Natural Dyeing – In Search of Blue using Black Beans

In the world of natural dyes, the sources for blue are fairly limited.  The obvious choice for blue is Indigo – but this wonderful dye requires either the use of a fermentation vat or the addition of a chemical to remove the oxygen from the dye vat and, just like with blue jeans, indigo will fade over time.

Woad flowers produce a blue dye, but where you might need 2-3 indigo plants to produce a vat of dye, you will need 24 woad plants.  However, the combination of woad blue and weld yellow are supposed to result in Lincoln Green – the color worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Band, so we are planting woad this year in the yard.

Another source which has raised interest is the use of black beans.  The resulting color with a black bean dye is more of a cadet blue.

The problem with black bean dyed wool is lightfastness.  Folks have reported that their yarn, over time, faded to a light grey and the blue was lost.  The best results with respect to lightfastness that I have found were produced following a long cold water soak, which still resulted in fading but it was along the same lines that you would get with an indigo, which to me is an acceptable level for a blue.

The first hint is use a superwash wool.  Whatever the chemical action is that is used in producing it helps the dye adher to the wool.  Next, I soaked 4 pounds of beans in enough water to cover them plus another 2 inches for 3 days.  Negative is that the beans will start to ferment.  I think next time I will end at 2 days and wait for warmer days to put the pot in the sun to see if I can prevent the beginnings of the fermentation.  I just kept skimming it off this time.

Next we took our mordanted wool and placed it in a knee high stocking. 

We did two skeins.

Okay, the point of the knee highs is to keep the bean parts out of your wool.  The positive/negative is that your dye will not completely saturate your wool – leaving it lighter in the middle.  Now, I love tonal blends so this works for me, but if you need a more even, solid color, be aware.

Then I submerged the wool in the dye pot in the middle of the beans – some above and some below.

Your yarn will try to lift up and out of the pot so this is not as easy as you might think.

Plus I had to take alot of beans out so the pot would not overflow so use a big enough pot that this won’t be a problem.  You need the beans in there to hold down the yarn.  Then I left the yarn in there – one skein for two days and the other for three.

The resulting yarn looks like this.


With the flash you can see the color variations in the yarn better.

The touches of brown/green are the result of being in direct contact with the beans.  The proteins in the beans will result in that color change in the wool.  It is preferable to not put the wool in direct contact with the beans, but I was not sure if it would reduce the lightfastness of the color so this time I followed the method of burying the wool in the beans.  My next try with this method will be by skimming off my dye from the bean pot before adding my wool.

Note that after I dyed my wool I let it dry and left it quite awhile to cure.  It rinsed quickly and easily after that.  LOVED that!!

I’m not sure which dye we will look at next week.  I have yarn sitting in a pot of dead bugs that is stinking up my kitchen as I write this, so maybe cochineal?  If you have any questions on how we did the black bean yarn let me know.  If you know of ways to make it better, let me know that too.  Happy Wednesday all!!


About Shelly R.

I am a Mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, an attorney, a crafter 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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10 Responses to Natural Dyeing – In Search of Blue using Black Beans

  1. danihinde says:

    Wow! The amount of work that went into those is staggering. They’re really lovely though. And I like the brown mixed in with the faded blue, it makes for a more interesting colorway. I can’t wait to see the dead bug yarn! 🙂

  2. Love the results you got! I’m not a blue fan, but the smokiness of the blue is just perfect. I admire the dedication it took to get this done (and to even be considering playing with dead bugs for dye….). AND it’s great to see a post!!

    • Shelly R. says:

      I’m a denim girl – so blue will always work for me. My favorite color is yellow – that marigold yarn is soooooo my favorite color – but it looks horrid with my skin tone so I can’t wear it much. I have lots of new stuff to post about – I just haven’t had the time. May is a crazy month – but I am going to try to get back on track. I finished that damnable sweater yesterday which was the push I needed. Next is to get a pot of logwood grey going while I put together a record on appeal. Chip is planting a tray of weld plants for me now too. Onward and Upward!!

  3. Vicki White says:

    Hi Shelly,

    Love seeing your experiments in natural dyeing. That is one of the next things I want to jump in to. Just not enough time on the day. Out of curiosity, could you strain the beans out of he liquid so you could submerge the yarn directly? Not sure if there is enough liquid, but a thought. Who knew you could get tat shade of blue. What did you mordant it with? Also super wash wool is created two different ways. One s a chemical burning or adhering of he scales and the other is a heat burning. I wonder if it matters which one was used or if it is just the absence of the scales.


    • Shelly R. says:

      I don’t think the method of creating the superwash wool matters as comments across the board indicate a better color is available when working with superwash wools and black beans. The way that you use the dye without the beans is by skimming the dye water off of the top of the beans, trying not to disturb the beans and causing the proteins to rise up into your dye bath. This is good if you would like to be able to eat your beans, as you can’t eat them once you put them in contact with the mordanted wool. However, folks who have used the skimming method have not had the success with longer term lightfastness that the immersion in the bean folks have had. There are alot more experiments I want to do with black beans though to see what I can get using different methods. Don’t add heat though or you will get grey instead of blue. Changing the Ph will also change the colors. Ammonia will yield a green/blue while vinegar with move it toward lavender. I used an alum mordant. And yes, natural plant dyeing is very time and water intensive.

  4. Kind of off the beaten track, but not too far. A neighbor had asked me if I could obtain black walnuts, that he wanted to make black walnut dye from them. He was dying wood but would venture to guess it would dye just about anything.

    • Shelly R. says:

      If it gives you any information you don’t have, here is my blog post about dyeing with black walnuts. – or just look at my February 8, 2012 blog post – same thing. Black walnut hulls are amazing in the dye world because they do not require a mordant to adhere to protein fibers and they naturally contain tannins, which adheres to the cellulose fibers. I love the color, though, when I add an alum mordant. Chip and I can both make use of black walnut dye, which is always fun when we can work on things together.

  5. uttrang says:

    Thank you so much ! Is it completely natural ? Did you use chemicals ?
    Thank you for being so helpful !

    • Shelly R. says:

      I don’t use chemicals, but in order to obtain a color which will not fade into a light blue by the end of a year, you must use a superwash yarn – which does use a chemical to cause the wool fibers to not felt during the washing. I do not know what there is in the superwash yarns which affects the lightfastness of the resulting yarn, but it is the only way I have found that the color truly adheres to the yarn over time. Hope that helps. Sorry so long in responding. It has been quite a winter around here.

  6. Innes Carmichael says:

    If you very carefully pour off the soak liquid from the beans -try to keep the sludgy stuff back, then soak/simmer the yarn in the liquid then you can achieve an even colour throughout the skein. Also I have found that a cold soak in the liquid from the beans -overnight or longer – gives a great result-yarn mordanted with Alum. Innes C.

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