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privet berry surprise

Posted on Feb 10, 2011 by in natural dyes | 9 comments

In the area where I live (Marin County, California) there are lots of Privet trees (Ligustrum spp.), and I have always found them somewhat annoying because of all the seeds and berries that they drop on the ground, and which sprout up as new trees if you aren’t careful. But recently I read a reference to someone using the berries for dye, and when I did further research, I found that they were once used as a traditional dye source in the Scottish Highlands. (It’s important to note that Privet is an invasive species that has been outlawed in some areas, and that the berries and leaves are highly poisonous to both people and animals, although the berries are a food source for birds.)

Deciding to search for Privet berries since they are ripe this time of year, I took a walk around the neighborhood, and what should I find but a whole green waste bin full of privet clippings right on the sidewalk! I clipped off the stems of berries and filled a bag with them, then hurried home to make a dye bath.

berries from the Privet tree (Ligustrum spp.)

I left the berries to soak in a pot of rainwater for about 5 days, and then I put the pot on the heat to simmer for about 3 hours. An hour later I scooped my strainer into the pot to remove the stems and berries, and while wearing rubber gloves I gently squeezed the bunches of berries to release more juice. The liquid in the dye bath was a beautiful burgundy color.

I let the dye bath cool down a bit more before adding a skein of wool that had been mordanted with alum and cream of tartar. I slowly brought the liquid to a simmer, and left it on the heat for about half and hour. What a surprise…the yarn was now a light olive green color! I took the pot off the stove and left the yarn to soak in it over night. I haven’t yet done any testing for lightfastness, which I plan to do.

wool yarn mordanted with alum and cream of tartar, and dyed with Privet berries

I never thought that I would find a reason to love the Privet! Supposedly the berries can dye blue with alum and salt, and the leaves can also be used as a green dye, so I have further experimenting to do.

Note added March 7, 2011: Recently I made a second dye bath with Privet berries, and the yarn that I dyed came out a boring tan color. Not sure what happened, but I will try another batch at some point to see if I can get the green color again. Also, the piece of Privet-dyed green yarn that I left in the window for a few weeks has definitely faded somewhat.

Note added March 21, 2011: A friend on Ravelry mentioned that she read something in a book called Color Cauldron about the ripeness of the privet berries being a factor in the dye color. I had been wondering if that might be the case, because the second batch of berries weren’t quite as ripe as the first batch.

9 Comments

  1. That’s a gorgeous green!
    Thank you so much for documenting your dyeing experiments so thoroughly.
    I come from a region of France where this tree was very commonly used for hedging in the 1980s and 1990s. There are still loads of them around, so thanks to you, I’m now planning a little dyeing session next time I go visit my parents!
    I found your blog so informative I added it to the links on the resources page about dyeing on Historic Crafts: http://historic-crafts.com/

    • Hi Cecile, Thanks so much for your encouraging words, and for adding a link to my blog! I am glad to know about your blog as well, and look forward to reading about your experiments with privet. I have another batch simmering today, and will be experimenting a bit with pH to see what kind of color shifts are possible.

  2. Hello Dustin,

    I just discovered your blog and am enjoying it immensely! I am a floral designer up in Napa, and have been toying with the idea of using natural dyes to color my silk ribbons. It is wonderful to read about your endeavors, especially as we have access to similar wild materials here. I love what you have done with the privet! Any word on it’s color fastness and the results of the most recent PH experiments?

    Thank you so much for the inspiration!

    • Hi Jaime,

      Thanks for visiting my blog. I’m so glad you find it inspiring. Unfortunately, my second privet dye bath yielded a boring tan on wool, so I want to try again to see if I can re-create the green, and then proceed with pH experiments.

      I just visited your blog and website, and your work is beautiful. Good luck with your experiments with natural dyes!

  3. hey dustin…..interesting blog. there are privet trees all around where i live, in the piney woods of Louisiana. Berries are formed and are in the ripening process and I look forward to doing some dyeing with them……have you tried any more? Also, what about persimmons? ever tried them? Got a persimmon tree loaded with ripening fruit (also loaded with bagworms). I hope the bagworms don’t kill the fruit. btw, I used to live in Bolinas, and in Forest Knolls, Sea Ranch, Anchor Bay and SF.

    • Hi Joe, You have lived in some of my favorite places! Have fun with the abundance of privet berries in your area. I haven’t done any more dyeing with them myself. I did take a class where we dyed with fermented persimmon juice (kakishibu), but I didn’t prepare the dye. It can make the fabric quite stiff, and in fact has long been used to waterproof textiles in Japan. I have heard that this is a good book: http://www.weavezine.com/content/kakishibu-traditional-persimmon-dye-japan. Good luck with your projects.

  4. I used privet berries and seawater and obtained a pleasant pink brown on wool and a greener brown on cotton in the same dye batch. I then added lime to increase the pH and the dye water turned green and I dyed more wool and cotton and it is a green brown. Previously when I used privet berries and tap water I made a soft brown on wool. I had hoped to make blue today and the seawater without lime dye was at first pretty blue on top but went purplish, duller and duller and eventually brown. If I add lemon juice to the dye it turns red. Adding green dye (with lime) to lemon juice slowly causes the colour to change from bright red to duller and duller, then brown which switched from red brown to green brown. It did not go blue which was what I was trying to find out.

  5. I have just checked my wool and cotton and the green is going from them as they dry out. Now they are a grey brown. The pink brown is holding its colour.

    • Thanks for sharing your results, Rosamund. I never tire of this type of experimentation with botanical color!

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