The sun's free energy will heat your home, steep your
tea ... and even tint your textiles!
by Marianne K. Doss
The next time you take down a pair of curtains and notice
that they've become sun-streaked and faded, take heart!
What ol' Sol hath bleached, he can also dye ... with just a
little help from a handy householder. Solar
dyeing—using natural colorings-is one of the simplest
and loveliest ways to keep the hues of summer alive all
year round. Furthermore, this technique has several
distinct advantages over the usual simmered-on-the-stove
method: It's easy . . . it's inexpensive ... and yes, it's
also fun to do! In addition, the colors produced are
softer, and—perhaps best of all—there are none
of the pungent odors associated with stovetop dyeing.
The solar method is a variation of natural dyeing, since
both call for the extraction of color from such vegetable
materials as wild or cultivated flowers, berries, tree
bark, and herbs. To make these hues permanent, it's
necessary to use a chemical agent known as a
mordant, which interacts with the dye and fibers,
causing the two elements to bond.
Mordants not only make dye colors permanent . . . they can
produce shades that are darker, brighter, grayer, or
altogether different from the hue of the source.
Among the common mordants are alum (potassium
aluminum sulfate or ammonium aluminum sulfate), which is
used in conjunction with cream of tartar and gives a tint
close to that of the natural dye plant ... iron
(ferrous sulfate), which will add gray to any shade ...
tin (stannous chloride), which makes colors bright ...
and copper (cupric sulfate), which gives the dyed
fibers a greenish cast. With the exception of alum and
cream of tartar, these mordants must be ordered through a
pharmacist or a scientific supplies catalog. And remember:
Many of the substances are poisonous, and therefore they
must be kept away from children and animals!
For traditional natural dyeing, the yarn or fabric is
simmered for hours-first in the mordant solution, then in
the dye-in a kettle on the stove. For solar dyeing, on the
other hand, the "stove" is the sun, and the "simmering"
process takes several days ... but no more work is required
of the dyer than a daily stirring of the brew.
Materials that can be used for color include such things as
walnut hulls and bark, goldenrod flowers, red sumac
berries, birch leaves, rhubarb stalks, and marigold petals.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: See the article on page 181 for other
suggestions.] There are literally hundreds of
possibilities ... in fact, much of the fun of dyeing comes
from experimenting with various plants and mordants to
discover the range of tints that can be achieved.
DYE IT . . . YOU'LL LIKE IT!
Wool accepts color well, so yarn is a good choice for your
first project. To dye enough yarn for a small knitted or
crocheted item (such as a child's cap or a pair of baby boo
tees), you'll need a one-gallon glass jar (plas tic just
doesn't let the sun through well enough) with a lid, some
alum and cream of tartar, four ounces of white wool,
and—to provide the coloring—three-quarters of a
gallon (more or less) of tightly packed marigold petals.
Gallon jars can usually be obtained free from a local
drive-in or cafeteria (such outlets purchase mayonnaise or
pickles in them). Alum and cream of tartar can easily be
found at a grocery or drugstore. White 100% wool can likely
be bought from most yarn or craft shops. And finally, your
own garden, and your friends' and neighbors' yards, will
probably be your sources of marigold petals. (To produce
the best color possible, the flowers should be picked when
they're in full blossom, and the petals stripped off and
used right away.) Fortunately, marigolds are prolific
bloomers, and cutting the mature flowers encourages the
development of even more blossoms, so your experiment won't
denude anyone's garden for long.
Once you've gathered all your materials, rewind the four
ounces of yarn by wrapping it around the back of a kitchen
chair (or looping it around your hand and elbow) to form a
loose coil. Then, using white string —which won't
muddy the dye—tie the coil here and there, in just
enough places to hold it together. Next, thoroughly clean
the jar and lid, then put in 1/4 teaspoon of alum and 1/8
teaspoon of cream of tartar ... and fill the container half
full of lukewarm water, stirring it until the mordant is
completely dissolved. Now, add the coil of wool yarn to the
jar and pour in the fresh marigold petals to within one
inch of the top. Add more water until all the ingredients
are covered (you'll probably want to press down the petals
and add more, if needed, while you're pouring in the
water). When that'sdone, stir the combination with a long
stick, put on the lid, and set the jar outside in a sunny
Leave the container in place for about ten days (and
nights), stirring the contents once each day. At the end of
the ten-day period, remove the yarn and rinse it in
lukewarm water until the fluid runs clear. Then gently
squeeze (do not wring) the excess liquid from the
yarn, and dry it—spread out flat—on an old)
clean towel. Depending upon the humidity and such, drying
can take anywhere from two to four days.
Part of the fun of solar dyeing is in seeing the unusual
colors that often result, since the final hue will depend
upon such factors as weather conditions and the amount of
sunlight available, as well as upon the natural materials
you use. For instance, my first marigold-dyed wool turned
out to be not the expected yellow, but a bright lime green!
You can also vary the shades by performing the steps of the
process in a different order, by changing mordants, or by
cooking the dyestuffs and yarn before setting them
out to steep together. In this craft, one possibility leads
to another ... but do be sure to color enough yarn or
fabric at one time to make whatever finished item you're
aiming at—even if this means setting out four or five
jars at once—because two consecutive batches could
turn out to be quite different!
This year, why not preserve the beauty of nature's bounty
in some subtly colored knitwear? With the sun's help, this
is one dye-it everyone can enjoyl
EDITOR'S NOTE: There are many fine books available on
natural dyeing. Two that the author of this article
recommends are Dye Plants and Dyeing: A Handbook by Ethel
lane Schetky and Carol Woodward (1978), and Natural Plant
Dyeing by Palmy Weigle and Mollie Rodriguez (1978). Both
publications are available from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
(Dept. TMEN, 1000 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, New York
11225) and cost $3.05 apiece, including postage. Another
valuable guide is Create Your Own Natural Dyes by Kathleen
Schultz (Sterling, 1975, $6.95), which is available at your
local bookstore or through Mother's Bookshelf ® (see
page 123 for ordering information).