Dyeing With Cochineal & Logwood

photo(14) “January 27. All Dye pans in use, pretty well off for work this week…
Feb 3. Wild soft morning… Saw John Fairbank [who] arrived from America about a fortnight ago- Says he thinks there won’t be a War between this country and America; the poor people are very much out of work at New York; he says he has seen cloth of American manufacture, but [they] cannot manufacture it as cheap as we can send them it.
Fuel is dear there is one horse cart load of Wood cannot be bo’t  (bought) for less than 17s. (shillings) He has seen the Wool of that country which is pretty good and would was it here sell from betwixt 20-/ to 30-/ Pr stone but worth a good deal more there. At New York he saw some Logwood to sell they wanted £16 10s Pr Ton; rather thinks they may buy it for less in Liverpool the same quality, as there may be bo’t good Jama’ka Log’d in Leeds at £12 pr Ton…”

[From ‘The Diary of Joseph Rogerson’, 1808, Bramley, Leeds].

Here’s some wool and silk I dyed last week. The dyes shown range from cochineal (far left), which I used in 3 separate dye baths, til the colour was exhausted, to logwood (Quink Ink Purply-blue and mauve on the right) and Alderbuckthorn Bark.  I thought I’d share some dyeing tips with yous, and also give a couple of recipes. I tend to stick with the historical dyes – things that are tried and tested.

A Note on Mordanting…

Most dyes need a mordant to help them ‘bite’ onto the fibre being dyed. For these recipes, I have used alum, or alum and cream of tartar.  We used to be able to buy alum in ‘Boots’ on any high street but these days, I send off for it.  Older recipes from the 1980s or before, suggested you use upto 4oz alum per lb of wool in old money. (ie: 25% alum to weight of wool). But in recent years this has been adjusted downwards, with no ill effects. I tend to have a rule of thumb of around 10% which makes it easier, and more accurate, for me now to work in metric, not imperial. So if dyeing, say 100g wool I would use around 10g alum.

I’m giving you recipes for cochineal and for logwood dyeing today, but for logwood you could substitute any of the dried dyestuff, or bark dyes. I buy the more exotic/historical dyestuffs from George Weil, and P & M Woolcraft. 


I’ve found all my equipment in charity shops (thrift stores), car boot sales – or Poundland! You don’t have to have everything at first – just the bare minimum of a dyepot and a stick/old wooden spoon to stir it with, is enough to get started. I have a number of dyepots – the most expensive, a large, plain aluminium jam pan, cost me £4 in a charity shop about ten years ago. It helps to have two dye pots if you know you’re getting into this, as then you can have a production line going, which saves on fuel. Tablespoon – I got one in a charity shop that looks totally different to the ones we use to eat from, so no confusion!

Container made from plastic with lid (Celebration, Roses, Quality Street ‘tins’ are ideal), to store mordants and dyestuffs. Keep out of reach of children and the stupid and label POISON, but don’t draw a skull & crossbones on it as that actually attracts children and the stupid…

You’ll Need:

Dyepot – aluminium, that can hold at least 10 litres of water, plus your fibre.

Old wooden spoon, or a stick, to stir with.

Small Pyrex bowl or jug to steep dried dyestuffs.

Stainless steel tablespoon

Clean jam jar (to dilute mordants in)


About half a metre of muslin to line colander when straining dyestuffs, or a length of nylon Poundland fly netting works great for this.

For most dyes, the rule of thumb is a ratio of around 1:1 in weight of fibre and dyestuff . Ie: for 100g of wool, use 100g dyestuff. Cochineal is different. You can get away with 25g of cochineal to 100g fibre. So it is not as expensive as it appears. With logwood you also get more bang for your buck. I managed to dye around 300g fibre with 30g of logwood. Dried dyestuffs are more concentrated than random things from the garden.


I used some organic Lleyn wool, some Boreray, and also as usual, dropped in some undyed silk hankies. I usually have some silk hankies on hand, for dye experiments. These would be easy enough to dye using a microwave, too, as they are so much less bulky than wool. Received wisdom has it that we shouldn’t mix silk and wool in the same dye-pot, as they have different take-up times, but if you are not worried about this – it is fun to experiment. I often lift the silk out earlier than the wool, as it takes dye so well.

