Pokeberry dye is made from the berries of the pokeweed plant. Pokeweed is considered a perennial herb plant. The stalk is thick and often droops over under it’s own weight and the weight of the berries. The pokeberries grow on stems similar to a bunch of grapes. Don’t mistake them for edible grapes, however. The pokeweed plant has varying levels of toxicity depending on the part of the plant used. Although the pokeweed is toxic to humans, people have enjoyed eating pokeweed salit for many generations. The dish is made using the young leaves of the plant.The leaves are boiled numerous times to remove the toxins before being eaten.
Animals and birds can and do eat the pokeberries and the leaves and it is a valuable source of food for many species. Rodents, birds, and deer all rely on this source of nutrients as fall turns to winter. Pokeweed has been spread near and far by birds ingesting the berries and passing the seeds through their digestive tract.
Natural Dye From Plants
The rich, vibrant color of the berries juices easily and makes a dye that can be used to permanently color fabric, wool, and yarns. We have a lot of pokeweed growing on our farm and I had been looking forward to trying to make the pokeberry dye and use it to color our natural yarn. I read quite a few different approaches to the idea before feeling comfortable about dyeing our yarn. The berries have such a rich deep magenta color. Protect your clothes, hands and work surface before beginning to make pokeberry dye.
As with almost anything where natural substances are being used, things may not turn out as planned. It took many tries for me to receive a green color from Spinach Dye. Boiling the berry dye bath can result in a brown dye instead of a dark red or pink. Using a mordant to change the pH and the resulting color from the dye bath is just the beginning of what you can do while using pokeberry dye. I will write more on mordants later in this post.
These are the steps I took to develop my version of Pokeberry Dye. I referred to quite a few other herbalists and fiber artists information in coming up with my own plan. Most notable was the recipe by Carol Leigh. It is available as a reprint in many publications. Carol Leigh seems to have found the best method of getting the purple and red color from the berries to stick to the yarn. In order to achieve the purple, deep red, or fuchsia you may need to leave some of the regular rules for using natural dyes behind and take a leap of faith.
The Recipe for Pokeberry Dye Inspired by Carol Leigh’s Recipe
Pokeberry dye is very easy to make as the berries break easily and the rich color seeps out immediately. Even the semi dried berries hold their color and when added to the water, re-hydrate easily.
I did not remove the berries from the stems as most recipes instruct you to do. Leaves and debris were removed and the stems were separated into individual stems and berry clusters. The bucket I used to gather the berries is a two gallon bucket and I almost filled it with pokeberry stems and berries. I know a lot of recipes call for a much larger supply and my only guess is that they are planning to dye a much bigger stash of yarn.
Place the stems and berries into a large stock pot that will not be used for food preparation. Pokeweed and some other dye stuffs are toxic. It is best to keep a separate set of tools for your dyeing work, just to be safe. The pan you use to mordant the fiber can be from the kitchen as usually nothing toxic will go into that pan.
Do Not Boil!
Start by covering the plant material with tap water, add one cup of vinegar. Bring the mixture almost to a boil but DO NOT boil the mixture. Immediately turn the heat down to a simmer and allow the berries and stems to release the color. Use an old potato masher to further squish the berries.
After cooking for two hours, I turned off the heat and let the mixture sit overnight.
The next day, strain the dye, reserving the dye in a temporary pan or container while you toss the spent berries and stems in the garbage. Don’t add pokeweed parts to your compost as they have a lot of seeds. The compost bin will quickly turn into a pokeweed garden.
Carefully pour the dye into the dye pot again.
A Note About Cooking Utensils for Dye Work
You might be wondering what to use for this activity if I am suggesting that you don’t use your kitchen pots and pans. I sure don’t think it’s necessary to go buy new pans for this. One idea is to shop flea markets and Goodwill type shops for used cookware. Try to find stainless steel or enamel coated pans. My stock pot for dye is an old granite steel stock pot that we had for years. I also have a wooden spoon that stays with my dye pot, and a fine mesh strainer for separating the plant material from the dye water. I use an old wash basin as an extra pan for discarding plant material to the garbage or for anything I need while working with the dyes. A pair of regular metal cooking tongs are helpful when retrieving the fiber or yarn from the hot dye bath.
