“Rich,” “soft,” “deep,” “subtle,” and “sublime” are the kinds of adjectives that writers frequently use to describe the colors derived from natural dyes. A group of enthusiastic students gathered at The Community Barn at Brook Run Park on the 28th-29th of September to learn how to dye wool using natural dyes. They also assisted in producing a showcase of hues that were variously rich, soft, deep, and subtle. In sum, sublime!

Collen Casey (who also takes care of properties for the Chattahoochee Handweavers’ Guild) led the group through what is entailed in dyeing protein fibers using natural dyes. By the time the group arrived to start on Saturday morning, Colleen had already done a considerable amount of work in collecting natural dye materials and adding these to large pots to simmer in order to make a “tea” in which to immerse the yarns that she had prepared using alum as a mordant.

Over several hours, class members learned about the different categories of natural dyes, how to prepare yarns for dyeing, the kinds of dye stuffs that can be collected locally, and how these natural materials are prepared. We also learned about the amount of dye stuff needed for different intensities of hue. Colleen has also been experimenting with dyeing cotton, and she shared some gorgeous skeins of embroidery thread dyed in a recent class she had taught.

There were numerous books on natural dyeing from Colleen’s collection for us to look at – showing an amazing range of materials that can be used for natural dyeing, the full range of the color wheel. Colleen interwove her presentations with tidbits of historical information on natural dyes, as well as the important information on safe practices when handling dye stuffs and mordants, toxic substances that are best avoided altogether, and how we can ensure that our natural dyeing practices are environmentally friendly.

Large pots were brought to a slow simmer in the outdoor area by The Barn, each containing a different dye stuff. These included osage orange (wood shavings), goldenrod, black walnuts, eucalyptus leaves, and a mixture of cedar and cherry wood shavings. Colleen then showed us how solutions can be prepared using cochineal, logwood, and madder, all of which can be purchased commercially. Mini-skeins of superwash merino fingering were used for the class (20 gram skeins of 87 yards). Judging from the previous popularity of yarns dyed with black walnuts among prior students, Colleen ensured that class members each took home 50 gram skeins (220 yards) at the end of the workshop.

By the time I arrived on Sunday, Colleen and her assistants had already emptied some of the dye pots, and a gorgeous array of colored skeins were arrayed on the railing outside The Barn. Participants formed assembly lines to rinse, spin dry (yes, with a miniature spin dryer!), sort, and hang the skeins up to dry on folding laundry racks. After lunch, Colleen demonstrated how the colors of a second set of skeins that had been prepared can be “modified” by dipping them into solutions with iron and copper. After examining a test skein, class members voted on which solution in which to dip the second set of skeins. Another round of rinsing, spin drying, and sorting of skeins ensued.

As the second day of the workshop drew to a close, all of the rinsed skeins were sorted into colorful sets, and labelled with the dye stuff and modifier where appropriate. Colleen also showed us some of the knitted and handwoven fabrics that she had completed using naturally dyed yarns. These provided lots of ideas for how to combine the yarns from the workshop, and some of us took extra skeins home.

Just near where I live is a large field with goldenrod in full bloom. I typically pass this field on my way to work without giving it a second thought. This workshop illuminated aspects of my surroundings that I’d never given a second thought. I’m hoping to go by there this coming week to harvest some dye stuff and put into practice some of what I learned during this workshop. Collen thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us.

If you are interested in learning more about dyeing, there are two upcoming workshops:

  • Nature printing and indigo workshop with Colleen Casey: Sunday October 20.
  • Warp painting with Kay Guilmet and Ann Doherty: Sunday October 27.

Sign up now so you can be inspired!

Kathy Roulston

Woolen skeins simmering with black walnuts

Dye materials simmering

Skeins of embroidery thread dyed using natural dyes

Colleen shows dying progress

Amazing color from ground bugs and wood chips

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