Natural Dye

I love color and I love knitting with color. This love led me to dye yarn for myself a few years ago and the step by step process seemed like magic. Whatever I end up knitting with those dyed skeins seems so much more special after I created the color that went into it. I’ve dyed a fair amount with acid dyes and had pretty good results (two examples: here and here) though I’m by no means an expert with them. There’s some healthy debate in the knitting/ dyeing world as to which dyes are better for the environment and for the dyer. I don’t know enough about the details of either one of them to have much of an informed opinion. Whether or not one form of dyeing is inherently “better” than the other I’m not sure, but there does seem to be room in our yarny world for both methods of dyeing.

I love acid dyes and the color combinations they can produce. There are dyers out there using really innovative techniques to create what is truly a work of art on each skein. If you go to Etsy and type in “hand dyed yarn” about 1000 examples of this will pop up. The ones that I follow kind of obsessively and really love to see what they are up to are Skein Yarns, Hedgehog Fibres, and The Lemonade Shop. They all apply dye to the yarn in ways that I couldn’t even begin to think of and in ways with which natural dyes just can’t compete.

When I first started dyeing yarn I read quite a bit about it and about the different methods of dyeing. It seemed to me that some of the natural dye community had a bit of a chip on their shoulder while simultaneously being kind of sanctimonious. I got the same sort of feeling from them that I did from people who are on a mission about organic food–that whatever you’re using (or eating) isn’t as pure or as environmentally conscious as their choice, therefore it’s sub-par. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate organic food or the movement surrounding it, I just think that it unfortunately isn’t viable for our whole population for a lot of different reasons and I don’t like that the movement tends to look down its nose at those who don’t participate without considering factors like cost and accessibility. That’s a long winded comparison but I felt a very similar vibe from some natural dyers I came across. I sort of wrote natural dyeing off without giving it much of a chance based solely on my first internet impressions.

When we went to Mexico my whole viewpoint changed dramatically. I wrote pretty extensively on our trip to the weaving village Teotitlan de Valle which you can read about if you haven’t already. It was the absolute highlight of our trip for me (which is saying something because we did some really stellar beach lounging) and I felt so lucky to be allowed to see such an important piece of the lives and histories of the Zapotec people. While we were there it hit me in a strong way that natural dyeing is about so much more than my original skewed opinion of it and that as a white American with no real ties to the tradition and ritual of dyeing, I can only ever truly know a small piece of its importance and cultural significance for so many dyers around the world. What I can comprehend though, is how it’s affected me personally.

I am not a religious or even a spiritual person. I tend to live at the surface of my life and I am pretty happy and satisfied there. I’m only 26, that may change down the road for me or it may not. I don’t like church and I never have but I can appreciate the value that it has in peoples’ lives. I think my own personal parallel to that part of life is being outside. It’s a cliche but it’s a cliche for a reason. I think a life outdoors really resonates with a lot of people and I am certainly one of them. I like mountains and rivers and deserts and oceans and hills and plains and pretty much all of it. I honestly feel more connected to the outdoors than I do to most people. Which I think is why when I dyed  yarn using something from nature I literally felt a lightbulb go on for me and understood another piece of why this method of applying color to the things in our lives is so important to so many people.

We brought back Achiote (annatto) from Guatemala and I used it to dye two skeins of Merino that I got a few weeks ago. To take something that was both a meaningful souvenir and a literal piece of the earth we were on and extract color from it made me feel totally exhilarated and full– like something had come full circle for me. I’ll never be able to understand the entirety of what it means to use what’s available in nature to honor the past and create a future but I’ve come to understand my own small piece of creating a life filled with color.



4 thoughts on “Natural Dye

  1. What an interesting and truly lovely text. I could totally relate to those people who think they know the one and only answer and I can imagine how special that yarn you dyed with your holiday souvenirs will be!

  2. I just dyed some wool with annatto… believe it or not I use annatto to color a cheese that I make and decided to try it on wool. (Love the color… spun some the wool to yarn… but have no idea what to do with it…). The real reason I am writing is to tell you that I really enjoyed this post and you offered eloquent words to describe how you connect with nature and I feel those same feelings when I explore old, dying, and even lost crafts that come from people who lived before us… It makes me feel somehow connected with our heritage… and offers meaning to my existence… Great post!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I looked at your blog and I love how you jump into things headfirst and with total enthusiasm. I only read your latest piece but I will be heading back to read some more. I’m interested to know how your annatto dye went. I saw you used cochineal too which I would like to try. I look forward to seeing your weaving progess!

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