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.
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.
1. The rich purple-black color of pokeberry comes from a type of anthocyanin, which is the same type of color found in red beets and amaranth, and it also behaves in a similar manner. That means that it turns very reddish purple with acids and grayish purple with bases, and that it is not particularly wash or lightfast, so I dye with it with an experimental mindset. It is not going to be a color that I use for artwork or production projects.
2. The mature plant is poisonous and so are the berries. Wear gloves when collecting and keep away from small children and pets.
3. The color seems to work with animal fibers (wool, silk, alpaca and mohair) and I’ve had the best results with wool. Silk will dye a lighter color than wool. Pokeberry does not work well on cotton, hemp, linen or other plant fibers.
4. The color seems to work best if you soak the wool in a vinegar solution, then make a dye bath using more vinegar. This recipe originates from Carol Leigh Brack-Kaiser and her version is also included in Rebecca Burgess’ book,
5. You need to use a lot of pokeberry. Rebecca Burgess recommends a 25:1 ratio. This means for 1 pound of wool fiber, you’d collect 25 pounds of berries, but she reassures you that they are heavy and collecting goes quickly.
6. Colors such as tan, orange or gray from pokeberries seem to indicate that the dye bath was not acidic enough, or that the skeins were exposed to bright light, or the dye bath was too hot. I followed Carol Leigh’s recipe exactly and
got some very nice results that are still vibrant seven years later (see top image of my own dyed yarn!)