin, almost like a birch and very unlike the grey, fissured bark usually seen on this species…

Quercus robur (English or White Oak)

Quercus robur (English Oak)

Acer palmatum

Acer palmatum

Benmore is particularly known for its rhododendron collection, not a genus I’ve been particularly interested in in the past… I’ve always found the highly hybridised cultivars that we see in Australian and UK gardens pretty gaudy and also very blobby in the landscape but here there were some beautifully slender silhouettes and really interesting foliage. I think I need to add it to next spring’s calendar as I suspect that the flowers on some of these may be much more subtle and beautiful than the ones I’ve seen before!

Rhododendron pachysanthum (Thick-flowered Rhododendron)

Rhododendron pachysanthum (Thick-flowered Rhododendron)

Layered rhododendron roots

Lovely layered rhododendron roots

It was a real treat for us to discover the Tasmanian collection and to wander through the eucalypts, cedars,  and southern beeches and to smell the lovely heavy fragrance of Eucryphia lucida, which is used to make our distinctive leatherwood honey… I miss the flora of Australia!

Eucryphia lucida (Leatherwood)

Eucryphia lucida (Leatherwood)

Eucalyptus pauciflora (Snow Gum)

Eucalyptus pauciflora (Snow Gum)

Dianella tasmanica (Tasmanian Flax-lily)

Dianella tasmanica (Tasmanian Flax-lily)

And the fernery… the subject of an 18-month project involving the renovation of the Victorian building that had fallen into terrible condition, the fernery is beautiful in and of itself but also forms a great method of display for its collection- I was really excited to see ferns growing all the way up the stone walls on protruding stones and plinths. The collection is still in its development stage and I think it will be an amazing and innovative display in years to come.

Unfurling

Unfurling

I love these millipede-like fern fronds!

I love these millipede-like fern fronds!

Such complexity in these structures...

Such complexity in these structures…

Soft new growth

Soft new growth

Beautiful mauve, fuzzy new growth

Beautiful mauve, fuzzy new growth

Doodia aspera

Doodia aspera (Prickly Rasp Fern)

The gardens are open from March 1 to October 31 and I’d really recommend including them in a trip to the west coast. If you’re interested in visiting and are also into walking, CowalFest, a local festival of walking and the outdoors in the first two weeks of October, is offering a number of walks combining the gardens with the surrounding landscapes.

dyeing with nettle, coreopsis, elder and logwood

Another group of newbies got a taste of natural dyeing a couple of weeks ago… as always, I was too busy setting up and then teaching to get any photos of the workshop itself but here are the results from our dye baths…

Samples of silk velvet, silk habutai, cotton and linen

Samples of silk velvet, silk habutai, cotton and linen

We worked with both protein and cellulose fibres and four plants that display some important  aspects of the dye process: nettle as a readily-available, weedy species with a strong affinity with different mordants; dyers coreopsis, a flower that is easy to grow and requires very little processing to extract its dye compounds; logwood extract for easy, quick colour and elderberry for its crazy colour response to pH change. (I’d also hoped to use iron to modify some of our logwood samples but had a scale malfunction and the samples were WAY too dark to show any further colour modification!)

Nettle on silk velvet, silk, habutai, cotton and linen

Nettle on silk velvet, silk habutai, cotton and linen

Nettle on organic merino, mordanted with alum, copper and iron

Nettle on organic merino, mordanted with alum, copper and iron

Nettle on organic merino on a series of different wool yarns, all mordanted with alum

Nettle on a series of different wool yarns, all mordanted with alum

coreopsis2

Dyers coreopsis on silk velvet, silk habutai, cotton and linen

coreopsis2

Dyers coreopsis on organic merino, mordanted with alum, copper and iron

coreopsis2

Dyers coreopsis on a series of different wool yarns, all mordanted with alum

logwood1

Logwood on silk velvet, silk habutai, cotton and linen

logwood1

Logwood on organic merino, mordanted with alum, copper and iron

logwood1

Logwood on a series of different wool yarns, all mordanted with alum

elder1

Elderberry on silk velvet, silk habutai, cotton and linen; we dyed extra samples of silk velvet and habutai and then treated them with acid (upper) and alkali (lower) in order to demonstrate the influence of pH on the colour achieved from anthocyanin-rich plants (middle)

elder1

Elderberry on organic merino, mordanted with alum + acid, alum, alum + alkali, copper and iron

As always, it was interesting to see how different fibres took up the dyes; I was particularly interested to try a yarn base with two strands of merino and 1 of superwash merino (third from the left in the bundle), as it is commonly thought that superwash yarns take up dye more readily and are less able to hold onto the colour over time. So it was fascinating to see that, while that proved true in this case, the degree of difference in colour uptake seems to depend on the dye! It definitely needs more work but it certainly looks like there is more difference in colour in the coreopsis sample than in the others…

And I was thrilled to get such strong blues on wool using the logwood extract, because dyeing with indigo, while a magical and essentially simple process, requires a lot more work to set up (and a bit tricky in an indoor rental space!). The downside is that logwood is not as colourfast as indigo but using an iron modifier will greatly improve fastness…Something to play around with more.

