Foraging for Seasonal Colour : The Oak Gall

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) 



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