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