Before dyeing, use a mordant. This is an acid fixative that makes the dye “take”. Alum is the most common — it is pleasant to use and it is nonpoisonous. Cream of tartar is combined with the alum to add brilliance to the colours. Mordant recipe:
4 ounces powdered alum
1 ounce cream of tartar
4 gallons soft or boiled water
1 pound of wool
Thoroughly dissolve alum and cream of tartar in a bowl of warm water. Add to remaining mixture the 4 gallons of soft water and bring to a boil. Enter freshly washed wool into the mordant gradually to ensure complete absorption. Simmer gently for half an hour. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove mordant from wool by pressing between the hands — do not wring! Place in a pillowcase and hang up where it can be kept cool for at least twenty-four hours. Put through warm rinsing water before dyeing.
Recipe for dye bath: Whenever possible use rainwater or softened water for dyeing — use tap water only as last resort. To four gallons of water add one pound of roots or barks. It takes two pounds of leaves. Flowers of fruit to four gallons of water. The dried dye material should be broken up or crushed and soaked in enough soft water to cover at least overnight. In the morning, strain into the dye pot through several thicknesses of cheesecloth. The dye dregs that are left should be tied in the cheesecloth and boiled in a separate kettle for half an hour. Add this liquid to that already strained, also enough soft water to make up to the four gallons and bring to the boiling point.
If freshly gathered dyestuff is used, soaking will not be necessary. Boil in the dye bath from one to two hours to extract the pigment. Test with a white china cup for depth of colour. If colour is too light continue boiling and testing. Strain through cheesecloth — do not use a metal sieve as this may change the final colour.
Place the wet wool in the dye bath and simmer from 30 to 45 minutes. Spread the wool in the dye bath to prevent streaking. Lift occasionally with two sticks or long-handled wooden spoons. Do not stir. Rinse thoroughly in warm water and hang to dry in a shady place. A gentle breeze is a big help in drying as it fluffs the wool. Remember that in handling wool, temperatures should be as even as possible.
Here are some hints for natural dye colours.
Yellow – apple bark, pear bark (gather the twigs out when the trees are pruned), carrot
tops, marigold flowers, sunflowers, rhubarb leaves.
Orange – spruce cones, friend onion skins, birch bark.
Deep orange – red onion skins, alder bark.
Yellow – Green – birch leaves, spinach, parsley, plantain (leaves and root),
Blue – delphinium flowers, blueberries, buckwheat stalks (the last should be crushed and
allowed to ferment for several days before brewing for the dye bath).
Blue – gray – a 4 pounds to a4 gallons of water, use sorrel.
Grey – couch grass roots (also called twitch grass etc.- Mare’s tails, wild iris roots.
Red – beetroot (4 pounds to 4 gallons water) bedstraw roots.
Dusty pink – choke cherries.
Pink beige – dandelion roots.
Tan – sumac berries (use only 2 ounces of alum in the mordant. Sumac had a coarsening
effect if mordant is too strong).
Brown – oak bark, black walnut, hulls, butternut hulls, ferns and lichens.
It is a good plan to save the dye bath until the dyed material has dried, then if the colour is too pale it can be re-entered in the dye-bath, brought to a boil and simmered for another half-hour. Save the left over mordant too, as it is sometimes advisable to dip the wool in the mordant before repeating the dyeing process. Never wring unspun wool or it will mat or felt it. Press the wool between the palms to remove the moisture.
Both dyeing and drying the dyed materials should always be done in the shade. Collecting begins in the spring to late autumn. With the advance of the season the dyes from the mature vegetation deepens. Dye plants are at their prime in midsummer, especially those from the weed families.
Dry thoroughly, out of doors in the shade, shaking and turning occasionally. Then, the dehydrated barks, roots, foliage, or flowers should be placed in new paper bags, contents marked on each, securely tied and stored in a dark dry cupboard. Treated in this matter dye stock will keep for moths. Avoid mould, as this kills the colour. Recipes need to be as accurate as if making a cake so, if you do not have an accurate pair of scales, it might be wise if you could get the druggist where you purchase the alum to weigh your dye stock.