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Art of Dyeing, Dyeing Wool, and Dyeing Linens

( Originally Published 1937 )

DEERFIELD, Massachusetts, was famous a few years ago for its Society of Blue and White Needle Work, producing beautiful patterns of applique and embroidery from materials dyed with vegetable colors. For many years these were gobbled up by a demand beyond the supply. Several women were kept working under the direction of Misses Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller following their designs with colored yarns and fabrics dyed on the kitchen stove. Some of the hangings display an engaging ingenuity in the manner in which a pattern or picture was formed by sewing together pieces of cloth of different colors and textures and by the exploitation of differences of character and scale in the stitches.

Miss Miller died in 1928 and Miss Whiting, owing to failing eyesight has been unable to carry on the work. It seemed a great pity that all of the craft and lore on vegetable dyeing should be lost to others interested in following up the craft.

Having already worked with Miss Whiting's material, I suggested recording some of it in this book. She fell in at once with the idea, giving me access to the notes left by Miss Miller, who did all of the colors except indigo, Miss Whiting's specialty. These were jottings designed for her own use and not easy to decipher. I spent many days going through them, experimenting with formulae, and examining "swatches" (samples of dyed material with their appended notes). Tested by exposure to south light, and filed with unexposed swatches of the same dyeing they show the relative fastess of the different methods.

Dyeing is an art not a science. As in other arts, there are several ways of arriving at the same result. None will produce good results without thought, care and patience. The following formulae should serve as starting points for your own experiments rather than fixed and final proportions. The quantities of water should be sufficient to cover the material' to be dyed, the weight of which forms the basis of calculation for the dyebath.

I give in the following pages a good deal of information picked up elsewhere, as well as a general chemical background and some formula of my own.


Most dyes must be applied or set in the presence of a mordant. A few mordants are: alum (potassium aluminum sulphate), cream of tartar (potassium tartrate), copperas (ferrous sulphate) also known as green vitriol, potassium bichromate, tin crystals (stannous chloride), tannic acid or barks or wood that contain it.


The dyestuff is the substance which colors the fibres. The same dyestuff may give different colors with different mordants. For example, linen mordanted with alum and dyed with madder is red; prepared first with lime and acetate of lead, rinsed in oxalic acid, and dyed with madder with potassium bichromate it is a golden yellow; if the potassium bichromate is omitted, the color is a reddish purple.


Thorough washing and rinsing are indispensable. Clean work is impossible if this is neglected.

Kinds of Fibre

There are two chief kinds of fibre: Animal, including wool and silk; and vegetable, including cotton and linen and the modified vegetable derivatives—rayon, celanese, etc. Each of these requires its own technique, but the animal fibres are easier to dye than the vegetable, and the natural vegetable fibres easier than the artificial.


Wool as sheared has a great deal of dirt and grease in it, necessary to remove before spinning or dyeing. Nowadays this grease (known as Lanolin) is recovered, refied, and sold to the chemical trade.

The people washing wool on a small scale seldom attempt to recover the lanolin.

Throughout the Scottish Highlands they clean wool with stale human urine, one part urine to four parts water. The bath is no hotter than the hand can bear—about 101 ° F. The Wool is squeezed and worked about by hand until it is clean, then thoroughly rinsed. Although nothing leaves the wool softer than urine, many people will prefer to wash it in a solution of ammonia or soft soap and hot water. Do not use washing soda, it makes the wool harsh. The wool loses about 20% of its weight.


The simplest vegetable dyes are the Lichens, used in the Highlands of Scotland and parts of Ireland. The well-known Harris Tweeds are dyed with lichens. The wool is dyed before spinning, different shades being carded together to make mixtures. Its characteristic smell is from the lichens and sea-weeds used in the dyeing, and the peat smoke of the hearths near which it is dried.

