In the spirit of spring and Easter, I’ve decided to spend time experimenting with some old pastimes that I left by the wayside after becoming tired of hauling equipment around — back and forth from coast to coast. Fresh out of college, instead of heading down a career track, I went off on my own self-directed art exploration. Natural dyes were a big part of that time for me. It’s the perfect way to justify spending hours and hours wandering around outdoors looking at plants, which I still love to do. Back in the day, much of my plant gathering was spent bicycling on the country roads surrounding Chapel Hill, NC with my pal, Peggy, a botanist. We’d come home with bags of goldenrod, poke berries and walnut hulls — all perfect for the dye pot. At that time I was dyeing yarn, mostly my own handspun, to weave into my latest creations.
Dyeing Easter eggs is a great way to get in the swing of making natural dyes so my first stop was the farmers market. My absolute favorite eggs at the University Farmers Market are Caity’s sold by Woodring Orchards. First of all, Caity is a young teen raising enough hens to sell eggs at the farmers market. I think that’s pretty great but I wouldn’t go back if the eggs weren’t delicious. I know there are lines for eggs at many of the other vendors and I’ve tried them all and these are by far the best. To top it off, they’re a beautiful mix of colors.
Next stop was Nash’s for a purple cabbage. Then my real score of the day was at the onion & sweet potato vendor, whose name I unfortunately don’t know. He was just setting up when I arrived and was pouring a huge bag of onions onto the table. He generously gave me all the onion skins I could stuff in my bag (and was happy to have his display cleaned up in the process). I pulled out a couple over-wintered beets from my garden and turmeric from the spice drawer (a great way to use up old spices). I also tried a big bunch of sorrel from the garden with very blah results so I won’t recommend trying that.
First you should know that even as the daughter of a scientist, I have a thing against measuring too carefully — it slows me down. So in this case, I just went with my instincts. I pulled out all the pots I own, and filled each with a different dye material — one with chopped red cabbage, another with 4 or 5 chopped beets, including the tops, a third with a big handful of onion skins and the last with 2 T or so of turmeric. In each case I covered the plant material with water, brought it to a boil, then simmered it for about 20 minutes. When you can see that most of the color is extracted from the plant material, let the dye cool before straining. (You may want to take the cabbage outdoors to cool).
Meanwhile hard-boil your eggs. If you haven’t tried Sally’s fool-proof method, do so now and I promise you’ll never go back. Some people suggest boiling your eggs right in the dye bath. I think it’s too hard to get the right intensity of color and still have the egg perfectly hard-boiled.
Once the dye bath is cool, strain it into a large measuring cup and add 1 T white vinegar for every cup of liquid. Carefully place your eggs into clean glass jars. Since Caity’s eggs are different colors, I experimented with different combinations. For example, the yellowish egg in the basket above started out a light green. I prefer the greenish tinge to the same yellow dye on a white egg. Pour the dye bath over the eggs, put a lid on your jar and leave in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight. My only real disappointment was with the beets. I checked them after a couple of hours and felt the pink was too pale so I left them overnight only to find a yucky, fleshy mauve color that didn’t make the photo but will definitely be eaten.
Once I removed the eggs, I let them dry and then rubbed them lightly with some olive oil for shine, removing any excess with a paper towel. It seemed like such a shame to throw the dyes out when there was still so much color in them. So I put the dyes in several trays, wet some watercolor paper and let it soak until I liked the color. I lifted each sheet out of it’s tray and carefully rinsed off the excess dye and set it on a towel on top of a wooden drying rack. These dyes will stain so use an old towel and don’t let it drip down to the surface below. Here’s an excellent tutorial from deviant art on how to dye paper.
Starting from the top here are my results on paper: turmeric, onion skins, beets and red cabbage.
It’s spring!! Learn something new or resurrect an interest from your past that makes you feel joy and wonder.