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Dyeing to know?

November 17th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

So you may possibly remember me mentioning my efforts to dye yarn green, and having less than stellar results. The most civilized answer to what color the yarn is has been “kahki green” or “something you would wear with combat boots”. I don’t have any combat boots. . .

Things got odder and odder when I tried dyeing test swatches with (alternately) slipskin grapes and pokeweed berries. Though the dye bath was deep purple and a brilliant fuschia, the yarn kept coming out brown, of all absurd things. So I inter-library loaned 14 hundred million books in an attempt to figure out what on earth was going on. I found lots of dots, but didn’t managed to connect them all until the 14 hundred million and one book. Dots:

  • Don’t use well water for washing your wool; the minerals in the water will form soap scum!!! (Big deal.)
  • Iron added to a dye bath will “sadden” or “dull” the colors.

For some absurd reason, it took me until I found the The art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by J.N. Liles before I finally realized what my problem was:

. . .for practically all natural dyes except madder, logwood, weld, and brazilwood, soft water is best. In former times, rainwater was considered ideal, riverwater next best, and well water the last choice since it often contained the largest amounts of dissolved salts. Not only do salts alter tehcolor of some dyes, but they can sometimes cause spotting, particularly on piece goods. Iron contamination can really create havoc with bright colors.. . .If iron contamination is suspected, dissolve a few crystals of potassium ferrocyanide in about one-half ounce of water. Add a little vinegar or weak acid. If the solution remains clear, it is iron free, but if the solution turns blue, iron contamination is present. The blue color results from the formation of Prussian blue, which is iron dependent.

Alas, I don’t happen to have a few crystals of potassium ferrocyanide hanging around, but I suspect (very, very strongly) that this is the problem. Certainly I was using well water, but my first reaction was “we don’t have that many minerals in the water!!”. After all, a few houses down the street has huge problems with iron staining, and if you go up the street the other way, there is so much sulfur in the water I can smell it across the room as soon as the tap is turned on. Our water, on the other hand, is wonderful. It has no off tastes of either iron or sulphur (is it sulfur or sulphur? they both look wrong at the moment). The fact of the matter is, it’s probably closest to spring water, as the well is very, very shallow. (We sometimes joke it’s just a buried 5 gallon bucket.) The water table in general runs very close to the surface, and it is not at all unusual to have a bunch of springs spontaneously pop up in the lawn every Spring, sometimes force the water several inches into the air.

However, I should have known better. Because it is also a plain fact of the matter that there’s a lot of iron in the ground around here, and you don’t have to go far to find it. When I dig up potatoes, I only have to go about 8 inches down before I find pale gray clay streaked with the rust of iron. So even if our well water is practically little other than run-off from the hill, it stands to reason it can pick up a fair amount of iron on the way.

The bad news is that I won’t be able to use my most ready supply of water for dying.

The good news is that I probably won’t ever have an iron deficiency, and that my water probably provides more essential vitamins and minerals than your average breakfast cereal.

All of that fascinating discussion aside, I do highly recommend The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing. He takes his dying seriously, and goes into detail. Of all my inter-library loaning, it is the only book I actually want to buy. Most other books give such scant information, or absurd repetition (pick plant; crush plant; soak plant; dye with plant. Pick some other plant; crush plant. . .etc) that they’re simply not worth it. This book is very fascinating, packed with information, and not something that someone only interested in quick-and-easy novelty dying would be interested in. If you really want answers, get this book.

Posted in Books, Color, Dyeing, Technical | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Dyeing to know? » The Ethereal Voice Says:

    […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1″; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Dyeing to know? By Tatterdemalion | November 17, 2007 – 3:50 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Art So you may possibly remember me mentioning my efforts to dye yarn green, and having less than stellar results. The most civilized answer to what color the yarn is has been “kahki green” or “something you would wear with combat boots”. I don’t have any combat boots. . . Things got odder and odder when I Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. Jesse Says:

    Of course, you might have already tried/thought of this, but you could try buying distilled or spring water from the grocery to use for dying. I think you can even, some places, buy it in 5 gallon jugs.

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