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Tales from the dye shed

Madder and fustic dyed wool drying

Every now and then I get out the synthetic dye powders and dye two or three kilos of yarn before lunch. No extra scouring, mordanting overnight or resting the yarn like I do when I plant dye. No chopping plant material, cooking it, extracting the colour and then creating the dyepot. No planning several days in advance. No leaving the yarns overnight to continue taking up colour. No reusing of dyepots because there is so much dye left over. No frustration because the indigo vat is too cold, too hot, refusing to change colour, unbalanced and extra smelly. Synthetic dyes in comparison are a walk in the park.

The shed did get a fresh coat of paint this year on the outside.
The indigo pot on a good day

Airing those smelly skeins

A decade and a half or so ago I took over the bin shed to dye in. Originally the bins were put into the shed because neighbour’s dogs kept knocking them over and making a mess. We lined the walls,added powerpoints and old school cupboards and shelves, painted the walls and I moved in. So did buckets, pails, boxes of dried plant materials and various old pots and pans. I also have a box of ex mill dyes which I use for my synthetic dyed yarns gifted from a dye laboratory.

I planned after occupying the space for a number of years to do a big clearout, clean and revamp but it never happens as I’m seduced by the siren call of the dyepots and anyway, it soon gets messy again. I often admire the photos of the sleek laboratory style workspaces of other craft dyers with their gleaming new industrial kitchen pans, scales and hardware. No stained broken wood furniture for them. No drawers that the handles fall off, collapsed shelves and boxes bursting with damp leaves and smelly acorn soaking buckets. I bet they don’t lift off the lid of the dyepot and wonder about the week old scum on top of the liquor or stop to admire the beautiful pattern made by a score of floating mould rings. I can often identify a plantdye by its smell in the dyepot which I guess is an advantage.

Removing the lid from last summer’s indigo pot and it’s not as mouldy as expected so I may skim off the crud and see if I can revive it. On second thoughts, maybe not….

I know, it’s disgusting what can be found in some of the buckets but you know there can be exciting colours from fermented plant stuff. If not it joins the compost bin. it must be my inner child still enjoying playing with muck. I never have clean nails and my hands are always stained with something even when I wear gloves to work in.

Acorns waiting to be processed. Strong in tannins they are useful for mordanting cellulose fibres.

But here I still am, tending my pots, sliding the last few skeins into the still hot mordant pot to do their magic overnight and hoping as the last dyepot cools that the yarn will take-up the final vestiges of colour and wow me in the morning. Some colours seem extremely shy and only slide onto the skeins if I leave them in peace in the dark.

The glow of buckthorn and madder on skeins of merino.

Plant dyeing is slow business, even with dried material or ready for dyeing extracts. The rewards of allowing time to pass over hours or days can be exquisite colour and even the disasters are just the first layer and awaiting more shading. I think as a person who has never lost a fondness for daydreaming that the pace of dyeing with plants suits me fine.

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