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Flowers, Color, and Wool

posted Aug 13, 2016, 2:17 PM by Lynn Moody
 One of the few "crops" I've been able to grow successfully in this summer's extreme heat is dyer's coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria, also marketed as plains coreopsis.  It is marketed as an annual but I had some survive the winter in a dormant state and sprout out again, as well as grow well from seed.  This is my favorite garden flower, not only for its usefulness as a dye source, but also because I have found it easy to grow, very pretty and colorful in the garden, attractive to honey bees and other pollinators, and long-lasting as a cut flower.  It has been amazingly tolerant of the heat as long as it gets sufficient water.  In the garden it has a wildflower-ish look to it that I really like, and in fact its seeds are often included in wildflower mixes.  I guess most flowers are wildflowers somewhere.  The flowers can be used fresh or dried as a dye source.  I pick the flowers after they are past their peak (once they have been pollinated) and usually I dry them for later use.  The plants flower prolifically as long as spent flowers are removed.  Generally at the end of the growing season I will let them go to seed in the hopes that they seeds will sprout - I don't worry about them being invasive as they do need some water, and in fact if they want to take over the whole yard, they are welcome to it.
I dry the flowers on a paper towel in the kitchen, as shown above.  To extract the dye, I put the dried and/or fresh flowers in water, where they can be simmered on the stove, or this summer I have put them in a half-gallon canning jar half filled with water, and put the jar in the sun for a couple weeks.  When the water-flower mixture has steeped long enough that the water is highly colored (the water will look brown, kind of like strong tea), I strain out the flowers (they can go to the compost pile) and add mordanted wool (I use only alum as mordant, since it has the least toxicity of the common chemical mordants) to the extract (adding more water if needed to submerge the wool) and let the whole mixture sit in the sun for a couple weeks (or longer, the longer it sits the more dye the fiber adsorbs).  Then rinse and dry and the wool is ready for spinning if it is already carded, or for carding if not.  Of course you can simmer the wool on the stove top if desired.  Our summer sun is intense here, so why not use it.
The color is a beautiful gold/orange.  There is some Santa Cruz Island wool on the drying rack after dyeing, I think I left it in the sun for about 3 weeks.  Wait, I didn't let it dry for three weeks, I had it in the dye bath for 3 weeks - I wanted intense color.  I'm looking forward to spinning a gold-colored yarn, and also a variegated yarn with natural white and indigo-dyed blue.  The extract still had some color so I put in some llama fiber, and now there is some Navajo-Churro roving in the jar.  After that comes out, I think the dye will be exhausted, the llama fiber came out pretty pale (still a nice color).