Dyeing yarn with walnuts


The past few weeks I have been scurrying trying to collect walnuts before my squirrel friends get them. Its been a mad dash filling up my buckets before the winter sets in. Now I am not depriving the squirrels of food for the winter. I keep only the husks and then I put the nuts minus the husks out for the squirrels. But they don’t seem to understand. They sneak into the shed and get in my buckets when I am not looking and steal my treasure. Really if they would just be patient I will give them what they want and they won’t even have to chew through the nasty green covering before they get to the food.
I will share if they will!! There is plenty for everyone.

Here is a view of one of my neighbors walnut trees–can you see the nut hanging from the branch? No… take a closer lookSee them now… two golden brown nuts just waiting for the right moment to drop.

The fun begins with collecting the nuts. Every morning in the fall I collect while we walk the dog. I pass several houses that have walnut trees and the owners are quite happy to let me pick up the nuts that fall. What you can’t see the nut in the picture above? –here’s a closer look

This morning there were so many leaves that it was hard to see the nuts so instead I shuffled through the leaves stopping every time my feet felt a lump and was rewarded with a big golden nut each time I stooped over to pick through the yellow and brown leaves. I could have picked up way more nuts than I did but I already have 6 dye buckets set up and I am quickly running out of room in the shed. The water in them is already a dark brown. I have even dyed some yarn already.I am very pleased with this yarn first I dyed it orange with cosmos flowers then I over dyed it with walnuts. This winter it will turn into a sweater for my son.

I think walnut is my favorite natural dye–I know– I say that about almost every dye I set up. So maybe I should change that to the easiest natural dye. Now I really take the easy way with this dye. Walnut doesn’t need a mordant so you don’t have to treat the yarn first. There is one less step. Normally I don’t even heat the dye so there is another step eliminated. 

I do set aside some time to de-husk nuts. I have occasionally skipped this step too. But the husks with nuts take up way more room than the husks alone. And beside I do like to share the nuts with the squirrels. And who knows maybe one of these days a walnut tree will sprout up out of a nut that the squirrels have buried and forgotten.

Now either I am much stronger than I look or our local walnuts are not very tough because I don’t have to pound these open with a sledge hammer and rocks. Or drive over them with my car. I just use my small garden pruner and slice the husk in a couple of areas and pry the husk off. With most of the nuts this is very easy to do. On a few unripe ones it is tougher. I could throw the whole nut into the water but usually I just toss it over my shoulder and the previously mentioned squirrel  will take care of that nut for me.

I have a little system I place a 5 gallon pail lined with a strainer bag(check out paint stores to buy these) by my chair and a smaller bucker next to it. I pull on my heavy duty rubber gloves. These heavy duty gloves are probable my most important piece of equipment for dyeing. If you don’t wear them your hands will be stained brown and no amount of scrubbing will get it off- you have to wait weeks while it wears off. Last year I used a double layer of surgical gloves on my hands and the dye managed to seep through the 2 layers and stained my fingers. Then I just start dehusking the nuts. Some nuts are a little brown and rotten so it doesn’t take much to wiggle the husk away from the nut. Others require a little more work. You could use an old steak knife from the kitchen but I find a pruning shears that I also use in the garden is the perfect tool I just slice the outer husk and then twist and the husk pops right off. Throw the husk in the bigger bucket and the nuts into the smaller bucket and before you know it your bucket will be full of the husks. You may notice a few wiggling little wormy things in your husks but don’t be alarmed–they won’t hurt your dye at all. Just pretend they aren’t there if you are a little squimish. Once the buckets are full give the squirrels the nuts and then cover the husks with water. You will see the water turn brown immediately. And that is all it takes. Really– just put the bucket aside and wait for a week or two and you can start using it. Like I said I usually don’t even heat my dye water. I just grab the strainer bag in the bucket and lift it out and put my wool into the liquid. Some times I even put the strainer bag back into the bucket and just leave it to soak. This dye last a very long time. I just threw out the walnut dye from last fall and there was still brown left in it. The older brown dye tends to be a little dull but you can still layer it with other colors to make the brown richer.

