indigo love

Master dyer Jody McKenzie Harris has been dyeing yarn with plant dyes for a long time. Over the years she has colored a great variety of yarns and fibers. Her studio is brimming with colors to make you swoon. 

More than a year ago, we asked Jody if she’d be willing to dye a batch of Tern, our wool/silk blend, with indigo. She agreed, and after a major setback last summer—Jody’s well ran dry in our drought--she was able to finish the project this spring. We love how the yarn turned out—simply beautiful. A blue that one can never quite get to with anything but indigo. The yarn is very much worth the wait.

Lightest indigo drying (left); stirring paddles (right). 

Tell me about your interest in dyeing and color—where did it begin?

For as long as I can remember, I was intrigued by textiles, their cultural significance, how they were made, where their colors came from. I wanted to learn to make things myself. My mom sewed and taught me to sew as a child. My neighbor was a knitter and she taught me to knit. I always had a fascination with sheep and wool and hoped to someday have a handspinners flock of sheep. Dreams can come true and I got my first sheep by bartering with a friend.  At the time I didn’t know that all fleece was not created equal, and those first lambs did not have wool suitable for spinning.   Eventually I built up a handspinners flock and learned to spin.  My spinning teacher was also a dyer, so I asked her to teach me how to dye my handspun. As my flock grew, my stockpile of fleece grew too. Since I could no longer keep up with spinning everything I was producing,  I brought my fleece to Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, Vermont, to have custom yarn made. Next came marketing it. Having a natural colored flock, I had yarns of white, gray, and black. It was lovely yarn but the one thing missing was color.  That’s when I became serious about dyeing.

Why plant dyeing and not synthetic dyes?

My dyeing experience began with synthetic dyes. My spinning teacher, who was also a dyer, first taught me to dye.  She used synthetic dye, so that is what I first learned to use.  I really would have rather worked with natural dyes, as I had always been enamored with all things natural, but I was so eager to learn some kind of dyeing that I settled for synthetic.  

The dyes we used came in a vast array of colors and didn’t require mixing to create more complex  shades.  They were very simple to use; however,  they still didn’t appeal to me. I really wanted to use natural dyes on my beautiful natural yarns. It seemed unethical to put synthetics on natural fiber.  I started to explore natural dyes and looked for natural dyeing information and classes, and I read whatever I could get my hands on about plant dyeing.

Back then, I had to learn  from books or workshops.  Today there is so much information available at your fingertips on the internet. However, not all the information online is accurate, so that can be a mixed blessing.

Yarn in tank, ready for dye solution (left) ; Jody checks the color of the indigo bath to see if it is ready for more yarn to be dipped (right).

How did you learn?

I became involved with a group of fiber farmers through Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA) in western Massachusetts. The group was looking to collectively market their wool and finished products. We named ourselves Heritage Natural Fibers.

We had beautiful products to market but everything was available only in the natural color of the fleece.  We were committed to keeping our products natural, but the thing that was missing was color. The members of the group knew I was dyeing my own yarns with natural dyes. They asked me to teach them how to dye so I agreed to do a workshop.  I certainly wasn’t an expert but agreed to share what I knew.

After the workshop one member decided to invest in building a dye studio in order to provide dyeing service to all the producers in our group. I was asked to head up the project.  I agreed to get the project going but also had plans to go back to finish my undergraduate degree at Smith College in the fall. I had no intention of going further than getting the project off the ground.  I contacted Michele Wipplinger of Earthues in Seattle at the urging of Dave Ritchie of Green Mountain Spinnery (another member of our group), as he had heard she was going to be on the east coast.  At the time she was one of the few experts in the field. She agreed to meet with me when she was in the area.  Michele became my mentor and good friend, and I credit her with much of the knowledge that I have today.  Once the dyehouse was completed, I was offered the job of operating it and I couldn’t pass that up.  Botanical Shades at Tregellys Fibers was born. I did manage to go to Smith at the same time as running the dyehouse.  Four years later, I finished my degree as well as bought the dye business and moved it to Maine where I am today.

