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Tartan Ferret

Food to Dye For!

Rowena Edlin-White reminisces on the birth and growth of Woolgatherings and The Spinster's Almanack and talked of Kitchen dyes.

This is the story of a joke which prompted a publishing enterprise which, though I say it myself, has been a modest success over the years and has received warm recognition from such diverse areas as environmental and self-sufficiency groups, historical re-enactment groups, and the textile media like Spin Off and The Black Sheep Newsletter in America. It was the obvious solution to my twin passions (at the time) for hand spinning and natural dyeing and publishing.

When I learnt to spin nearly thirty years ago in North Wales, there were no books to tell you what to do but a legendary spinner/weaver Morfydd Roberts lived just over the hill and she taught me and my colleague Judy Snape to spin. Judy later founded the Natural Dye Company with her sister Sarah Bumett. I can remember our first pathetic attempts to colour our hand spun wool with natural dyes - we stuffed a bucket full of dandelions, boiled it up, stuck the wool in and achieved - precisely nothing! Morfydd wasn't a dyer so we had to search out the information we needed. We only knew of one book Vegetable Dyes first published in 1916 by another legend, Ethel Mairet of Ditchling who pioneered the revival of hand spinning and dyeing in Britain in the 1920s. I managed to get hold of a secondhand copy with great effort and at enormous expense (£6.50 in the days when I earned £16 a week as an actor - so that gives you some idea of how keen I was) and from Mairet's book I learnt the basics.

Very gradually we began to find other material from America - but mostly we learnt the business by trial and error and a lot of fun it was too. I came back to Nottingham in 1981, at the height of the craft revival, joined a local spinning Guild and found out more, but there was still very little available in print for English spinners and dyers. In 1983 I started a Guild Newsletter - The Spinster's Almanack. By a fluke of fate it found its way to America, it got an enthusiastic review in Spin Off, and before we knew what was happening people were writing to us asking for subscriptions. Within two years it had been plucked from the ranks of local newsletters and become an international publication and 20 years on we're still publishing it! (Every year my colleague Dee Duke and I say, 'Shall we stop now?' and then we get a new wave of readers and feel we can't.)

I took my publishing inspiration from the many small press magazines which appeared in the 1960s and 70s, in wonderful alternative bookshops like Mushroom in Nottingham and News from Nowhere in Liverpool, in particular one little mag. called Country Bizarre which was produced by Andy Pittaway and Bernard Schofield. It was very much a back-to-the-land type of mag for city dwellers. I liked their style and when I began, I wrote to them and they were very encouraging and friendly. They later went mainstream and upmarket and produced a number of classic books on country crafts and country traditions, including spinning and dyeing.

Why bother natural dyeing?

Spinning your own yarns is a very satisfying and enjoyable thing to do, but why bother cooking up nettles and barks and whatnot to dye those yarns when all sorts of synthetic and chemical dyes are available? Natural dyeing is attractive to me because it's precisely that - it's natural. If I'm going to spend hours spinning beautiful natural woollen or silk yarns, I only want to dye those yarns with natural, gentle products which will preserve their integrity and do no harm to me or the environment. Natural dyes are subtle, often free, harmless and beautiful. They are also unpredictable - it is difficult to obtain exactly the same colour twice for a number of reasons. It depends where and when you collect your dyestuffs which can be as basic as nettles, docks, weld, dandelions, elderberries etc.. Different soil types, different locations, weather conditions, time of year etc.. will all affect the colour. Personally I love that unpredictability, never knowing quite what I'll get. For this reason it's advisable to dye enough yarn in one batch for the job you want it for because you may not be able to match the colour if you run short. Natural dyes are also what we call 'fugitive' - they are unstable - some more so than others - and they will fade in direct sunlight. However, they never fade away completely and will only become more subtle with time.

Other dyes which are more reliable or 'fast' tend to be foreign dyestuffs like indigo which is a whole dyeing technique on its own, but we do have our own native 'indigo' - woad. Things like Sanderswood, brazil wood, madder, cutch, and so on can be purchased as powder from suppliers. Being highly concentrated, they keep well and you don't need a great deal for a dye bath, so although they are comparatively expensive, they're worth the investment; and they are still 'natural' in that they are derived from vegetable material, and will produce stronger, more vibrant colours than most of our native dye plants. Dee and I began writing about dyes we'd tried in the Spinster's Almanack and people wrote back and shared their own experiences, and gradually we collected a large amount of information about the dyer's art.

