Natural Dyeing with Buckthorn

Oh my goodness. Buckthorn, buckthorn- the nemesis of the Berry Lake neighborhood. In our area, buckthorn is an invasive plant and the Berry Lake neighbors have been on a mission over the last few years to rid our little lake of this invader. Imagine my surprise then, while researching natural dyeing, to find that buckthorn is a great dye source when wanting to create green and yellow dyes. Buckthorn contains a natural mordant, tannin, which makes it resistant to fading overtime and when exposed to sunlight. For the project I have in mind, I’m going to be using my homespun wool and I definitely do not want the colors to fade.

Since this is my first time using buckthorn, I wanted to experiment on purchased wool before using my homespun to see what colors I can create. I’m going to be using wool that I purchased from the Yarn Barn of Kansas. It is 100% merino wool and it’s sports weight. The two skeins I purchased weighed 8 ounces so I divided the skeins into fourths to create 8 total 2 ounce skeins. Actually, I’m going to be working in grams so each individual skein weighs 54 grams.

Harvesting the buckthorn

Buckthorn was not at all difficult to find around our lake. It’s early August and it ended up being the perfect time to harvest the plant. The berries are in a transition stage so the branches contained both green and ripe berries.

We ended up just cutting branches and loading them in our car so that we could sort later.

Step One- Scouring

The first step in the dye process is to ensure that the yarn is clean. Since my yarn is purchased yarn, it’s not too dirty, but there could be machine oil on the yarn from processing. To scour my yarn, I ran hot water in my sink, dropped in a bit of Power Scour (product specifically to clean wool) and let sit for an hour or two. Dawn dish soap works as cleaning agent as well. If your yarn is dirty, you may want to repeat the washing a few times. Be sure to rinse all the soap from your yarn before moving to the next step.

Step Two- Mordanting

When dyeing, it’s important to use the correct mordant. Wool is considered a protein fiber so I’m going to use Potassium Aluminum Sulfate (Alum Powder) as a mordant. I purchased alum in bulk from Amazon. Remember, buckthorn contains the natural mordant, tannin, so it’s really not necessary to use a mordant at all. With dye matter that contain natural mordants, you can actually skip step one, but you may get a stronger color when adding a mordant such as alum. So, that’s what I’m going to do for this project. Different sources recommend different ratios of alum to your weight of fiber (WOF). I’m going to go on the low end of the recommendations and use 10% alum to dye material. Note: I use a N95 mask when measuring any dye powder substance.

I’m going off script for a bit to chat about modifiers. Modifiers are substances that you can add at different points in the dye process that changes the color or intensity of the dye. Cream of tartar is known as a modifier that tends to brighten the colors. I’m going to add cream of tartar to my mordant water at a 1% ratio.

So, this is how this worked. I filled a stainless steel pot (that I only use for dyeing- never use pots or utensils used for dyeing for cooking) 3/4 full of rain water (note: you could use water from your tap, but rain water has a neutral pH of 7 and it rained like crazy yesterday so I was able to collect quite a bit). I used a pot large enough so that my wool moved freely in the pot. I dissolved the alum and cream of tartar in 2 cups of heated rain water and then added it to the pot and stirred. The yarn was then added to the pot and it was simmered (not boiled) for an hour and then set aside to cool over night and then rinsed in rain water in the morning.

Step 3- Dye Vat

After the yarn set overnight in the mordant bath, it was then time to start brewing the dye vat. Originally, I intended to do a 1 to 1 ratio (108 grams dye matter/108 grams of yarn), however, as my pot was brewing I wasn’t seeing the color I wanted so I upped the dye matter. The final ratio was 1.5 dye matter to 1 part wool. The dye matter was simmered in a pot 3/4 filled with rain water for an hour.

I then put the water/dye materials through a sieve so there was only the dyed liquid. The yarn was then added and simmered for an hour.

After the hour of simmering, the pots were set aside to cool overnight. The yarn that was not going to be modified was rinsed with rain water and hung to dry the next day.

Step 4- Iron Modifier (Optional)

I wanted to see if I could make some of the colors darker and deeper with the use of an iron mordant. I made my own concoction using rusty nails, vinegar and water. Since I had two skeins each of each of the dye materials, I kept one without the iron modifier and put the other in a small bath of dye water with about 3-4 TBS of iron liquid. I only kept the yarn in the iron bath for about 15 minutes.


Let’s see what we have:

I only wish there was a better way to show the colors- capturing the true colors with a camera is just so difficult. I really loved the green I was able to get with the ripe berries and the deep butterscotch color I got when adding the iron to the bark dye bath. Actually, I like all the colors in this mini dyeing experiment with buckthorn. Just a note- I started a dye bath with the leaves of the buckthorn only. 30 minutes into the simmer I just wasn’t getting any color so I added 200 grams of the green berries. I ended up with a neon greenish/yellowish yarn which I didn’t love at all. I’m sure I’ll find a use for it some day. Not quite sure yet how I’m going to use my test yarn. I’ll be dyeing with walnut soon so maybe the dark brown could be an accent color in a scarf.

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