Easy Solar Dyeing

The sun's free energy will do more than heat your home and steep your tea. Though solar dyeing, you can tint your textiles!

| March/April 1983

solar dyeing - one gallon glass filled with marigolds and wool

The actual dyeing process in solar dyeing is simple: just put your filled one gallon glass jar in the sun for about ten days. Here, woolen yarn steeps in a jar full of marigold mix.

Photo 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 with 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. 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 bootees), you'll need a one-gallon glass jar (plastic just doesn't let the sun through well enough) with a lid, some alum and cream of tartar, four ounces of white wool, and three-quarters of a gallon (more or less) of tightly packed marigold petals and to provide the coloring.

barbel roerig
8/7/2011 11:34:57 AM

Having fun with various jars in my greenhouse. Can't wait to see the results.

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