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Image of naturally dyed fabrics.

Prospect for Color

Like hunting and gathering wild foods, this outdoor pursuit promises
tangible rewards. Here's practical advice on how to get started.

by Joan Jarvis Ellison

I walk the wild prospecting for color. I search for the gold of goldenrod flowers, the red of sumac, the purple of grapes, and the brown of walnut husks.

What is that plant? What has it been used for? Can you eat it? Can I use it to change the color of something? I search for plants that I can use in my work as a fiber artist. Color is my passion. I spin and knit and make felt. I use wool grown from my own sheep, colored with dyes I find on the land. The woods and fields are an endless source of plants that can be used for natural dyes. Discovering the colors inside a plant is a fascinating exercise in plant identification, dye chemistry, patience, and luck.

Preserve the Nut

image of longnose gar

Black walnuts are tasty and nourishing, especially in baked goods. Preparing them for storage does take a bit of work. Remove the husk immediately after picking. Rinse off the shells and cure the nut in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for two to three weeks. To shell the nuts, first cover them in hot water and soak for 24 hours. Keep them moist until you crack the shells. Crack the shells with a hammer and a nut pick. Black walnuts are the original "hard nut to crack," so expect to work at it. Store the nutmeats in the refrigerator or freezer.


Sumac Tea

image of fossilized gar

Harvest sumac drupes (fruit) in August or September before the rains wash off the flavor. Store them in a brown paper bag until you are ready to use them. Fill a glass or plastic container with sumac drupes and cover with cold water. Cover the container to keep the drupes from floating to the top. Soak for 20 minutes. Strain through a coffee filter, sweeten to taste, and enjoy!

You don't need many tools to be a color prospector. From paper coffee filters to stainless-steel pots, everything you need is probably in your kitchen. Long before European settlement, American Indians worked with native plants and basic tools to create a rainbow of colors. Early pioneers learned from them, as well as from their own experiments with plants.

Experiments with natural dyes are not only an intriguing way to add color to material but also an engaging way to learn about Minnesota's native plants. Some standout dye plants—walnut, wild grape, goldenrod, and sumac—are relatively abundant and easy to work with. Here's a guide to get you started on a search for wild color.

Walnut Husks.

Dyeing with walnut husks is perhaps the most basic, easiest natural dye technique possible. Walnut is a substantive dye, which means that the color will stick to fiber without added chemicals. The husk is a 2 to 3-inch ball of fleshy fiber that surrounds the nut. Husks produce a lovely brown dye, which early peoples used to color reeds, cattail leaves, and wood splits that they wove into baskets. Walnut is also used to dye wool and cotton.

In Minnesota, walnuts grow on the black walnut tree (Juglans nigra). This large, wide-spreading tree has dark brown, roughly corrugated bark and large, compound leaves with 15 to 21 leaflets. Native to southern Minnesota, the black walnut has also been planted north of its presettlement range.

Nuts ripen in late August to late September, and the husks turn from green to yellow green. They may be picked from the tree or off the ground after a frost. After falling to the ground, the green husk darkens as it rots. Even when green, the fibrous husks leave black stains on your hands, so wear plastic gloves when you gather them.

The husks are easiest to remove when they are still green. To separate the husk from the nutshell, you can cut, pound, or step on each walnut and then peel the husk away. If you harvest and hull the nuts while the husks are green, you can dry the nuts for later eating (see sidebar).

To experiment with walnut dyeing, place one green or rotted husk in a stainless-steel pot, cover it with soft water, and simmer it for one hour. Then strain the liquid through a coffee filter to make a dye bath. Drop white wool or cotton yarn or cloth into the dye bath and simmer for another hour. Remove the fabric from the dye, rinse well in hot water, and hang to dry away from direct sunlight.

Although the dye bath will be black, walnut dyes a light, warm brown on cotton and darker brown on wool.

Wild Grapes.

Minnesota's common native grape is Vitis riparia, the riverbank grape. This climbing vine has three-lobed, serrated leaves and tiny flowers in elongate clusters, which develop into the familiar-looking fruit bunches. It is found along forest edges and thickets, often twining up trees and fences or sprawling over rock piles.

The fruit is ripe when it turns deep purple in late July to early September. Grape juice is a lush dark purple, but the dye from both leaves and berries is a fugitive dye, meaning it fades from fabric after repeated washing and after exposure to sunlight. Grape dyes are best used for things that don't need washing, such as Easter eggs or wool embroidery thread.

