Colors to Dye For

July 3rd, 2018

Yesterday, we were on Highway 794 heading north toward downtown Milwaukee. I was driving. Karin was crocheting. Karin doesn’t mind driving, but she prefers to do handwork in the car. Since this is the case, I am generally in the driver’s seat.

During the previous day, Karin had been busy with her dye pots. She uses a propane cooker on the patio to simmer various types of chemical solutions. She used to do that sort of thing on our kitchen stove. It was an activity which may have initially fooled a person into thinking that there was food cooking. However, even a whiff of the fumes coming from the pots made it clear that there was nothing edible involved in this process. It is far better that Karin does her work outside.

While we were driving, I asked Karin, “Are you counting?”

(Anybody who knows a knitter/crocheter understands why I asked that question. Interrupting a knitter who is busy counting stitches is always a bad move. Trust me on this.)

Karin was finishing a row. She stopped and asked what I wanted.

I told her that I wanted to understand what she had been doing yesterday. I knew that she was working with an indigo dye, but I really didn’t comprehend the method involved. All I knew for sure was that there were all sorts of paraphernalia scattered  over the patio and throughout much of the house: measuring cups and spoons, thermometers, litmus paper, rubber gloves, pieces of cloth and/or entire garments, containers of chemicals, roots, leaves, and flowers. While she was working, there was a hardly an empty horizontal surface anywhere in the building. Dyeing requires a lot of stuff, and I don’t know what all this stuff is.

I asked, “So, the liquid in the big pot on the patio was indigo dye, right?”


“Why do you heat it up?”

“The pH has to be right for the dye to take. It has to be pretty alkaline. A pH of eleven is best for the dye to hold fast to the material. Well, for wool a pH of nine is better because a pH of eleven damages the fiber, but for cotton, eleven works well.”

“The indigo won’t stick to the cloth on its own?”

“The indigo won’t stick without the addition of a color reducer.”

“Why would you want to use a color reducer? Why would you want to reduce the color?”

“The color reducer makes the indigo water-soluble. It isn’t water-soluble on its own.”

“But won’t a color reducer make the indigo less blue?”

“In the water, you want the color to be a yellowish-green. Once you soak the cloth in the liquid, and you pull it out again, it hits the open air and turns bright blue.”

Karin smiled, “It’s like magic.”


I married an alchemist. Dyeing fiber is more of an art than it is a science. It’s a little like cooking. Karin has a certain procedure to follow, but the results are consistently inconsistent. That appears to be part of her attraction to dyeing. There are all sorts of variables, many of them unknown. Every time she dyes some fiber, there are differences with the types of dyes and the types of materials to be dyed. It is almost impossible for Karin to replicate a dye lot, just as it is almost impossible for a yarn manufacturer to exactly reproduce the same color in a batch of material. For Karin, every dyeing attempt is a new adventure. Unlike the medieval alchemists, who sought to convert lead into gold or to find the philosopher’s stone, Karin seeks the perfect color. The old alchemists never turned lead into gold. Karin will never find the perfect color, but she will find colors that she likes.

There is more to the process. There is always more to it.

Karin uses alum to help fix the colors in the materials. Alum is aluminum sulfate or maybe aluminum acetate. It’s a chemical base. She uses chemicals to “scour” the fiber (remove oils from wool and pectin from cotton) in order to make the fiber absorb the dye in a consistent way.

Karin uses a synthetic type of indigo. Generally, she prefers to dye with natural colors. Golden rod makes for a bright yellow. Walnuts create a deep brown.

I asked her, “What about red? Will the blood root make a bright red? (I had sent her blood root back from southern Illinois).”

“If you use it right, it will. I might ferment it.”


“If it is fermented, the material absorbs and holds it better.”


There is hardly a plant in the local area that Karin not attempted to use as a dye: choke cherries, St. John’s wort, the flowers of day lilies. It’s endless. That fact appeals to Karin.

Acids can tweak the color from the dyes. Karin sometimes uses vinegar to turn a red to purple, or maybe ammonia to change that red to pink or orange. Often, she does not know beforehand what the effect of the acid will be. That is also part of the fun.

She is experimenting with eco-printing. That will require an entire essay of its own.





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