engel wool before 3

I received a couple of wee hand-me-down Engel wool shirts and a wool diaper cover from a friend of mine for the new babe.

I ought to take a step back here and say that we are preparing to welcome another babe to our family, a sibling for Maus and Cub, towards the end of September. He is currently being referred to as ‘Cobnut’, and I suspect that may stick for some time.

More immediately however, is the treatment of the hand-me-down wool. The lovely cream coloured wool shirts, leggings and diaper covers don’t remain quite so creamy after even just 1 or 2 babes have worn them. Especially if the spit-up at all. This of course doesn’t affect the usefulness of the wool, and the shirts remain just as wonderful. In fact, there is an added bonus of now having a reason to dye the wool.

engel wool before 2

At first I thought I might use an acid dye, but that would require choosing a colour, ordering it online and paying for shipping, and then waiting for it to finally arrive. Instead, I decided to try some natural dyes found closer to home (and free). 

My usual wool wash routine is either to throw them into the washing machine on the wool setting, or wash one or two pieces by hand in the sink with Eucalan. Occasionally for diaper covers it is necessary to strip them of lanolin to get them really clean, and I thought it might be beneficial to follow such a routine for these pieces to make sure they were as clean as possible prior to dying. I followed these directions, and I just happened to have the right dish soap (although other directions suggest other dish soaps as well, so I am not sure it matters too much).

The next step was to mordant. I knew mordanting was necessary with most natural dyes (all the information I read said so), but I wasn’t entirely sure why. Mordanting prepares the wool so that the dye will adhere properly. I was able to find alum powder in the spice section at the bulk food store in town (Bulk Barn), which made it a very easy mordant to use.

My kitchen scale is pretty much useless for fine measurements, so I used it as best as I could and also looked up the weight equivalent of tablespoons and teaspoons (hoping that alum weighed about the same as sugar…).

The two baby shirts weighed 5 oz dry, which is about 142 g. For this I used 1 tablespoon of alum which works out to be roughly 9% of the weight of the wool, and also 2 teaspoons of cream of tartar which works out to be about 7%. I used this recipe as a guide. I simmered the shirts and mordant for just over an hour, and then I put the whole pot outside to cool and sit overnight and then some.

Enter the tansy…

tansy flower 2

Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare, is common in this area along roadsides and in particular along a city a path not far from our house. I suppose many might consider the common tansy a weed, but I find the little golden buttons quite appealing. I harvested enough little flower heads to make up about 5 oz, put them in the dye pot with enough water to cover the shirts, brought the water to a boil and them simmered the flowers for about an hour. Next I strained the dye liquid through a cheesecloth into a bowl, discarded the flower heads and returned the liquid to the pot. Not wanting to shock the wool too much, I let the the dye bath cool before adding one of the shirts (I’m not sure why at the last minute I decided just to do one yellow…the other will be another colour). I brought the dye bath back up to a simmer, being careful not to let it boil, and simmered the shirt in the dye bath for about another hour. I then turned the heat off and left the shirt to sit over night.

In the morning I rinsed the shirt until the water ran clear, and laid it out to dry. I’m pleased with the golden yellow result. A lovely fall colour I think.

tansy dye 2


tansy dye 4


The other shirt is still awaiting its fate…and although I think a green might be nice, I am sorely tempted by the walnuts falling in the backyard. I may just need to try a brown made from walnut husks.


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One Response to Natural dyes: Tansy on wool

  1. Heather says:

    That turned out just lovely!! And, congratulations on the one on the way!

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