Grape dye changes color depending on the amount of acidity in the dye solution. Adding vinegar makes the dye bath more acidic; ammonia makes it less acidic, more basic. Grape juice with vinegar dyes a red purple, close to the color pale taupe. Grape juice with ammonia dyes a blue purple, similar to purple taupe.

To dye with wild grapes, gather two cups of grapes, cover with two cups of softened or city water in a stainless-steel pot, and simmer for one hour. Strain the dye solution through a coffee filter. In a small pot, put one cup of the liquid plus one teaspoon of ammonia. Add an egg and/or wool yarn. In a second pot, mix one cup of grape dye with one teaspoon of vinegar and add another egg and yarn. Simmer each mixture one hour, adding water if the dye liquid level gets too low. Rinse and dry items away from direct sunlight.

Goldenrod Flowers.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) grows wild all across Minnesota, beginning to bloom in August and continuing into September. The plants have heads of small, yellow flowers and alternate leaves on stems that range from 1 to 3 feet tall, depending on the species. The flowers, when used fresh, make a clear lemon-yellow dye.

Goldenrod is a nonsubstantive dye, which means it needs additional chemicals, called mordants, to make it stick to fiber. Mordants are metal salts. Aluminum potassium sulfate, also known as alum, is a kitchen chemical used for making pickles. It is readily available at the grocery store and not at all toxic, unlike some other mordants.

To dye with goldenrod, pick a cup of fresh flowers (do not include leaves). Add one cup of soft water, a pinch of alum, and a pinch of cream of tartar (another kitchen chemical, used for making meringues). Simmer in a stainless-steel pot for 15 minutes. Pour off the dye bath, straining it through a coffee filter. Add an egg, cotton fabric, and/or wool yarn. Simmer for 30 minutes. Drain, rinse, and dry out of the sun.

Goldenrod dyes a lovely corn yellow on wool and cotton. The dye produces a darker, golden yellow on eggs.

Sumac Fruit. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a shrub or small tree that grows along roads, streams, and abandoned fields. The leaves (16 to 24 inches long) are alternate, deciduous, and pinnately compound with 11 to 31 sharply toothed leaflets. Sumac fruits are dense, cone-shaped clusters of small, hairy, deep-red drupes (technically not berries).

For sumac dye, pick several clusters and strip fruit from stems. Soak two cups of fruit in two cups of soft water overnight. Next, simmer for two hours, adding water if the level gets too low. Strain the dye solution through a coffee filter. Add a pinch of alum and a pinch of cream of tartar to the dye and more water to cover an egg, a piece of cotton fabric, and/or wool yarn. Simmer for 20 minutes. Drain, rinse, and dry away from direct sunlight.

Though sumac dye is made from red fruit, the dye is buff (beige). Wool takes the color more reliably than cotton, producing a warm buff color.

If you hold back some sumac drupes, you can use them to make a refreshing drink (see sidebar).

More Color Power.

You can prospect for your own dye plants in the woods and along roadsides and riverbanks, wherever you have permission to wander and collect. Consider what's growing in your yard and garden or stored in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator. If a plant yields a beautiful, long-lasting dye, it is quite possible that other members of the same family will also work as dye plants.

To test a plant's dye qualities, rub the flowers, leaves, and roots on paper or cotton fabric to discover if it has coloring power—in other words, if it can be used for dyeing. Some green plants when rubbed on paper or fabric give a bright green streak; others may leave no mark at all.

For a color-test record, pound an imprint of each plant onto fabric. Lay out about 20 pieces of newspaper on a flat board. Place a piece of white cotton fabric atop the newspaper. Then lay out a leaf or flower of each plant you are testing. Place a piece of white paper over the leaves and flowers. With a hammer or stone, pound the entire leaf or flower surface evenly, until you can see the plant through the paper. When you peel off the paper, an image of the leaf or flower will be imprinted on the fabric if the plant has good possibilities as a dye.

Soak the leaf print in a solution of one quart of water plus one tablespoon of salt and one tablespoon of baking soda for 10 to 15 minutes. Then rinse in clear water and dry away from sunlight to keep the design from fading.

Write the name of each leaf or flower on the fabric with a permanent marker for future reference. Set your samples aside to test their light fastness; wash them to test their wash fastness. Keep records. When you have found a good plant for dyeing, scale up the recipe. Use equal weights of plant and fabric to get a good dye job.

Color prospecting possibilities are endless. And even if all you dye are eggs, you have another fine reason for a walk in the woods.

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