DYEING OVER DISTANCE / portable natural dye lab / FREE DOWNLOAD
I spent a surprisingly chilly past couple of days up in Kit Carson sharing a cabin with some of my family. While we were only there for a short time, I wanted to test-run an idea I've been nurturing for a while: a portable natural dye lab.
Given that there are dye plants all around us, everywhere, I wanted to test the idea of dyeing while traveling. This is a perfect kit to put together when camping or staying in a cabin, although realistically, it could also be done in a hotel room as well. Wherever you can find natural dye stuff, you can, well, dye... stuff. Keep in mind, this isn't a tiny kit. It fits perfectly into a milk crate (depending on how much you want to dye) and is probably more appropriate for car trips. I used a rubber tub that I keep in the back of my car to transport all my supplies around. It worked great.
My aim was to dye four skeins of yarn. All weighing two ounces each. All were mordanted prior to the trip, two with alum and two with iron liquor. I didn't actually have time to dye these on this trip, but I wanted to be prepared and pack the kit as thoroughly as possible.
Some of these supplies are not totally necessary, but I wanted as complete a portable natural dye lab as I could make at this time. Things that are essential? The ziploc bags, gardening gloves, garden shears, sharpie, notebook and pen. This made collecting dye stuff easy while hiking. I also found this laminated field guide in the lodge that was easy to carry with me. I marked known dye plants with my sharpie. I highly recommend finding a similar field guide for whatever region you plan on exploring. Before we had left, I had done some internet research on dye plants in the Sierra Nevada mountains and had downloaded photos of said plants to my phone (so I could reference them on a hike with no cell service), but the pamphlet was so much easier and included specifics about each plant I had failed to take prior note of. I don't think I would have had as much success of finding dye plants on my hike without that field guide.
Some tips for a successful natural dye trip:
- Actually dyeing the yarn while on your trip may be bulky and unnecessary. Save space and time, by leaving the mason jars and yarn at home. Focus on just harvesting some dyestuff to bring home and experiment with later.
- Be wary of any laws or regulations prohibiting you from collecting plant material in that area. For instance, it's usually illegal to remove any plants from a National Forest or reserve. If you plan on rebelling and harvesting anyway, be sustainable and respectful about it. Don't call attention to yourself and avoid over-harvesting.
- Sustainable wild harvesting or foraging means being gentle to the plant. Never take more than you will realistically use, especially if you're unsure of its dye capabilities. A good general rule is to never harvest more than 25% of the plant. For bark and wood dye stuffs, look for fallen branches to harvest from. Never scrape the bark from a living tree. Remember, the plant is giving you the gift of its color, treat it with respect.
- If you plan on actually dyeing the yarn while out on a trip, it can be helpful to test the pH of the local water. pH testing strips are fairly inexpensive (the ones I have are available here) and can prove themselves indispensable when trying to create reliable natural dye color.
- Packing a few dye modifiers can be fun. You can also use what you find out in the wild. Ash collected from a campfire can be used as an alkali modifier. Pennies (1981 or earlier) can be used as a copper modifier. Rusty bits and bobs and be found while hiking or on the side of the road and make great iron modifiers. Leftover spent red wine, vinegar or a lemon can be used as an acid modifier. Experiment!
- If you are planning on dyeing yarn or fabric (or any other fiber) on your trip, take the time to mordant it prior to leaving. This saves you time and effort while out in the field and helps to ensure you get the best possible color payoff from your dye experiments.
- When trying to determine how much dyestuff to harvest, a good general rule is to use equal dry weight of dyestuff to fiber. If you can't harvest that much, aim for at least half that.
On this trip, I was able to harvest some blue elderberries, elderberry leaves, western juniper, and lodgepole pine bark. Stay tuned to see the results of dyeing with these materials. I can't wait!
I've also created a FREE downloadable Portable Natural Dye Lab Checklist for you guys, to use as a quick reference when packing your own portable dye kits. I encourage you all to get out and give it a shot!