Out of the Dye Pot: Dogwood Fruit & Lessons in Chemistry

Originally posted Oct 14, 2015

It came to my attention the other day that my neighbor’s dogwood tree is producing fruit.  I’m sure I noticed before but never thought to ask anyone about it.  So, doing a little research, I found out this is a Korean Dogwood variety, and it turns out that that fruit–besides being edible–*supposedly* makes a nice dye stuff.

The sources that I saw online (which I think may have just been quoting each other) said that the berries themselves would make a lovely blue-green yarn.  Unfortunately, they didn’t say what kind of mordant they used*, so it was time to do a little experimentation.  I first mordanted my yarn with alum and cream of tartar.

*They also didn’t mention that there are several different varieties of Dogwood that produces fruit, including one that grows a blue fruit, that, like the Oregon Grape, may create the blue hues.

I picked up a bunch of berries off the ground and off the tree as high as I could reach (there are still plenty I couldn’t reach), and put them into the dye pot.  I let them simmer for a while, which made a rather orangey-tomato-red colored sauce.  I took a sample of yarn and dropped it in there just to see what color it would be.  It came out not blue or green, but a slightly orangy yellow.

Top yarn: the orangy-yellow Dogwood fruit yarn. I dunked into vinegar after pulling it out of the dye pot, which brightened the color just slightly; the white yarn is the undyed yarn, just for color reference; the other yellow is the common tansy yarn, again for a color reference.

A few days ago, I found a reference to making your own iron mordant by taking 2 parts water, 1 part vinegar and placing them into a glass jar and adding rusty nails.  “Well,” says I, “Let’s do that and see what happens!”  I found some rusty nails (thanks to a kind neighbor) and dropped them in the jar with the vinegar and water.  The recipe says you need to wait a week or two, but I didn’t have that kind of time for this project.

So continuing on with the experimental part, says I, “what would happen if I added iron to the bath?”  So after a couple hours, I shook the jar and poured most of the contents into the dye bath with the yarn.  I probably should have started small and added more later, but I figured it was a weak compound having only been sitting for a couple hours.

I checked the yarn a few minutes ago and looking in, it looks like grape jelly.

The yarn, on the other hand, looks like rather blah grey.  Not blue.  Not purple.  Not green.  Blah.  Maybe heather grey…just a hint of blue hue.

I will let it dry a bit and see if the color improves, but so far, you can color me unimpressed.

Out of the Dye Pot: Rhodies and Iron

Originally posted Oct 16, 2015

I thought I’d try a couple more dye experiments before the weather gets too nasty.  I hope I’ll be able to do some of this outside since indoor dye stuff can make you feel ill…as I learned from the tansy experiment.  Tansy has been used as an insect repellent, and when you cook it, it concentrates the smell and makes it difficult to tolerate.  Nausea is a side effect.  Yep.  I was feeling a bit queasy.

So today’s experiment comes from this article that I found:  http://www.allfiberarts.com/2011/how_dye_rhododendron.htm, the use of rhododendrons for dye materials.  It just so happened that a knew a lady who owns a house with some 50 year old rhodie plants in the yard.  I went over there and, not knowing how many I’d need, I trimmed off a sack full of leaves from the tree in the front yard.

Referring to the instructions, I cut up a bunch of the leaves, most into 1″ to 2″ pieces, putting them into a mesh bag to keep the yarn and foliage separate during the dye process.  This bag I set into a pot of cold water.  The smell was getting overwhelming, so I placed it on the deck overnight.  I only used about half the leaves that I picked.  I may try a second dye bath with a different mordant later.

Many leaves and flowers tend to result in a yellow yarn, which gets kind of boring, so I wanted to try for a green.  Using the instructions, I followed them to make an iron mordant.  Taking my rusty nail water, I poured about a cup and a half of the iron water into a bowl of tap water and set the wool yarn into it (about 100 yards taken off a large skein). [Yes, this plastic bowl is designated for dye stuff…never mix dye stuff and food stuff!]

To be continued….

Yawn!  Ahhh!  That was great restful night!  So I left the leaves soaking in the water overnight on the deck.  I peeked at it and it looked like a green-brown soup.  Not attractive, but it looked like it was doing something.

In order to avoid having the smells and the potential toxic stuff in the house, I decided that I’d use the grill outside.  I set the pot on the grill and set it on medium to get it warmed up.  Later, I set it up to high.  Since the lid was open, I was losing a lot of heat and it was pretty cold outside, so to compensate…even though the directions said to keep it under 200 degrees–so not a full boil.  I left it on the grill for about an hour, checking on it periodically to make sure it wasn’t boiling, and at that last check, I realized that there was no heat.  Ran out of gas.  Ah well, best laid plans.  I moved it inside and let it simmer on low for 30 minutes or so with the windows open and the vent fan on.

I took the yarn and drained most of the iron liquid off and gently set it into the dye bath.  I poked it with the spoon and put the bag of leaves on top, letting it simmer some more.  After about an hour, I took my first peek…

It’s going green!!  I let it sit for another hour or so, checked again, but it looks like it’s not getting any greener.  It’s drip-drying on the deck and appears to be a light olive green.  I love it!

I let the leaves steep all day and mordanted another 100 yards of wool in alum.  I dropped that in the pot, just to see if it would come out yellow…unless some of the iron residue is still in the pot, then I may end up with something green or green-yellow.  We’ll see what the morning brings!

Beads! Beads! Beads!

Originally posted Nov. 30, 2015 on my old blog.  Many thanks to my brother, Mike, for setting up this new blog site so photos will stop disappearing.


I have been working on making beads for the Known World Kingdoms over the past few weeks. This is a project that was taken on by the An Tir Lampworkers Guild several years ago. Twice a year, the lampworkers make 21 beads for each Kingdom in their Kingdom’s colors. 20 of those beads go to that Kingdom’s Queen, and the last one goes to the Queen of An Tir, who will have a string of 21 different beads. The Royals of An Tir then present these necklaces at the two big events in North America–Pennsic War in August and Estrella, the big one in Arizona in February.

Several years ago, I started by making one strand of beads for one kingdom. Then I did two kingdoms for a couple years as I gained confidence in my skill. This summer’s presentation in July had four strands made by me due to a shortfall in volunteers. This time around, the organizer who has historically done quite a lot of work, is ill, so I’ve been doing more to help pick up the slack.

I’m now working on the seventh kingdom (out of 20). I’m not as happy with this 6th Kingdom, only because good purple glass is difficult to find and make pretty. The Thai Orchid tends to look a little muddy. The Grape Ape looks a little too pastel. Pastel Purple looks pink. I’m thinking that the purple clear glass might be the way to go.

Here are the finished Calontir beads. I make a couple more than I needed, so I can pull out the ugly one…you can decide which one is the ugly one. There are several unsatisfactory ones in the bunch. I may make a few more just to have more options and give away the rest. I’ll give it a day or two to see if anyone else volunteers for another Kingdom before I start on more. The deadline is quickly approaching!

In the meantime, I’m also making and selling beads for the Bead Mama’s cancer bills. It’s not the medical stuff that needs covering, but all the other stuff–food, rent, utilities…you know, the luxuries. With a group of volunteers, we were able to cover some of these expenses and have promised to send her a small monthly stipend to help her out. It’s good to know that when things get tough, you’ve got friends to lend a hand.

Bead count is now at 8 Kingdoms:

I would like to stop now…I have other crafts and activities that need to take precedence.