Natural Dye Notebook :: No. 12, Ninebark

Posted by Erin Howe on

When you first start out trying to tackle a new subject or skill, it seems like all the books on it are written in another language. They’re these monoliths of information you don’t have a key to deciphering. That was me a few weeks ago, picking up natural dye books from the library, reading about it on the internet, and just not being able to absorb much of it at all. I needed an easy way in, just a basic, pared-down, overwhelmed-beginner piece of starter information. 

I found that way in with A Garden to Dye For, and began where you saw me a couple of weeks ago. But as I’ve thrown myself at dyeing, jumping in the deep end and flailing about trying to swim, I’m pleased to say that the language and information has started to become a little less opaque. I’m beginning to understand a few concepts and words, and to begin to be able to think how I can do things better. I found myself in the library last week, nodding at some of those once-obscure words, "Ah, alum/tannin/alum mordant, yes, very interesting." Progress.

This weekend I opened Indigo, Madder, and Marigold, a book that I’d picked up and put down again in those days when I didn’t speak the language at all. I’d also been put off by the older-looking aesthetic of the book. Dyers, it seems, have been abandoning the use of some of the chemicals they used to use and older books can have dangerously outdated recommendations. So there was that too. 

But I picked the book up again to see if it could explain how to do an exhaust gradient, and fell in love with Trudy Van Stralen. Her story of moving to a farm with little children, learning to run a farm while raising them, and opening a farm-based business sounded completely familiar to me. She had sheep before she had indoor plumbing, which makes her more hardcore than I am, though, so she wins. If Trudy were alive today she’d be a farm-life influencer, but she’s not, and I just get to see her through her aged-looking photos in her book. Maybe nothing really changes, just a new generation gets to try it all out. 

I have a pretty sizeable hedge of ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) that gives me sprays of tiny white flowers and wine-colored leaves perfect for peony bouquets. I wondered whether I could capture that wine color on fabric, so I put the leaves in the dyepot to find out.

Instead of that dark color, I got pistachio green on silk and wool yarn, army green on felt, and milder greens and a tan on cotton. 

Maybe the seeds would yield up the color?

No, buffs instead, but a warmer brown on silk and wool yarn. 

Bark was the only frontier left, since I’m not digging up my shrubs to get at their roots, so into the pot it went:

And I found, instead of wine, another set of peachy pinks. 

Comparison of the three:

A rather impressive spread of color from one plant. 

Also very interesting was the silk and wool yarn color spread:

So never quite the wine I was looking for, but a lot of colors instead. I wonder whether Trudy would be proud.


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