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.