dyeing with black walnuts pt. one

this was a busy weekend on my makeshift roaming homestead, full of quilting, contra dancing, and harvesting. one of the harvest plants is black walnuts (juglans nigra). i collected 120 nuts that had fallen to the ground, and am using this harvest for food and as a natural dye. this was my first time trying natural dyeing, and i’m pleased with the results!

strangely, i had a hard time finding accurate information on the internet about how to make dye from black walnuts. lots of it was conflicting, brief, and unclear … so i’m going to detail my entire process here, and if you have any experience please comment below!

the process

obviously the first thing to do is harvest the nuts. we have a lone black walnut tree in my parents’ front yard that is a prolific producer. it drops hundreds, thousands of nuts every year. i collected just two days worth of fallen nuts from the ground around it and netted 120+ nuts. i collected them all in a bucket, then made myself a little workspace in the garage – a folding chair, two empty buckets (one for hulls and one for nuts), a cup of autumnal tea, and a podcast.

hulling the nuts was easy because most of them were yellow to brown. WEAR GLOVES, the hulls will stain your skin, BAD! i was able to break off the hulls easily, and i just went about my business hulling and sorting. some of the collected nuts had worms (maybe they had been on the ground for a day or two), and if i saw any sign of a worm i threw the whole thing out. it took me only 30 minutes to hull the 120/ ~5 lbs of nuts i collected.

it’s hard to get all of the pieces of hull off the nut, so i boiled water and poured it over the nuts in their bucket to cover. at any rate, i figured the boiling water would kill any mold on the nuts. this sort of helped get the hull off, and i even tried scrubbing the nuts with a brillo pad, but eventually i gave up and laid all the nuts, with bits of hull, out to dry. i’ll detail the results of the nut harvest in a later post.

i had TONS of hulls leftover, and i divided them evenly between two buckets. i poured the leftover water from the nuts over the hulls, then boiled more water, enough to fill each bucket. these two buckets are the dye base.

i let the first bucket sit for 48 hours, and the water was a dark brown at the end of that period. some information i read said if you let the hulls sit, there is no need to boil the hulls and water like you would to make a traditional dyebath. since i had two vats, i decided to test this out and did not boil this first round of dyeing.

i loosely strained the hulls from the water, into a big black enamel canning pot (21-qt). i scored mine at a thrift store for $13, along with some stainless steel tongs and a wooden spoon to be my dedicated dyeing equipment (you shouldn’t mix dyeing equipment in with your regular kitchen equipment).

before you dye fabric, it needs to be cleaned, a process called “scouring.” to scour, i used a stainless steel pot and baking soda. by dye fabric was a $1 bed sheet from the thrift store, stark white and 100% cotton (you shouldn’t use synthetic materials for natural dyeing). i cut the sheet into 4 pieces, because it was way too big for the dye pot. i scoured each piece individually. first, weight the piece dry, and for every ounce of dry fabric, i added a teaspoon of baking soda to the pot of water. i then simmered each piece for 30 minutes, and dried the fabric on a clothesline.

typically the next step is to mordant the fabric, which helps dye bond better. since black walnuts are very high in tannins, mordanting is not necessary. so i started with my first piece of fabric, and plunged it in the dye bath dry (this was a mistake – i’ll detail all the mistakes i made at the end of the post). i put the dye pot on the stove, and set it on high. the house i’m at has a glass top burner which is not ideal for dyeing, because the canning pot is so much bigger than the range. it took about an hour to get the dye bath to a simmer.

once simmering, i dyed the first piece of fabric for 2 hours, stirring frequently. i watched the color get darker and darker, but it never became dark brown nor seemed to fully saturate the fabric. it reached a color i was happy with though, so i decided to take it out and see the results. i read in a book that you should remove the fabric from the bath when it’s one shade darker than you want.

i rinsed the fabric outside, which was a good idea. i carried the dye pot outside and set up a 5 gallon plastic bucket to rinse. i filled it with water from the garden hose, then used the tongs to lift the fabric from the bath, letting it drip. wearing gloves, i then rang the fabric out over the dye bath, trying to save as much liquid as possible because i knew i wanted to dye more that day. once i felt like the fabric was sufficiently rung out, i plunged the fabric in the bucket of water. it quickly turned brown.

i swooshed the fabric around a good bit, then rang it out. i poured this brown water back into the dye bath, as a lot of water evaporated off during the simmering. then, repeat the rinsing process until the water runs clear (about 4 more times). i used the rinse water to water our outdoor plants, because there were no chemicals in it (although black walnut does emit a chemical called jugalone which inhibits plant growth, but it seemed really diluted at that points so i didn’t worry about it).

once the fabric rinsed clear it was hung on the line to dry. i did another dye bath with my second and third pieces of fabric (tie-dye!) in the same water, but only simmered 30 minutes wondering how different the color would come out. then i did a third bath, in which i soaked the last piece of fabric in the dye bath off heat for 24 hours, then simmered for 3 hours. i left this sit overnight in the bath and rinsed the next morning.

results! mistakes!

as far as i can tell, all three dyebaths worked, although i won’t know for certain until i machine-wash the fabric in a few more days. all three colors came out light, nice shades of brown-grey. i am especially please with the first dye. here the fabrics are in a row, the 30 minute dye on the left, 2 hour in the middle, and long dye on the right.

here is a list of mistakes i made:

  • the fabric should go into the bath WET, as this helps it take dye evenly.
  • i scoured in a very small pot and the fabric couldn’t move freely. in the future i will scour by soaking overnight to make sure all the fabric gets cleaned.
  • i had a lot of spottiness in the dye, which i suspect is from a number of things:
    • i didn’t strain the dye water well enough, and there were still chunks of hull floating around that attached to the fabric and left big dark stains
    • i put too much fabric in the dye bath for the size of my pot and the fabric couldn’t move freely
    • i didn’t scour well enough
    • i didn’t wet the fabric
    • the fabric often floated to the top, resulting in a good deal of fabric exposed to air and not in the dye. this definitely showed on the fabric i left overnight – there are big white patches where the fabric was exposed to air.
  • i didn’t let the hulls steep long enough, which is why i didn’t get any super dark dye. luckily i have a second vat which i will let sit for two weeks. also, i never actually boiled the hulls in the water to extract more color – with the other dye bath, i will boil for an hour with the hulls, strain very well, then proceed to dye fabric.

overall, i’m quit pleased with the results and certainly have caught the natural dye bug. i can’t wait to dye more fabrics. when i went to the folk school to study quilting, my dream was to make quilts for salvaged second-hand naturally dyed fabrics. i’ll post an update in a couple weeks after i dye with the second vat!


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