Steam rises as Jody hangs up dyed yarn to oxidize. It's hard to determine how deep the shade is when the yarn is wet. Sometimes it has to be overdyed to darken the saturation.

What do you like about plant dyes?

I admire the extraordinary hues that they produce.  They are alive, dynamic, yet simplistic.   They meld with each other and work in harmony, no matter the colors.  They are not harsh on the eye but gentle and soothing.   And they are part of nature, sustainable, and safe for the environment.

What are the limitations of plant dyes?

There are limitless possibilities with plant dyes.  Many are just as lightfast and washfast as synthetic dyes, but often that is misunderstood.  Some plants that people dye with do not actually dye the fiber but only stain it.  All stains will turn to gray over time but dyes will not.  (This is a prime example of where information on the internet can be misleading). Also, most plant dyes require a mordant.  I only use alum, a metallic salt which is safe for the dyer and the environment.  Traditionally many heavy metals (chrome, tin, copper) were used as mordants.  Unfortunately there are books being published today that give recipes that use those heavy metal mordants.  I never use them as they are not safe and disposal is definitely a problem.  Some of these mordants that I consider unsafe do produce an array of different colors from a single plant dyes.  Chrome intensifies colors, but is definitely unsafe and I would never use it.  Even though I do not think the use of these heavy metal mordants are an option, I see very few limitations as far as producing multiple colors from plant dyes with alum as a mordant.  I use a lot of natural dye extracts in my practice. I like the ability to mix the dyes together as the colors you can create by doing this are endless.

The limitations using plant dyes are in production work.  Generally natural dyes are costlier than synthetics, require more time, water,  and energy.  I try to conserve water usage as much as possible, reusing mordant baths as well as rinses. Another consideration with production work is the availability of natural dyes. If one needs large quantities of a dye it may not always be available as crop production can fluctuate year to year. Most dye plants are grown on a small scale which also limits the amount available.

What about using plant dyes on different fibers?

Plant dyes work wonderfully on natural fibers, both protein and cellulose.   Some dyes have an affinity for protein fibers and others for cellulose fibers, but most work on both.  Plant dyes do not take well on synthetic fibers, but I’m not sure why one would want to bother dyeing those fibers with natural dyes anyway.  The process of mordanting protein fibers is a bit different from mordanting cellulose fibers. I also use a different form of alum mordant depending on which fiber I am mordanting. Potassium aluminum sulfate is the form of alum I use on protein fibers.  When mordanting cellulose fibers (cotton, linen, ramie, hemp), I use a more refined and expensive form of alum, aluminum acetate .

What fiber do you most like to dye?

I really love dyeing most protein fibers - wool, silk, and angora.  They take most of the natural dyes beautifully. I have less experience dyeing cellulose fibers, but I am interested in doing more dyeing with  linen and cotton.

Are there any colors that you can’t get with plant dyes?

I can only address colors obtained with alum mordant, as I do not have experience with the heavy metals.  I use a lot of natural dye extracts that I can blend together before adding to the dyepot.  This enables me to create complex colors of many shades.  I also do a lot of overdyeing of basic colors with indigo to create an array of blues, greens, and purples.  It is actually amazing how many colors can be produced by plants!  The natural dye extracts often produce slightly different shades than raw plant materials do.  Even though I have been told that turquoise is not possible to produce from plant dyes, I have come close to it using the raw leaves of Japanese indigo plants.

You grow plants to use as dyestuffs. What are you growing right now?

I am growing Japanese indigo and weld, which I do most every year.  Last year I harvested my first crop of madder root. It takes a few years of growth before harvesting the roots.  I haven’t used those roots yet as I want to do a special project for myself with it. I have plans to increase the variety and quantities of dye plants in my dye garden. I definitely want to grow more madder.

For more on life as a plant dyer and to get in touch with Jody for yarn or color cards, visit her Facebook page, Botanical Shades,

A dyer's shelf.

Go to Tern indigo dyes

Seeking project inspiration for these beautiful blue shades? Visit our patterns written for Tern.

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