Experiments with Natural Dyes: Black Walnuts
I got the idea about a year ago to make a quilt with all naturally dyed fabrics. Even though I haven’t finished my second quilt, I got started with the dyeing process this past weekend. Most of the plant material I plan on using is “ready” this time of year. My first experiment was using black walnuts. This isn’t meant to be a full tutorial, there are lots of good sources online and books. I’m simply documenting and presenting what worked (and didn’t work) for me.
Before dying, I scoured the fabric by simmering with some washing soda. This removes any waxes or junk on the fabric that would keep it from dyeing evenly.
At first I didn’t mordant the fabric. I gathered about 10 black walnuts from the ground below a tree, they were mostly green, some browning slightly. Then, following directions from two books I got from the library (Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess and The Handbook of natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr), I cracked the hulls and separated the nuts (which I left in our backyard and hopefully someone will eat them).
Then I put the hulls in a 5 gallon bucket and added water and let fester in my basement for 2-3 weeks. The water quickly became dark dark brown and stinky. Once it seemed ripe, I strained the liquid into a pot and brought the liquid to a boil, then simmered with the fabric for about 30 minutes. I had two pieces of fabric in the pot, so I decided to see what difference time made. I took the first piece out after 30 minutes of simmering, the second piece I let steep overnight. Then I rinsed and rinsed the fabric until the water ran clear(ish), let dry, and here’s how they looked:
While the colors were lovely (they both kinda appear white in this picture, they were actually much darker), I was expecting a much darker brown rather than a light gray. I had done lots of research and a lot of people said a mordant was unnecessary with black walnuts, but I also read that some people used one so I decided to experiment. I kept the darker of the original fabrics (the one that sat in dyebath overnight) and mordanted the lighter fabric and redyed it. I created an alum mordant by simmering 20% alum per fiber weight, then let fabric steep for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Additionally, I decided to try boiling the black walnut water with the black walnuts for an hour to try and extract more of the dye from the husks. After boiling for an hour, I added the fabric and soaked for about an hour on medium heat. Then I let it steep overnight and rinsed the next morning.
What a difference those extra steps made! It’s now a much deeper brown, almost olivey. So I have my first 2 colors- I need about 10 more to create the quilt I have in mind! This may take a few years. 🙂