Modifying with Iron

left to right: iron modified logwood, lavender and twist-dyed avocado

left to right: iron modified logwood, lavender and twist-dyed avocado

left: pomegranate on eco merino, right: iron-modified pomegranate on eco merino

left: pomegranate on eco merino, right: iron-modified pomegranate on eco merino

I’ve been playing with iron water over the past couple weeks, dipping skeins I’ve previously dyed using alum or tannin-rich plants as a mordant and comparing the results. Most books describe iron’s effects as a saddening of color, and although I don’t necessarily agree with “sad” as the descriptor, iron does seem to dull the brightness at the very least. In many cases, it completely transforms the color into something intense and rich, yet somehow muted. In short, iron color modifying is right up my alley.

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For my first iron experiments, I dipped four skeins of ultra alpaca that had been dyed with logwood exhaust into the pot and left them there for 20-30 minutes over low heat. I’ve read that you’re not supposed to leave animal fiber in the bath for much longer than that because it degrades the quality of the wool, but it doesn’t seem to take very long for iron to work its magic. This wool transformed from a light purple to a muted, inky blue within a matter of minutes.

iron modified twist-dyed avocado on superwash 80/10/10

iron modified twist-dyed avocado on superwash 80/10/10

top: iron modified walnut + yellow onion skin (twist-dyed) | bottom: iron modified avocado + yellow onion skin (twist dyed) - both on superwash 80/10/10 base

top: iron modified walnut + yellow onion skin (twist-dyed) | bottom: iron modified avocado + yellow onion skin (twist dyed) - both on superwash 80/10/10 base

In the same bath, I chucked in a skein of avocado twist-dyed superwash yarn just for fun, and ten minutes later emerged a skein of pure variegated magic. I can’t help but wonder if some of the logwood molecules from the ultra alpaca were somehow absorbed by this fiber in the bath because I reused the water, or if the variation in color would have occurred regardless. Further testing required.

left: logwood on eco merino | right: iron modified logwood on eco merino

left: logwood on eco merino | right: iron modified logwood on eco merino

The only color the iron didn’t have much influence over was this skein of merino richly dyed with logwood (first run). It changed ever so slightly to a more blueish-purple, but you can only tell when the skeins are held next to one another in natural light. It’s a similar tone change to the ultra alpaca from the first experiment, but with less pronounced effect. I confess, this was a surprise and a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting dark blues, grays and maybe even blacks.

Early Experiments with Madder

Left: Sustainable Merino, Right: Superwash Polwarth

Left: Sustainable Merino, Right: Superwash Polwarth

Swatching for Carl's Cardigan on Eco Merino dyed with Madder 

Swatching for Carl's Cardigan on Eco Merino dyed with Madder 

Playing with techniques. Left: Twist Dyeing Madder + Black Tea, Right: Dip Dyeing Madder

Playing with techniques. Left: Twist Dyeing Madder + Black Tea, Right: Dip Dyeing Madder

Carl's Cardigan made from Eco Merino Dyed with Madder

Carl's Cardigan made from Eco Merino Dyed with Madder

I began experimenting with madder last year during the tail end of August, and as it turned out, it was the perfect color to work with as the weather began transitioning from summer to fall. I was very eager to dye with madder at the time because I’d seen such beautiful results from other natural dyers, so I bought a pound of dried madder root from Mountain Rose Herbs, which is a local Oregon company that sells loads of organic herbs, essential oils, teas, and other useful things.

Once the madder arrived in the mail, I went ahead and made up a dye bath in my usual way. I filled an aluminum pot half full of water, chucked in a handful of the plant material without weighing, and turned the heat on the lowest setting. I kept the stove on for several hours each day for the next day or two, turning it off whenever we slept or left the house. Once the bath seemed ready, I went ahead and added my wool and a little powdered alum to the pot because a quick scan of the internet told me that madder is an adjective dye that requires a mordant. I also read that the resulting colors would turn out richer if the plant material was left in the bath rather than strained out.

The colors that came out of that dye pot were incredible. I used a variety of different fibers, from organic merino to superwash polwarth, and I was also able to experiment with different techniques. My one regret is that I only used the same bath twice more rather than continuing to dye from it until the color was completely exhausted. As I’ve continued dyeing and learning about this process, I find myself more and more hesitant to waste color, even if there's just a little left.

Carl's Cardigan | Eco Merino Wool | Dyed with Madder Root 

Carl's Cardigan | Eco Merino Wool | Dyed with Madder Root 

Happily, I had the foresight to dye a sweater’s quantity of organic merino rather than my usual two skeins, so I was prepared with the perfect yarn when I found the fall cardigan pattern I wanted to knit for my daughter. I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure the whole project was to make, from start to finish. I would 100% dye and knit with this yarn again, and there will be many, many more experiments with madder in my future.