Logwood on organic merino over dyers chamomile

Logwood on organic merino (over dyers chamomile)

If you are interested in learning more about plant dyes, there are places available in my next class on June 19 at the Glasgow Botanics Kibble Palace; you can find more information through my shop.  And, bonus, here will be so many plants to try by then!

spring

Without us even realising, spring has arrived! After all the preparation for Edinburgh Yarn Festival and then the joy of the actual weekend itself (more on that soon!), it feels like I’ve now stopped to look around and everything has changed… the daylight lasts two hours longer than it did a couple of months ago, we all have a spring in our step, the tiny birds are out collecting for their nests and calling at all hours and there are green shoots everywhere!

Buds

Buds

Fresh green leaves!

Fresh green leaves!

Tiny bundles of larch needles

Larix decidua: European Larch

Cercidophyllum magnficum: Katsura

Cercidophyllum magnficum: Katsura

japmaple

Acer palmatum ‘Sangu-kaku’: Coral-bark Maple

We recently moved and are lucky enough to now overlook the river Kelvin (just a ten-minute walk along the river to the Botanics!) so those shoots are whispering promises of the green cathedral that will be on our doorstep in just a few weeks… and, although we are so excited about the idea of all that green, we can’t quite believe it will actually happen! I’m wondering if that is just because we’ve only had one spring here or if it is another expression of the human capacity to forget all but the physical state we are currently in? Perhaps part of the reason that the ancients performed midwinter rituals to recall the sun back to them was because they didn’t quite believe that it would return of its own accord! We haven’t been ritualising but we certainly have been willing the sun to come… For those who’ve grown up in cold climates, te’ll me, do you begin to remember the seasons as you see years pass?

The early spring flowers are certainly nudging us to remember the colourful beauty of last year’s warmer months…

Salix sp: Willow

Salix sp: Willow

cornus

Cornus mas: Cornelian Cherry

Gold

Forsythia sp.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus: Daffodil

Narcissus pseudonarcissus: Daffodil

Flowering currant

Ribes sanguineum: Flowering Currant

We were lucky enough to head out on Good Friday with one of Scotland’s great foragers, Mark Williams, to learn about recognising and harvesting wild foods which shows that, even this early in the growing season, there is plenty of stuff out and about!

I hope you’re enjoying the swing of the seasons, wherever you live xx

dyeing with elderberry

The bounty of the northern autumn has meant that I’ve been able to try dyeing with berries for the first time! Although you can find sources of many common dye berries like Elder and Oregon Grape in Australia, I’ve always avoided using them because of their notoriously short-lived colour… but I figured it was crazy not to try when there have been so many around. They’re an interesting material to use because their primary dye compounds, anthocyanins, are particularly sensitive to pH and so you can really alter the colours by using pH-modifying agents after dyeing.

Here are my preliminary results with elder, the first berries I tried, using my standard method for dye tests with new species. I’m still in the process of gathering a wide range of different fibres to test on but even a small range gives a sense of the possibilities of a species:

  • I’m using an 8ply blend of Jacob, Portland and Leicester Longwool from Garthenor Organics (from Queen of Purls here in Glasgow) that dyes beautifully, I imagine because of the Leicester and Portland components… The large skeins are mordanted with alum and cream of tartar and the short lengths with iron (top) and copper (bottom). Below the short lengths are two small samples of Polwarth from Tarndie, the original flock of Polwarth sheep in my home state of Victoria, which I added to compare how a yarn that is softer and less lustrous would show the dye- the top one is a pale grey and the bottom a white.
  • I also added small samples of silk and silk velvet fabric, mordanted with alum and cream of tartar.
  • All the fibres were dyed in the same bath of berries that had been crushed, covered in hot water, left to soak for 36 hours and then simmered for 1 hour. The bath was then cooled, the berries removed and then the fibres added and simmered for 45 minutes.
Sambuccus nigra: Elder

Sambuccus nigra: Elder

I then removed the fibres and checked the pH to find it was in the neutral zone so put aside one set of fibres, which became the test set for dyeing at neutral pH.

Sambuccus nigra: Elder

Sambuccus nigra: neutral

I then added enough vinegar to lower the pH to 3-4, added one of the remaining sets of fibres to the bath and kept it on a low heat for 10 minutes. I then removed and rinsed that set.

Sambuccus nigra: Elder

Sambuccus nigra: acid

And finally raised the pH to 9 by adding sodium carbonate and added the final set of fibres, again leaving them in for 10 minutes and then rinsing them.

Sambuccus nigra with alkali

Sambuccus nigra: alkali

Elderberries (and other berries) seem to have more of an affinity with silk than wool. PH definitely alters the result, with acids taking the soft mauve-purple of a neutral bath to pink, raspberry and magenta and the alkali to beautiful greys. The copper-mordanted samples are very similar to those treated with alum/ cream of tartar and the iron samples are a little duller and darker.

More berry dyes on the go- back with more soon!