Grackle & Sun

At the Burrow DyeTable # 8: Pokeweed Racemes, Take 1

When I first started gathering the berries of the phytolacca americana, aka the glorious pokeweed plant, I threw the racemes into the compost heap after carefully removing all the precious berries.  Everyone says to just dye with the berries.  But I do so love to figure things out for myself, and besides, just because someone said so isn’t a great reason for doing anything, is it?  So when my curiousity got the better of me (although arguably, it makes me better, so I’ll keep it),  I decided to see if I could extract any colour from the racemes themselves.

Dye Notes:

Dyestuff:  Pokeweed, phytolacca americana

Parts used:  The racemes (the part that holds the berries)

Source:  My yard, the Haggencrone’s yard, my friend Debbie’s yard, and the Farm

Yarn:  Mountain Meadows Cody mordanted in vinegar.  I did the mordanting a little differently this time.  I basically mordanted in straight vinegar as part of an all-in-one dyepot.

Ratio of dyestuff to fiber:  To be honest, I have no idea how many grams of racemes I had here.  I’d guess maybe 40g or so.  The hank of wool was 50g.  So, I probably did not get a 1:1 ratio.  But I really wanted to dye the whole hank.  It’s hard sometimes to figure out what to do with all those mini-skeins.  There’s only so much end weaving I can handle, lol.

Extraction:  For this first batch, I put the racemes in pure distilled white vinegar to cover and left them for about 3 weeks.

To my surprise, when I took the racemes out to strain off the liquid (and mostly just to see what was going on in there) I found this:

All of the colour had been leached out of the racemes and magically put into the vinegar.  Pretty damn cool.  Presto change-oh!  And all the colour is in the liquid.

Dyebath:  I decided to do this dyebath as an all-in-one, meaning mordanting and dyeing all in one go.  Why not?  After all, it just requires a vinegar mordant, and the dye liquor is all vinegar… just seemed to make sense.  I didn’t want to have to add any more liquid to the pot, opting to leave it just the vinegar dye extraction.  There was just enough room for the yarn to float around, and since the racemes were totally bleached out already, I did not bother doing a heated extraction with them.  The starting pH of the dyebath was 3.4.

I slowly and gently heated it up to a temperature window of 175-190F.  At a temperature of 188.9F, the pH was 3.1.

I kept the dyebath in this temperature window for an hour, turned off the heat, and let the yarn sleep overnight in the pot.

The results?

Not what I expected at all.  Did you see how red that dyebath was?  And yet the yarn came out this lovely soft peach colour.  It’s ok.  I’m sure I’ll find something peachy to knit with this.  :D  Lesson learned?  Waste not, want not.   Not every dyestuff makes a colour that you’d want to repeat, but to me part of the fun of this great dyeing adventure is exploring all the variables, going down all the roads.  It’s not just about the end result.  Yes, a beautiful skein of yarn is a sweet, sweet bonus, but if that’s all I wanted, I could go buy that at any yarn shop.  That’s not why I’m here, though.  So, I’ll keep my dyestuffs extracting and keep my pots simmering and maybe one day I’ll figure this dyeing thing out.  I’m going to have a lot of fun trying.

Live happy, dye happy!

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6 thoughts on “At the Burrow DyeTable # 8: Pokeweed Racemes, Take 1

  1. Great write up on the process. I thoroughly enjoyed this. The unknown aspect of natural dyeing is my favourite part I think. And I love your waste not want not mentality. Plus if I’m not completely pleased with the end results it just gets the creative juices flowing for how to make it exactly what you want. Another dye bath, a different mordant, so many roads to travel!

  2. I always feel in two minds about pokeweed. One, I wish I could try it! Your dyes and processes are so interesting. And two, I feel gratitude that this particular invasive plant hasn’t made it to any part of Australia I’ve noticed so far. My weed handbook doesn’t even list it, and for this I should clearly be grateful. So I’ll stick to appreciating your efforts from afar. Looking forward to the next instalment!

    • People here consider it to be an invasive weed without realizing that it’s a beneficial native plant, despite its potential for toxicity. Not only does it dye, but the root has been used for ages in herbal tonics, the young greens are edible, and the berries are food for numerous songbirds. With that said, I’m all for keeping native plants native. Too much harm has occurred to entire ecological systems due to invasive species of all varieties. I’ve read that Australia has a different species of phytolacca—phytolacca octandra (sometimes called phytolacca icosandra), also called inkberry. I don’t know if it’s native, but the name does suggest a certain usefulness that would interest us… Some claim that there is a variety native to New Zealand, but I haven’t been able to find specific information to the type. I was wondering if the type found in Australia might have been brought over from NZ?

  3. Thanks for your wonderful experimentation, photos, and write-up about what you’ve done. I was thrilled to discover pokeweed growing in the garden of the home we moved to this spring. So I’ve been playing with dyeing with the berries and racemes on wool. I’m getting a stunning fuchsia with cold dyeing using 1:3 vinegar/water for the berries and alum/cream of tartar pre-mordanted wool cloth. I did some simmer dyeing too, with deep pink results. I will now try your cold-dye methods too. Thanks!

    • Wonderful! And thanks for the kind words. You have a lovely website. I love thinking about the oak savannah outside your studio window! Must be beautiful and such an inspiration. And your portable altars and cigar box shrines are brilliant!

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