Pioneers and country people have used black walnuts to dye cloth for centuries. Black walnut hulls turn wool and silk fabric a medium to dark brown. Cotton and linen usually become a greyish or brownish shade that's not as dark. The results on synthetic fibres can be unpredictable.
English walnuts and butternuts make a similar dye, though it may not be as dark. Unlike most natural dyes, walnuts don't require a mordant (a separate chemical bath) to prevent their colour from fading.
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Things you need
- Enamel or stainless steel pot
- Stick or wooden spoon
Collect black walnut hulls when the nuts fall from the trees in autumn. Wear rubber gloves to protect your hands from stains. The part you need is the outer hull, so you can either use the complete nuts, which requires the least labour but wastes the insides, or save just the hulls after removing the inner shell and nutmeat for eating. About 2 gallons of whole nuts are enough to dye a pound of fabric, though more will dye a darker shade. Use the nuts immediately or store them in covered buckets and allow the hulls to turn dark and soften.
Put the nuts or hulls in a large enamelware or stainless steel pot, fill the pot with water and simmer it on the stove for an hour. Use rubber gloves and an apron when handling the liquid, since it will stain. If not all the nuts will fit in the pot at once, simmer the first batch and ladle out the nuts, discarding them and leaving the brown water in the pot. Add more nuts and more water if necessary and simmer again for an hour. Repeat until you've simmered all the nuts.
Ladle out the nuts, discard them and strain the dark liquid through cheesecloth to remove any bits of hull or other debris. Use the resulting dye full strength or, especially if you've simmered several batches of nuts, dilute it with an equal amount of water or more, depending on how light or dark you want to dye your fabric. Replace the pot containing the dye on the stove and bring it to a simmer again.
Cut a small scrap of the fabric you want to dye, to test the colour. Put it in the dye-pot and let it simmer for half an hour, then remove it and rinse it thoroughly in clear water. Dry it, since the colour may appear darker when it's wet. Speed up drying with a hairdryer or clothes dryer. If you want the colour darker, plan to leave the fabric in the dye longer, though it may not become much darker unless you add more dye extracted from more nuts. If you want the final colour to be lighter, dilute the dye-bath more or take the fabric out sooner.
Wet the fabric you want to dye, wring it out, then immerse it in the dye bath. Stir it and turn it with a stick or large wooden spoon, making sure the dye soaks all parts of it. Keep the dye-bath simmering and stir the fabric regularly for half an hour or however long you've decided to dye it.
Remove the fabric and rinse it until the rinse-water runs clear. Hang it up to dry.
Tips and warnings
- Use a pot that's large enough for the fabric to move freely when you stir it so the dye reaches all areas evenly.
- Wash the fabric to be dyed beforehand, even if it's new, to remove any chemicals or sizing left over from the manufacturing process. If you're dyeing used fabric, wash it with a strong detergent to remove any grease or body oils so it will absorb the dye evenly.
- Wear rubber gloves and an apron and protect your skin and clothing from the nuts and dye, since they will stain! Heat the dye-pot in a ventilated area.
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