Dyeing with Harakeke seed pods

One dye bath – many colours

I have several harakeke (phormium tenax / New Zealand flax) bushes in my garden so I was excited to find out a few years ago that you could make a dye from the seed-pods and it is a fairly simple dye to make and use. Obviously the first step is to wait until the flower stalks appear. Then you watch all the birds, especially the tui, come to feed on the flowers. Slowly the flowers disappear and the seedpods appear. The stalks are quite tall and heavy and often fall over.

You can harvest the seed-pods when they still fresh or even when they are looking quite old and dry. I have used them at various stages and you still get colour from them. I cut the seed-pods into 2 or pieces and put them in a dye bath with water and then leave them for a couple of days (or longer if I get busy) until the dye bath is starting to bubble. The dye solution does smell but I do my dyeing outside and I think it is an OK smell.

Freshly cut seed-pods and a few flowers
The dye bath after a couple of days

Originally I would leave the seed-pods loose in the water but recently I realised it would be a lot easier if I actually put them all in an old pillowcase, instead of picking out bits out of my yarn afterwards. Once I’m ready to dye, I soak the skeins of wool in some warm water with a squirt of detergent, then place them in the dye bath and gently heat it. You don’t need to mordant the yarn but you can if you want, I haven’t noticed any difference in depth of colour between mordanted and un-mordanted yarn but I also haven’t carried out any rigorous investigation. As the dye bath increases in temperature the colour obtained darkens, you can see this in the photo below on the right. The skeins of yarn were taken out at different stages of heating the dye bath, the darkest was left in the dye bath after it came to the boil.

In the dye bath
Skeins before washing

Once I’ve finished dyeing the skeins, I leave them to dry overnight before washing them in hot water with laundry detergent and then rinse until the water is clear. The dye bath can be used a few times but the colours seem to change as well as the depth. In warm weather the dye bath can grow mold but I just take scrape that off. The photo at the top of this post shows all the colours I obtained from one dye bath heated three times. Below you can see the results from each individual heating. All of these skeins are corriedale wool.

First use of dye bath
Second heating of dye bath
Final reheat

If you have access to some harakeke seed pods I recommend giving dyeing with them a go. You can dye other materials, not just wool, I have tried silk and cotton. Finally here’s photo of a vest I made from fabric woven with wool dyed with harakeke seed pods.

Published by Kate Alberta Weaving

Hand weaver living and weaving in Waiuku, Aotearoa | New Zealand

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