Wildcrafting & Dyeing with Alder Cones
Alder species are widely distributed throughout North America and Europe. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have an abundance of Red Alder. Alder is a deciduous tree. It drops it's leaves while still green in the fall but it's small female cones and male catkins hang like lanterns on the tree throughout the winter and late into spring. They are easy to find scattered by the wind all over the ground and I've often still found the cones into summer. Alders are noted for adding nitrogen to the soil and improving the fertility of land where they grow. They like to have their feet wet and I usually find them gathering around low land areas of streams and drainage flows, as well as around riverbanks. In the Winter you can see the line of Alder as they end and refuse to climb the surrounding hills with the conifers.
Ellen Hopman, in her book Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine, says of the tree. "The Word Oghams of the druids lists Alder as airinach fian, 'shield of warrior bands,' and din cridi, 'Protection of the heart.' Alder is very resistant to rot and was used often in ancient construction of pilings, canals and roadways. It was once used to make shields for warriors, with its wood turning from white to red, like blood, after cutting. The spirit of Alder is one of protection from the watery excesses of emotions. Use the protective sacred-warrior shield of alder to withstand tidal waves of fear, anger, and self-doubt." When beginning a dye pot, I like to think about the energy and history of the plant I'm going to be imparting into my fabric or yarn. It often helps me decide what kind of project I'll be undertaking with the plant as my guide.
Alder trees provide Dyers with wonderful steady browns from their cones and yellow greens from their leaves. (Once the leaves return I'll endeavor to do a post on dyeing with them!) In Winter the cones are a wonderful source of dye when most other plants have gone dormant. Before going any further, you'll want to begin with this post on Gathering 101.
Next, you'll want to head for an area where Alder trees congregate, we have a nearby stream that we like to go too and explore. Begin looking at your feet as you walk.
You'll soon find them all over the forest floor. This is a good time to stop and ask permission to gather the fallen cones and to thank the tree spirits for their generosity as you gather!
You’ll want to gather enough alder cones to create a dye pot for your project. Roughly the same weight in alder cones as your yarn or fabric. (My motto as always is, eyeball it!)
If you aren’t going to make your dye right away be sure to spread the cones out flat to dry so they don’t mold.
When you’re ready to make your dye pot, be sure to choose a pot that’s large enough to allow your project to move around freely it in so the dye can reach all crevices. I like to add double the amount of water to dye stuff ratio and let the cones sit 24 to 48 hours in the water and soak. This helps them to loosen up and become ready for the next phase.
Alder cones are high in tannins which are a natural mordant. Mordants simply are substances which increase the binding of dye to fibers. The safest ones to use are tannins, Alum, Iron, and Copper. Some of these will also shift the color of your dye. More on that later!
Once the cones are soaked, set your pot on the stove and set the heat to low-medium. One of the easiest mistakes to do is to boil the heck out of your plant material. I’ve done it many times and it tends to push the colors in your pot towards muddy browns. Bring the pot to a slow and gentle simmer and let the cones bubble along this way for about an hour.
Then turn off the heat and let the pot cool enough for you to strain the dye into another pot. Or, if you’re low on pots (I always am), use a gloved hand to scoop out the cones (probably not advised for yarn projects, but works fine for fabric).
Now you can again bring the pot back to a low simmer and add in your fabric or yarn. I'm dyeing some hemp fabric here with a little test strip of a new silk embroidery thread. Depending on how these come out I may opt to do an iron bath on the fabric after to darken the browns. Which will be a follow up post!
Again, simmer your projects on low for about an hour. Then, turn off the heat and let your pot cool down. Now you can be done if you’re impatient, but I recommend waiting at least 24 hours before pulling your project from the dye. It allows the dye to really soak in. I like to wait at least 48 hours, but my optimum wait time is 3 days. You can get much richer colors this way by allowing the fibers time to really release and soak up the dye.
(I'm going to patiently let these soak for a few more days and post follow up photos once they're complete!)
Once, you've waited the amount of time you can stand to wait, (using gloves) pull your project out from the dye bath and wring it dry. You'll want to rinse it now in cool water until it runs clear and hang it to dry. The remaining dye bath can be kept and recharged with more Alder cones or poured out. It's important to think about what you're pouring down the drain or on the yard. If you've used any of the mordants, you may want to dilute the dye bath with more water before releasing it. The mordants listed above are all typically safe to be poured out. I also try to keep a dye bath for several uses before releasing it, which helps cut down on waste.