Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Black Walnut Dyeing

 A giant black walnut tree graces our back yard.  I've always loved the tree for it's beauty and shade, but I haven't used the walnuts much as they are difficult to crack open.  How happy I was to learn the that the inky husks, which I had previously viewed as a nuisance, could be used to dye yarn lovely shades of brown.
I would like to share the dyeing process I have learned, for my own records, as well as for anyone else who would like to give natural dyeing a try. I am relatively new to dyeing myself, and I am just sharing what worked for me. I would also encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about dyeing with natural materials to visit the Natural Dyeing and the Plants to Dye For groups on Ravelry.

Black walnuts  (Note on amounts: I have found that a rich brown dye can be achieved using about 1 dozen black walnuts for every 100 gm skein of wool yarn.)
Yarn  (I have mainly used 100% wool so far, other protein fibers should work as well.)
Cooking pot, strainer, and tongs, all designated for dyeing only
Cooking thermometer
Gloves, to keep hands from being stained as well
Scrap cotton yarn, for tyeing skeins
Alum, and cream of tartar, for mordanting (optional)
Wool wash

Preparing the Yarn:
1. Start with yarn in skeins. Use scrap yarn to tie skeins in at least 4 places. The scrap yarn should be tied firmly enough to prevent your skein from coming loose and tangling in the dye pot, but not so tight that dye will not reach the fiber evenly.

A swift comes in handy if your yarn is not already in skeins.

A figure 8 tie keeps yarn in place.

2. Soak skeins of yarn in lukewarm water for 20 minutes. Wet yarn will absorb the dye (and mordant) evenly.

3. Optional step - Mordanting your yarn:
(Note: Mordanting is a process of using chemicals to ensure that dyed yarn will be colorfast, and/or to affect color results. I have read that it is unnecessary to use mordant when dying with black walnuts. But when I have done other natural dyeing, alum has enhanced gold colors. My first black walnut dyed yarn had been mordanted with alum, and I liked the resulting color, so I have continued to use alum. Adding 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar will help ensure even distribution of color. I like a little variegation so I just used the alum.)

Dissolve alum in a pot of lukewarm water. I used 2 tablespoons of alum for every 100gm skein. Add wet yarn to pot. Place pot over heat and bring to a simmer (180-190 deg. F) for 1 hour.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Without stirring or agitating wool, gently turn yarn over
and move it around so that it will be evenly mordanted. 

Preparing the Dyebath:
1. Using gloves, place whole walnuts (with outer husks intact) in a cooking pot. Fill the pot the rest of the way with water, and allow walnuts to soak overnight.
I got very nice caramel color using fresh green husks.

2. Preferably outside, place walnut dyebath over heat, and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid and continue to simmer the walnuts for 2 hours. I say "preferably outside" because, although the dyebath is not toxic, there will be a strong odor!

This outdoor cooker, is my designated dyepot.

3. Pour the dyebath through a strainer, and discard the walnuts. At this point you can use the dyebath immediately, or store it for future use. I have kept walnut dyebath, with a tight lid, and in a cool place, for weeks with no discernible change in quality.
Dyeing the Yarn:
(Note: Yarn that has been soaked and/or mordanted, is ready for the dyepot. Remember that although wool can be safely heated to just below the boiling point, it just does not like sudden temperature changes. So, you should have both your wet yarn and your previously made dyebath cooled off, OR it is okay to move your newly mordanted yarn, still hot, to a similarly heated dyebath.)
1. Place wet yarn into dyebath. Place dyepot back over heat, and bring back to 180-190 deg. F.
2. Maintain yarn at a low simmer for at least 40 minutes, longer for a darker color. With tongs, gently move yarn around occasionally for even saturation. Do not stir or agitate wool in the heat or it may begin to felt.

3. Remove pot from heat. At this point, you can allow the yarn to cool in the dyebath, or gently move it to a separate container. Either way, allow it to cool gradually. Discard your dyebath if is exhausted. If it is not exhausted you may reuse it if you would like to dye more yarn in an “afterbath” for a lighter color.

Exhausted dyebath is the container on the left.
Unused dyebath is in the container on the right.

4. Once the yarn is cooled off, you are ready to wash it. I usually fill a plastic tub with room temperature water and allow yarn to soak for a few minutes as a first rinse, and then repeat with a wool wash. Repeat rinses until water runs clear. I then blot the skein dry with a towel and hang it outdoors to dry. 
Step 5.  Stand back and admire your hard work!

The final color will depend on a variety of factors, including which base yarn you start with.  Tomorrow I will show some before and after pictures of different types of yarn, and on Finished Object Friday, I will post my first FO with my hand-dyed yarn!


  1. What detailed instructions Shannon. I especially like the photo of the exhausted dyebath. Can't wait to see the results. Do you have a photo of your tree?

  2. Did you use a certain mordant to achieve that purple color ?

    1. Hi Dani - I just used alum on all of the yarn pictured in this post. The skein with a more lavender appearance isn't as purple in real life as it looks in the photo. The bit of lavender shade over the brown tone was achieved because the base yarn I used that time was naturally grey instead of white or cream.

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