Backyard Dye Experiments

Our yard is full of plants we haven't yet identified. We spend hours each week looking at newly sprouting leaves, freshly budding blossoms, searching for signs and playing the game of "weed or flower?" which is all just perspective really. 

There are a few plants however, that we know very well and that pop up absolutely everywhere.

Goldenrod, Mugwort, and Ground Ivy, though all possessing vast medicinal and magical powers, are so abundant on our property that removing them from the flower beds and bushy areas allows for other plants to thrive (like irises! and peonies! and lilies!) without affecting the population in the least.

I can't help but try and dye with a plant that makes itself so readily available! 

So while weeding out these fast growers, I separated them and saved a bunch for the dye pot. Also grabbed some apple twigs, more on that below. 

L (from left) Ground Ivy, Apple Bark, Mugwort, Goldenrod

R (clockwise from top left) ground ivy, goldenrod, mugwort, apple bark

The mugwort gave off an intoxicating smell, making me feel as though I was walking on air when returning to the simmering dye pots, and gave off a nice bright key lime sage, same with the ground ivy. 

The goldenrod, bane of my gardening chores, nearly impossible to remove, turned out practically neon yellow! My favorite color, joyful and rapturous... created by our most invasive weed.

Pulling goldenrod out from the garden (that had been left untouched for years before we moved in, it's top 4"  turned into a thick ball of roots) took at least four days, reclaiming our soil from its roots, seeing tangles and outshoots of root systems every time I closed my eyes, dreaming of their intricate and radiating ways, unable to completely rid the garden of them and accepting the lifetime task of pulling up their powerful sprouts. 

So after this dye experiment, I've come to respect goldenrods ability to pop up everywhere, all the time.

It not only means I have access to a bright yellow dye at all times, it also serves as a reminder to appreciate what is already abundant in our lives. 

Now that we've got the moral out of the way, let's talk about that apple bark. 

I harvest the bark from some twigs pruned off the tree, collecting one jar with just the bark shaved off with a knife, and one jar with the twigs and all, both the same weight for accurate comparison, and topped off with water to the brim. Then, as many dye books have suggested, left this to steep for a couple weeks. 

Maybe my problem was closing the jars.

Ok definitely my problem was closing the jars. 

I open them to dye with, and begin to detect a foul odor. I put the bark-water in pots anyways and let them heat up, returning to my studio 40 feet or so away. 

I go back into the kitchen and am met with the scent of vomit-death-ass, promptly move the pots outside, and continue the dyeing process holding my breath. 

The results, after two weeks of soaking and four hours of burning incense trying to get that horrible smell out of my house, was a lively bandaid pink, barely noticeable on some of the fabrics.

I work with stinky, unpredictable dyes on a regular basis, but this was next level not worth it. I plan on trying again without closing the jars, but probably not until I forget about this experience completely. So six months from now, expect a revisit. 

If you are interested in dye experimenting with the plants in your yard, I highly suggest mordanting the fabric before dyeing to get bright colors.

A good reference for backyard dyes is "A Garden to Dye For" by Chris McLaughlin. Not my favorite dye book as it is written mostly for gardeners, but it has a focus on experimenting with everyday plants and is great for beginners. 

The following images are from my dye journal, where I keep swatches of experiments like this.

Each fabric is dyed with a mordanted swatch (the top layer) and an unmordanted swatch (the piece of fabric peaking out from underneath, usually lighter) 

Fabrics are, clockwise from top left, silk crepe, raw silk, alpaca yarn, cotton gauze