A Basic Buckthorn Berry Dye Stock

There are a few schools of thought on how one goes about making dye stock from plants, but the main thing to keep in mind is that there is no one right way to do it.  Every natural dyer has his or her own way of making a stock.  Some methods are very technical while others are much more experimental.  As a student at OCAD University (formerly The Ontario College of Art and Design), I have been fortunate enough to learn various techniques from some of the best natural dyers in the country, and I have found that I draw upon all of them in various ways.  Sometimes I try to make really precise calculations and sometimes I just dive right in and start dyeing.  It really just depends on my mood that day.  Here is an excellent beginner’s recipe for a really simple Buckthorn berry dye stock that will yield a really nice range of colours, and will give you enough stock to dye up to 1kg of yarn.

DYE STOCK RECIPE:

  • Into a large stockpot add 1kg of ripe buckthorn berries and enough water just to cover them.
  • Mash berries in the pot with the back of a large spoon.
  • Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly.  Reduce to medium heat and simmer for one hour.
  • Remove mixture from heat and allow to cool.
  • Pour mixture through a strainer and discard the Buckthorn seeds and skins.
  • Add enough water to the dye stock to make 1 litre of liquid
  • Store the mixture in tightly sealed glass jars and place in the fridge; doing this will help increase the shelf life of your dye stock.  I’ve got leftover dye in my fridge from over a year ago and it’s still perfectly fine.  Make sure to label your jars well so that no one in your house mistakes them for something edible!

Sorting and Processing Buckthorn

If you’re anything like me, the minute you get home from your Buckthorn collection adventure you’ll want to start making your own dye stock.  However, there are a couple of things that you will need to do first.  Namely, sort through that mixed bag of plant matter!

Step 1: Find a workspace to sort your bounty!  Look for a suitable place to separate the leaves, twigs and berries from each other.  I will warn you now that the process can be quite messy, so I would suggest putting plastic or newspaper down over your work area.  I would also suggest investing in a good pair of rubber gloves (see “Dyeing Basics”) because the ripe berries are sticky and will stain your hands.  I personally like to work on my kitchen floor.  That way if I get any plant material on the tile it’s easy to clean up.

Step 2: Gently pull the ripe berries from the branches and deposit them into a jar or plastic container.  I like to work over a wide-mouthed vessel so that if I drop any of the berries while sorting they don’t go flying across the kitchen floor.

A good thing to remember is that the riper the berry, the easier they come off the branch.  The unripe berries need to be pulled forcefully off the branches, whereas the ripe berries will literally fall off the branch when you shake it.  Unripe berries are probably the easiest to work with, as the berries are hard, green and come off the branch intact.  The ripe berries on the other hand are sticky, juicy and considerably softer than the unripe fruit.  They will literally explode if squeezed too hard so be careful!

If you’re not using they berries to make stock right away, I would suggest storing them in your refrigerator in a tightly sealed container.  You could also freeze them if you’re going to be keeping them for a longer period of time and I’ve found that freezing doesn’t really affect the colour of your final dye project one way or the other. The berries also keep extremely well!  I kept a jar of berries in my freezer for over a month and when I took them out they were still as fresh as the day I put them in there.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the berries overwinter on the actual Buckthorn trees, but I’m just speculating.

You can save the twigs and leaves for further dye experiments too!  I find that freezing them in large zipper storage bags works best for this purpose.

I also highly recommend labeling any and all of your dye materials before you put them in the fridge or freezer.  I always include the name of the material, the date and place it was collected, and the date stored.  This way when I take  them out later I’m not left guessing as to what’s in the bag!

Picking Buckthorn Berries

The first thing I’d like to share with you is how to go about collecting Common Buckthorn berries for your dyeing experiments. I spent the entire summer and part of the fall trying to figure this out, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to a fairly efficient process.

In the beginning it was an exhaustive task that involved me standing in a field in front of a buckthorn tree, meticulously picking individual berries and collecting them in plastic containers.  This would take hours and I would be constantly stabbing my fingers on the branches (it’s called buckTHORN for a reason!)  It wasn’t until the late summer that I discovered a better way of collecting and processing berries.

Here’s what you do:  Gather up a willing friend, a few plastic grocery bags and a pair of garden shears and head out into your nearest buckthorn thicket.  Pick a tree with lots of  fruit on it and start cutting those branches down!  Have your friend hold open a grocery bag and further prune the branches over it.  This ensures that you won’t loose any stray berries to the forest floor, and it also makes it easier for you to transport them home.  As mentioned above, separating the berries from the leaves and twigs takes a LONG TIME.  This method allows you to take them home to your studio or workspace and process them at your leisure.

Remember!  Common Buckthorn is a NASTY invasive plant, so you don’t have to feel bad about hurting the tree or worry about negative impacts on the environment!  In fact, the more buckthorn you collect the healthier our ecosystem will be!

WARNING:  The best buckthorn berries for dyeing are the ones collected in late August when the yellow jackets are out and about.  They really like the ripe, juicy fruit and will attack you if disturbed, so be careful!  I would also advise AGAINST collecting buckthorn in environmentally significant or protected areas.  Removing any vegetation from these places is prohibited under the Provincial Offences Act and you could be fined!  Also, try to limit your buckthorn collection to public spaces or your own backyard.  You don’t want to get in trouble with a land owner for trespassing on private property!