Once upon a time, I had a favorite white sweater. It was a roll-neck pullover from J.Crew in soft cotton and cashmere.
But favorite white sweaters tend to become careworn. Seams came undone. Stitches unraveled. Stains materialized.
I used my tidiest skills to make physical repairs, but the faint yellow under the arms and a stubborn dot of a coffee stain on the chest meant that the white sweater never came out of the drawer for the past two years. It made me sad everytime I spied it, because I knew it had a lot of life left in it.
What's a girl to do? Well, an idea came to me recently when we had to prune a branch off of our pecan tree. I plucked all the unripe pecans off of it and put them in one of my dyeing buckets. After snapping this photo, I bashed and bruised them with a wooden post (very cathartic, must say) and covered them with water to soak for a week.
I washed the sweater to make sure that it was as clean as it could be. And then when I was finally ready to start the dyeing, I soaked it in cool water for about an hour to make sure that the fibers were fully saturated.
Meanwhile, this is what had become of the soaking pecan hulls. The water had become a thickened, slightly frothy yellow-brown. Slow, fermenting soaks like this can have an "ick" factor. But I find them very earthy and satisfying, and so much easier than hot dyeing, when I have to haul heavy pots around on the stove. This just happens in buckets in a corner of my backyard.
For cold dyeing, especially with plant fibers, you typically need a long soak. The wet sweater went into the strained dye liquor and stayed in for almost two days, with repeated airings (which I'll explain below). During the daytime, I'd move it around every few hours to try to make the dyeing more even. During the nighttime, though, it would stay in one spot for 10-12 hours, so that some spots ended up darker than others. If I'd really wanted it to be even, I would've removed it at night. But, well, I relish the wabi-sabi quality of the uneven dyeing (and in real life, the variation does seem a bit softer).
The one thing I wish is that I had taken process photos of the dyeing. There is definitely something curious going on with the oxidation and pecan hull dye. Since I haven't seen anyone else write about it, you'll get my full description.
The dye liquor was yellowish to start, and in the first couple of hours of dyeing, the sweater was taking on a light yellow-brown hue, except for the underarms, which were turning orangeish (probably due to the aluminum salts in deodorant, which were basically an inadvertent mordant!). It was hideous.
I pulled the sweater out of the dyebath to reconsider, and while it was in the air, over the course of maybe an hour or so, the color of the sweater was transformed. It darkened, deepened, and became more reddish rather than yellowish. This was really a shock.
I've dyed with dozens of natural dyes -- leaves, flowers, barks, and bugs -- and the only other one that you see this kind of real-time, color-changing oxidation process with is indigo, which is in its own category of natural dye because the chemistry is so different (basically, the pigment needs to be in a reduced and alkaline solution in order to be in a dissolved form that can adhere to the fiber. You carefully lower the fiber into the bath so that you don't introduce air, and then when you remove it, and the pigment hits the air and oxidizes, the fiber turns from greenish-yellow to blue).
The process of repeated airings not only changed the color of the sweater, but over time it introduced a lot of air into the dyebath itself, and that became a darker reddish brown as well. It was fascinating. Wild and crazy times with natural dyeing!