It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to post, but at least I have a really awesome fiber dye experiment to share! As you can see from above, we got several lovely shades of blue —a difficult color to achieve —in a process that took about 4 days from start to finish.
A little background: now that I have a spinning wheel(!) and some wool, I’ve been wanting to learn about natural dyeing. SInce blue is my favorite color, I gravitated toward information about natural blue dyes. Turns out there aren’t that many (indigo and woad are the main ones) and they sounded like a lot of work for a first time dying project. Then I came across web posts on black beans as a blue dye. My favorites were blog posts at waysofthewhorl and brambleberriesintherain, which then led me to the discovery that there is a ravelry discussion thread (login required) that is 2 years old and 24 pages long! Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with information. At the same time, no one post seemed to describe exact amounts of beans, water and yarn used, nor exact times for the different steps involved. The credit for coming up to the solution goes to Keith (who also took the photo above): he suggested a test run of blue dyeing where we recorded the important measurements. So that is what we set out to do.
Now as a caveat: not everything went as planned, record keeping wise. Two major problems arose:
1) I was keeping some notes on Stickies on my Mac, and last week all of my Stickies disappeared from my laptop (Just one of many issues, sadly. This computer is in its death throes).
2) My camera broke during the weekend the finished blue mini skeins were drying. It took a week for me to decide on a replacement camera, another week for it to arrive from Amazon, and several more days to get a shot of the yarn in natural light. So I had to rely on my memory for the things we didn’t write down.
-water (tap is fine and what we used, but see note at the end of the post)
-non-reactive containers for soaking and dyeing (we used glass and stainless steel)
-natural fiber yarn, white or offwhite (we used Lamb’s pride, 85% wool, 15% mohair, M-10 Creme)
-Alum mordant (Aluminum Potassium Sulfate—you can find this in the spice aisle of a well stocked grocery store)
-Cream of Tartar (also in the spice aisle)
-large non-reactive pot for the stove (We used a large enamelware roasting pan. Technically this should not be a container you’re going to use for food after this, and although Alum seems to be non-toxic, I played it safe.)
-misc. items: additional yarn to tie off your skein in sections, a rack or other place to dry finished yarn
First figure out how much beans and how much water to soak them in by choosing a ratio from below.
Here are rough ratios of water to beans in each of our dye lots:
dye lot # 1/2 = 7 to 1 (7 parts water to 1 part beans)
dye lot #1 = 3.5 to 1
dye lot # 2 = 2 to 1
dye lot #4 = 1.25 to 1
Next you should make sure that you have enough beans and water to create enough dye for your yarn. The dye lot numbers are how many cups of beans went into each. I strongly urge to get more than you think you need because beans absorb water at a higher rate than we bargained for. Originally we planned on 1 oz of yarn in each dye lot, but we had to reduce it it to 1/2 oz (.5 oz) of yarn in each.
At the start we filled each container with enough water to cover the beans plus 3 cups more. Our measurements were very odd :
#1/2 = 1/2 cup beans and 3.37 cups water;
#1= 1 c. and 3.4 c.;
#2= 2 c. and 4.125 c.;
#4=4 c. and 5 c.
And then of course, we lost some of that water when the beans absorbed it. [side note: I think the lesson is this—stick to calculating how much beans and how much water based on some sort of ratio between 7 to 1 and 1 to 1 based on the color you want, then make sure the amount of water you add is enough to cover your yarn and then some, because you will have less dye than water. Not completely scientific, but probably easier.]
We let each of these bean and water combos soak for 24 hours, stirring whenever we remembered. Then (and this is important), Keith strained out the beans, let the dye settle for an hour or two, then siphoned the water off from the top so that the bean particle matter did not make it into the final dye. From what I read, the pieces of bean tend to make the yarn more of a gray color than blue. Other people on the internet suggested spooning the water out and leaving the dregs.
When it was close to 24 hours, I started preparing the yarn. I separated it into four .5 oz skeins tied with bits of a thinner yarn to keep it from getting tangled, then unwound the skeins and soaked them in water for 1 hour.After soaking, I moved the yarn to large stovetop pot to mordant it using alum, along with some cream of tartar. Mordant is what allows the dye to adhere to the yarn and not just wash out or rub off.
