Creative Ways With Weeds

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When To Put Weeds On The Compost Heap

After years of embattled hand weeding, I developed a more positive relationship with my worst thugs. In recent years, I’ve been steadfast about harvesting them early and often, filling the compost pile with mounds of morning glory, horsetail, giant knotweed, and vetch.

Picked before they can bloom or set seed, all these wicked weeds offer plentiful nutrients as well as deep-mined minerals brought up by those questing roots. Lush as they are, their juicy leaves make a rich and attractively crumbly compost.

Some of these weeds are not actually growing on my property, but I’ve found that a preemptive strike on my part reduces over-the-border incursions on theirs. Though not all neighbors offer to help, I have yet to experience one who doesn’t thank me for running weed patrol along our shared property line.

The Dyer’s Garden

I’m also an avid knitter, usually for other people. Among my specialties are chemo caps made from undyed organic cotton. I also create custom-designed Angel Wing shawls, prayer shawls knit with a variety of colors and textures, each of which is assigned a value or meaning such as ‘peace’ or ‘comfort’  which I hold with intention as I knit.

I also spin yarns for use in many projects, and one of my great pleasures is to dye yarn and fabric with natural dyes. I find it utterly fascinating to experiment with natural dyes, turning plain wool into lovely, delicate shades of green and gold, rust and pale orange, gold and soft yellow.

Putting Noxious Weeds To Work

What does this have to do with morning glory? Besides adding great tilth to my compost, it makes a marvelous dye for protein fibers like wool and silk. Without any color fixer (mordant), natural yarn simmered in a morning glory infusion will turn a soft yellow. With alum as a mordant, the yarn will be a clear yellow. Add a touch of chrome and you’ll get a lively golden yellow. Copper makes the dye greener, while iron deepens it to a rich olive green.

Many of my dye plants of choice are noxious weeds; not just morning glory, but ivy, Scotch broom, Canadian thistle, horsetail, and many more. It is amazingly satisfying to free a tree from its strangle hold, then cook up a big batch of the removed ivy. It smells quite sweet, rather like asparagus when cooking, and the resulting broth makes a gentle green yarn that is really beautiful

Creative Uses For Ivy

Ivy has dozens of uses, once you start viewing it as raw material. Those who work in the fiber arts use ivy leaves and stems for dying cloth, thread, and wool, as well as for paper making. The supple young vines can be woven whole into baskets and mats or soaked and stripped into strands that combine beautifully with many other natural fibers, from flax to rayon and wool.

I suspect that a weaver or basket maker could create a gorgeous piece combining ivy with Scotch broom and horsetail. In fact, once you start thinking in these terms, some of our worst weeds start to look rather enticing. Texture, color, form, they’ve got it all!

Seeking Out Natural Dye Plants

Best of all, once we start harvesting our weeds, there never seems to be quite enough of them. I’ve had to wander far afield to gather enough Scotch broom for a rich greeny-brown dye made from the ripe seed pods. I found a grand supply in a nearby park, and was immediately granted full permission to take all I wanted.

I found my Canadian thistle source at a neighbor’s, whose rough old field hasn’t yet been mowed. The ripe seeds are much appreciated by goldfinches, those charming, bright yellow little critters that are Washington’s official State Birds. While gathering stems and leaves, I also harvested a sack of fine black thistle seed to fill my back porch bird feeder.

Hidden Garden Gold (and Copper and Bronze)

Weedy or not, most gardens are full of plants that make handsome natural dyes. Marigold petals create a wide range of yellow and orange dyes, depending on the flower color and which kind of mordant you choose to make your dye color fast. (Vinegar is a very mild and safe mordant for home dyers, as is alum.)

The bright orange roots of barberry and mahonia (Oregon grape) plants yield a variety of tints of yellow, chartreuse, and soft green. Most of the spurges (Euphorbia clan) make beautiful yellow or green dyes, but be very careful not to get that corrosive, milky sap on your hands or in your eyes!

