A natural dye experiment: black oak leaves

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Going back a few decades in my life and realizing with a bit of surprise that I am caught again in the natural dye thing. Autumn in full swing, the golden yellow leaves falling and then turning quickly dull ochre, I could not resist scooping them up and boiling them into a leaf soup, filling the house with a spicy woody fragrance. I opened my sock yarn drawer and finding a bare Hawthorne ready to be dyed, I grabbed it, and prepared it for its dye bath and let it sink down in the lovely golden rusty liquid, and I knew I was going to find another signature color. But as everything in the kitchen, I do these things on pure instinct with a good splash of impatience in the mix too.

The next morning I lifted the sock yarn out of the leaf soup, as it had stewed overnight, and although the tint was subtle, I washed it in warm suds, rinsed, let dry on the clothes line, and quite pleased, I thought about trying some more! I went out and gathered more leaves, and stuffed all I could into my stock pot, and boiled again for about an hour, the liquid was again golden rusty brown, and so I pulled out about 400 grams of Knit Picks Simply Wool (Wilbur) I had rejected for another project and decided to sacrifice it for the cause, hoping it would transform from dull medium grey/brown to a deep golden hue. Oh, but chaos began to emanate from the kitchen at this point. I strained out the leaves from the pot, certain my five skeins would fit. They didn’t, yet they were already partially dunked. I switched pots, to big cast iron, thinking a little iron would only improve. Even smaller! I began to panic, texted Jeff’s daughter in the tiny house to please let me use her large slow cooker, woke her up, ran down there, and when I brought it back up to meet the occasion, such relief, yes it fit! During all this time there was a power outage, and I had to also switch out the power to generator, and then it came back on and switch it again. By the afternoon I was poking the slow-cooking yarn to see if any of the brown fluid would go into the yarn, like it did with the Hawthorn Bare sock yarn. Um, no such luck, even though I did the right things, splash of white vinegar for the protein fiber and good luck. All day this continued, and determined to see some color, poking, gently lifting and then submerging. Nothing showed over the natural grey, not even the tie yarns showed much. In disbelief I fetched a white skein of Simply Wool I also had left over, and tried my luck ( I had two dye baths going at this point), and the best it got was “off – white” . Still determined, I fetched some unspun roving. A splash more vinegar in the dye bath, probably unnecessary, and put 100g of Targhee Top roving I recently bought in to soak, nearly on my knees praying to the providence. Nothing. Actually, maybe an ever-so-slight tint of color, and I decided to let it stew overnight if maybe something of a miracle could happen. I don’t think there are many miracles in natural dying though.

Thinking about it more technically: The superwash sock yarn worked beautifully, right in front of my eyes, I saw it happen. I repeated the same process with the other fiber, and it failed. Natural dying is nothing like chemical color dying, and I’m finding the only sure thing in this experiment was the type of fiber that made the difference. The minimally processed “Simply Wool” yarn must have natural oils in the yarn ( which I recall bled out in the garment wash at blocking) so perhaps not a good yarn to natural dye with, but also the immaculately clean white targhee top roving failed to absorb the dye, even after soaking over night. Just a slight beige off-white color.

I am referring to my dye process as “easy” because I’m not using any mordants, just a splash of vinegar for the protein wool fibers to open up a bit, definitely nothing toxic or chemical to poison my cooking pans & spoons. Besides, black oak leaves have quite a lot of natural tannic acid, so I figured that I wouldn’t be needing much else. I also would like to add that my choice of dyable material is limited to what I find around outside our house, as I did madrone bark last summer, and I won’t be ordering exotic plant based dyes from elsewhere for I am exploring my micro environment for a very personal seasonal palette. In the next experiment I will not be using five hundred grams of over-confidence, but limit my first tests to one skein of superwash sock yarn, if I am to continue casually dying with gathered natural ingredients I find about the woods here. At least I’ve got one very cheery little skein of golden ochre sock yarn as a souvenir.