I would go by Sasha Duerr’s Handbook on Natural Plant Dyes to calculate how much need: 8 percent of the fiber’s weight for alum, 7 percent of the fiber’s weight for cream of tartar. For mordanting 2 ounces at once this comes to about 3/4 of a teaspoon each of alum and cream of tartar. I will admit that I was probably closer to 1 tsp each, because I couldn’t find my 1/2 tsp measuring spoon. It still worked.
I dissolved both into some hot water and add to the stovetop pot along with enough water to cover the fiber. Then I added the water soaked yarn and brought the pot to a simmer.**Important note: do not change the temperature of the yarn too quickly, it can cause felting** I simmered it for an hour then turned OFF the heat (I corrected this sentence—OFF, not on!). At this point you can either let it stay in the mordant pot overnight, or take it out.
I waited another 2 hours until it had cooled off, then removed the yarn and rinsed it off with clean water that was the same temperature as the yarn to remove any excess mordant (using a little pH neutral soap is supposed to help). Finally, the fun part—adding the yarn to the dyes! As you can see, some of our dye lots barely covered the yarn, so we turned them upside down or right side up periodically to avoid unevenness in the color. We let them stay in the dye for 42 hours. I’m sure an even 48 hours would be great, but sleep comes first.
During this time, I discovered something that no other blog really mentioned: the color you see immediately can be quite different from the final color. Observe what the yarn looked like about 10 minutes after I put it in the dye: That’s right—it was a light purple color! At first I was disappointed that all our effort to get blue failed, but in an hour or two it started changing into the blue color you saw in the previous picture. I should also mention that this photo in the blue plastic jar came from round 2 of dyeing the yarn.
After I took out the four 1/2 oz. test skeins, I still wanted to dye the remainder of the creme yarn. So I soaked and mordanted the remaining 2 ounces of yarn, poured all four dye lots into the blue plastic jar, and let it stay there for 48 hours. Not very scientific, although hopefully you can see in the photos that it came out a slightly grayer and more muted shade of blue—one which I still quite enjoy.
After removing the yarn from the dye, I rinsed them with lukewarm water and hung them to dry on my laundry rack (I wish I’d taken a picture then!) Here are the differences in shades of blue when compared side by side, L to R from darkest (1.25 to 1 ratio) to lightest (7 to 1), and the extra skein made from all dye lots combined:
Even on a screen, I think the darkest one is a distinctly deeper shade of blue than the rest. The difference between the two lightest shades is less subtle here, but in person you can definitely tell. And the last one of course has a distinctly grayer tone. by the way, the undyed yarn next to that last big skein is my own handspun! I didn’t intend to include a photo of it but I’m glad Keith took it, its nice to see the blue yarn next to it.
The whole point of this experiment, besides just “for science!” of course, was to see how black bean dye might look on my own handspun wool. Now I think I have my answer!
*The pH of your water will affect your the final color of your yarn even if you do exactly what we did. I did some research and found out our tap water is rather alkaline, with a pH close to 8. The second blog I mentioned above shows how acidic water might yield something closer to green. If you don’t know what pH your tap water is, you can use the red cabbage test to estimate it.
*Natural dyes like black beans won’t work on man made fibers like acrylic yarns, so make sure you know the fiber content of your yarn!
*Safety first! Cover surfaces in newspaper to prevent stains, and if using a mordant other than alum, read over all precautions about handling it properly.
*There are a ton of resources out there on natural dyeing in general. But if you’re like me, you might find yourself overwhelmed by all the information, especially when everyone has different ways of doing everything! Not to mention it feels like if you mess something up, everything will be ruined. This added to the fact that the process takes a few days means it can easily become stressful. So give yourself plenty of time and go easy on yourself if you make some mistakes. Try to enjoy whatever outcome you get. And if if anyone has knitting pattern suggestions for 4 ounces of yarn or less that look good in varied shades of blue, send them my way!
**UPDATE FEBRUARY 2013** Here’s what I knit with these mini skeins of blue: an ombre cowl!
For more on this project, check out this post!
**UPDATE MARCH 2014** Several people have asked me how colorfast this yarn is—that is, does it fade badly over time? Here’s what it looks like two years later:
As you can see, the lightest sections of yarn faded the most, while the darker ones retain more of their blue color. Now the yarn is more of a slate blue-grey. I still love it!