Everything’s a dyestuff!

This is a bit of a pet peeve ranty commentary, so get the popcorn and settle in. (Or tell me I’m a cranky pants, and scroll down to the pictures of pretty yarn.. whatever makes you happy).

Anyhow, I am part of a few dye communities on the internet. I am mostly a lurker, sometimes I add my 2 cents worth, but I’m not what one would call a pillar of the community. I’m confident enough in my own dyework to go off and experiment on my own without much in the way of reassurances from random strangers on the internet. I’ve explored and read enough about the chemistry to have a pretty good idea on what’s going on (enough that I teach a class about the chemistry behind mordants!)

I am going to preface this rant with acknowledgement that experimentation is awesome. I am not anti-‘let’s see what this does!’.. I am wholly and enthusiastically on board with ‘try it and see!’. That being said..

You CAN get colour from damn near anything. Not everything is a good dyestuff. Even those things that you get colour from. Getting colour, even a colour you like, does not make something a good dye. Dye is a specific chemical reaction. Stain is not dye. Stains fade (never fast enough when it’s your favourite shirt.. I know..), they are not a chemical bond between dyestuff and fabric.

Good dyestuff is fairly light fast. Having dyed fabric in light (not even baking in the sunshine.. just not a pitch black box), should not made it fade quickly. Good dyestuff is fairly wash fast. It sticks well, even through washing, or getting wet. Water should not, ideally, break the bond between dye molecule and fabric. If it does, that’s not good dye. Good dyestuff should be fairly colour fast. It should stay the colour you made it, generally speaking.

There’s good reason why you hear about the same dyestuffs over and over, they have a good amount of easily accessible dye molecules in their bits. Madder, Weld, Indigo, Woad, Cochineal, Walnut. There are others. There absolutely are others. There are others that are solid dye plants, with all the fastness you could want, but those are the classics, especially those first three. (A class about dye molecules is at the musing stage, stay tuned!)


So, at Althing, we did just that! Well mostly just that. Orlaith brought awesomeness in the form of an indigo vat (fructose reduced, I’m a convert), and she brought some weld and walnut. I brought a mystery packet from an Indian dye kit, unlabelled beyond ‘mustard yellow’. (The madder was elderly, and didn’t play along. Pro tip kids, madder doesn’t keep well in solution).


This was not an afternoon of careful notes and measuring. This was a few of us bringing pre-mordanted yarn (alum generally) and tossing it into dyepots and hoping for pretty colours. And we got pretty colours. We tossed things into the vat of my mystery powder and decided it was probably annatto. (No proof, but it fits!) We got unexpected colours (Cotton and tannin and alum and annato and indigo.. wow pretty brown… that didn’t stay.. boo..). We got great greens and fun blues. We got a whole collection of yellows. We played and relaxed and chatted and laughed. It was a delight. I’ve not dyed with others in a long time, and I’d forgotten how much less like work a dye day with friends is. It’s just pulling out pretty colours.



I’ve nothing against experimenting with whatever you find to hand, but remember that there’s old standards for a reason, and your experiments aren’t likely to keep as well as you might hope. Go forth, play and delight in your transient colours.


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