Out of the Dye Pot: Tansy & Alum

Originally published Oct 9, 2015

A couple of years ago, I was all anxious to try natural dyes.  I got a bunch of onion skins and made some lovely yarn!  I got some tumeric and made some more lovely yarn!  (Which is fugitive, by the way, so it fades over time).  I also tried a tansy dye project to see what would happen.  I picked tansy ragwort as well as common tansy to see if there was any difference, I tried the leaves separate from the buttons.  I even tried splashing a bit of ammonia into the dye bath…but I can’t find any of the images or results from that project.  I’m starting over and I hope to try other locally found things, like algae, apple leaves, and more, as well as ordering some other dye stuffs, like brazilwood, indigo and woad.  I also want to try to use some different mordants–all I’ve ever used so far is alum.  I found that it’s pretty easy to do iron, but it takes a couple of weeks to prep, so I’m going to work on that in the next week or so.

Today’s dye project was common tansy!

As the weather grows colder, I knew that if I wanted to do any tansy dyeing this year, I had to jump on it quickly.  I dropped the middle kid off at Scouts and found a bunch of tansy along the roadside across the way.  This is actually my photo…not a stock photo stolen off the internet.  Sometimes that scuzzy phone camera actually takes a good shot now and again!  Now, you should note that this is *common tansy* (Tanacetum vulgare), not Tansy Ragwort, (Senecio jacobaea), which is also amusingly called “Stinking Willie”.  Both are considered a noxious weed in Washington state, so there is no problem with me picking it along the roadsides.  (Then again, Himalayan blackberries are considered a noxious weed and no one is doing anything about those except happily picking the berries in August and September and cursing loudly when they snag their ankles on one of the runners.)

Here is the yarn I started with:  100 grams of KnitPicks Bare wool/nylon.  I usually prefer to use 100% wool yarn for these projects, just because it takes the dye so much better, but this is what I had on hand.  My plan is to use it to make some socks for SCA wear.  I prepped it by soaking it in a couple gallons of water with a half jar of alum and a quarter jar or so of cream of tartar (about 2 oz of alum and 1/2 oz of cream of tartar).

I ended up picking a grocery sack full of flowers in just 10-15 minutes.  I tried to avoid putting any leaves in the stew, thinking that it might turn the yarn a little more green, which even the stems may very well have.  Here are the buds simmering in the water.  I let it sit on the warm stove for about five hours.

Yarn test color–before and after
After posting it on Facebook, several people asked me why I was drying spaghetti on my faucet.

I took the very wet wool and placed it gently in the dye bath.  I removed most of the flowers before putting it in there, but I think next time, I might find a nylon or net bag to put all the vegetable matter in so I can easily remove it before putting in the fiber.  There are a few sticks and leaves still in the yarn.

In the end, it turned into a rather nice butter yellow–a little bit of the brown tones in it, but still quite lovely.

I soaked the yarn in the resulting bath for about an hour, keeping it warm, but not boiling.  Boiling can do horrible things to the color, like leave splotches on your yarn.  That’s not a good look.

The fun part of this is that it’s fairly easy to do, none of the ingredients are extremely toxic (although I wouldn’t recommend eating the tansy), and be sure to wash your hands after handling it.  It had been used as a medicinal herb in Medieval times, and is occasionally used on salads in some cultures, but the plant’s medicinal property, thujone, can cause miscarriage.  It is also a very effective insect repellent, and the herb can cause hallucinations, spasms, convulsions, and even death in large doses.  I have to admit that after making the dye in my kitchen with the windows open, I had a stomach ache and felt a bit queasy for a couple days.  So I would recommend using rubber gloves when handling it and use in a well-ventilated area.