The one and only time I had a little of trouble with walnut dye was during the winter. When I went to put my yarn in the dye bucket on a cold morning there was ice on the top. I should have known this would be a problem but I was determined to have some brown on my yarn and I lifted the strainer bag out of the bucket and dropped my yarn into the brown water and went about my business for 2 days at the cabin. Before going home I took the yarn out of the bucket and let it dry for a 8 hours and then gave it a little rinse but much to my dismay the beautiful dark brown started rinsing out too. So I quickly stopped and put my yarn into a ziplock bag and took it home with me. Once I was home I left it in the laundry room slop sink to warm up for a couple of days. And you know what — that did the trick. Once the yarn reached room temperature and sat- the dye absorbed into the yarn and when I rinsed again it stayed brown. I also could have simmered it to fix the color but I don’t like to cook dyes in the house – we don’t want to breath the fumes even though these are ‘natural’ dyes they could be harmful to breath. So I prefer to do all my dyeing outside over the fire pit or in a Nesco roaster that I only use for dyeing in the garage.

So this is how I dye with walnuts(above is me in a sweater I recently finished-it is dyed with walnuts and cosmos). I know I skip some of the steps other people use but my yarn is color fast and I think the colors are beautiful. I think this streamlined dyeing is an easy way to begin experimenting with natural dyes. It doesn’t take much work to set up. And the only necessary equipment is a bucket or a container, water and nuts.

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10 Responses to Dyeing yarn with walnuts

  1. I love the brown for Chuck’s sweater! Such a beautiful, and rich shade. Lucky duck! (I also can’t believe the trees in WI are already losing their colored leaves, ours here in TN haven’t even started yet.)

    • whatzitknitz says:

      I know it seems too early for the cool weather — it has actually been in the low 30*s some mornings! but on the other hand it is October and its time for the leaves to turn color in Wisconsin.
      Chuck’s sweater will be gorgeous I think if the color is any indication ; )

  2. lynn says:

    Oh thank you for this! So very cool -I love your sweater- and it was so fun to read along with your process. What I have available is Hickory – and I very much want to experiment with it in a similar way.

    • whatzitknitz says:

      there are a couple of hickory trees close by but my squirrel buddies must really love the nuts because I have found only a few nuts. I had to look up on google if you could make a dye the same way and you can!!
      http://www.mrsoshouse.com/plants/hickory.html here is one site that talks about it. One site said you had to add vinegar and heat but I think you could take the easy way out just like I did for walnuts. Just set the husks in a jar or bucket and leave to soak and see what happens.
      I hope you give it a try- I think you will love the beautiful browns you get.

  3. baamekniits says:

    You have made that sound so easy and it looks beautiful all knitted up into a sweater. I wonder if that would work with some of our bark here? I dont have anywhere to do the heating outside but the bucket method would be fine in the sun to warm it up….will have to do some research now as we dont have any nuts. We do have macadamia nuts do the husks from them give off a colour do you know?

    • whatzitknitz says:

      I would love to live somewhere that had macadamia nuts growing. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t share with the squirrels ; ) I had to look this up on google and found a mention in this blog http://annettsibson.blogspot.com/2011/02/macadamia-nuts-anyone.html
      it looks like you can use the same process I did.
      there are other materials that I have tried and usually I experiment by putting it in a jar with water and see if I get a color and then I add wool to see if the color will adher.
      with trees material or nut husk I don’t have to use a mordant. the mordant is what helps the fiber grab the color. Some trees have tannins and that is a natural mordant. plant materials and flowers don’t have tannins so I have to mordant the yarns first.
      I love the sweater that I knit with my walnut yarn. It is a test knit for my friend Jana at http://justblocked.blogspot.de/ It was a fun and easy knit!!

  4. Peg says:

    Great post! Yesterday while looking for something else in the garage I found a bag of walnuts I had “squirreled” away last fall. I was over the moon because you know it’s hard to find walnut trees here and I paid about a buck at the mkt. for these. I was sure the squirrels had found them and hauled them off. Instead of doing the garden chores I was supposed to be doing, I smashed the skins off (they had dried), boiled them and overdyed the failed woad yarn from a couple of weeks ago! I’m going to copy you and do some cosmos today (still going here, but we have a hard frost coming) and try dipping the wool in the walnut liquid. I learn so much from you, big sister!

    • whatzitknitz says:

      I am surprised that the squirrels didn’t find the walnut before you did. they are so active in my yard hunting down anything that I may have stored away. the past week I have been watching an all white squirrel sneak past Meva to get to the bags of walnuts I have sitting out by the shed.
      this morning there was ice on the truck’s windshield — winter is almost here!!

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