Natural Dye Notebook :: No. 15, Oak

Posted by Erin Howe on

Quercus species

You had to know we were coming to oak eventually. Even I, a novice dyer, knew that oak would be something special. Here’s why. Tannins, I’m beginning to understand, make a world of difference in whether a dye will stick to cotton and linen (called “cellulose fabrics” by those with the lingo down). I’m also beginning to think that I could probably make a list of which trees contain the most tannin by just listing which trees I’ve had the most success with on those fabrics. No such list exists, as far as my searching goes. 

Oak has tannin in spades. In fact, the very word tannin comes from an Old German word for oak, tanna. All those rivers named things like Black or Blackwater, usually got that name from the tannins leaching into them from trees like oak that line the banks.

So I knew I was in for something interesting, before I even really realized this connection between tannins and cellulose fabrics. Sure enough, I got a gorgeous array of chocolate shades, from hot cocoa all the way down through 92% cacao. 

I was really interested to find out what the difference would be between white oak and red. Is an oak an oak, or would species differ?

I would have assumed red oak would make the darker dye. I didn’t suspect that red oak leaf would make a less intense dye on most things. It is stronger, however, on wool. 

Barks went into the pot next, white first:

Ohh, that moved in a red direction, didn’t it? The yarn ended up especially richly colored. 

Red oak bark:

Again, the red oak bark made a less intense dye than the white. 

Comparison of all four:

A comparison of the wool yarns:

So many browns to choose from! Oak did turn out to be special.

Procedure notes:

Fresh leaves and bark used at 200% weight of fabric/fiber. Bark soaked three days. Dyestuff simmered for an hour, strained, and then fibers simmered an additional hour.


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