On obtaining reds from Eucalypts

I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to get stronger colours, and especially red to burgundy, from Eucalypts.  I’ve had occasional, but not dependable, success.

I have had the thought that the temperature of a dye bath might affect the colour obtained from eucalypts several times.  In particular, I’ve had the thought that relatively low temperatures might be required to obtain reds. Bear with me in my ignorance about chemistry… I’ve had this idea when thinking about the way that madder turns toward brown if heated too much. The chemical constituents are not the same, but perhaps their reaction to heat could be.   I’ve had the same idea reading the inspiring Karen Casselman’s Craft of the Dyer, in which she mentions that tannin bearing plant dyes will move toward brown if overheated.  I’ve certainly obtained many oranges from boiled eucalypt dyebaths.  I had this idea about reds and temperature again reading this glorious and informative post by Dustin Kahn and her comments.  I had it when reading Ravelry and coming across very infrequent references to people achieving red from eucalypts of unknown variety, in which I’ve noticed slow cooker or crockpot methods seem to get success sometimes, suggesting low temperatures and long processing.  I’ve noticed that when I’ve achieved red or maroon shades I’ve considered temperature to be a factor sometimes.

I used to use two gas burners that would do ‘boiling hard’ or ‘blowing out’ with only luck in between, and a lot of turning on and turning off to manage my results.  Now that I have hobs that will allow relatively finely tuned temperature control, I think it is time to test this theory a bit more systematically. I’ve tried to test it before and been unable to replicate anything close to red. More recently I tested it again and felt that while keeping the pot at a simmer close to but below boiling is a good idea in order not to create felt, the lower temperatures I trued did not generate reds and sometimes were too low for good fixation. For the time being I am letting go of my temperature theory.  So what are the other factors?

It is beyond question that the variety of eucalypt will predict the range of colours that are possible.  I have best results with E Scoparia, E Cinerea, E Kingsmillii Alatissima and E Sideroxylon in the red range and of these, the best is E Scoparia bark in my own experiments.

I’ve found that sheer quantity of dyestuff to fibre is a factor in achieving any strong colour, certainly including red, but it is not a guarantee.  Dustin Kahn reported using 340g fresh E Sideroxylon leaves and stems to 10g yarn to obtain brick red (and then achieved yellow and orange on two other 10g skeins).  I am convinced that time is a factor.  Rebecca Burgess and Dustin Kahn both report heating their dyestuffs for long periods with cooling in between (which I have found changes the colour but not in a red direction necessarily). The redoubtable Ida Grae reports achieving red from E Cinerea only after 3 hours of simmering.

India Flint recommends acidity as influencing brightness of colour, but I have to admit having tried it without being confident it made a difference–hence, more experiments needed, preferably with higher acidity levels. At a recent workshop, we had two E Scoparia bark pots running.  We did a trial and put vinegar in one pot and not the other.  The no-vinegar pot gave brown on alum mordanted superwash wool and alum mordanted alpaca.  Brown surprised me, but I wouldn’t usually use alum.  We’d run out of unmordanted wool in the mix that day.  In the with-vinegar pot, grey handspun wool with no mordant came out burgundy, which was very exciting!  Polwarth locks with no mordant came out brilliant orange, and the alum mordanted skeins of alpaca and alpaca blends came out toward the red end of orange.  We cooked them on as low a heat as we could–but the no vinegar pot was bigger, so heat control was easier.

So… I am continuing to experiment with favourite species, no excessive heat (wasteful in any case), a high ratio of dyestuff to fibre and acidity.

Here are the latest findings: red on alpaca!  Burgundy on the wool samples, rosy pink and orange on silk thread.  The top sample used E Scoparia (dried leaves) and The lower samples used dried E Cinerea leaves, both with white wine vinegar.




Filed under Dye Plants, Eucalypts, Natural dyeing

18 responses to “On obtaining reds from Eucalypts

  1. I read a recent post of India’s that did cover the heat factor. Too much heat (or in the case of fabric bundles too long of a boil)….. will turn the oranges of eucalyptus brown. So it sounds like you are on the right track!
    That burgundy color is awesome!


    • Time is one of those things I find mysterious. I can’t agree with India Flint on this on the basis of my own observations. I bow to her far more extensive expertise and understanding of the process and the plants, but cannot say I find the same thing at all. Clearly something I do is different… or there is some place where I read and read and trey and try but fail to completely understand. It sure wouldn’t be the only time or context either of these things happened!


  2. what are we all going to do when we nail this ?? great article I will be more aware on my heat control, but it is always hard to know how long especially when I only bundle.


    • Yes… there are continuing mysteries. But when you look at how long people have been using indigo and madder and how complex conversations about them continue to be, maybe the mystery and experimentation is necessary–inherent– as well as part of the delight.


  3. What a great presentation of information..and such beautiful work. The depth of the color is amazing.


  4. Yes to all these thoughts! I’m looking forward to seeing the results of your experimentation. Absolutely fascinating.


  5. mstery

    I have had some success in getting intense colour by boiling for a couple of hours, leaving it to cool overnight and boiling for a couple of hours again the next day. Using vinegar water. It doesn’t seem to make much difference if I leave it for any time ( eg days) before unwrapping rather than unwrapping it once it’s cooled.

    And then, there are times when the results are less than impressive……


    • I always take bundles out of the water unless I’m heating them, myself… and sometimes reheat later. And yes, unwanted surprises sure do happen. I have one in my dye pot right now 🙂


  6. I got bright red (on the orange end of red) leaf prints from cinnerea (florists waste in the UK) on wool gauze in a bundle that I cooked for far longer than an hour, as I left them on the woodburner as it burned down after I went to bed and they had a good hour before that. I always put vinegar in the boiling water (rainwater), and the local eucalypt leaves that only do dark grey/dark khaki with iron, but that doesn’t really penetrate the bundle. I too was expecting brown because of what India says about overcooking


    • I certainly have obtained lovely colours from long cooking, though it can be hard on your fibres. There are so many variables–I don’t know whether my results really differ from India’s or there is some missing link in my understanding! I uncovered some of those when I went to her workshop, for sure.


  7. I rely on the bundle to protect the fibres, though I do find that fine hand-knitted cashmere gets a bit cooked and flattened, even when it’s only half an hour. that’s what I started doing this with, trying to jolly up unwanted samples – and the shops liked them, didn’t seem to notice the handle is a bit off … (I have a business designing and having high end handknits made, selling to shops round the world) … of course, having started, I got hooked on it! 🙂


    • Ah… I do eco-print, and the bundling helps a lot. But I also dye yarns and fibres prior to spinning, where the risk to the fibres is greater and creating felt is pretty easy!


  8. yes, I bet, you will have to be very careful! lovely outcomes though.


  9. well I had another go last night on some milky merino jersey – some elderly florists waste e. cinnerea leaves and sprays, quite dried out, along with the e. gunnii from my friend. It took ages to get up to the boil, but after an hour i went to bed, leaving it on my woodburner. i would estimate that it got a couple of hours at top temp. it was still nice and warm this morning. I let it cool then opened it this afternoon – and the rusts from the cinnerea are really zingy and quite reddish! I boiled it with lots of holm oak leaves and a splash of vinegar in rainwater. you can see photos on my blog – http://janewheeler.co.uk/blog/2014/04/13/catching-up-on-the-dyeing-experiments/ plus other things I have been trying out … if you like! 🙂


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