But what about the Kitchen Sink This began as a joke. I'd published a very slim booklet about native dye-plants called A Handful of Nottingham Dye Plants - very rough on a school photocopier. It didn't sell very well, largely, I think, because people assumed the plants were only available in Nottingham, so it was rejigged a few years ago as A Calendar of Common Dye Plants and it now sells very well -just goes to show the importance of finding the right title! But Kitchen Sink was a gift, as well as a joke. I was teaching an evening class in spinning and dyeing at Clarendon College and I'd demonstrated a few simple dyes in class and encouraged my students to try some for themselves. At the end of term they brought their samples to show me - and one woman had really got the bug and done lots of experiments. However, she said she hadn't had time to go trawling the hedgerows, and she didn't like to waste anything, so she's just used anything and everything she had lying around in the kitchen - vegetable parings, old tea-bags, the liquor from jars of pickles, mouldy fruit -just to see what she would get and we all had a good laugh at some of the things she'd tried. But her results were stunning; she'd tried things I'd never have thought about like red cabbage - beautiful delicate pinks and blues, and pea and bean pods - they were truly subtle . . . in fact they were negligible, but she'd tried everything. I was so impressed that I thought they deserved being written up and recorded. She said she'd used "everything but the kitchen sink" in her dye-pot and so the book became "Everything in the Kitchen Sink: dyeing -with kitchen waste." Again the first editions were done on a pre-war manual typewriter illustrated with what are now our signature 1930s graphics -because we couldn't afford photos - produced on the school photocopier and stapled by hand. The rest, as they say, is history, it just sold and sold. It caught people's imagination and also a desire that was growing then for natural products, for recycling and reusing waste materials and also the spirit of experimentation. It is also ideal for people who live in flats in the city and don't have a garden with a convenient nettle-patch. It also suggests the possibilities of dyeing in the winter when fresh vegetable matter is unobtainable. Kitchen Sink of all our dye books is upfront and honest about our results - the ones which didn't work very well as well as the ones which surprised and delighted us - and it encourages the reader to try for themselves and see what they get.


In 1992 Dee Duke and I looked at the craft book trade and we saw how much things had changed in 10 - 12 years we'd been spinning and dyeing. Very different from the late 1970s and early 80s when I was virtually scouring historical archives to find out about dyes - now there was a massive market in craft books all illustrated with glossy pictures and starting at £12.99 - today it's probably £25 - and giving you no more information in real terms than Everything in the Kitchen Sink. We saw a gap in the market and decided to produce a series of basic books for spinners and dyers at the rate of two a year, alternating spinning and dyeing, at a low price - £2 - and we've only recently put that up - no fancy photos but black and white line drawings where required - and our by-now famous vintage graphics. We produced 10 in this series and then began to branch out a little with rug-making, weaving etc.. I run it as a small mail-order business from my spare bedroom, I use a local printer, and Dee test-drives all the dyes and techniques -she's far more methodical than I am! Environmental organisations like Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales sell our titles in their mail-order catalogue and other eco-shops in Britain and America stock them. But after all these years Everything in the Kitchen Sink - which we revamped as No. 6 in the series is still our biggest seller - so it must have something!

What shall we dye?
I think I've enthused quite enough about the attractions of natural dyeing. What might you wish to dye? If you are a hand-spinner this is self-evident - you will be producing yarns from natural fibres, many of which are suitable for natural dyeing: wool is the best, but silk and cashmere and angora take natural dyes very well too. Cotton is a difficult fibre for natural dyeing - it's not impossible but it doesn't take the common dye-plants very well. Better with the foreign dyestuffs, and, of course Indigo. The more hairy fibres such as alpaca, llama and so on aren't so good either. If you're not a spinner, that doesn't matter, you can use any commercially-produced knitting yarn so long as it is pure wool or pure silk or pure cashmere - a yarn which is a mixture will produce a mottled or patchy effect which may not be what you want. Some tapestry embroiderers enjoy dyeing their own colours and white tapestry wools may be dyed to imitate Mediaeval or Tudor colours, for example. Kate Koppana, writing in SA No. 80 has explored these possibilities to reproduce some designs seen at Hardwick Hall. We have a Woolgathering, The Mediaeval Dye Pot dedicated to traditional dyes like madder, weld, woad, saffron etc.. and historical re-enactment societies find that book very useful. A Calendar of Common Dye Plants gives an indication by season of wild plants available like tansy, nettle, feverfew, goldenrod, horsetails, ragwort, yarrow etc.., and in the autumn things like blackberries, elderberries and sloes - which of course you can freeze for use later on. If you want to grow your own. Dyer in the Garden will tell you how and what to try like marigolds, camomile, dyer's broom, delphiniums - the more conventional border plants as well as the ones that often sneak in when you don't want them like the nettles and elder! A Dyer's Palette is a slightly more advanced book from which you can choose the colour you require and then see which natural dyes will produce it for you.

