When you look at wool, have you ever stopped to think about how it takes on its rich, vibrant colors? The practice of dyeing wool dates back centuries and was an important part of the work of Sam and Anna Daggett.
On the Daggett Farm in 1760 Connecticut, Sam and Anna raised sheep and owned a loom for the weaving of wool in their home. Dyeing was a big part of the process.
Today’s synthetic dyes hadn’t been invented when the Daggetts would have been dyeing wool. Instead, they used a natural process using the materials found in nature.
Various colors can be obtained through plants. For example, logwood, which is imported from the rainforest, produces beautiful purple colors, whereas madder root, which is actually grown in Greenfield Village, creates red and orange variations.
“Many of the dyes used back then are of ancient origin, some are imported; others can still be grown in the new world. Here, we use a combination of new and old world dye matter,” explains Cathy Cwiek, our Manager of Historic Foodways and Domestic Life programs.
What kind of materials can be used to create different colors?
Woad: an ancient plant dye that we use to create the color blue
Pokeberry: a weed that creates a pink dye
Osage Orange heartwood shavings: create a fluorescent yellow
Cochineal: a small insect that feeds on prickly pear cacti and gives off a red color. (A favorite of Cathy’s, it’s used as a natural dye in food products, too)
How do we dye wool in Greenfield Village?
First, we have to shear the sheep. This takes place once a year, usually in the spring.
Next, we pick and wash the fleece.
Then, the wool fibers are pulled in one direction by small hand cards (brushes) to help soften and untangle the wool. This process would take families months. Carding machines were later invented to mechanize the process.
The wool is then spun and turned into yarn on a spinning wheel.
Before dyeing, the yarn is wound into skeins.
Skeins are soaked in a mordant, a chemical that helps set colors to fabrics. We use vinegar and alum as a mordant for most plants, and spectralite for indigo plants. This can be done prior to dyeing or the mordant can be put in the dyeing pot.
To prepare the dye pot, put plant matter in a loose cloth and simmer until the color is extracted. Simmer wool in dye pot until the desired color is reached.
Rinse the wool.
The time required for this process varies depending on the kind of plant material being used and desired color. After that’s done, the wool is ready for a variety of uses.
“We knit hats, mittens, socks, scarves and anything else families would wear in that time period. It’s really a rewarding process,” Cathy said.
As you think about dyeing your own wool, look around you for inspiration.
“Experiment. Recently, I found a bright orange/yellow fungus growing on a tree. I dried it out and now I’m excited to see what color it will produce!” Cathy said.
Take a look at this video to see the dyeing process in action here at The Henry Ford.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.