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  • Writer's pictureSarah Matthess

Green to Dye For - Nettles

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

The many shades of green in the countryside right now are sometimes breath taking. There are points along our road where I slow the car down just to take them all in.

As all natural-dyers will know, green is a notoriously elusive colour to obtain. The gorgeous baby-greens of these freshly opened beech leaves will dye wool from shades of yellow to golden, depending on the mordant. That could be disappointing, although I love the colours from beech leaves.

But as it is now late May, the stinging nettles are at their peak. They are just high enough off the ground for me to pick the tender tops without endangering my arms, and they are full of dye.

Over the Winter, I used up all my stock of green dyed fleece, so I am out for a really deep shade of khaki green dye, for some of my lovely soft BFL lamb locks. This is just the first batch, but I plan to have the dye-pot on the go now over the next few weeks.

Protective gloves on, and plastic trug in one hand, I worked my way over a large patch of nettles in the woods behind our house and just plucked the tops off.

Dye books will tell you to chop them up. But around here we are not short of nettles and a bit of rough pulling apart was all they needed as they are very tender at this time of year.

Following my usual 'method' I stuffed the dye pot with as much as it would hold, brought the soft water up to a simmer, and as they cooked down I added more until the pot was really solid with them. Leaving them to soak for a few hours I then returned to add the fibre. I left enough room at the top of the pot to contain my BFL locks, and then I simmered the nettles with the fibre really gently for about an hour on a very low heat. Some nettle dye recipes will tell you to use a 2:1 ratio of vegetable matter to wool , and I've come across others that recommend 4:1. But when the dye-stuff is free, and growing plentifully, I go for as much as I can to get the richest shades. A rough guess is that this dye bath was around 6:1. As it cooks with the next handful...

I usually pre-mordant my fleece in large batches in the Winter, and dry it for later use. One of the reasons I do this is because I save on mordant as mordant baths can be reused by adding slightly more dissolved mordant for successive batches. But the other reason is because I never know when I'm going to find some plant matter that just has to be used immediately. Having a large stock of ready-to-go fleece greatly reduces the preparation time.

Having simmered my nettles, I added 250grams of pre-soaked and alum-mordanted locks to the pot, on top of, and in contact with, the nettles, and simmered very gently for an hour. I usually like to let the dye pot sit for a few hours longer, or preferably over night as it cools down, to get the best shades.

This yellow colour was not what I was after at all. I removed the fleece from the dye bath, strained off the nettles, and returned the fleece to the pot and the yellow liquid. The reason for this is that successive mordants that I would be adding would not be good for my compost heap or the worms. So I didn't want my nettle mulch to contain those chemicals.

I was planning an after-mordant copper dip so that was the next stage. I ended up gently simmering that for 30 mins. It was a very weak copper solution, of 1 tspn to around 2 gallons of water. This gave me a great golden colour, very nice and a great depth of dye, but still not green.

Stage 3, a very weak iron dip. Now, I mean very weak. I don't like using iron on wool as it is harsh, so this was a quarter teaspoon, and only for 4 mins. I did not even simmer this, but just soaked the wool, the water was very hot anyway, and I could already see the lovely deep green developing. Cooked nettles could be added straight onto the garden as a mulch, but I prefer to compost them, but that is just my preference.

Below is a picture of the rinsed wet wool. I've photographed it on an upturned laundry basket which is white, so shows the colour best. The thing I like most about this green is, it is almost identical to the colour of the cooked nettles above. Beautiful, rich, deep nettle green.

The four pictures below are the resulting art-yarn, using this BFL above, and also some merino from 2 different nettle dye-pots. This is all core-spun onto a commercial 100% wool thread, and then plied with a green commercial cotton thread. Quite a strong yarn, and very soft. I've had trouble capturing it's true colour in these photos. But this is truly the best green I have ever achieved with natural dyeing.

Here's a gallery of what I have done with this green fibre....

Yarn below is a mixture of all natural dyes, but predominantly green nettles. I've called it 'September'.

Below is a pic of this same nettle dye on 4 ply super-wash merino.

Yarn below is latest that I've used this nettle dyed fibre on.

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