Take Your Time

To get my moneysworth, I maximise the colour in every way possible: giving the dyestuff a long soak (overnight is good, several days even better); using the dyebath til exhausted so get successively paler batches of colour; using the very exhausted dyebath maybe to overdye an old, unimpressive dyes experiment…  It is also worth researching your dyestuff. Cochineal and madder, for example, require soft water. I live in the area with the hardest water in the UK. I could be organised and collect rainwater to ensure a ready supply of soft water. But I’ve never got round to fixing a downpipe to the water butt, so… I’d be wasting my money on these dyestuffs if I didn’t get something to assist me with the dyeing. Calgon,  (sodium hexametaphosphate) can be got from craft suppliers fairly cheaply and it is a more suitable strength for the dye-pot than the water softeners in the supermarket. 3g of this will soften the water to dye around 125g of fibre. Otherwise, the colour will want to attach itself to the minerals in my hard water, rather than the fibre.

Dyeing takes time and if you  steep the dyestuff in water overnight, and let the fibre ‘rest’ at least overnight, or longer, between mordanting, dyeing, and the final washing, you will get good results. In other words: you can do it all in one go, but if you break it into stages and let it rest between them, that will give you optimum results.

Be Safe!

If like many home dyers, your kitchen is your dye studio, then the usual common sense rules and hygiene protocols apply. Don’t cook food at the same time as dyeing or mordanting, use separate vessels etc, and clean up your act afterwards.  Handle mordants wearing disposable gloves or gloves set aside for dyeing pursuits.  Wear a mask when measuring out dry mordants in powder forms. They’re safer to handle once diluted.  Be cautious and careful. Some mordants are toxic – personally, I have only ever used alum to mordant, or substantive (needing no mordant) dyes and you can see from the pics here, get excellent colour. My 19thC relative, Dan Dawson, did his early experiments with chemical dyeing in his family’s kitchen in Longwood, near Huddersfield, and managed to turn the family’s bread red for weeks. Slightly worrying as the early magenta dyes had arsenic in…

Grow Your Own!

And grow some dyestuffs, too. Woad is easy to grow, as are weld and madder and those three alone give you the primary colours. This year we are hoping to start a dye garden behind one of the viking long-houses at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. Come along this summer and see how far we got!  I have bought seeds from Wild Colours.


There are many variables in dyeing – mordant, type of and whether before, during or after colour.  Assists used, eg: cream of tartar. Dye bath temperature and duration. pH. Concentration of dyestuff. Hardness/softness of water.

Heat + agitation = felting, so if dyeing wool, try to make sure all the fibre is submerged then leave well alone. The less you stir the better. Make sure your mordants/assists/dyestuffs are well dissolved before adding your fibre, and this will save you poking and prodding so much. When dyeing, I practice the art of benign neglect.

Dyeing With Cochineal
125 g wool
12g alum

8g cream of tartar

25g cochineal or 50g dyestuff
3g calgon from dyers’ supplier (sodium hexametaphosphate) if using hard water
Overnight… In a Pyrex bowl or clean glass jar, pour hot water over your cochineal/dyestuff. Leave to steep. If using cochineal and you have hard water, soften water first with Calgon. (sodium hexametaphosphate).
Thoroughly scour, rinse wool and dye immediately. If working with clean, dry fibre, then soak for an hour or more,; preferably, overnight. Your fibre will be fully wetted out and take the dye more evenly.
Dissolve CT in boiling water, add to pan.
Dissolve alum in boiling water, add to pan.
Fill dye-pan  and slowly raise temp of pan to under boiling point.

Simmer (don’t boil) for an hour.

Leave to cool in mordanting solution. Mordanting solution can now be disposed of safely, or kept in a cool place to re-seed a later mordanting bath. If re-seeding, only add 50% the mordant and assistant, you would have needed for the weight of fibre you’re dyeing.


photo(11)In your dyepan, dissolve in hot water your calgon (if using it), then add the steeped dyestuff and its liquid and fill dyepan to over half way.  Bring to just under boiling point, slowly. Simmer for 40 minutes. Then take off heat and cool. Strain liquid (I use a colander specifically for this purpose, lined with muslin). Retain dyestuff for future use.

Add your mordanted, wetted-out fibres and slowly raise again to simmer, then simmer at least an hour or til colour looks good to you. You can use dye baths til dye is exhausted.

Rinse thoroughly til water runs clear and you have no more loose dye.

Continue to use dyebath til colour is exhausted, or cool and decant into plastic bottles, freeze to use later or keep in cool place and use within next week or so. When I think I have finished dyeing, I put the cochineal (or other dyestuff) in a Pyrex bowl in the microwave, with a little fibre. And dye some more. It is surprising how much colour you can wring out of that 25g of cochineal.

