Botanical Knits & Crafts, Yarn Dyeing

Natural dye tutorial: blue yarn from black beans!

EDIT: Want to see what I knit with blue yarn? Check out these other posts!

Blue ombre waves cowl   Green and blue striped socks

IMG_0312blue and green striped socks

Welcome to my dye tutorial, the most popular post on my knitting blog! This is a cold water dye using regular black beans, designed to be used on yarn made of wool or other natural fibers (it won’t work on cotton, acrylic, etc.). There’s a lot of soaking time involved, so expect to have a finished product after three or four days. If you have a question, put it in the comments and I’ll respond. Enjoy!

Natural blue dye: background

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 four days start to finish.

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 (now defunct), which then led me to the discovery that there is a ravelry discussion thread (login required) that is many years old and has hundreds of posts! 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. So with a little help, we set out to do a test run with all the steps and amounts recorded. As a caveat, not everything went as planned, record keeping wise, but we did out best.

Tutorial: dyeing yarn blue using black beans What you will need (amounts will be determined later):

  • Black beans
  • 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 off-white (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, newspaper or something else to protect surfaces from dye
  • Optional: food grade tubing

Dye Prep Instructions

First, figure out how  much water and beans to use, 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 [furthest hank on the right]

blue yarn in different shades

Each of the numbered hanks of blue yarn in the photo above is 1/2 oz (14 g) of yarn.

Make sure that you have enough beans and water to create enough dye for your yarn.  I strongly urge to get more than you think you need because beans absorb water at a higher rate than we bargained for. You’ll need enough dye to immerse your yarn.

Ratios work best, because our  actual measurements were rather odd :

  • #1/2 = 1/2 cup beans and 3.37 cups water;
  • #1= 1 c. and 3.4 cups
  • #2= 2 c. and 4.125 cups
  • #4=4 c. and 5 cups

Let each of these bean and water combos soak for 24 hours. This is a cold water dye, so it needs time. I preferred the glass jars for this.

To get the best dye, you’ll need to get as much of the bean water with as few bean particles as possible. From what I read, the pieces of bean tend to make the yarn more  gray than blue.

We strained out the beans, let the dye settle for an hour or two, then siphoned the water off from the top using the food grade tubing so that the bean particle matter did not make it into the final dye. . Other people on the internet suggested spooning the water out and leaving the dregs.

Yarn Prep Instructions

When are 4 hours away from completing your 24 hour bean soak, start preparing the yarn. Alternatively, you can do this part earlier and let the yarn stay soaking in the mordant pot overnight.

First hour:  water soak.

I separated my yarn into four 1/2 oz skeins tied with bits of a thinner yarn to keep them from getting tangled, then unwound the skeins and soaked them in water for 1 hour.yarn soaking in water

Second hour: Mordant on the stovetop

Mordant is what allows the dye to adhere to the yarn and not just wash out or rub off. After water soaking, I moved my yarn to large stovetop pot to mordant it using alum and cream of tartar. I used 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.


Dissolve the alum and cream of tartar into hot water and add to the stovetop pot along with enough water to cover the fiber. 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 the heat OFF.

Final 2 hours: cooling and rinsing

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).

Dyeing the yarn

Finally, the fun part—adding the yarn to the dyes! blue yarn in yarns 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:blue yarn first looked purple 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.

The photo in the blue plastic jar came from round two of dyeing the yarn. After I took out the four small test skeins, I still wanted to dye the remainder of the 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.

Drying the yarn

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  they are again, left to right from, darkest (1.25 to 1 ratio) to lightest (7 to 1 ratio), plus the extra hank made from all dye lots combined:

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.

A note on the pH of your water

*The pH of your water can affect the final color of your yarn even if you do exactly what we did. I did some research and found out the tap water we used was rather alkaline, with a pH close to 8. I once saw a blog post that said they got a blue green color from acidic water. If you don’t know what pH your tap water is, you can use the red cabbage test to estimate it.

