Natural Dye Notebook :: No. 26, Muscadine

Posted by Erin Howe on

Vitis rotundifolia

When you’re starting to learn a new skill, you’re overwhelmed. There’s so much information, especially if the skill is one as old as the amount of time humans have been wearing clothing. There are things you ignore, indeed, things you must ignore if you’re going to keep your sanity and just get started. So you do, and you don’t know what you’re doing but you’re happy with your beginner’s results.

Do not boil. These words are written as a caution next to notes on a lot of dyestuffs in books and on websites. There’s such a subtle difference between boiling and simmering, and it was too subtle for my clumsy beginner’s skill, so I ignored those words. 

All week, during this find-out-what-color-all-my-plants-make project, I’m sticking one plant after another into the pot, dyeing my swatches, drying them out, lining them up, making my photo and notes, and moving on to another plant. There’s a breadth of information that I feel the need to cover before I go deep with any one plant. But on the weekends, when I don’t let myself run dyepots at that pace, but instead clean my office-turned-dye-studio and take a bit of a breath, I do sometimes try something that’s been nagging at me during the week. Such as those three words, “do not boil”. 

Muscadine leaves I had already used to dye, and had come up with browns:


Then I decided to see whether never letting them boil at any point in the dyeing process would yield different results. I was skeptical, but:

The difference is very subtle in cotton and linen, but in wool it’s pretty obvious. In silk it’s the difference between brown and bronze.

Then I tried persimmon bark again, again being careful never to let it boil. I remembered it turning a lovely peachy color in the pot before becoming brown.

Much clearer color. 

Then I did that thing that a not-quite-beginner does when she learns she was doing something she didn’t know was wrong. I started opening envelopes with the dye samples I’ve made so far, and suddenly I could see it, the slightly duller, browner color that meant that particular dye shouldn’t have been allowed to boil. It was envelope after envelope until I stopped out of self-preservation. 

So I suppose that the really good, clear looking dyes I’ve found so far are also those that handle boiling better than others. And I suppose that I have to learn to do what I’ve always told my children to do when they mess up: say “we’re learning” and move on. This, after all, was what I set out to do, tackle natural dyeing and learn what I don’t know. Still. Ouch.  Lesson reluctantly learned. Really, do not boil. 

Muscadine vine gives me mauves, but quiet, so quiet, on cotton and linen:


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