Tag Archives: plant dyeing for feltmakers

Madder dyed wool tops

Plant dyeing for feltmakers

A short post from Susan 3/3/20

The March 2020 issue of ‘Feltmatters’, the journal of the the International Feltmakers Association, concentrates on the colour Red. A big thank you to the IFA for inviting me to share my tips for getting good reds from madder on wool for felting.  If you want to read about it, you can buy the issue here.

Cover of IFA magazine feltmatters issue 138

Cover of IFA magazine feltmatters issue 138












I love the challenge of working with fleece, whether straight from the sheep or after processing into tops. There’s a forced relaxation involved all of the processes. Sorting fleece, picking out the detritus (including hedgerow thorns and dead beetles) and gently washing dirty fleece. We tend to keep the bath just for fleece washing and I bail the dirty water down onto the front garden, which is always grateful for the nutrient and irrigation.  Even with commercially prepared combed tops you have to settle into working slowly, so it wets out thoroughly, yet doesn’t become a hideous felted mess by the time the mordanting and dyeing is done.

Basket of washed fleece

Basket of washed fleece

I confess I also love equipment. We have acquired a collection of 25L fermenting bins and steel bowls which work well for preparing bulk quantity of wool fibre.

Fermenting bins for mordanting

Fermenting bins for mordanting


We use the fermenting bins for all kinds of dyeing tasks. But having lots does make it easier to cold mordant lots of manageable sized pieces of wool or silk tops in parallel. I really did use all of these when preparating for a 2 day workshop for 10 feltmakers.

And when documenting the preparation, I couldn’t resist this layout.

Fermenting bins and steel bowls

Fermenting bins and steel bowls recalling Star Wars character R2D2?















What do I use the dyed tops for?

Well, there’s the challenge …

Somehow there’s usually more appeal in getting started on another dyeing project than planning to make something. My largest felted item so far is a small blanket I made for a retreat to the Isle of Lewis. This was entirely local Hebridean and Shetland fleece, in their natural colours.  The blanket was finished just in time, so still damp when I boarded the intercity train north. But it’s super soft and lightweight. I use it at home as a chair cover.

Hebridean and shetland fleece laid out for felting

Hebridean and shetland fleece laid out for felting


Felted blanket

Felted blanket, Hebridean and Shetland fleece.





























Ashley and I have made some needle felted animals and small sculpted heads. And I have an embellishing machine intending to combine plant dyed fleece with scrap yarn and fabric. But using it is still an aspiration.

Needle felted head

Needle felted head







Felted owls

Felted owls








Finally, here’s the bath when not being used for fleece washing or a mordanting marathon.

Bath when not in use for woolcraft

Bath when not in use for woolcraft











If you are interested in a workshop on mordanting for feltmakers don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Colour in Winter 2018

In January two years ago I ran a plant dye workshop for Region 5 of the International Feltmakers  Association. One thing leads to another and … by way of the IFA AGM last Spring, I was invited to run a similar workshop this January for the Region 7. And what a delight it was!
Thank you to Sally Sparrow for organising the event.

With my friend Brian’s most excellent vehicle (I don’t run a car), and not a little anxiety as to whether I had packed everything we needed, we installed my dye studio in a scout hall in the outskirts of Ipswich for the weekend.

Dye woerkshop2-small

The venue was large and well appointed with power sockets for my preferred heat sources – portable electric induction heaters (you can see them in the background in the picture above).

By the end of the weekend nine enthusiastic participants had applied a good palette of natural colour onto nearly 2kg of pre-mordanted fine wool and silk. If you would like to know more and see some great photos, check out Kim’s blog at flextiles here and here. Kudos to Kim, for the excellent write up!

We used home grown madder for pinks and reds, home grown weld for acid yellow and for blue we used bought in woad powder and natural indigo (because at this  time of year you can’t use fresh leaf). We also added in some oranges from dyer’s coreopsis and warm yellows from dyer’s chamomile, both from stock of our home grown, dried flowers.

Here are just some of the colours we obtained.

blog post washing line


Chamomile on silk-small



Madder recipe A on Woo-smalll








My aim was for people to get lots of hands on experience working with the dyebaths, to be free to spend most time on the colours that most interested them and get some theory and tips on good practice. I also like to make sure everyone goes home with enough fibre to use in a project. And finally, because I can’t resist the technical detail, there are handouts to read later.

blog post image drying rack

The workshop couldn’t have run without my two helpers. My partner Ashley ran the indigo vats at one end of the room while I set up madder and weld dye pots at the other. Brian Bond, a longstanding friend and collaborator, was invaluable as all round helper.

For inspiration, Brian brought along his glorious plant dyed and hand spun yarn and knitted garments to display. Ashley brought his current work in progress – darned squares of which he needs to make 144 to complete a blanket.  And I set out my collection of fabric and thread samples.

This kind of workshop has long been a regular feature of my local Spinners Dyers and Weavers Guild.  We usually hold these events outdoors on a long summer’s day which works really well for rinsing and drying. I’m looking forward to running the next plant dyeing day for the North Herts Guild of Spinners Dyers and Weavers on Saturday 26 May 2018.

Contact me if you are interested in hosting a plant dyeing workshop. I am open to designing events to suit specialist audiences.

Note on blue: We were using a combination of commercially produced woad powder and natural indigo. To save time at the workshop, these were made up into separate pre-reduced stock solutions.  We discovered that the woad powder was considerably less concentrated  than the natural indigo. As a result the woad stock solution was over-reduced. The natural indigo produced some very dark blues (see below). Whereas the woad vat was over-reduced and it wasn’t possible to apply a deep colour, no matter how many dips we did. We plan to do a controlled experiment comparing the strength of different commercially available woad powders – so check back for more details.

small dark indigo drying