Dying Wool with Black Walnuts

If you have goats who are willing to help, don’t let them.

There has been a lot of walnut dying happening here lately…and walnuts are not just for brown! Dying wool (or cotton, or silk) with walnuts is an excellent intro to natural dying. The process is very flexible and the results are reliably gorgeous. I’m going to describe the process I use, as well as modifications you can make.

First, gather a bunch of walnuts. If you  have a 5 gallon Menards bucket, use that – especially if it is dirty. If you have goats who are willing to help, don’t let them. Mostly, they will be wondering if they can eat the things in your dirty bucket and they’ll tip the bucket over trying to find out. They will do this a stupefying number of times, no matter how firmly you try to explain that the inedible contents of the dirty bucket are exactly the same as they were two minutes ago, when they last knocked it over.

Walnuts will be found in many conditions, including unblemished fully green husks, bruised husks, and dried cracked mummy husks. All of these can be thrown into a pot of water – as is – and will make a lovely dye. Cold water. Warm water. Soak for an hour. Soak for a week. Throw your yarn in with the walnuts, or strain the dyebath before putting in your yarn. Whatever! It will all work.

I have visions of cracking the nut inside the husk and obtaining the walnut halves inside. This is madness because the shells are unbelievably hard. We did research to find the one tool that will crack them and still haven’t been brave enough to try. There are stories of Native Americans using rocks to crack the husks and the idea impresses me without end. But, I am an optimist (and apparently a squirrel), so I enjoy collecting the nuts with visions of winter evenings cracking shells by the fire. This requires relieving the nut of its husk.

I do this with a pickup truck.

Once the nuts are smashed it is easy to separate the husk from the nut. Oh! Do this bit with gloves. Unless you want your hands to be stained brown for the next month. Your call. I’m not judging.

Some of the husks – especially the ones with brown spots – will be home to little white worms in various stages of development. I don’t get squeamish easily, but I’m not fond of the worms. If you have chickens helping you with this process, it is now their turn to scratch around in the broken husks and eat up the worms. Mostly, they will just scatter your walnuts over a large area with their scratching, and they will only eat a few of the worms. I scrape the worms out of the husks (or abandon the ones that are too infested for my sensibilities), but other dyers just throw them in the pot stating that the worms become part of the dye.

Ok. That’s enough about worms.

At this point, I tossed all the husks into bags and plopped them into a freezer. You can use the husks to make a dyebath now, freeze them like I did, or set them somewhere to dry for later use. I’ve never used dried husks, but I am told they are not quite as potent as fresh. I have noticed no difference between using fresh husks or frozen ones.

To make a dyebath, I put the husks into a pillowcase which is in my dye pot, cover with water and simmer for an hour. I let the bath cool overnight and dye the next day. The pillowcase helps keep debris, like dirt and little husk flakes, contained. If you don’t have a pillowcase or bag you are willing to sacrifice, you could pour your dyebath through a strainer, or just not care that there will be little flecks of nature in your yarn.

I don’t measure any part of this, but if you want to experiment or get more repeatable results, you could measure the total weight of your husks. Often, in natural dying, the recommendation is 1:1 dye material to the weight of what you’re dying. So, a pound of wool would require a pound of walnut husks (or goldenrod stems, or whatever). But, varying the strength of your natural dye, or the amount of time your yarn sits in your dye, will often result in a variety of colors.

The first mini in this photo is undyed. The next three colors were obtained by varying the strength and timing in the dye bath. If you are looking to dye a very light brown, I recommend doing it after you’ve dyed darker colors. Let the first few yarns soak up most of the dye, and then dye your lighter colors. That lightest skein actually stayed in the dyepot the longest, but was dyed after the other two. Walnut dye is very potent and clings to wool quickly. When I’ve tried to get a light color in a strong dyebath, even a quick dip of 10 seconds has resulted in a rich medium brown.

An important thing to note is that walnut dye will never exhaust. When using acid dyes, a general rule is that you let the wool sit in the dye bath until all the color is absorbed and the bath is clear. That won’t ever happen with walnut (or many natural dyes). So, when your wool is submerged, it will look darker than it really is. To see what your yarn actually looks like, pull a bit out of the bath and squeeze the water out. It will be noticeably lighter, and when it dries, it will be a little lighter still.

You don’t need any mordant with walnut dyes. I’ve noticed no difference between using unmordanted wool, and wool mordanted with alum. Iron, however, causes a delightful change in hue. Iron is typically used as a post-dye modifier, meaning you dye your wool and then dip it in an iron bath to change the color. Iron usually darkens whatever you’ve dyed. The last mini in the photo above was dipped in iron. I made a warm water bath with 12 grams of iron for 1 pound of wool. I purchased iron mordant from The Woolery (it is quite inexpensive), but you can also throw some rusty metal into a pot to make your iron bath – though this is less precise.

The color change is nearly instant, but I simmered the wool for a half hour (180F). After I finished with the darker colors, I made a charming gray with the exhaust of both the walnut dyebath and the iron modifier bath. I dunked a few wet skeins of wool into the used dyebath for just a few minutes. I squeezed out the water and plopped them into the iron exhaust (now cold), for about 20 seconds. Isn’t this a fabulous gray?

Walnut dying is a ton of fun with so many color possibilities! I have a bunch of husks in the freezer for winter experimentation, so there may be more soon! I did a test batch of self-striping sock yarn, but I’m a little concerned about how walnut dye holds up against potentially sweaty feet… Any experience with that? I’m going to knit a little swatch to wear in my store-bought socks for a day and see what happens. More soon!!

Author: JoAnnaSpring

Knitter. Spinner. Farmer. Obsessed with wool.

One thought on “Dying Wool with Black Walnuts”

  1. Ooh, thank you so much for this detailed post. I first tried dyeing with walnuts last year, and have a skein of self-striping in MCN. BUT, my stripes are pretty indistinct – it is a subtle look! I collected more walnuts last month, and will try again with the iron step next time.
    No goats or chickens to help here…..and I’ve had to hide the walnuts up so the squirrels don’t find them too.
    Thanks again.


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