My Plant-Dying Experience

Plant-dyed wool roving... MINE, ALL OF IT!!

When my friend Devana rhapsodized about the process of plant-dying, I listened with interest, but with the certainty that plant-dying was never going to be one of my hobbies. For one, the process takes a good 18 hours from start to finish and requires an arsenal of tools – so to be frank, I wasn’t even that interested when she suggested a plant-dying workshop. I WAS interested in helping her for curiosity’s sake – and I could definitely appreciate all the lovely hues of her plant-dyed wool roving – but those, I figured, I could simply buy from her.

But when she invited Sierra and I to join her for some plant-dying, well, it seemed wrong to turn down such an opportunity. Now, big surprise, it turns out that I LOVE PLANT-DYING!

The hues that you can get from just onion peels are amazing and range from green and yellow to pink. I don’t think I’ll ever throw another onion skin away. Of course, Devana had much more than onion skins; we dyed with cochineal (yes, BUGS!), osage, indigo, sandal wood sawdust, and much more.

The process starts with a good deal of shopping. First you have to get your supplies in order – all in white. We ordered a range of silks from Dharma Trading Company (including several dozen cotton hankies for the heck of it – and for the silk, we used Habotai 8 mm squares), yards and yards of wool felt from JoAnn’s (cut into 12″x12″ squares), wool roving from Devana’s secret supplier, and even organic bamboo velour (from Celtic Cloths).

At the start of the day, everything was still wet - and we were cold, and maybe tad bit grumpy.

Then everything gets divided into one pound piles and boiled for an hour in a special mixture of alum and cream of tartar. This is called mordanting, and apparently opens the pores of the fibers so that it can receive the color. Check the picture: each pile on the tarp is one pound – each one was boiled in a large cauldron on a campstove for an hour. We had two campstoves with all four jets going for one day, and Devana still had to finish up the silks and cottons by herself on another day. We haven’t even begun using any color yet – no wonder Devana charges $3.50 for an ounce of plant-dyed wool roving.

In case you were wondering what we'd done with our five children - they were merrily amusing themselves in another part of the yard.

Yes, Christian was having himself a merry old time.

When every last fiber was well and mordanted, we sorted everything out evenly in neat piles, so that we would have a range of fibers (roving, felt, silk, and cotton) for each color. Devana warned us that as we saw the colors emerge from each pot that we would want every last shade, and that it was better to divvy out the color piles in advance. Boy, was she ever right. I wanted every color I saw that day.

Once the fibers were dyed, then they had to be rinsed (sometimes several times) until the water ran clear. Then we wrung them out and hung them to dry. I felt like a frontier prairie woman on washing day. You should have seen Devana’s hands the next day. I got to Devana’s at 8:30 am, and she’d already started some things boiling. I left at 2 pm, but Sierra and Devana didn’t stop until after 5pm – so Devana hadn’t been exaggerating about the length of the process, especially considering that we didn’t even finish dying all our piles.

Just onions, I might be able to handle in my own kitchen...Each pot had to boil until it was richly colored, and then the boiling hot color broth had to be strained before we could start dipping.

But Devana had so many dyes to choose from - it made it so much more fun.

We got a startling range of colors from red and yellow onion skins.

I loved the onion skin colors even more when they'd dried.

As the day went on, and warmed up, the kids wandered over to see what we were doing. What color will Christian turn?

We were disappointed by the tepid sand color we got from the 20+ pounds of coffee grounds I got from Starbucks, but Nalijah and Christian enjoyed the warmth of the coffee bath.

Some of the beautiful greens and blues we got that day (the greens started as yellows, and purples start as pinks...) Everything here came from the blue bath.

The divvying up frenzy the next day. And the best part? We didn't finish - so after the holidays we have to go back to Devana's and dye some MORE!

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