Natural Dye Notebook :: No. 9, Alder

Posted by Erin Howe on

Alnus serrulata

I used to wonder what was wrong with natural dyers, cooing over browns and muddy pinks and yellows. But something really weird has happened. Just over the last few weeks of this dye project, my ideas of color have shifted. Now it’s me going all heart-eyes over warm browns and dusty pinks. Suddenly commercially dyed fabric looks too bright and loud, and the softer, quieter, subtler natural colors have much more appeal to me. They look so real. How did this happen? How did I become one of them?

Alders grow in a fringe around the edge of our pond. Small trees, smooth bark, with dangling yellow catkins in the early spring and little cones less than 1/2" long in the winter. My daughter, frustrated by not having access to the pond to do her mucking and exploring, took a pair of loppers and cleared just enough of the alders out so that she can pass through. And I got the treasure.

Testing dye potential with a tree goes like this for me: clip a couple of small branches (.4 oz of dyestuff is really not a lot. Maybe 10 leaves or so depending on how big/thick they are), leaves straight into the pot, then shave or peel the bark and put it in a jar to soak. I use hot water because sometimes I can immediately see what color I can hope for. The alder bark turned the water Fanta orange:

So I was excited to see what the roots could do. First, though, leaves. They’re a quicker experiment to do.  Above you can see the array of (beautiful) browns I got from them. 

After soaking it for three days, I was ready to try the bark:

There’s that orange. 

Comparison:

Top row, alder leaves, bottom two alder bark, very bottom row after the dye was left overnight. The leaf dye didn’t have any color change that I could tell, so I didn’t test fabric/fiber with it. 

So the oranges are definitely more in the bark than the leaves, and it takes a more basic pH (the soda) to bring them out. The cardstock always seems to tend toward the soda modified coloring. What’s so neat about this is that the colors from bark and leaf of the same tree automatically coordinate. As an (also amateur) quilter, I’m sometimes boggled at the choice of fabric colors and intimidated by the task of picking colors that work together. These just, effortlessly, do. Visions of tree-dyed quilts dance in my head…and now look. I'm one of those people.

Procedure notes:

Leaves and bark both used at 200% weight of fabric/fiber. Bark soaked for three days. The soaking time of the cardstock isn’t tightly controlled so variation there might also have something to do with that. 


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