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!

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