Weeds That Give You The Blues

Classic European dye plants that are easily grown at home include blue woad (Isatis tinctoris), which ancients Brits used to paint their skin when the Romans were invading their country. Woad makes a clear blue dye, while tropical, shrubby indigo (Indigofera suffruticosa) makes a delicious array of smoky blues, as do invasive Himalayan blackberries.

Sweet Woodruff roots create a soft yet vivid red tint. Rhubarb roots make delicate green and yellow dyes and are also used as natural mordants (color setters) in many countries. The leaves make green or reddish brown dyes, while the stems make a soft, pretty pink.

Check the library for books that explain how to make safe natural dyes, then experiment freely with roots, bark, stems, seeds, foliage, and petals to discover the beautiful world of natural color hidden in your own backyard.

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7 Responses to Creative Ways With Weeds

  1. Colette says:

    So glad I found your blog… gardening, knitting, cooking… everything I enjoy. Plus, looking at the world with a different lens. Thanks!

  2. Pat Patterson says:

    Hey Ann,
    Are you sure we are not related? 😎 I am also an avid spinner and dyer with natural dyes. I also adore my weeds–well, most of the time. We have Icelandic sheep who have a rough raincoat fleece and an underfleece like down. I used to have Angora bunnies also. A couple of your plant dyes were new to me, so now I am also on the hunt! The birds keep planting English ivy here, so now I can do more than yank and cuss with it. Thank you for your wealth of knowledge and great spirit.


    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Pat–We are all sisters, I’m pretty sure. I’ve found that most plants make some kind of dye, usually in the greeny-browny range, and not all are very colorfast. I had deep satisfaction in making dyes from weeds, and my favorite winter coat is a gorgeous woolen jacket dyed with ivy (soft yellow-green). I also made a HUGE ball of ivy vines and parked it on a slab until it dried–instant garden art!


  3. Melissa Lehmann says:

    Hi! I stumbled upon your blog after google searching what I can do with rhubarb. I just bought a dehydrator but I had a lot of leaves left and found that dyeing wool with sounds really cool! I’m assuming you boil the leaves, remove, add wool, let sit…

    But…how long do you simmer the leaves for? Any tips would be great! I am a begginning spinner with a budget of $0 and I have a pound of raw wool I’d like to experiment with!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      In general, you simmer foliage for about an hour then let stand to cool and steep further before squeezing out the potential dye. Always use an old cookpot that won’t be used in the kitchen for foods, though; many dyes (including rhubarb leaves) are toxic!

      When you dye wool, wet it completely first, soaking for an hour or even overnight before adding it to the pot of hot dye. Bring the dye to a low simmer, adding extra hot water as needed to cover the wool. Add wool gently and don’t agitate or stir very much or you may felt your wool. Let stand in the dye until cool or remove when you like the color, cool, rinse with warm water until it runs clear. If this takes forever, add 1/4 cup white vinegar to the next rinse and let the wool soak in that for half an hour. Hope that helps!

  4. Sidnee Snell says:

    I live in the Portland are and I’m looking for Dyer’s Woad and French Broom for dyeing. Have you found it anywhere?

    Thanks for the help,

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Sidnee,

      Move to Montana and become a weed warrior; dyers’ woad is a common weed there! You can get seed of Isatis tinctoria quite a few places online, including etsy and ebay. It’s not widely sold commercially because it is such a pest. It isn’t toxic (though a member of the mustard family) but it grows so aggressively that it can crowd out cattle fodder on open range. French broom, Genista monspessulana, is also listed as a noxious weed in lots of places, since it, like most brooms, casts seed far and wide and spreads very quickly. It’s also highly flammable (like all brooms), making it a fire threat in the wild. Again, you can get seed through etsy and ebay, but commercial sources are rare indeed. For a good, clean yellow dye, you might try Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), the flowers of which make a lemon yellow dye. If you are set on using the traditional dye plants, I’m betting you could take a field trip to Eastern Oregon and/or Washington and find plenty of plant material free for the asking!


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