Using the same quantities, you can be more eco-friendly by dyeing & mordanting simultaneously. This works with cochineal, but doesn’t work so well with all dyestuffs, so maybe it is wise to experiment with a small tester batch before you dye a lot, if you want to simultaneously dye and mordant.  Solar dyeing (a clean jar on a sunny windowsill, with a pinch of mordant and a handful of fibre) is a good way to test if simultaneous mordanting may work for your chosen dye-stuff.

Dyeing With Logwood

30g Logwood

300 g wool fibre, scoured and rinsed (I used Lleyn organic wool and, as usual with my dye pots, dropped in some silk hankies).

I experimented with both hard and soft water dyepots. Hard water gives inky blue violets; and exhaust dyebaths, mauve. But soften the water at your peril! You will get a grim, dingy brown. I ‘rescued’ mine slightly, by rinsing in hard water and white vinegar which turned it a kinda-browny-mauve. But I won’t be using soft water any time soon. If your water is soft, then add a bit of white distilled vinegar as an assist. Either way, add a little vinegar to your rinsing water, if possible. Logwood can bleed like a stuck pig, so you may have to rinse it very thoroughly to get rid of loose dye. I have always had nice results with wool and spectacular results with silk, when it comes to logwood.

How To…


Soak logwood  in boiling water. Tipped from the kettle, recently boiled, is good.

Thoroughly scour, rinse then soak fibre  in clean water.

Next Day…

Mordant as above. For best results, use hard water.

Bring logwood up to just below boiling point, in at least 10 litres water.

Strain out the solids. Put aside to re-use later.

Put  pre-mordanted, wetted-out fibres in dyepot, and again raise to boiling point.

Simmer just under boiling point, for at least an hour, or longer. Remove when desired depth of colour is achieved.

Leave fibres in overnight to cure.

Rinse in salted water with a dash of white vinegar (handful of seasalt should do it).

Exhausting The Dye…

Exhaust  logwood. Dry out and store in paper bag, or re-use immediately whilst still damp.

Bring dyestuff to just under boiling point. Simmer for at least 45 minutes.

Strain out the solids.

Put pre-mordanted, wetted-out fibres in dyepot, and again raise to almost-boiling. Simmer just under boiling point, until desired depth of colour is achieved.

Leave fibres in overnight to cure.

Rinse in salted water (handful of seasalt should do it). Dry carefully.

With the exhaust dyepot, bear in mind final results will be affected if you softened the water, earlier.


My ‘bible’ and go-to resource, is the thirty year old book, ‘A Dyer’s Manual’ by Jill Goodwin. Other dye books come and go. This book is the only one you’ll ever really need.  For more info about cochineal, this website is excellent:


Basket O’ Naturally Dyed Fibres

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday, I was watching the incomparable Abby Franquemont’s  video download, ‘Respect The Spindle’.

I’ve had the book since the week (hour?) it came out but finally got round to getting the video recently, as despite my thirty odd years’ worth of spinning, knew I’d learn something new from it. And I did.

At one point, Abby was talking about the way spinners wind cops.  (Shorter OED defines ‘cop’ as: “..The conical ball of thread wound upon a spindle or tube in a spinning machine. 1795.)”  The final shape of your cop affects how well centred your spindle is, and how it spins. Abby made the point that although we spend a lot of time thinking about the whorls on spindles we want to buy or make, we forget that the overwhelming influence on the way the spindle eventually spins, is how you formed the cop. Good point and something I know I have tended to overlook. I decided to take a look at spinners of the past and see how they formed their cops.

Learning to spin in the 1980s, I used to think of a ‘cop’ as having a conical form, with the weight of yarn at the base. A by-product of learning to spin from British and American books, most of them written in the 1970s, was that you spindle spun on a low-whorl spindle. This lent itself more to forming a conical cop.  These days, I tend to form a cop that is fatter in the middle – like this medieval monkey’s.  Incidentally, whorls may sometimes – but not always – have been removable. Monkey here has a full cop, but no visible whorl.  These days I maybe favour this shape cop but then, I tend to spindle spin on a high-whorl. This seems to balance the spindle more effectively. Insert science stuff here.

Here’s another medieval spinner who may or may not have detached the whorl. Truth is, the physics doesn’t interest me, madly. I was that kid sat in the back during Physics, Chemistry or Maths; looking out of the window – mildly amused if a science teacher’s demo of an experiment went wrong, but that was the only flicker of interest I ever had for it. I have about as much knowledge of that as this medieval nun.  So leaving the physics aside,  and sticking with the history… I love it that spindle makers have come over all sciency of recent years. But am happy to remain incurious about the laws of…  whatever it is that makes things move. I know a good spindle when I use one.

