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Dyeing with Red Cabbage & Tea

red cabbage dye

If you listened to my interview with the lovely Lara Neel, you might remember me mentioning that I have been trying to convince my parents to go into hand-dyeing in their (impending) retirement. Well, today I tried hand-dyeing myself for the first time, and I now have an increased admiration for dyers and a better understanding of why those gorgeous skeins command such a high price.

red cabbage

I hadn’t tried dyeing before because I thought it required lots of extra equipment and careful measuring. Then I came across this etsy video which made it look sooo easy (not to mention that the resulting lavender is one of my favourite colours) that I had to try it right away. Since you’re only using regular foodstuffs, you don’t need special pans or protective gear. I picked up a red cabbage at the supermarket and found myself on Saturday morning getting ready for a morning of dyeing. Well, that morning turned into two days of boiling, rinsing, waiting, and blow drying, but it was all great fun.

boiling cabbage

So first of all I chopped up one whole red cabbage as small as I could, and boiled it with 2 tablespoons of salt for 30mins. Purple fingers, once again!

purple fingers

Meanwhile I let the yarn sit in a warm bowl of water, as instructed. The yarn is the lace/fingering-weight cotton I bought at the seaside this summer.

soaking yarn

I didn’t use any mordants. I had considered using lemon juice, as that’s what I mix in with the henna for my hair, but apparently that’s only for animal fibres, whereas plant fibres like cotton and silk require an alkaline mordant (so says one commenter, anyway!). As for cream of tartar or alum, I have little idea of what they are or where I can get them in Turkey. So alas, no mordant.

mmm cabbage juice!

After 30mins I strained the cabbage, leaving the purple cabbage juice in the pan. I felt a bit bad throwing all that cabbage away, but I didn’t know what I could do with a colander full of too-salty cabbage. :/

red cabbage

So once I brought the pan up to boil again, I added the soaked yarn and boiled it for nearly an hour. I prodded and turned the yarn around every so often to make sure it was thoroughly soaked. The pan got rather short on water around 30mins in, so I boiled some more water in the kettle and poured it in.

red cabbage dye

The yarn looked a delicious pinky purple in the water, but when I pulled it out it was a pale lavender.

red cabbage dye

red cabbage dye

Then came the most exciting part! Having read this cool KnitPicks article the day before I had divided my large hank into 3: 1 big part that would remain lilac, 1 smaller part that would be over-dyed green, and one tiny “transitional” part that I was going to try to make a lighter green. A little ambitious, I know…

cotton yarn dyed in red cabbage

Having fished out my hank, I added a packet of baking powder to the pot. It fizzled and looked a bit green, but when I dipped the spoon in it was still quite purple. So I drained some of the liquid away, and added another packet. Then I brought it up to boil and voila, green! Excitement!

cotton yarn dyed in red cabbage

So I placed my small hank in, and left it to boil for about 30mins. I could have left it longer, but most of the water had evaporated and I didn’t want to add any more in case I lightened the colour. The smallest hank I dipped in and drew out immediately. It turned a very pretty light teal colour.

cotton yarn dyed in red cabbage

cotton yarn dyed in tea

Since I had quite a bit of the dye liquids left over, I couldn’t resist one last experiment. I brewed some very strong Turkish tea in a small saucepan and popped another hank in for about 40mins. It turned a lovely tan colour. I used loose tea, and some of it got past my strainer, but it wasn’t a big deal. I just gave it a good shake when it was a little dryer, and most of the tea leaves fell out.

cotton yarn dyed in tea
cotton yarn dyed in tea

I wanted to try some yarn painting, so I lay my hank out on a piece of aluminium foil and dripped pools of the red cabbage + baking powder mixture over it.

yarn painting

It looked really pretty at this stage, so I dried it with a hair dryer to try and keep the colours from moving too much. That didn’t work, unfortunately, the green and tea-colour merged together and I ended up with this semi-solid colour, with streaks of dull green and somehow also purple! It’s very subtle but I love the way it looks. In the end it’ll be easier to knit into a pattern than the splotchy brown/green would have been.

The final result:

tea + “green cabbage”:
dyeing cotton with tea + red cabbage

green cabbage on the left, red cabbage on the right (all still damp). The streaks of dark colour are from fibres that were touching the side of the hot pan. Interesting, no?
dyeing cotton with red cabbage

Strangely the hank with the red cabbage turned from a pale blue when damp, to a pretty pale lavender, with streaks of green, when dry. The green didn’t change in hue, and in fact there’s hardly any difference between the hank I dipped in & pulled out, and the one I left to boil for half an hour! Also, the baking powder’s made the green yarn a bit “crunchy”. Hopefully another rinse in some Eucalan will soften it up once more.
cotton dyed with red cabbage

Not quite up to The Natural Dye Studio, but I’m pleased with my first attempt. :) How colourfast they will be, I don’t know. I’m going to swatch & wash the yarn soon, and I’ll blog about my results. Hopefully I can make a nice shawl out of my first hand-dyed yarn.

other resources you might like to check out

27th September, 2011  // Technique, Yarn // tags: , , .

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