This is not a rant. Nor another exposition on going off the deep end and finding my way back (or up out of the depression hole). It’s also not about The Yellow Wallpaper, an incredible short story by Charlotte Perkins Gillman that you should read if you haven’t. This post is about my recent dye experiment with some madder root (Rubia tinctorum) that I got from Earth Guild‘s booth at Maryland Sheep and Wool (MDSW) all the way back in May.

The weekend before MDSW, I had finished taking a dye class at the Art League of Alexandria with Steph & Alana and while we had talked about madder, we hadn’t dyed with it. I didn’t even have a dye book and had just started keeping up with online natural dye groups. In the Earth Guild booth, I picked up things I knew I’d need: their Natural Dyes starter kit, which includes basic mordants and Rita Adrosko’s Natural Dyes and Home Dying, some dyes that sounded familiar (madder root and cutch extract) just in case my plans for using plant material in my yard didn’t work out.

After SVFF at the end of September, where I bought 4 fleeces, I decided I needed to process the fiber I already had from the previous spring, when Jenni talked me into splitting 4 fleeces from Willow Hawk Farm. Talking me into more fleece really didn’t take too much effort since I had already decided to buy a fleece and splitting 4 instead of having one meant more breeds to experiment with and learn about. Anyway – Steph and I had already mordanted some of that fleece, Elizabeth’s fleece (she’s a white merino), with alum, so I decided to use that for my madder experiment.

I checked a lot of places for directions and recipes before I got started. I do this with baking too in the hopes that I will have better results and less trial & error. Rita (Adrosko in Natural Dyes and Home Dying) lists several recipes, 2 close to the color I was hoping to get (laquer red), one with a 2:1 wool:dyestuffs ratio, the other at 1:1. Jenny Dean, in Wild Color, recommends a 1:1 ratio but cautions against raising the dye bath temperature too high since that will dull the reds toward a brown range. I turned to Ravelry next; several discussions in the two natural dye groups recommended keeping the temperature of the dye bath below 150° and adding calcium.

I started with 2oz of madder (I know, not that much at all). It looked like this right out of in the container:


I dropped it, along with 2 Ultra 1000 Tums (don’t judge: there’s a lot of acid tummy at my house), cooked it at 140°ish for 6 hours, and let it cool overnight. The next day, I put the madder in cheese cloth and got to see the peachy dye bath:


I had a feeling my results weren’t exactly going to be red, but I was hoping for a deep orange. I added 78g (2.75oz) of wool I prepped by teasing (cleaning, really) with the teasing board that came with my drum carder, so my ratio of wool:dye was 78:56, a little over 1:1. Forging ahead, I took this at some point during the 4 hours the wool was in the dye bath (again, kept at around 140°):

Madder Dye Bath 

While that was cooking, I prepped more fiber, this time fiber Steph and I pre-mordanted with alum. I’d gotten so much VM (vegetable matter – bits of grass and sticks and burrs) and second cuts (the sheerer goes back & cuts more off the sheep after already sheering some off) out of the wool I’d prepped the day before that I realized pre-prepping the wool was well-worth it so I wouldn’t waste any natural dye material on, well, natural material that was going to get tossed anyway. I also can’t just take clean fleece and pop it onto the drum carder and expect a lovely batt to come off of it; the fiber has to be teased out and layered onto the carder in conservatively thin layers or else you’ll end up with nupps/pills and patches of uneven, wonky fiber.

So. The next morning, when I pulled the wool out of the dye bath, the results were more peachy-orange than I had expected:


So much so, that I tried messing with the acidity of the bath by dipping samples in vinegar (top right), ammonia (bottom right), and the lichen vat (ammonia, basically, bottom left). Ammonia definitely made the color deeper, but more toward peachy-pink, so I decided to leave this batch as-is:


But I still had more prepped wool and a partially-used dye bath. What’s a girl to do but dump something else in? I had 60g of ground safflower (petals, I assume) that I got from that SVFF vendor who’s receipt I should’ve saved. I read Jenny Dean’s safflower instructions – the petals contain a yellow dye that should be extracted and strained before heating the dye material more to extract red & pink dyes. To do this right would take another dye bath and at least another day; having already spent how many days on this project? I just threw caution to the wind and dumped the entire 60g directly into the bath with the madder still in the cheesecloth. I cooked it for another hour or two, still keeping it below 140°, and added the wool (64g, so about 1:1 ration of wool:dye), cooked it longer (my note-taking lagged at this point), let it cool overnight and what I got was not what I expected or hoped for:
Left to right: unmordanted merino + madder, alum-mordanted merino + madder & safflower, cotton cheesecloth. When I added the safflower, the cheesecloth immediately began sucking up the pink colors. I had really high hopes that the wool would as well, but alas. I think these orange colors will blend well with the yellows that I got from the butterfly bush; I just need to do some carding and see what I come up with.
I still have the madder roots. On Monday I had the dye blender out (an extra regular blender that will now only be used for inedible stuff) to pulverize some bittersweet berries (a member of the nightshade family & poisonous, use with caution) and decided to blend up a madder smoothie (for dying, not drinking) also. There’s definitely more pigment in the roots; the water went from a murky peach to a deep reddish brown. I also still have the avocado peels from earlier in the summer and have been thinking about making a combined dye-bath.
I confess I’ve also been thinking about using Jacquard Acid Dyes. It would be nice to know, with a lot more certainty, what color I’m going to get. But that will come with time and practice, right? Using acid dyes won’t really be so much of a chemistry experiment either, just a color experiment. Making decisions is agonizing. I think I just need to focus on working with the supplies I’ve got; I didn’t really set out to become an indy dyer, just to see what I can do with what’s available to me. And though the madder & safflower (and the cutch) technically weren’t readily available to me, at least they were natural/close to their original form and not synthesized in a lab.

