The final result: silks, superwash, wool, gray wool on a wool flannel background.

Pokeberry Dyeing

I visited Japanese textile artist and katazome instructor John Marshall in his studio in Covelo, Mendocino County two weeks ago and was surprised to see that his entire front yard was covered in pokeberry bushes.  Now those of you who have been dyeing with pokeberries for years need to stop snickering and let me have my discovery thrills here.  Although pokeberries are native to most of the the United States, I had never even heard of them and was browsing through Rebecca Burgess’ book “Harvesting Color” on natural dyes when I spotted a beautiful red skein of wool.  Thinking it was cochineal, I took a closer look and realized it was a berry that was making this incredible color.

Ripe pokeberries from John Marshall's garden

Ripe pokeberries from John Marshall’s garden

John helped me pick a bag of them and I was anxious try them out.  The mordant and dye process was simple and the color is amazing. Burgess’ recipe is based on research by Carol Leigh Brack-Kaiser of Hill Creek Fiber Studio and is a straightforward process of “mordanting” with acetic acid or vinegar and dyeing with an acidic dye bath.  It seems to work best on wool, with silk turning out a coral color.  The cotton cross ties in my skeins did not absorb any color at all. So I started looking for pokeberry bushes in Seattle and discovered that though they are a native species, they are regarded as a bit of an invasive pest, so my idea of growing them next year in the dye garden is probably not a good idea. I guess I’ll just have to return to Mendocino County (oh torture!) on a warm autumn day and do my pokeberry gathering there next time.

The berries are bagged and ready for the dye pot

The berries are bagged and ready for the dye pot

 

Plucking berries - be careful, they stain!

Plucking berries – be careful, they stain!

 

Berries ready for mashing

Berries ready for mashing

The mashed berries + water and vinegar

The mashed berries + water and vinegar

The first wool skein goes in and it's gorgeous!

The first wool skein goes in and it’s gorgeous!

The final result: silks, superwash, wool, gray wool on a wool flannel background.

The final result: silks, superwash, wool, gray wool on a wool flannel background.

5 Responses to “Pokeberry Dyeing”

  1. we have many many pokes and they hates
    to be told where to be. freedom lovers

  2. it’s curious how superwash affects wool. i’ve noticed how it increases dye take-up…but also flammability.
    it used to be that wool would rarely catch fire and if it did, emitted a nitrogen foam that extinguished the burn. but that doesn’t happen with superwash. the ones i’ve tested just burn. you have to wonder what they do to change the fibre in such a fundamental way!

    that said…those are pretty colours!

    • Hi India,
      Thanks for your post. I’ve read that the superwash process is to dissolve the wool scales with a chlorinating compound then coat them with polymer, so it makes sense that it doesn’t have the same self-extinguishing characteristics of natural wool. Mercerized cotton also seems to increase dye take-up too, compared with untreated cotton fibers. The dye process was a lot of fun and I can’t wait until next year to try it again.