When my cousin Polly came to visit earlier this summer, she brought with her an exciting gift. She had been walking the fields and byways of her Cambridge home, and discovered a walnut tree, dropping its fruit onto the public path. Patiently, and over several walks, she collected as many walnuts as she could, and brought this small collection for me to use for dyeing.
I’d used walnuts to dye fleece many years before – and with considerable success – which is why I was excited by her gift. A cursory search didn’t produce any of my notes about my previous walnut dyepots, but I still had a good collection of books on natural dyeing to turn to for advice.The large book in the photograph is Seonaid Robertson’s Dyes from Plants, and I found her recipe clear and relevant so I followed that most closely. Polly had brought me 27 walnuts (weighing 175g). Most of them had their outer hulls still in place and these were nicely black and rotten. Looked very promising!I brought them to boil in 6 pts of water, and simmered them and then left them to steep for several days. A wonderful witchy black and oily brew – looking even more promising!I added 100g of wet white fleece (BFL x Portland), brought it to a gentle boil and simmered and steeped for a couple of days. Wow – it looks promising!I finally decided I could put off the final dénouement no longer … time to see what sort of result I had got.Oh, crestfallen. That is all I can bring myself to say. Just so disappointing. The murky black liquid dripped away to reveal coffee-coloured fleece. It does smell lovely …. but worth it? … hmmm …As I said above, I had dyed fleece with walnuts many, many years ago – and got a great result. This was the reason my expectations were so high before this recent experiment. I did a serious search for my old notes – and finally found them.
My very brief notes were in a scrappy old knitting/spinning notebook, dated 1986. I was quite a new spinner. I was staying with my parents in Kent during the summer holidays with my two small children. A near neighbour of theirs had sheep – Cotswold sheep – and most generously offered me a fleece. I was too new to spinning to know much about different sheep breeds, but I readily accepted, and got straight to spinning – and dyeing. It was a beautiful, beautiful fleece, with long, lustrous, silky locks.
As it happened my parents had a walnut tree in their garden. Every summer my mother would pick the walnuts when they were green and pickle them. However, this year, she generously gave them to me. According to my notes, I had 4 ¾ lbs of green walnuts. They were cut in half and covered in water. That’s the end of my notes!! No record of how much fleece dyed, how long cooking took place…..perhaps my small children distracted me?! I just have memories of fantasticly rich dark brown fleece, fading to softer golds in later dyebaths.
However, there are further records in my notebook of what I did with the dyed fleece. I made my father a jersey – and I have the jersey now (my mother handed it back to me when he died). I also have the first swatch I knitted as I worked out my designs for his jersey. (The swatch – along with other swatches – is now part of a knitted patchwork blanket I made.) My notes record that this swatch was knitted in three-coloured tweed stitch, using white fleece (from a Shetland sheep called Charity), dark brown fleece (from a sheep called Ada – think it may have been a Welsh Mountain fleece) – and brown fleece (walnut-dyed Cotswold fleece). I wasn’t happy with this pattern – I don’t know why, – but in July 1987 my notes record that I started another attempt to make a Christmas jersey for my father. Here it is. Quite different, isn’t it? It looks to me as though I used the same yarns (but omitting the white) as those I used in the swatch above, and probably added a few more russet colours as well. The yarns in both the jersey and the pattern sample above have faded. They’ve also faded in this old hank of handspun yarn which I am pretty sure includes some strands of walnut-dyed silky Cotswold yarn.Re-reading and re-thinking these walnut dye experiments, I realise the problem with my recent attempt was that the walnuts were too ripe. After all, I recorded that I’d cut the walnuts in half in my initial attempt – that is far from ripe. And look: this is what I was left with after my recent dyepot. I think there are well-formed walnuts inside all that prune-like fruit.Perhaps I’ll presume on Polly’s kindness and try again next year. For now, I’m happy to remember this jersey I made my father – it was a great success and he wore it all the time. Here he is, still wearing it, Christmas 1993. ********************************************************
Addendum (for those natural dye techies)
I realised it might be helpful to see the dye recipes I consulted. This is from Seonaid Robertson: Dyes from Plants (1973)This is from Dye Plants and Dyeing. A Handbook. published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record (1964)This is from Anne Dyer: Dyes from Natural Sources (1976)Here is Violetta Thurstan: The Use of Vegetable Dyes (1975)And – should you wish to pickle your walnuts, this is from Mrs. M Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (repub. 1976)