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Dyeing Wool the Colonial Way

November 11, 2014 Think THF

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It was crisp morning at the far end of the Village when I came in to work on a Sunday last month, sunshine hitting the fallen leaves and brightening up the inside of the 1760 Daggett Farmhouse. It was a perfect day for wool dyeing in the way of the colonial time period, and just about the time of year that Anna Daggett herself may have had some time to experiment with colors.

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Having never actually seen the process of the yarn accepting the color, I’ll admit to being quite skeptical. In today’s world of numerous synthetic colors where everything can be purchased in a variety of shades, I didn’t really know if all these natural plants, nuts, roots, and flowers that we had harvested could pull off the vibrancy and richness I envisioned. Boy, was I in for a treat.

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As it had been my first time getting involved with the process, I was under the wing of the house lead of the home – who has had much experience with wool and dyes in the past. Over the course of the week previous, we had prepared fifty skeins of yarn to put color to.  These skeins had to be mordanted first, which is the process of soaking the yarn in a bath of water and a mineral, such as alum, copper, or tin. The mordant is what prepares the fibers of the wool to open up and accept the dye color of whatever variety is being used.

The day of the dyeing, just outside the Daggett home, we had a decent sized fire with numerous copper pots hanging right above the tips of the flames.  In each pot was the pouch of dye submerged in water, of which needed to be fairly warm but not yet to a boil. The skeins of yarn are then added into the pots and generally had to remain in the dye solution over the fire for close to 1 to 2 hours before absorbing full color.

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The second you raise the yarn out of the pot is when the magic becomes visible. It is the moment you really realize if the process has worked or not, and if you achieved the color you worked so hard to get. I wouldn’t want to brag of course, but I will say that for my first wool dyeing experience, I got to witness the production of some brilliant success in the way of color.

Deep browns from black walnuts gathered around the Village, a range of gorgeous magentas that came from the bark of brazil wood – native to South America. Oranges from henna, madder root, and annatto seed (which is still a product used today to give the color to many a cheese we find in the grocery store!), and denim blues from indigo – a dye product that Anna Daggett would have had to purchase as it was not native to the colonies in 1760. Pinks came from pokeberry, an inedible berry to humans, and from cochineal, part of a beetle who feeds off a prickly pear cactus – also something that Anna would have had to purchase. Alkanet gave a range of silvery blue grays and a green skein, and logwood provided deep purples. Yellows came from the buds and petals of plants like tansy and calendula, found in the Daggett garden.

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As you can see from the pictures here, the colonists had access to many a color – perhaps more than what many of us imagine. This fun, educational experience of wool dyeing in the fashion of 1760 was a treat to the ladies working at Daggett and visitors alike.

Jordan Taylor is Supervisor of Domestic Life Programs at The Henry Ford.

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