The Parmelia Saxatilis and Parmelia Omphalodes (lichens) are gathered off the rocks in late summer, dried, and boiled up with water. This, after cooling, is heated up again and the wool boiled in it for all brown shades until dark enough. I am advised that these are not native to America; but there are others, such as the Usnea Barbata, found in Pennsylvania on old trees. It dyes wool orange.

The Lecanora tartarea is a rock lichen, abundant in Scotland and Northern Europe, used to dye a red. One method of preparation: crush the dry lichen to a powder in a mortar with a little kelp, and add stale chamber lye. Stir occasionally for some weeks. Knead the paste into balls with a little lime. To use: Soften to a jelly in warm water and fold it into the cloth layer for layer. Boil the whole in water with a little alum.


A good fast blue, easier to use than Indigo: Put 5 lbs. wool in water containing 2/ oz. bichromate of potash. Boil for 1 1/2 hours. Rinse and dry. Boil the wool for an hour with r lb. logwood chips in fresh water. Rinse well and dry.


Boil wool dyed blue as above in the hot heather liquor described below until it is the color you wish.


Boil green heather tips not yet flowered—about as much as you have wool to dye, in water for half-hour. Boil the wool first for an hour in a solution of alum—(1 oz. to a gallon of water). Golden rod and nettle roots and leaves give similar shades. For Moss Green, mordant the wool with the bichromate solution given under Logwood Blue, and then dye it in nettle liquor. The Indians used the Canadian three-leaved Hellebore (Hellebores trifolius) for dying skins and wool yellow. Holly gives yellow with alum and green with ferric chloride. Smart-weed also gives yellow with alum.


Boil for an hour 1/2 the weight of wool being dyed, the roots of Ladies Bedstraw in water to cover. Boiled first in the alum solution it gives an orange-red, with the bichromate solution a crimson. Beet Red: Mordant wool with alum and boil in beet juice.


A reliable method is as follows; for 6 lbs. woolen fabric dissolve 1 1/2 lbs. alum, 5 oz. tartar, 5 oz. tin crystals in water. Boil the goods two hours, remove, cool and drain over-night. Stir 4 1/2 lbs. madder into fresh water. Enter fabric at 120° F. and raise temperature to 200° in one hour. Handle, rinse and dry. Highlanders mordant the wool with 1/4 pound of alum to a gallon of water. Then bring to the boil very slowly; and simmer for an hour in bath with 3 lbs. madder to 5 lbs. wool.


Boil yellow flag roots with the wool for an hour. For plum color, add a little copperas just before the dyeing is finished.


Boil for 2 hours 1 lb. wool with r lb. of twigs and sappy bark of alder, oak, butternut or walnut, or the green walnut husks, and 4 oz. logwood chips, for a reddish brown. Add 1/2 oz. copperas for fast black.


Boil wool with barks and twigs mentioned above or with leaves, twigs and bark of sumach, maple, hemlock, hickory, etc. used without a mordant, or with alum or acetate of alumina.


Many formulae given for wool will dye linen also, but the vegetable fibres usually require a more elaborate technique. First a few typical solutions and materials:


Stir 1/4. lb. slaked lime in a gallon of water. Allow to settle. Use clear liquid.


Dissolve 2 1/2 lbs. alum in I gallon boiling water, then add 3 lbs. acetate of lead. Dissolve, let settle, and use the clear liquid.


Nut-galls (excrescences on the leaves and twigs of oak trees) or sumac leaves, twigs and buds of flowers, boiled in water, make an astringent bath that imparts a yellow color to the fabric.


Catechu is the extract from the wood of the Acacia catechu. Like indigo, its color is, produced by oxidation, but unlike indigo its oxidation is very slow. In the East the natives produce their browns by natural oxidation. In the West it is accelerated by chemicals or steam.


A heavy tropical wood used in the form of chips, raspings, or liquid extract. Tie the chips in a bag and boil with the material, or boil and strain before the linen is entered.



