This post is about finding seasonal colours in the hedgerows and woodlands , and is mostly based on where I live in North Wales. I remember being quite caustic about hedgerow dyeing , infinitely preferring the colours I could get from such strong dyes as madder , indigo, weld and cochineal and eyeing the softer more muted colours from hedgerow dyeing with a degree of contempt. But over the twenty or so year I have been using natural dyes this has changed, principally because I have become more interested in eco dyeing ; such as solar dyeing and fabric bundling and using the naturally occurring chemicals in plants to use as mordants.
I tend to forage for dyes when either walking on my own or when walking the dog but have to be careful here as my energetic spaniel will only tolerate so much of me gathering before taking off on his own journey of exploration. I try to remember to stuff small plastic bags in to my pocket before I go as these are useful to pick and gather dyes in small quantities and to add to day to day.
There are various things to be aware of for when foraging for dyes, First of all gather no roots, and only gather small quantities of other plant material. 10% is a good rule of thumb although just be aware that if more than one dyer is gathering and each gather 10% a dye plant might become very depleted. Don’t gather lichens even from the ground as they can still disperse spores . If you are gathering on someone else’s land you might want to ask for permission . It depends on what is being gathered and where but it is after all just good manners. Know what you are gathering and wear gloves if neccesary and wash hands after gathering. See my blog on keeping yourself safe
Oak Galls. The hole that looks as if the nut has been mechanically drilled is where the wasp bored its way out.
Over the last two months, that is February & March I have been gathering alder cones & Catkins, ivy berries , oak galls, and gorse flowers . I could have gathered bramble leaves as a source of tannin , but for those secateurs are needed to avoid the prickles and I kept on forgetting . I mostly gather in Coed LLangwyfan where my dog Marmite likes being walked .
This is old forestry commission land just off the Offas Dyke path in North Wales with spectacular views of the Denbigh moors towards Snowdonia, the Clwydians and the Berwyns and is now described as recovering broadleaf woodland. It is full of larch, birch, oak, and gorse , and at this time of the year I found young oak trees with oak galls, and gorse flowers . The alder nuts I gather from a field adjacent to a foot path by the river Wheeler and black ivy berries from the hedgerow as I walk.
Oak galls are made by a wasp laying it eggs in the oak leaf just as it is coming into leaf, and the oak forms a gall around it. The gall is high in gallo tannic acids which when extracted and mixed with iron ( ferrous sulphate ) makes a black. Thickened, usually with gum arabic, this makes a black ink which was used in the west from Roman times to the 19th Century.
I used the oak galls to make black ink as part of my range of Artisan Inks. There are a lot of recipes for making black inks on the internet and the basic recipes are quite simple. The black is formed by iron ( ferrous sulphate ) reacting with the gallotannates in the oak galls. A good site to look at if you would like to make your own is the Oak Gall Ink Site
The ink is nearly colourless when made, but like many ink makers I add another dye so there is some colour when it is first used, as you can see in the very bottom freshly made squiggle. The one above was made just seconds before and so on onto the top squiggle made a minute or so before the bottom. The oxygen in the air oxidises the ink to black and finally it turns an inky dark black with almost a blue sheen to it like a ravens wing .
At one time almost every household would have made its own ink.
A rectangle of paper painted black with my artisan Black Ink
Oak galls , black ink and mordanted cotton. Notice how the bottom squiggles on the page have now gone black.
I also use the oak galls as a mordant (fixative). I have been pleasantly surprised about the colour I have got from using oak gall mordant both on cotton and other cellulose fibres and on wool. I put 100g galls ( which took me about two hours to collect) into a strong brown paper bag and bashed with a rolling pin to break them up. Then I put them into a coffee grinder which is not going to be used for cooking and ground to a fine flour. After this I covered with water, soaked overnight and heated to the simmer for an hour before allowing to cool overnight. I entered damp pieces of clean cotton , worked them around a bit and then left overnight again. without heating. Oak gall solution usually leaves a soft creamy colour on the cotton but this time the cotton was quite yellow probably because the oak gall solution is quite concentrated. The bath can be used as a mordant till it gives no more colour. The cotton has black marks on it , I must have been careless, one of the drawbacks of using oak galls is that anything with iron will make a black mark so some contamination crept in somewhere.
On the other hand using iron and tannin is a lovely way to pattern cloth. Try rolling tannin mordanted fabrics up round rusty nails and submerge into a dye bath .
I put the pieces of cotton into cochineal dye bath, which I keep on the go , adding more cochineal bugs as it gets weaker so I can’t say actually how strong the bath was but this was the result after a gentle simmer overnight.
Next is that very much underrated tree Alder. (Alnus Glutinosa)