Dyeing with Cow Parsley

Ah, early June.  I don't know about where you are, but up here the roadsides and hedgerows are simply bursting with flowers.  

Perhaps the most eye catching at the moment is Cow Parsley.  It is the tallest of these first umbellifers to open up and its billowy head, hollow stem and fern-like leaves can be used to for something other than dropping little petals everywhere when your kids bring you a bunch.

Materials:

  • a Large Pot
  • Pre-mordanted fibres*
  • At least the same weight of cow parsley as the weight of your dry fibres.  Using more will produce a more vibrant colour.
  • Tongs or a wooden spoon.

Note: its not a great idea to use the same pots and utensils for dyeing as it is for eating. 

* A mordant is a mineral salt that helps dye afix to the fibres you are dyeing.  For protein based fibres (wool, silk, soya) alum is commonly used.  You can find instructions and buy materials here. For plant-based fibres, I have heard people having great success using soya milk baths, though I have not tried it myself. Read more here

1. Collect your Cow Parsley

 From left to right: Cow Parsley, wild carrot (also good for dyeing) and hogweed leaves (no flowers are out yet)

From left to right: Cow Parsley, wild carrot (also good for dyeing) and hogweed leaves (no flowers are out yet)

Cow Parsley (also called Wild Chervil or sometimes referred to as Queen Anne's Lace) can be mistaken for a number of other umbellifers. At this early point in the season, it is really only wild carrots that are also out and they are easily distinguished  from cow parsley by their smaller size and thinner leaves.  Later in the season, giant hogweed can be mistaken for cow parsley and as its sap can cause burns, so be careful!

It is best to harvest your cow parsley when it has been a dry day.  Collect flowers, stems and leaves for the dyepot as this will give you the greeny colour shown here.  

2. Chop up and weigh your collected dyestuff

I aim for about 2x the weight of the wool I am dyeing. This means for 100g of wool, I would be looking to collect around 200g of cow parsley.  Other people will use other ratios and experimentation is the best part of natural dyes.  

3. Simmer the cow parsley for about an hour

Place your chopped up herbs into a large pot and add enough water to cover it and so that the dyestuff can move freely.  You won't dilute the dye if you add more water, but equally you want to be energy efficient.

4. Add your mordanted wool. 

The best way to do this is to let your dyebath cool then add your mordanted  wool, as sharp temperature changes can cause your wool to felt. However, I have found that gently heating the wool in some warm water and bringing it close to the temp of the dyebath is another way to get it in without shocking it. 

You can strain your cow parsley out at this stage.  This is especially useful if you aren't going to use the dyebath immediately as it can then be stored in the fridge.  However, leaving the plant matter in will get you a stronger colour. You may want to put your wool in a mesh bag at this stage to help keep plant matter out of the fibres. 

5. Simmer your wool for about 45 minutes. Then you can remove or for a deeper colour, leave in overnight.

6. Rinse your fibre and hang to dry.

And bob is your uncle. The light fastness is OK with cow parsley, but as with any naturally dyed object, it is best to treat it gently and keep out of the sun where possible. 

Interested in natural dye?  In September, we are hosting a workshop let by Callum McNeill-Ritchie a local environmental consultant who specialises in humans' historical links to the environment and use of the natural world in human activity. He likes to interpret both natural and cultural heritage together, to give a better understanding of the environment around us. Callum will be leading us in the morning's plant identification and gathering walk and talking about the use of dyes in a historical context. We will spend the afternoon dyeing a range of fibers.  You can find out more here.