Category Archives: Natural Dyes

Linen is a Bitch

Don’t get me wrong, I love sleeping on and under linen. I love ironing linen and putting my best plates and glasses on a crisp linen tablecloth. I even love sewing linen: It moves around a lot as you sew. I like the fact that it demands my full attention. So that, like a Buddhist, I am fully present.


The wonderful Beth Moran let me have a look at (and feel of) some linen threads the week I did her weaving workshop and as I’ve already described it feels like razor blades. On reflection though I think a better description would be that it feels like the grass you get on sand dunes.

Gratuitous beach shot

In industrial weaving  the threads are kept wet to prevent stretching. A “Size” or mild adhesive is used and temperature needs to be around 20° with a relative humidity of 75% – 80%

So I don’t weave linen at home. But having learnt how to vegetable dye wool, I thought “How great would it be to have a range of table-linens both inspired by the colours of Ireland and created using plants native to Ireland?”

The first step was Onion Skin dyeing. Actually, the first step was trying to find Alum Mordant in Ireland. This makes the fabric more receptive to dye.

In theory you can buy Alum in a chemist. In practise, bar faking an illness you’ve never heard of so you can get a prescription, you no longer can. Talk to Doctor Interweb instead, where you can find lots and lots of natural dyeing websites, blogs and online shops.

Something I noticed while researching this was that very few of these sites were talking about dyeing linen. Wool was the fibre of choice, or sometimes organic cotton. Given that dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia (Roughly 36,000 years old) it can clearly be done. The problem is that linen is a cellulose fibre and needs to be brought to a high ph alkaline level in order to take the colour. This can be done using either an ammonia or stale urine bath. Nice.

I didn’t, in fact, check the ph of my water before mordanting, but I gave the fabric a good hour long simmer in alum & water, then left it to cure overnight before dyeing.

I brought onion skins and cold water to the boil, then brought it back down to a simmer and added the linen. I gave it a good hour’s rolling simmer until the fabric was an egg-yolk yellow. It was a rare sunny day so I line-dried that batch of linen while I dyed a second batch in the same dye bath.

Line-drying future napkins

When the second lot were done I added a handful of walnut shells to the dye bath and then gave my first batch another go. The result is very slightly darker, but tonally way more interesting. There seems to be a lot more depth to the colour and honestly I’m not sure if it was the double bath or the walnut that did it.

The next step then is to check it’s colour fast. I want to use this linen for napkins so it’s vital they can be washed at a high temperature. Guess what? They can’t!

To Be Continued….


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Filed under Linen, Natural Dyes

>Clare Island


Hipstamatic picture of the road to Ballytoughey

Hipstamatic picture of the road to Ballytoughey

Clare Island is a small island off the west coast of County Mayo, Ireland. It was once the home of pirate queen Grace O’Malley and has a raggedy, wild beauty.

Beth Moran has been living here for about twenty years, and running Ballytoughey Loom for fifteen. Every Summer she runs workshops in natural dyes, spinning and weaving. Depending on the time that you’re there she might bring you out foraging for lichens to use as dyes, but the week I was there we used onion skins. The range of colours you can get is extraordinary.

The first dye bath gives a rusty brown colour, then the second gives my favourite; a yellow the colour of gorse bushes. An aluminium mordant fixes the colour, the addition of iron produces a rich moss green.

Skeins of wool drying in the sun

Skeins of wool drying in the sun

While the dye pots were bubbling away we were spinning more wool.  Although some spinners and weavers do, Beth doesn’t wash the wool before spinning. The lanolin in the wool makes it easier to handle.

She has two spinning wheels, one a traditional Irish one and the other from Scandinavia. Despite the Irish wheel’s fairytale look, I unpatriotically preferred the Scandinavian one. There wasn’t the same foot pedal ‘backwash’ and it was quieter.

Both require you to do the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly simultaneously. You control the pace and direction of the wheel with your foot, and feed in the wool by hand. Initially it’s hard to get a rhythm going but as with so many handcrafts once you do it’s a peaceful, meditative pleasure.

irish Spinning Wheel

Irish Spinning Wheel


Scandinavian Spinning Wheel

Scandinavian Spinning Wheel

Setting up the loom with silk though was neither meditative nor pleasant. It seemed to combine mental arithmetic with repeated needle threading, and having been at an Island session the night before I was ill-equipped for either. In fact it gave me a real appreciation for child labour and I vowed I’d never deprive a five year old of a job again.

Luckily there’s a beautiful cove nearby and swimming to look forward to at the end of the day.

Beth swimming in the Cove

Beth swimming in the Cove

Fiddly as silk is to work with, I’m just grateful I didn’t use linen. Once silk is on the loom weaving it is fine but linen threads feel like tiny blades, and need spritzing with water to prevent stretching and breakage. (Yet another reason why linen – and the weavers thereof – commands my respect)

By my last day in Ballytoughey Loom I had seven eighths of a silk scarf  (and one-eighth fringing) which my husband has very loyally worn at least twice. For weeks afterwards I kept waking up in the morning with my fingers in my hair, having dreamt about the seaweed in the cove, or about  skeins of silk slipping through my hands; having dreamt about going back to Clare Island.

>Clare Island

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Filed under Linen, Natural Dyes, Silk, Spinning, Weaving, Wool