The Colors of Autumn

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September 1 marks the first day of meteorological autumn. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains that meteorological seasons are based on changes in temperature and are therefore more accurate predictors of weather changes than the solstice and equinox dates of the astronomical calendar. The air is indeed a bit cooler here in the upper Mid-Atlantic. The available gardening hours between too hot and too buggy are extending while at the same time daylight hours are decreasing, which is rather unfair, when you think about it. Here in Zone 5A, we can expect light frost from mid-September onward and some years it feels like autumn is just a short, steep slide into winter.

Taken on its own merits, however, autumn is a wonderful season as it is all about color. As we nudge toward the astronomical autumn equinox, the huge blooms of the Pee Gee Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) begin to blush in Grandmother’s rock garden and the apples are also taking on cheeky colors. Sunflowers nod their heavy seed heads for the goldfinches and blue jays. A stand of goldenrod surrounds a large patch of native milkweed from which one glorious year Ken saw a host of Monarch butterflies rise in flight against a sky that has never seemed so blue.

In September I take a break from the heavy task of avoiding gardening chores and think about dyeing wool. I generally stick to commercial dyes because I am looking for dependable, repeatable results. Dyeing wool with naturally made dyes is more of an art as results can vary widely depending on when the plant material was collected and what mordents are used. It also requires a great deal more time because it can take a day or more to extract the dye from the plant material.

Found in abundance in autumn, goldenrod is a perfect plant material for a first natural dye project.

I began my journey toward natural dyes with goldenrod, available in abundance in autumn and the dye bath is relatively easy to prepare with just a few steps and a simple, safe mordant.

The first thing I discovered that, in quantity, goldenrod can provoke quite a strong allergic reaction even from someone like me who heretofore has not suffered from plant allergies. My sneezing fit began while I was picking my second grocery bag of blossoms and the histamine reaction really hit its stride when I started to boil the blossoms to extract the dye.

I have since moved all of my dyeing activities outside to a wonderful work area built by my amazing husband, which brings me to the point that one should always separate utensils and prep areas for dyeing from food preparation areas. Never use any pot, bowl, basin, spoon or any other equipment for food that you have even once used to extract dye, or to dye wool. All commercial dye instructions carry this warning and if any instructions for extracting dyes from plant material do not, they should. “Natural” does not mean “safe” but with a little care dyeing wool is really quite fun. Let’s get started!

Goldenrod blossoms equal in weight to the fiber you would like to dye.
stock pot or crockpot with lid
Strainer or cheese cloth.
Clear measuring cup
Measuring spoons
Stirring utensil
dish soap (original Dawn)

Step 1: Collect a large quantity of goldenrod heads – the general rule is an equal weight of dye stuff to wool, so if you are dyeing a pound of wool, you would need a pound of goldenrod. I contented myself with about four ounces, or a grocery bag full.

Step 2. Put the blossoms in a large stockpot, cover with water. Bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour then let the dye bath cool. If you are using a crockpot, it will take at least a few hours and perhaps most of the day to extract the color.

You can let the dye material overnight for stronger color, but if you are in a hurry to dye something, go ahead and strain the dye bath to remove the goldenrod. Your resulting dyebath should be yellow. If the color doesn’t suit you, repeat the extraction process with more goldenrod.

Step 3: While recovering from your sneezing fit and waiting for the dye bath to cool, you can prepare the wool for dyeing. If you are dyeing yarn, tie the skein loosely in 4 or 5 places, then submerge in tepid water with a bit of dish soap (plain Dawn is usually recommended). If you are dyeing fiber or roving, you might want to lay a piece of cheesecloth or use a strainer in the basin to easily pick up the fiber without stretching it. Soak the piece for about a half hour, then gently rinse in tepid water and let drain or wrap in a towel to remove excess water. Damp wool takes color more evenly.

Measure out your mordant. The recipe for four ounces of wool is ¼ teaspoon of potassium aluminum sulfate and 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar. The mordant both increases the wool’s uptake of color and also helps to preserve the color from fading.

Potassium aluminum sulfate is a relatively safe and effective mordant for most dyeing processes and is available through shops that sell fiber dyestuff. This is not the alum that is sold in grocery stores for food recipes. You can however use the cream of tartar you find in grocery stores.

When the dye bath has cooled and strained dissolve the mordant into the dye bath and mix well.

Step 4: Now for the really fun part: Add the damp wool to the dyebath. If the dyebath does not completely cover the wool, add tepid water. Bring the dyebath to a simmer in either a crockpot or stock pot. Hold the simmer for about an hour in either the crock pot or the stockpot. Gently stir the wool occasionally so the color takes up more evenly. After one hour turn off the heat source, remove the lid and let the dye bath cool completely before removing the wool. You can leave the pot to cool overnight, or if you are eager to see your result, wait until the water has completely cooled.

Step 5. Remove the wool from the dye bath and rinse in tepid water until the water runs clear. You may find some color runs out of the wool. This means that the wool has taken up all the color it can hold. Gently squeeze out excess water and lay out the wool to dry in an airy place. I use a window screen for fiber and simply hang yarn skeins over the clothes line. I turn it occasionally, squeezing out excess water. When the wool has thoroughly dried, you can begin your project!

The brim of this hat was knitted with a succession of naturally dyed yarns, including indigo, cochineal, and goldenrod.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.