An updated note on colorfastness

Since creating this tutorial, I have gotten several questions about how much this blue color fades over time. The answer is yes, is does fade over time, but it still looks nice.

I made an ombre cowl from this blue yarn using this Wave pattern. Here it in 2012:

black bean blue dye ombre knit cowl in 2012

And here it is in 2014:

blue ombre waves knit cowl in 2014

So yes, the lighter blue yarns that were grayish faded to a blue gray over time. For more on this project, check out this post.  I still love this cowl!

Botanical Knits & Crafts, Holiday Knits & Crafts

How to make a Christmas wreath from your shrubbery

(That’s right. Your shrubbery. Or, you know. Branches cut from your Christmas tree.)

I helped my mom pick out this noble fir over Thanksgiving weekend. We always go to the same seasonal lot (Hopper Bros.) This year, they went a bit crazy with a craft I hadn’t seen before: wood and branch reindeer.

We got the tree up and decorated before I left that weekend. It looks like a pretty standard Christmas tree, but it was a Christmas miracle that I got a non-crappy photo of it all lit up with my camera.

When my mom had to cut off the bottom branches to get the tree into its stand, and I asked if I could keep them to make a wreath. I do this pretty much every year—but normally, I just cut a few branches of juniper or other evergreen tree/shrub from around my apartment complex. This year, I got to…well I was going to say branch out but that’s a terrible, terrible pun. So I’ll just say I got to use branches from three different kinds of evergreens (including mom’s juniper shrubbery), plus red berries.

I ecently realized that I don’t know anyone else who does this. Even though its easy, very cheap, and (at least in CA) evergreen branches are super easy to come by.

So I made a tutorial.

Rustic Wreath, Made From Shrubbery: A Tutorial.

Things you will need:

wreath form (this one is 12″)

wire (I’m use green 1/4 gauge wire)

clippers (that will cut branches and wire)

evergreen branches (between 6-12 inches is best)

red berries

[not shown: wreath hanger]

There’s no one way to do this, but I’ll show you what I do. First, gather everything outside, as you will make a mess. Then, gather a handful of branches of varying lengths/types together and wrap them together using the wire, about a few inches from the base. Leave a tail of wire at least a foot long to wrap them around the wreath form later:

For my wreath form, I made five of these bundles. Make sure they curve in the same direction. Once you’ve made those, start to attach them to the wreath form using the excess wire. Wrap the first bundle tightly around , using the wire to go over and under branches a few places to secure it to the form. After you do this to one bundles, place the next one so that it overlaps and covers up the wire from the first.

After you’ve placed them all, hold you wreath up and/or place it on your wreath hanger. Chances are you will discover two problems: there’s a few sizable evergreen gaps in the wreath, and there are some crazy branches sticking out way too far.

This is when you go back and add more branches to the bundles that need them (using more wire and arranging the branches as necessary). Once you’ve got that under control, hang it on the wreath form and use the clippers to trip rogue branches. I don’t do a lot of trimming because, after all, this is a rustic wreath made from shrubbery! But I do shape it a little. And when that’s done, I add the berries.

Before trimming and berries:

After trimming and berries*:

*Yes I know most people would place berries, or a bow, at the top and not the bottom. But this is just how I roll.

The wreath forms and wreath hangers are really cheap this time of year (I’ve seen them both for about $1 each), and the wire can be anything similar to the one in the pictures as long as it holds and you can cut it (the green is just awesome for blending it—it’s usually less than $5).

If you don’t have a yard to raid for evergreen boughs, just put the word out—when my mom heard I wanted some branches for this wreath, I ended up with an entire garbage back full of them. I do recommend letting them sit out for a day or two, just to see how well they put up with being cut. The noble fir was actually drying up much faster than the other two (juniper and…I didn’t ask what the other was, I believe it was cedar), so I put it at the back of the bundles.

And that is how I make wreaths from shrubbery!