Catching Up: Shenandoah Valley Fiber Fest

For once I have too much to write about: SVFF, natural dye projects, the sweater I’m knitting out of my own handspun yarn, roller derby, and probably some other things I’m forgetting about. I’m planning on posting more about all of this stuff, particularly the natural dying (madder, mushrooms, pokeberry & bittersweet), but I’ve been remiss in blogging (or blah-ging, as the case may be) and feel like I have to catch up first.

Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival (SVFF) happens the last weekend in September just over The Mountains (the Blue Ridge Mountains, that is) at the Clarke County Fairgrounds in Berryville, VA. This was my second year helping out with the juried fleece sale and the Loudoun Needleworkers (LNW) booth, which were happily in the same building this year thanks to Alana, who did so much organizing I’m surprised she didn’t keel over in exhaustion before SVFF even started. I love driving out to Berryville for this festival; I would love to live farther out, in the country proper instead of suburban Leesburg. The 3 days I spent at SVFF were worth it for the drive alone, but it is a bonus that I carpooled with Steph and Alana.

Friday we got to the fairgrounds around 10 in the morning to set up the LNW booth, which we use to let the community know we exist and welcome new members, and to get ready to skirt and comment on sheep & alpaca fleece brought in for the juried fleece sale. We were a little bit too early; booth set-up went by in a flash so we sat knitting and chatting for most of the morning. From 1pm, when the fleece sale started, until about 4:30 we were in constant motion dealing with over 100 fleece. Although this year we were supposed to be on our own, we had help from some of the jurists from last year and without it, we would’ve been sunk. This is what the fleece sale table looked like when we left Friday evening:

Fleece Sale Table, SVFF, Friday PM

Saturday morning we got there by 9, if I remember correctly, and were off and running with fleece sales. We did the bulk of the selling on Saturday, with several on Sunday. Many people stopped to watch us spin, ask us about spindles and Alana’s Ladybug. An older gentleman from Texas stopped by looking for the woman who’d brought in cashmere from her goats; he had judged the goat competition earlier in the day and explained that there’s more cashmere out there than sheep fleece, but it’s expensive because it has to be de-haired by hand.

As she did last year, Alana got delicious wine from Fabbioli to share with all of the volunteers and we stayed after SVFF closed Saturday & took our time cleaning up on Sunday. Sunday we also made our annual group trip to Sonic in Winchester. Cherry Limeade! Cheese fries! Cherry Limeade! Thankfully, the weekend of SVFF Alise moved to Winchester and though we missed her at SVFF, we’re all very glad that she lives so close to Sonic; we’re half-joking that she needs to take our orders before coming to Sunday meet-ups. I’m sure we’d all chip in for some insulated bags to keep hot Sonic hot and Cherry Limeades cold.

I came away from SVFF with 4 fleeces and some other stuff:

SVFF stuff. Clockwise from top left: rambouillet x, alpaca, merino, cormo. Packets of alkanet, safflower, red sandalwood, sumac. 
Clockwise from top left: 
  • 4.5 lbs coated Romney X (3/8 Romney, 1/4 Tunis, 1/16 Leicester, 1/4 mixed, 1/16 Corriedale) from Hickory Hill Farm in Gore, VA 
  • 2.5lbs of multicolored alpaca (white with dark brown) from a farm that didn’t include a business card or info sheet with the fleece
  • 10.5lbs coated Merino from Black Sheep Farm in Leesburg, VA (you can see the crimp in that fiber even in this picture taken with my phone!)
  •  7.5lbs of coated Cormo from Lavender Hills Farm in Lineboro, MD 
  • Packets of alkanet, safflower, red sandalwood, sumac from … ah … uhm, a vendor who’s receipt I should’ve saved. 

I also got Rock Creek Yarn‘s knitting poetry magnets, which now live on a magnetic white board in The Yarn Office (formerly known as the formal living room).

The whole weekend made me miss Vermont and wonder why I left, why I never got interested in farming/horticulture (I’m guessing that like religion, it was forced on my parents & they wanted to give my brother and I the choice), and how old one has to be to do 4-H. Maybe I just need a farm and a mentor.