For r lb. linen dissolve i oz. cutch in boiling water. Work goods for 15 to 30 minutes and pass through a hot bath of bichromate of potash. Rinse and dry. (May also be boiled in soap suds after drying to further fix the color.) Copper sulphate with ammonium chloride in the oxidizing bath will give a different hue to the dye. Lime water can replace the bichromate.


Boil for one hour 1 lb. lien, previously dyed cutch brown, with 1/2 oz. nut-galls in water. Air, and dye 1/2 hour in cold solution of 1 oz. copperas. Air, rinse and dry. The linen is more gray if entered directly in the gall-bath without rinsing the bichromate from the cutch dyeing.

LOGWOOD BLUE ON COTTON. An intense blue.

Work the goods in a bath of logwood liquor with the addition of acetate of copper, raising the bath from room temperature to 122° F. in one hour.


Mordant 1 lb. linen with acetate of iron and acetate of alumina. Dissolve in water 1/2 oz. madder extract and 1/2 oz. bichromate of potash. Keep linen in warm dyebath on back of stove for two or three hours and leave in dye to cool overnight. Boil half hour in soapsuds. Rinse.


Turn 5-10 minutes in hot solution of alum and lye. Wring out and dry. Dye in madder and bichromate of potash. Keep madder dyes below boiling point.


Boil 1 lb. lien one hour in water with 3 oz. acetate of lead. Lift and dry. Boil one hour with fresh solution of 1 oz. fustic extract, 1/2 oz. copper sulphate, small amount logwood decoction. Air goods, then add to bath 1/2 oz. bichromate of potash 1/2 teaspoon oxalic acid. Boil 1/2 hour. Rinse again through hot acetate of lead. Then pass directly through hot suds, and rinse in cold water.


Triturate I lb. indigo to an impalpable powder with warm water. Dissolve 2 lbs. copperas in hot water. Slake 3 lbs. lime in cold water; add the three solutions in above order to a crock filled with cold, soft water, stirring each vigorously as it is poured in. A weak bath and several successive dippings give evener color than a strong bath with few dippings. Cover closely and leave about / hour, when it should appear a bright pea-green. Stir again thoroughly, taking care not to stir air into the bath, for this will make the color uneven. Cover, and leave over night.

Make a net of cheese cloth bound to a wooden hoop with legs weighted with stone (not metal) to prevent floating. This is to prevent the cloth from being in contact with the sludge at the bottom of the crock. It is taken out of the crock before stirring and replaced after the settling.

To Use: In the morning remove the cover and skim the scum from the surface. The scum is called "flowers of indigo" and is to be saved in another crock for replenishing the bath later. Estimate the quantity of indigo in the scum after it has accumulated, and add to it sufficient copperas and lime solutions. The cloth is wet in hot water, allowed to cool without wringing, and entered gently but quickly into the bath. Air bubbles may cause light spots. Work gently in the liquor with the hands (which should be covered with rubber gloves, if much dyeing is to be done) for two to four minutes, keeping it below the surface of the liquid. When removing it from the vat gather it into the hands so as to exclude as much air as possible and lift it instantly into a pail of clear soft water. Work it under the surface and then hang it in the shade, preferably in the wind, to air. After about half an hour the color will have developed to a blackish or muddy blue and you may repeat the dipping, rinsing and airing until the color is sufficiently deep.

RINSING AND SOUR BATH : Rinse till no color comes

out. Remove the lime from the fabric by rinsing thoroughly in a "sour bath" made by mixing a few drops of sulphuric acid into a pail of water. Rinse well in clear water afterward. Dry in the shade.

VAT: The vat keeps indefinitely if protected from the air when unused, and cared for by stirring, skimming and occasionally removing the sludge from the bottom. This may be thrown away.

ANOTHER METHOD: Fill dye-vat with water at 1200 F. Add sufficient caustic soda to make the bath decidedly alkaline. Triturate indigo with warm water and stir into the bath. Stir sodium hydrosulphite in until the color of the bath changes from blue to green and then to greenish yellow. This bath is used just like the other except that it is better to keep it close to 120° F.

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