Preparing the Yarn, Fiber or Fabric for the Dye
The first step when preparing to dye any yarn or fabric is to prepare it to receive the dye. This process is called the mordant. There are a few common methods to mordant the yarn or fabric. Salt, vinegar, alum and rust are a few easily obtained substances. Keep in mind that each one will cause a different reaction when your fiber is added to the dye bath. The metals in your tap water will also play a part. For this dye experiment, I used vinegar as the soaking mordant with a small amount of alum added.
2 skeins of natural colored 100% wool yarn (400 yards total or 200 grams)
2 quarts of water
1 cup vinegar
water to vinegar ratio of 1 to 8
1 tsp alum
Ease the yarn into the mixture of water, vinegar and alum in a non- aluminum pot. Always use care when working with wool and hot water. Do not agitate the fiber or cause friction from too much handling. Felting occurs in the presence of hot water and movement. Next, you ease the fiber into the water and gently push it down to get it thoroughly wet.
Bring water, vinegar and alum to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for at least one hour.
Dyeing with Pokeberry Dye
Ok ready to get to the fun part?
Remove the yarn from the mordant water and without squeezing the water out, transfer it over to the dye bath.
Gently push the yarn into the dye bath, until it is completely covered. Since the yarn is wet, it should sink readily into the dye bath.
Now, add half of the mordant liquid to the dye bath.
Discard the remaining mordant water.
Begin heating the dye bath. Bring close to a boil, and reduce heat to simmer. Simmer the dye bath and fiber for two hours. Turn off the heat and allow the yarn or fiber to sit in the dye bath overnight.
It is important to note that boiling pokeberry dye can cause it to lose it’s red color and become brown.
After the Dye Process
While wearing gloves, pull the dyed yarn from the dye squeezing out as much excess dye water as possible without wringing the yarn. Squeeze gently and place on a screen to oxidize for at least two hours. DO NOT Rinse the yarn yet!
After at least two hours, rinse the yarn in cool water, changing the water until it runs clear. For Pokeberry, at this point, using soap may change the pH and cause the color to change. Rinse completely and place over the screens again to complete the drying. You need to make sure the yarn is not laid out in the sun, as this will also cause the color to change or fade. From my readings, pokeberry is color fast for gentle washing but is not light fast. Do not leave the yarns you dye with natural colors to sit out in the sunlight.
Using the Exhaust Bath of the Pokeberry Dye
If you still see rich levels of color in the dye bath, it is possible to attempt subsequent dye lots from the dye you used. I was curious, since my dye seemed to be very dark after dyeing the two skeins of yarn. So, I grabbed a 2 ounce sample of wool roving and threw it in the mordant bath.
I removed the roving to a plastic bag so I could start the dye again for the last two skeins.
After mordanting the roving, I tossed it into the dye bath. Lots of color immediately reached into the roving. So, I grabbed two more skeins of wool yarn. I was on an adventure after all. After properly mordanting the skeins, they entered the dye bath with the roving.
After bringing the dye bath up to simmer, I heated the fiber, yarn and dye for a couple of hours. Turned off the heat and left it all to sit over night. In the morning I repeated the steps for oxidizing and then rinsing the fiber and yarn. While there was still considerable color left in the dye bath, I decided not to process any more from this batch. I noticed that some shading on the exhaust bath yarn was visible, so the dye was weakening.
Note– I did not use a modifier to create the deep fuchsia color. Only the vinegar and Alum from the mordant phase were used.
Future Care of the Pokeberry Dye Fiber and Yarn
From what I have read, when using a natural plant based soap to clean anything made from the yarn, it will help the color last. Most reports of color fading from exposure to light were not found to be true when using Carol Leigh’s recipe and instructions. I would use caution about leaving the fiber or garment exposed to direct sunlight. Using alkaline soaps for laundering, does show an effect on the color.
Remember that using colors from nature to dye fibers is a variable pursuit. Have fun with it and test small skeins to be sure you will get the color you are looking for. Modifiers can change the color of a dyed product.
Adding certain metallic substances, such as iron, copper, or washing soda, and salt can affect the color. It’s a lot of fun to experiment with the colors freely given in nature.
Read more about various dye plants used at a dyeing party on Homestead Honey.
Looking for various shades of yellow from natural dyes? Check out this post from Joybilee Farm
For more information, I am sharing the titles in my home library as suggested reading.