Dyeing in the Sun

A few years back I grew some marigolds. As the blossoms drooped I harvested them and dried them, but then stuck then in a cupboard and forgot about them. In a fit of boredom during the rains this year, that kept me inside more than I am used to, I discovered them and decided it was time to use them. I boiled them for a couple of hours until the water turned a deep golden brown, strained off the liquid and sealed it in a gallon jar.

Then came spring and summer with days of soaring temperatures that once again kept me inside. I spent some time spinning a fleece that had waited for me for several years. I plied a small one-ounce skein to see how I liked it and hit on the brilliant idea of using my marigold liquor to see what would happen. It was too hot to turn on the stove for this experiment so I decided to go solar. In a small jar just large enough to hold the skein, I dissolved a scant half teaspoon of alum in water and added a pinch of tartaric acid. In went the skein, on went the lid, and out it went to a table in the yard to sit in the sun for a day.
The marigold liquid had developed a layer of mold on the top, but it peeled of easily in one piece. The mordanted skein now went into this dye bath for another couple of days in the sun. And it seems to have worked.

marigold dye with wool in a one-gallon jar

Now on to the next step. I am not sure what that will be.

A Case for the Blues

Who could live without their blue jeans? But what about that blue? Indigo blue has been around for a more than two thousand years. But we still use it–a lot. Today I dyed some of my (white) handspun yarn with this beautiful ancient dye.

To extract the indigo from plants is not a simple process. It takes some chemistry that the ancients figured out and we now replicate with modern chemicals. Mainly we use synthetic indigo instead of the natural indigo that has been around for centuries. But natural indigo is still produced in many parts of the world.

In my trip to Guatemala and El Salvador in 2007 I visited an indigo plantation in El Salvador. It has survived, but barely, for several generations. You can read the story of Grace and her family and the road she has traveled to keep her heritage alive. In the pictures you can see the three huge cement vats used to process and extract the indigo from the plants. What a pleasure it was to be on that hillside looking out to the Pacific on a warm moonlit evening and to feel part of an ancient tradition.

Today I was not the only one using the indigo vat. Other members of Fiber Artisans, who meet once a month, use it regularly. It is a vat that has been kept “alive” for at least twenty years with additions of appropriate chemicals and a warm enough temperature to keep it “alive”.


For many years indigo good were prized. Indigo was expensive to produce. True denim is made by having two threads cross over one. So only the blue threads in the weft (the threads that go crosswise in a fabric) were blue. The other threads were less expensive white threads. This is why many jeans are much lighter on the inside than on the outside. It kept costs down by only having to dye the-thirds of the thread. So wear your blue jeans with a new pride. They  have a proud heritage and represent a great link to the past.