Naturally Dyeing with Walnuts

Linen Table Runners naturally dyed with black walnuts

Natural dyes from plants are available almost year-round, but one of my favorite dyes is made from black walnuts, which are harvested in September and October when they fall to the ground.

If you're lucky enough to have a black walnut tree or two growing in your yard it's easy enough to pick up the green hulls as they thud to the ground.

If you're not one of the fortunate walnut tree owners, make a few inquiries among your friends. I've found that non-dyers are typically not a fan of black walnuts "littering" their lawns and will welcome you with open arms if you are willing to pick up the fallen nuts and haul them away.

Take a 5-gallon bucket or two and wear rubber gloves! The husks are filled with tannin which will stain your hands ... and everything else.

Black Walnuts are a "twofer" crop in my book - the nut itself for cooking and the husk for dyeing.

If you plan on eating the nuts, then you need to separate the husk from the shell. The easiest way to do this is to spread a towel on a hard surface and grab yourself a hammer. Remember, you have your rubber gloves on. Really, do. not. skip. that. step!!!

The next part is easy, but time consuming. Lay the nuts on the towel and just tap the green husks until they split. Then peel the husks away and lay the nuts out to dry.

One more word to the wise, if you are doing this outside, don't leave the nuts out unguarded. Squirrels know what you are doing. And they are watching you. If you want to make delicious holiday cookies and nut breads, take the nuts in to dry!

The green hulls can go back in the 5-gallon bucket and fill the bucket with water. I don't get technical and weigh the dye material to water. But I'd say it's about a 50:50 ratio. Now put a lid on the bucket and put it in a corner of your garage. Let it sit for about three to four weeks. The water will turn dark brown and a bit "thick" or sludge-like.

Pour the entire bucket of husks and liquid into a not reactive pot and bring to a low boil for about an hour. Using cheesecloth, strain out all the solids and you'll be left with a beautiful, deep, rich dye.

Natural dye ready

Return it to the pot and you are ready to add your fiber.

Make sure your fiber is wet before adding it to the dye. Dry fiber absorbs dye unevenly. When using Black Walnut Dye, you do not need to pre-mordant your fiber. (If you're new to natural dyes, mordanting prepares the fiber to bond with a natural dye and is typically a separate process you do before dyeing. It improves the light- and wash-fastness of the fiber.) Black Walnut does not need a mordant because of the high level of tannin, which acts like a mordant.

Slowly, bring your water temperature and fiber up to steaming - just about to boil. Let it sit there for about an hour. You can then take it off the heat and remove the fiber, or take it off the heat and let the fiber sit overnight to get a deeper color.

When you're happy with the color. Rinse, rinse, rinse. And then rinse some more. You'll be surprised at how much dye your fiber can hold. When it stops releasing dye, wash with a pH neutral soap and you are all set.

Yarn dyed with black walnuts

The dye bath can be reused for more fiber, although the results will be a lighter shade. 

Linen Table Runner, naturally dyed with walnuta

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