Oh, my friends, have I been harvesting poke. I’ve been harvesting poke for weeks. Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier, over park, over pale, thorough flood, thorough fire, I do wander everywhere… collecting all the pokeberries I can find. Well, not all of them. I left plenty for the songbirds. Husband lent a handsome hand, as well, because he is all things good. Happily, despite the drought this summer, there is many much poke. It is glorious.
And for what do I gather these succulent little berries that cling in clusters on their pendulous racemes? For dyeing, of course. To make that dyer’s alchemy happen—to pull colour from one to put upon another. Transference. The dictionary defines alchemy as “any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.” If turning the often (but wrongly) despised pokeweed into gorgeous dye doesn’t qualify as alchemy, I don’t know what does. Chemistry, science, botany, magic. I sing songs of the poke while I play with my temperature probe and pH meter. All business on the outside, all earthy poetry on the inside. It’s how I roll.
My friends, E and Hollie, came out to play in the dyeworks last night, bringing yarn and knitting and good company. We all worked together to mordant our yarn and get the dyebath ready. We worked well until midnight to perfect our dyepot. Thanks to Hollie for taking notes. :D
We used the dye recipe from Rebecca Burgess in the beautiful book Harvesting Color. She says that this recipe came from dyer Carol Leigh from Columbia, Missouri, who devised a way to make pokeberry dye lightfast. It is important to note, however, that the instructions for pokeberry dyeing on Carol Leigh’s own website are rather different than what is found in Harvesting Color. I am not certain as to the reason for the differences—maybe it’s an older set of instructions? The instructions in Harvesting Color are a bit more user-friendly in that they require less time and use vinegar, which is readily available. But the instructions on Carol’s site seem more definite in their ability to give lightfastness. All I know is that now I’m curious to try them both to compare.
Dyestuff: Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
Parts used: The berries
Source: My yard, the Haggencrone’s yard, a friend’s yard, and the farm
Ratio of dyestuff to fiber: We used a ratio of 20:1 berries to wool. We had approximately 2800-2900g of pokeberries and 150g of wool. Burgess calls for a 25:1 ratio, but at the end we decided to add just a little more wool because it was sitting there staring at us, just begging to be put in the pot. Far be it from me to ignore wool.
Yarn: The yarn that I used was Paradise Fibers 4-ply undyed wool yarn mordanted in vinegar as per the instructions in Harvesting Color. For 150g of yarn, we used 3/4 c. of distilled white vinegar in enough water to cover the yarn. The pH of the mordant bath was 3.1, and after we brought it up to temperature (160-180F), we held it within that temperature window for 1 hour. I won’t say simmered, because it never bubbled. It was very gentle. It mostly stayed around 175F. We also put a piece a ceramic in the pot to hold the yarn up off the bottom so that it wouldn’t scorch or felt. Dyeing on a campstove with limited controls can be tricky. It’s a delicate dance of turning on the heat, bringing up the temperature, and then tossing a lid on the pot and turning off the heat to maintain the temperature without it getting to a boil. Fun times.
Extraction Method: Since I started collecting berries over a month ago, I had to come up with a way to keep them from molding or going bad before I could use them. This is one case where drying won’t work. Apparently, even using the pruned berries off the plants will make your dye go toward brown. So I only used the plump berries for this bath. I didn’t have room in my freezer for them either (and I did NOT want them sitting next to the blueberries the kids use for smoothies). I had to come up with something different. So, after I picked them, I took them off the racemes, placed them in a jar, and covered them in vinegar. I figured that since the dyebath requires vinegar anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to preserve the berries in vinegar. I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this, but it seemed to work just fine. Better than fine, actually. (Update 10.5.12: I’ve been digging around on the natural dyeing forums on Ravelry and found a few references to people saving their pokeberries in vinegar until they need them. Like minds, and all that. :D I’ve also read about some people dyeing with pokeberries in pure vinegar instead of vinegar in water. I was wondering about this, too, and would like to try it!)
I read about different ways of straining the pokeberries and tiny black seeds out of the extraction bath, but they all sounded kind of like a pain in the ass. So we filled a leg of pantyhose with the berries and tied it off. This worked fantastically well. Kept all of the little seeds and smushed berries out of the yarn. To make filling the hose easier, we took the ring lid of a large Mason jar and threaded the neck of the pantyhose up through and around the ring to hold it open. That made feeding berries into the pantyhose a piece of cake. Then we tied off the top of the pantyhose and squeezed the berries to thoroughly mash them. It looked like something out of a voodoo ritual.
The berry bag, and the residual vinegar from the preserving (about 3 cups), was added to a large stockpot full of water. We added a bit more vinegar to lower the pH to 3.7. Burgess says a pH of 3.5 is good for the dyebath, but we couldn’t get the pH to budge despite adding 2 more cups of vinegar. So we called it good. At the same time we were heating the mordant bath, we heated the berry extraction bath on the other burner. We slowly brought this up to the temperature window of 160-180F, and then we held it there for an hour. No simmering, no bubbles. Gentle, gentle.
Dyebath: Since our pantyhose bag worked so well to contain the particulate, we decided to keep the bag of berries in the dyebath, too. This is a divergence from all the pokeberry recipes I’ve seen, although I’m really not sure why taking the dyestuff out of the bath is recommended. We didn’t want to risk uneven dyeing due to the yarn resting directly against the bag, and we also wanted to avoid any scorching or felting of the wool from touching the bottom of the pot (this happened to a couple spots on one of my skeins from Dye Day #1). So I had the idea to put the bag of berries on the bottom of the pot and cover it with an inverted wire mesh colander. This held the yarn up away from the dyebag and where the heat would be more even. Seemed to work great.
We held the temperature of the bath between 160-180F for 2 hours. At temperature, the pH of the dyebath was a perfect 3.5.
After 2 hours, I turned off the heat and put the dyepot to bed, letting the yarn cool in the bath overnight.
After a 12 hour sleep overnight in the dyebath , the skeins were removed by hand, and the excess dye was gently squeezed out. Fresh pokeberries will temporarily stain your skin, but the dye is so water soluble that you don’t even need soap to wash it off. Dyebath poke, however, after being acidified and stewed, is another matter entirely. It will stain your hands. I hope this shift in fastness is a sign of good things to come. By the way, I’ve read that absorption of poke juice through the skin is a good lymph detoxifier. Interesting, yes? I know that poke root works this way, but I’ve only read one reference of it with the dye. No idea if it’s true, but I suffered no ill effects from having it on my hands so much.
Here is the yarn out of the dyepot but before rinsing. It is recommended that you leave them to hang in the shade for at least 20 minutes to half a day before rinsing out the excess dye. My day got away from me, what with ferrying the Chickpeas around town and working on the kitchen floor. So these hung for 24 hours.
Wowzers, right? And there is still so much colour left in the dyebath it’s ridiculous.
And here is the yarn rinsed, dried, and reskeined. You’ll notice little pink flecks in one of the skeins—that is from some resist experiments I did. I tied off the skein in several places to see what kind of pattern it would make. I’m pretty happy with this deep, deep plum colour from the first dyebath.
There are more posts to come about the adventures in pokeberry dye. So many exhaust baths… And lightfastness tests are underway. Until then:
Here’s to good friends, good wool, and good plants.
Live happy, dye happy!