Dyeing Yarn in the Kitchen and Beyond

  Cochineal makes itself at home on a cactus.

imageplaceholder Christina Garton
Editor, Weaving Today

The other day while taking a walk through my neighborhood I noticed something strange on one of the cacti. Between the nasty cacti needles was a white fuzzy something. I remembered back to my days working for a museum listening to a dyer talk about local dyes and how to collect them. I had a hunch I knew exactly what that fuzz was hiding, so I very carefully reached into the fuzz and smushed a bit between my fingers.

Immediately I felt a crunch and a deep red covered my finger tips. Bingo! That white fuzz was the cover for the parasitic insect cochineal, which is treasured by natural dyers the world around for the brilliant red it produces, thanks to high levels of carminic acid in the female bugs. In fact, around 1600 cochineal was the second most prized Mexican export–right after silver. (Fortunately for me, though, small amounts of cochineal do not dye ones fingers and it easily wiped off.)

  Silk Scarf
  Christina's silk scarf that she dyed at Convergence.

Not long after, my curious husband went out and carefully harvested a small box of ripe prickly pears to juice. If you haven’t cut into a prickly pear before, let me describe it for you. The inside of the pear is filled with hard seeds and just a bit of fruit, which explains why you don’t see sliced prickly pear fruit in salads. Fortunately, putting the pears into a handheld lime juicer is easy enough and we were able to extract about a pint of incredibly vibrant juice–it was the most wonderful shade of fuschia. While my husband was more concerned with using it for homebrewing, I couldn’t help but wonder how the juice would work as a dye. (After some research, I did find out that fermented prickly pear had been used as a dye, so I might be picking some prickly pear of my own . .  .)
I was lucky enough last year to take several natural dyeing classes at HGA’s Convergence, and I was amazed at how many everyday items can be used to dye yarn such beautiful colors from the turmeric I keep on hand for curries to the tea I sip on chilly evenings and vegetables such as red cabbage, avocados, and onions. It really was eye opening!

Of course, there’s a lot you need to know before you start happily throwing yarn or cloth into big kettles of simmering cabbage (although that does sound fun, albeit smelly). During my classes at Convergence, which both dealt specifically with silk, I learned about mordant and why it’s needed to prepare fiber for dye. I learned how to prepare certain dyes and how to best set a dye in the silk so it wouldn’t wash out later. I also learned a lot about general dyeing safety which is incredibly important–even if you’re using natural dyes. Most of all, I had great fun dyeing silk strips and finally a silk scarf. My classmates and I laughed a lot as we messily dyed our silk and admired each other’s work. It was some of the most fun I have ever had, and if you have the opportunity to take a class from a skilled dyer, I highly suggest doing so!

If traveling to a workshop isn’t an option for you, know that Interweave has you covered! The wonderful Tanis Gray has a new video out all about kitchen dyeing, conveniently titled Kitchen Dyeing. In her video, Tanis covers all these subjects so you can confidently start dyeing at home. Not only is learning how to dye pretty empowering, but also imagine how much fun it would be to have the following conversation:

  Lorna's Laces teamed up with Tanis Gray to demonstrate how to dye yarn in your kitchen.

SCARF ADMIRER: Oh my, your scarf is beautiful! Those shades of pink and yellow are wonderful!
YOU: Oh, thank you. It was done with avocado pits and old onion skins.

Now if you are really excited about learning more about kitchen dyeing, we do have a limited number of kits available that include both Tanis’s wonderful video and a skein of undyed Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Sock yarn. The skein has extra ties to keep it from tangling while dyeing, and comes with a blank label that can be attached to the skein after dyeing with all of your information on it including dye ingredients, methods used, and (of course) a punnilicious name for your original colorway.

Dyeing really is great fun, and just like wearing a scarf you handwoven feels extra special, so too does wearing a piece that you hand dyed (and if it’s both handwoven and hand dyed, that’s even better). Now if you excuse me, I’m going to read up on how to harvest and prepare cochineal for dyeing, so if you see me scraping fuzz off of cacti, you’ll know why.

Happy Weaving (and Dyeing)!



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