Blog Oct 9: A tale of dyeing, spinning and weaving

Dyeing session in the Upper Greenhouse

In the blog this week, garden volunteer Andy looks back on a weekend of textiles workshops using plants from our garden.

Natural dyes

On Saturday 27th September natural dye specialist Penny Walsh and our own Diane Sullock gave an interesting and educational workshop on natural dyes. The plants we used were madder, woad, weld, goldenrod and indigo.

The first step in dyeing fabrics is to prepare a mordant – the mordant helps to fix the dye to the fabric molecules. Without using a mordant the dye will run very easily. Diane had made up an alum mordant for us to use. Alum is potassium aluminium sulphate. It facilitates the process and brightens the colour making it the the most useful of mordants.

Alum mordant

Other mordants that can be used are:

Iron – which deepens and dulls the colour.

Copper – which gives a blue/green tint to colours when mixed with vinegar in the preparation.

Chrome – this gives depth to the colour and gives a soft, silky feel to wool.

Rhubarb, privet and nettle can also be used as mordants.

No mordant is used when making blue dyes.

Some of the plants that can be used to make dyes and the colours they give are:

Madder – the roots make red dyes, the middle part gives red while the outer part gives a brown tinge. Grind the roots and soak the madder for 2-3 days before using.

Elderberry berries – give a pink colour while the flowers produce a yellow colour.

Beetroot – the roots give an orange dye.

Cosmos – flowers produce orange colours.

Dahlias – petals give orange and yellow. When using dahlias the yellow, red and purple dahlias give the the best colour.

Indigo-dyed fabrics drying

Carrot tops – orange brown dyes.

Dyer’s chamomile – flowers give yellow. Leaves give green-brown.

Weld – leaves and flowers give bright yellow.

Nettle – leaves for yellow green dyes.

Rudbeckia – flowers give olive green colours.

Woad – leaves give a blue colour.

Woad is an antiseptic and can be used to heal the wounds of animals.

When making indigo dyes use a mixture of washing soda and indigo – the indigo comes in blocks or powder. We used a mix of 25g washing soda and 12.5g indigo; this is added to the water. A tablespoon of ammonia was then added along with a sprinkling of Spectralite – sodium dithionite. Spectralite is a volcanic ash that de-oxygenates the liquid. Indigo does not fix to the fibre molecules in oxygenated liquid. The fixing of the blue colour happens when the fabric is taken out and becomes oxygenated again. Slide the fabric into the dye bath and do not stir as this will create oxygen, leave for 5 minutes then take out for 5 minutes. Repeat this process 4 times to obtain a good and true colour. Spectralite must not go above 50C.

To make other dyes steep the parts of the plants being used in water for 20 minutes, keeping the liquid at a simmer, then add the fabric. When overdyeing – using more than one colour – you usually use the lighter dyes first then the darker dyes.


Our wonderful weekend continued on Sunday 28th September when Zoe Burt and her friend Kate gave a workshop on flax.

Flax is a fibre and food crop (Linum usitatissimum) that can be used to make linen. A quick growing plant, only taking 90 days from sowing seed to harvest, it is sown in April and harvested in June when a second sowing can be made which can be harvested in September. Flax likes rain but can survive drought conditions.

Flax has been grown for thousands of years and there is evidence from the Dzudzuana Cave where spun, dyed and knotted wild flax fibres were found. These fibres were dated to the Upper Paleolithic age – 30,000 years ago.

The breaking machine

After harvesting, the flax is retted. The easiest way to do this is to lay the flax on grass where it is wetted by dew. This creates the least amount of pollution and produces the highest quality flax fibres. This process takes a month, possibly longer. It can also be retted in a water butt.

Rippling on the beater machine

Once retted the flax seeds are removed by pulling through a wide comb – this is known as rippling. The flax now needs to be broken. This is done in a breaking machine. Take a handful of flax and place between the beater – a wooden arm – and the lower blade of the machine; by raising and lowering the beater you can beat the flax until it is soft. This process softens and breaks up the straw into smaller pieces which can now be removed by the scutching part in the preparation of the flax for spinning.

Scutching involves holding the fibres vertically and scraping away the straw (stalk) from the fibres with the edge of a scutching knife. Some of the fibres will also be scutched away.

The final part is heckling which involves the fibres being pulled through heckles (combs) of various sizes. These can vary from 4 pins per 2.5cm square to 80 pins per 2.5cm square. Zoe brought in and used a fine dog comb for the final part. The larger heckles remove any straw left while the finer combs split and polish the fibres. Any fine fibres that come off in the fine heckles can be carded like wool and spun, although some straw will be left and it will give a coarser yarn.

Diane Sullock demonstrates the drop spinning technique

The yarn is now ready for spinning. This can be done in two ways – drop spinning or by spinning wheel. Drop spinning is done on a round piece of wood with a pole attached. Twine is attached to both pieces of wood and used to thread the flax yarn onto. Start by spinning the wood and thread the flax whilst it is spinning, thus creating a ball of yarn. The spinning wheel method involves a similar method but done by working the wheel at the correct speed using your foot.

The more familiar spinning wheel

The flax is now ready to be woven into linen or knitted to make garments.

Flax has the appearance of blonde hair – hence the description flaxen hair. The finest grades of flax are used for linen, sheeting and lace, while the coarser grades are used for rope and twine. The flax fibres are two to three times stronger than cotton, although not as elastic. As a raw material flax fiber is used in the paper industry for the use of rolling paper for cigarettes, tea bags and printed banknotes. The seeds can be eaten or used to produce vegetable oil known as flaxseed oil or more commonly linseed oil.

To find out more about Penny Walsh’s work, visit: and for more on Zoe Burt’s textile project to make a London-grown garment:


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