dyeing eggs

Gathering for the vernal equinox, a rite in celebration of spring, of the growing light and all the beautiful food that comes with it – this is what Gather Victoria set about to do. I laid a table in the midst of this extraordinary event, covered in foods that we used to dye our eggs. Oh, I adore the history of colour, of pigment, the natural sources and the culture that came along with them. Would you like to dye eggs with plant-life? Let me show you our experiments.

Dotted about on the table are bowls of sea salt and bottles of vinegar. We used a pinch and a splash of these as our mordants, to fix a colour, deepen it.

beet-table

In fabric dyeing these were often malodorous, and dyeworks would be found in their own district or well away from town.

beet-dye

Beetroot, for a gentle pink. Chop more beets than you think into as little water as you can – just enough to cover your eggs. With only a brief time at the event, we could get a pale pink on white eggs, but fill a jar with the strained dye, leave an egg immersed overnight, and you might deepen its colour.

cabbage-dye

Blue, blue from the outer leaves of cabbage! In England we dyed eggs cabbage blue, but our cabbage was grown on the biodynamic farm near our cottage. It was certainly not driven in a truck for thousands of miles, nor stripped of its colour-rich outer leaves by middlemen all the way to the supermarket, as I fear the cabbages I could lay my hands on had been. Suffice to say, our blues were of the sad, pale kind. Never mind – you will have more time, and can leave the eggs submerged. Brown eggs and white have a different effect, try both if you can. In fact, the cabbage is related to woad! So perhaps it is apt that we got our richest blue in the south of England, in keeping with the history of naked Celts painted with woad blue to frighten Romans back to the mainland. The Romans called indigo indicum, from the Greek, indikon; India was the source of indigo dyeing from Greco-Roman times.

eggs-table

Carrot tops give a pale chartreuse to the cheesecloth sachets I use to contain the vegetation, but the eggs themselves take a long, long time. I prefer to overdye cabbage blue with a touch of turmeric, for a fine green. Historically the woad of England or India’s indigo blues were overdyed with dyer’s broom for Kendal green, Lincoln green – think Robin Hood.

turmeric-dye

If green is the most difficult colour to achieve from plant-dyes, yellow is the easiest. Try oregon grape, or any number of wild greens. Here we used, no, not dyer’s broom, but turmeric. This cloth turned rich gold, but do not trust turmeric to fix in wool or cloth. You will wear the colour with the cloth. I captured the spice in a cloth, but in my own experiments the colour was more effective when the dusty spice stuck to the eggs and was gently rubbed off.

paprika-dye

Then, for a bright orange, paprika. We call the colour orange now, these last two hundred years, yet orange the fruit coined orange the colour, not the reverse. Previously we had only red as a descriptive, and so we have robin red breast and red heads.

dyed-eggs

For a deep red, you’ll want brown eggs, plenty of time, and surprisingly, plenty of papery yellow onion skins. Leave them to boil on and on and you may achieve quite an orthodox blood red, in keeping with the fertility rites of the season. Until 1869 and the age of synthetics, Madder red dyed the militia’s coats in France and Holland and the hunting pinks in Britain. Try your hand at growing madder for its colourful root, if you like! Murex snails along the Mediterranean yielded a drop each of an intense dye, some of which became Phoenician Red. You may know of the purple dyes from these snails, precious royal or Tyrian purple, vastly expensive, never to fade, likely developed by the Minoans of East Crete. Italian red silk was dyed with kermes, from the unlaid eggs of an insect, and across eastern Europe, the cochineal gave red. It was the brilliant, nothing-that-is-not-useful-or-beautiful William Morris who reviled synthetics and aniline dyes, and with the Arts and Crafts movement turned back to the traditions of using indigo and madder for dyeing excellent woven and printed fabrics. I believe we are continuing the tradition on a grassroots scale.

onion-spice-table

Red onion gave us yellow in its first moments, deepening to a rich chestnut over time. Beautiful. I liked the currants that gave a pale brown, and blueberry’s warm blue, but these are precious foods and mostly I prefer to eat them myself. What do you think? Will you experiment with colour this Easter?

I must tell you, this spring, eggs are of particular fascination to me, for in April we’ll receive a dozen heritage hatching eggs, and in May we plan to build a coop and run that I’ve designed for them! Watch for more about keeping chickens very soon – get the postcards to stay in the loop.

Thank you to Gather, Nourish Café and all the wonderful people I met at the event, I loved it.

carding wool

We’ve had a series of early autumn afternoons that were just right for sitting out on the porch, drenched in pale sunshine, and doing some handwork. I’ve been carding wool.

carding wool

This is a bit of local fleece, already washed by a friend. It’s full of woody bits, so carding outside is perfect as it sends them flying. I love the action of pulling at the fibres, with the carders brushing in opposite directions, large arm movements and strong ones. The sound! Therapeutic. And a workout, the pleasing, destructive-productive kind, like wedging clay or hammering hot iron. Then small movements, with the carders paired handle-to-handle, to roll up the fibre again, all clean and brushed out in beautiful alignment, ready to spin, or full, or needle-felt, or stuff into some kind of wonderfully useful thing, which is what I’m doing with it. Speaking of ready to spin, I’ve set up the old spinning wheel I’d brought from England, I want to show you very soon.

You might like to read about our experiments in dyeing wool with plants, too.

dyeing wool

The casual mentorship by family and friends in my life, introducing me to skills, tools, techniques, gives me tremendous courage. For months I’ve been actively avoiding a fleece, a wonderful big Jacob’s fleece that my sweetheart bought for a few quid at the farm shop. I’d never so much as watched someone washing or carding a fleece. Finally, my sweet friend Caz’s invitation to bring some wool and do some plant-dyeing over at Trefoil Farm School moved me to action. You know, the morning of our date. In fact it wasn’t difficult, or that messy. Out in the garden I clipped the tougher bits of wool from the fleece and put the rest into a tub of luke-warm, dish-soapy water, gently worked it, and repeated. Just to clean it a little and remove some of the oils. It’s amazing what scares me!

plant-dyed-yarn-1

At the farm school, such a peaceful place, handmade buildings and everything beautiful, we set up at a table outside and the children all helped to card some wool. More about carding later – I’m very much in love with it!

plant-dyed-yarn-2

The wool and yarn were placed in hot water, to soak before the dyebath.

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Caz has a gorgeous collection of dyer’s books. We used Wild Colour, a copy of which I plan to get my hands on. Tansy!

plant-dyed-yarn-4

We used dried tansy, prepare the day before. I think Caz had cooked the plant material and left it to soak and release more colour.

plant-dyed-yarn-5

The plant-dye was strained off;

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A mordant, one chosen to pop up the yellow colour, was added, carefully;

plant-dyed-yarn-7

And all the wool added to the pot and set on the stove to heat for half an hour. The effect when dry was very subtle. More experimentation!

plant-dyed-yarn-9

Most exciting of this process of dyeing wool with plants is feeling like we can begin wonderful experiments in colour now, with that courage you get from being shown how by a good friend. I have a red cabbage in the fridge and nettles in the garden that I might try first.

yarn_samples.jpg

You might like a couple of images I made of the plant-dying, spinning and weaving projects Caz does with the sweet children at the farm school. I think her fibre work is so beautiful. Thank you Caz, and everyone at Trefoil for the tremendous inspiration!

weaving_wool.jpg