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the beautiful browns of walnut dye

Posted on Nov 15, 2010 by in natural dyes | 4 comments

In mid-September I started picking up black walnuts (in the hull) that the squirrels had missed as they fell to the driveway. After collecting about 38 of them, I put them in a 1-gallon glass jar, filled it with water, and covered it. Over the following weeks I watched the liquid get darker, and twice scraped a bizarre looking film of mold off the top of the water. Last Friday I finally found time to make a dye bath, and I was very pleased with the result.

yarns dyed with black walnut hulls (some overdyeing described in post)

Although the liquid was pretty dark, I decided to simmer it with the walnuts to extract even more pigment. I let it simmer for an hour, and then strained the liquid to remove the walnuts before putting it back on the stove. I wet three skeins of yarn and lowered them into the dye bath, which I kept on a low flame. One of the skeins was undyed merino wool, the other two were an alpaca/wool blend, previously dyed a light gold color with madrone bark. I was not pleased with the result of my madrone bark dye (probably not enough bark in the dye bath), so decided to overdye them with walnut. One of the madrone skeins was mordanted with alum, all other skeins were unmordanted.

I left the pot on the heat for an hour, and then turned it off to let it cool down before removing the yarn. I finally remembered the yarn 2-1/2 hours later, and opened the pot to discover the most delicious looking dark brown yarn (center skeins in photo)! Pleased with the result, I decided to continue overdyeing two more skeins of madrone bark-dyed yarn (left in photo) and a skein of mushroom dyed yarn (top in photo), plus a skein of cotton/bamboo yarn that was pale pink from Dermocybe semi-sanguinea (right in photo). Again, one of the madrone skeins was mordanted with alum, all other skeins were unmordanted. The skeins on the left are a warm chestnut brown, but the photo doesn’t really do justice to the colors. The bamboo/cotton skein on the right is a lovely taupe color.

These skeins I kept over low heat for a half hour, then removed them right away. The liquid in the dye bath is still very dark, and the walnuts look like they might have more pigment, so I am keeping everything to make another dyebath so I can experiment with fabrics too.

These are not colors that I normally wear, but I have been wanting to knit a hat for my partner (and he looks great in autumn colors), so off to Ravelry I go to hunt for patterns!

Note added on December 18: A friend of mine saw the hat and loved it, and it looked great on her, so it became hers. (I’ll have to make a different hat for Julian.) See the finished hat here.

Soaking and then simmering fresh walnuts from a Black Walnut tree (Juglans nigra) will yield a beautiful brown dye.

Yesterday I walked in a local woodland and collected oak galls, which I will experiment with and write about soon.


  1. Thanks for sharing that info! I look forward to when I can collect some of our walnuts for dyeing – sulphur crested cockatoos take great delight in destroying the tips of our nut trees and the walnuts are usually the most damaged.

    • Hi Joy, Your comment intrigued me, so I clicked on the link to your blog. Love the video of the wild horses. I’ll be back to read more of your posts. Didn’t see an “About” page, so I wasn’t sure where you were located, but am guessing Australia.

  2. Hey! That’s my hat in that basket! 🙂

    • Yup. That’s your hat in its pre-knitted form. Good thing it wasn’t quite right for Julian, ’cause it’s perfect for you! I’ll be adding a photo of it soon.