Posted by: morrisoncorner | August 11, 2009

A Wool to Dye For

At 6:00 last night the husband lifted the lid on a simmering pot to see what was for dinner. Peter refers to vegetables, unaffectionately, as “green stuff.” He’ll eat green beans, but he’s not enthusiastic about it. He’ll eat broccoli, he’ll tolerate salad, but kale, swiss chard, or beet greens? No. So imagine his horror to discover not some recognizable green thing from my cluttered vegetable garden, but a cheerfully simmering pot of goldenrod. Which looks exactly as sinister as you’d imagine a pot of simmering goldenrod to look. It isn’t entirely appetizing.

“We’re eating goldenrod?” he managed to squeak out before escaping from the horrors in the kitchen.

Gather goldenrod flowers. Simmer for one hour, more if necessary, in a non-reactive pot (ceramic, glass, or enameled cast iron). Stir occasionally with wooden spoon. Strain, reserving greenish water, discard plant material. Return liquid to stove. Toss in a couple tablespoons of Alum. Watch as the pale green water is transformed, through the magic of alchemy, into a bright sunshine yellow. Add skeins of wool and simmer until your wool is a knock your socks off yellow. Rinse wool until it comes clear and hang to dry.

Wash pots and start dinner.

Mordant. Alum. Woad. Weld. Say them out loud… this is the language of the Middle Ages. This is the language of magic, it is the language of wealth, the language of science… and it is the language of color.

Mordant: from 15th century French, “to bite.” Alum: Vermont’s colonial wealth was built on alum, also known as potash, a crystalline solid, aluminum potassium sulfate, an astringent. Woad: Isatis tinctoria, used to obtain blue dye. Weld: dyers’ broom, used to obtain yellow. Together woad and weld produce Lincoln Green, made famous by Robin Hood and his merry men. And made Lincoln, and her guilds, wealthy.

After he acquired his first chain saw my dearly beloved spouse started looking at trees, particularly hardwood trees, differently. He doesn’t see “trees” any more, he sees BTUs. On any given fall foliage tour my spouse isn’t admiring leaves, but straight trunks and comfortable drop zones. Once he acquired a logging winch? There was no living with the man. An amble through the woods loses a lot of its charm when your companion is mentally slaughtering forest for firewood.

Now the shoe is on the other foot… for I have discovered a whole world of color growing wild along the side of the road. I itch to clip the flowers off the Queen Anne’s Lace along the Barrow’s Road. Queen Anne’s Lace produces a bright true green. Jewelweed, which the kids love because the seed pods pop? A golden peach. I covet my neighbor’s raspberry bushes not for their fruit, but for their potential to yield a good pink.

Alum, or potash, is made from processing wood ash. The resulting powdered astringent binds with the water soluble dyes allowing them to “bite” into the wool. Cream of Tartar, which is a waste product of fermentation, is added to the pot to balance the Ph, which evens and brightens color and helps to keep the fibers soft, or from becoming too brittle.

Imagine the scientific mind, the focus, the imagination, necessary to refine the recipe for a colorfast yellow dye made not just from the inedible goldenrod, but from the pale green water simmering goldenrod creates. Imagine making the leap from wood ashes to lye, and observing the ability of lye to blend with lanolin, and making the further leap to lye + fat + heat = a cleaning product. The word “soap?” Also dates from the mid-16th century.

Synthetic dyes weren’t developed until the mid-1800s, so for some 300 years commercially dyed cloth was dyed with plants, minerals, and even bugs. Red was the color of royalty and wealth because the dye for red is made with the cochineal insect, native to the Mediterranean. Like tea and spices the insect was a lightweight but impressively valuable commodity carried overland across Europe.

If my husband was undone by my brew of goldenrod, I wonder how he would have handled simmering beetles?

Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace. A bit of beetle and a chunk of iron… it was not eye of newt boiling in the cauldron but a brew of this and that, transformed by heat and the alchemy wrought by changing the Ph of water, into color. From onion skins destined for the compost pile a pale yellow. From a pale green soup of jewelweed a shade of golden peach. To create color from ashes and weeds? This is magic.

If there is something special about Vermont corn and native pumpkins there is something truly incredible about creating color, bright color, from plants we don’t look twice at. We are surrounded by magic, and we’ve ceded it away to an industry which annually insists that we wear this color, and that fashion. The clothing industry takes advantage of lax environmental laws in third world countries to dump the metals used in cheap synthetic dyes, and sweatshop labor, to annually produce the dubiously attractive and possibly unnecessary elements which taken altogether are dubbed “the fashion industry.” There’s nothing romantic about it.

Alum and white wool, weeds and smooth pointy sticks… you can buy a scarf. Relatively cheaply. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like watching green water transform into sunshine yellow… and turning that sunshine yellow into a practical, wearable, magical, useful, scarf.



  1. Read your blog. I am from Ontario Canada. I made a scarf. First time I had tried cable. I used angora. It cost alot as compaired to going to the store and spending $5.00. I was so proud of it that I gave it to my best friend. Your website soothes my sole. I love sheep

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