Natural Dyeing – Black Walnut


Black walnut is one of those dyeing gifts of nature.  It is a “substantive” dye, which means that it naturally contains the tannins which bind its color to the wool.  For the natural dyer, it means that you don’t have to mordant your wool for the dye to take to it.  You can mordant your wool to give it a richer tone – but you don’t have to.

Now normally you would go out and find a black walnut tree, gather a bunch of the walnuts in their green hulls, lay then out in your driveway and run over them a few times to get your black walnut hulls for dyeing.  But again, we started this process in January so that was not an option for us.  However, as black walnut contains tannins, it is also used in dyeing leather (ta da!) so my beloved husband just happened to have a pound of black walnut powder that he kept for just that purpose.  He is such a handy guy to have around.  :)

We were off and running!

I started by soaking a skein of wool (100% merino, fingering weight, 3.5 ozs.) overnight in tepid water.  The next morning I put enough water in a pot to cover the yarn and added 1/4 cup of powder (probably more than I needed for a skein) to the water, stirred it – then whisked – it to blend it in the water and brought my water to a boil.  Once it was to a boil I turned it down to a simmer and let it simmer for awhile to get the color into the water.

I let it cool down a little in the pot and then I added my wool.  I brought my temperature back up to 180 degrees and let it simmer there for the next hour.  I was getting a nice medium brown in the pot.

I left the yarn in the dye pot until it had cooled down to the temperature of my hot tap water and then started the rinsing by putting it into a rinse pot of hot tap water for 30 minutes and then into another pot of hot tap water with some Eucalan (soap) for another 30 minutes.  I got a beautiful dusky dark brown that I will show you in just a little bit.

Next I added another 1/4 cup of walnut hulls into the dye pot (I wanted to get the effect of putting this next skein into a normal first bath rather than an exhaust bath) grabbed a skein of the mordanted wool (same type as the first skein) and dropped it into the dye pot.  Everything I had read told me that the mordant would give the brown a more golden color.  They were right.  It also rinsed alot quicker, which I found interesting.

So here is what the yarns looked like when they were drying – the yarn on the left being the unmordanted yarn and the yarn on the right being the mordanted yarn.

You can see the richer color that the mordant gives the yarn when they are next to each other.  They both are gorgeous browns if you ask me – and soooooo useful in a family of boys.  These will go into production for Escape to Evermore’s shop.

Well, needless to say, there was PLENTY of dye still left in the pot so I threw another skein of mordanted wool into the pot, applied heat again and waited to see what I would get.

The flash showed the golden tones inherent in the dye pot, but when it came out the appearance was more taupey beige.

The water was still really brown so I threw a last mordanted skein in the pot – did not apply heat – and let it sit for 3 days – and got this.

This looked like a nice beige so I was fine with it.  What I liked was that I was still getting definite color with these later batches – not just tint.

After all these lovely yarns I have been dyeing are washed and rinsed and dried, I end up with big piles of yarn all waiting to be reskeined into something that looks a little more organized.  So one Saturday while Chip was at his exhibition and feeling lonely, the boys and I all went to the shop to keep him company and brought the yarn and the niddy noddy and we reskeined the yarn.

That is the first exhaust bath of black walnut that we are reskeining there.

For those of you who cannot see the obviously hi-tech manner in which we do this, here is another photo showing proper spread knee position to maintain tension while unraveling your yarn.  ;)

Both Vash and Markus excel at the niddy noddy.  Jesse just could not get the movement down (it is similar to the movement that a baton twirler would use) so he went back to knitting a scarf for his teacher.  I don’t really know how much use the boys will have later in life for this particular skill, but they will at least know what a niddy noddy is – which is more than I knew as a child.

So here is the final product – starting with the unmordanted wool and then showing you the three mordanted wools in successive baths.

As you can see, the colors lightened alot in the drying process.  The first exhaust bath yarn took on tanner tones and lost the grey that I saw originally in it.  The first baths were not as dark as I thought they would be in the final product.  However, they are all really lovely tones of brown and on the whole, black walnut was a success.  I am interested to see if using a superwash wool will affect the final color.  That is coming soon.

Next week I think we will talk about marigold.  That is my current favorite – though I have some others that I am very excited about coming down the pike.  Hope you liked the black walnut though and are as excited about these natural dyes as I am.  Tomorrow is another Hawk Studio blog.  Woo Hoo!!

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About Shelly R.

I am a Mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, an attorney, a crafter, an aunt raising three young nephews with my husband, and the granddaughter of an amazing woman - my Polish Grandmother. My Grandmother gave me so much, through her love and her patience, her sayings and her time teaching me how to craft and to give to others, that it seemed fitting to share some of that wisdom, to tell some of her story, and to chat about life and crafts in a way that would be a testament to what she gave me.
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5 Responses to Natural Dyeing – Black Walnut

  1. danielle says:

    They look great! They’re really beautiful browns. Oh what fun it is watching you do these experiments, I’m so glad you’re documenting it all.

    • Shelly R. says:

      I can’t wait to do a big dye day and varigate the mordanted brown with marigold and a green. I won’t have poinsettias yet or I would do that green. I will have to do more work to get the right green.

  2. I agree–it’s tremendous that you’re documenting, complete with photos! And now I’ll have a use for all those lawnmower killing black walnuts.

  3. Barbara Antonelli says:

    The last picture of the 4 browns is a beautiful one….What a mini blanket that would make!

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