The Dyes

But back to the kitchen sink - So what are some of the things you might have knocking around in your kitchen that might be used for dyeing?

1. The dregs - used tea leaves or tea-bags and coffee grounds. Both strong dyes. Keep them in a plastic bag in the freezer till you have enough or they go mouldy. You can even use Coca-Cola - you know those big budget bottles from the supermarket - they always go flat?
2. Onion skins - if you've ever dyed Easter eggs you'll know how strong these are -you don't need many for a dye-bath and you'll always get a sure-fire result. Save in a brown-paper bag and they'll keep for years. If you pickle onions, you can save the skins, boil them up and use them before you throw them out - shallots.
3. Pickle juice - from jars of Beetroot or Red Cabbage or Pickled Walnuts, just keep in the jar until use.
4. Spinach - if you have spinach in the garden that has 'bolted' or gone just beyond its best for delicate and unusual colours.
5. Orange and lemon peel - not strong dyes but pleasant and subtle.
6. Nut shells - particularly pecan shells and walnuts - need soaking for days rather than hours but they're very rewarding.
7. Soft fruit. Often gets wasted if there is a glut or you've had some blackberries, damsons, raspberries, loganberries - anything hanging around too long - started to fizz a bit, go mouldy - don't throw them away - dye with them! And you can always put the debris on the compost heap afterwards.
8. Any veggies unfit for human consumption like carrots, artichokes, peppers - give them a try, we've had colours from all of them.
9. Flower heads - remains of flowers like chrysanthemums, peonies, marigolds, dahlias - past their best but still can be used for a small dye-bath Really, the possibilities are endless.


You'll have noticed that each of the dyes I've shown you has several skeins of different shades? This is the right time to mention mordants. Many vegetable-stuffs will give you a colour with nothing added, but dyers use a variety of mineral substances in order to make the colour stick better to the yarn. These also alter and intensify the colours given. Especially for dyeing in the kitchen, we have restricted our recipes to mordants that are virtually harmless if used properly:

1. Two very common things you'll have in the kitchen anyway - salt and vinegar. Salt helps dyes to 'stick' - remember how you have to add salt to a Dylon dye? And vinegar enhances fruit dyes. The liquor from the pickles I mentioned before like red cabbage produces strong dyes because of course vinegar is used in the pickling, so it's already mordanted.
2. Alum or aluminium sulphate - should be able to buy from a good chemist. The yarn is treated with alum before dyeing and you will usually get a yellow bias to your dye.
3. Iron or ferrous sulphate. Used in tiny amounts after dyeing to 'sadden' the colour. On a good yellow like that obtained from onion skins it should turn the colour green - as I shall be demonstrating that this afternoon.


Interestingly, the pans you use for dyeing can also change the colour and we added a section on these to later editions of the book. Aluminium and cast iron vessels will of course have a similar effect to mordanting with alum or iron. The only really substance is stainless-steel. These used to be horrifically expensive but places like Wilkos now do a range of stainless steel at a very reasonable price and you only need one good-sized pan. Otherwise an enamel or galvanised bucket will do very well. Needless to say don't use it for anything else but dyeing, same with wooden spoons and tongs and whatever else you use - keep them separate from food. Apart from that, an old plastic colander for straining, a pair of rubber gloves to stop your hand going orange and a waterproof apron are all you need. Turn the extractor on if you have one and open the window or door whilst dyeing as it can be a bit smelly!





Regrettably we've come to the end of the road with supplies of Dee Duke & Rowena Edlin-White's much-admired booklets. The talented pair have hung up their dyeing aprons and retired from the publishing world.

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