Check out the distaffs, by the way. The conical ones, bound with lots of ribbon tend to be flax which was, of course, spun worsted from a distaff. The ones that are convex in the centre and tapered top and bottom, needing less ties, tend to be wool.  These images come from different European countries but the conventions of spinning seem to be remarkably uniform.

Now this lady has a low whorl, but still builds the cop in the same way as the other two; not conical, and convex with all the weight of the yarn towards the middle. She appears to be spinning flax and there is no difference in the shape of the cop, whether it is flax or wool.

There are a surprising number of medieval images of women using their distaff as a weapon. I suppose it was the most obvious thing to hand. In images,it often seems the case that the spindle remained attached to or dangling from the distaff, when not in use.

The distaff was, of course, also the universal symbol of femininity; hence the saying “the distaff side” (ie: female) of a family.  For other living historians/re-enactors here, it is worth us noticing that the spindle is never (to my knowledge?) portrayed on its own, but always seems to have been attached to a distaff. Medieval wheel spinners are sometimes portrayed with a male or female sitting nearby, carding wool for them. But spindles always seem to be associated with a distaff; freestanding or tucked under the arm.

Medieval women also seem to have spun in that odd five minutes between other tasks. Most famously, the woman on the Luttrel Psalter, 1325-35, who is feeding a chicken of epic proportions, in a brief pause from spinning her wool. The style of drawing is, by its very nature, cartoon-ish, so it is hard to be sure but her spindle looks to be low-whorl, or maybe even the whorl is centrally placed, like some contemporary spindles.  And again, the cop is bulbous.

Like many of the other medieval spindles, it is quite loaded with yarn and yet the whorl is still attached. This tells us it is unwise to opine whether medieval spindles had removable whorls or not. It appears – some did and some didn’t.

Sometimes, artists are notoriously inaccurate at portraying crafts and activities they haven’t personally experienced and don’t really understand. But hand-spinning was such a universal, daily, never-ending task for medieval women of all classes, we can assume every single monk who ever illuminated a manuscript, probably saw spinning going on, at some if not all points in their lives. It would be like drawing someone doing the washing-up.

Finally, one of my favourites, is the image from the marginalia of the Rutland Psalter, of a woman spinning on the ducking stool. It’s a small ‘joke’ at the bottom of a manuscript page.  Well, spindlers like to get a bit of height as it saves winding on so soon. Makes perfect sense. Also, in keeping with the medieval ethic of spin in every spare moment!

What is really interesting about this is she is clearly using a top whorl spindle. With a hook! Received wisdom tells us medieval English people only used low whorl, but there are images – not just this one – of top whorl. And, of course, the Vikings were known to have used top whorl (not all of whom left Northern England in 1066, or else I wouldn’t speak a dialect littered with Norse words!) So it could be that in some areas, medieval Englishwomen did indeed spin top whorl.

To sum up: the medieval spindlers’ cops seem to have been bulbous, not conical.  Some spindles may have had removable whorls; others not. Some English spindles appear to have been top-whorl although received wisdom has it they were always low-whorl. Maybe this is the viking influence. A heavily loaded spindle might still have had a whorl. All spindles depicted seem to be attached to a distaff. In England, this was often portable as women did other jobs whilst they spun – although the European nun had a static distaff on a carved stand, which maybe reflected the sedentary nature of her life. Winding on a cop in a conical shape may be more usual once the spindle was turned horizontal, and driven by a wheel, and so when spinning was revived as a craft in the 20thC, spindling pioneers tended to assume a conical cop whereas now we are returning to the better balanced, bulbous shape, to wind yarn on.

I am slowly building my Pinterest board, ‘Hand-Spinning Throughout History’. More images can be seen there.


Monkey spinning.the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library.

Nun: from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r

Low whorl woman: Add. 42130 f.60, c.1325-1335 British Library

Chicken woman: Luttrell Psalter

Ducking stool woman: Rutland Psalter

The General Carleton Hat

Click to enlarge!

Knitting history is a special corner of textile history, for me, as it tells the story of ordinary people.  Knitting was – and remains – something seen as disposable; comparatively cheap to make, so gets used up, worn out and discarded.

Pieces of knitting turn up in the archaeology, and finding out about and reconstructing these can tell us something about our ancestors; not the royalty and aristos whose expensive portraits preserved their tastes and fashion – but our ancestors. Sometimes, a once-common item of clothing may fall out of the collective memory, surviving in one or two obscure images, or a lost record somewhere, and when an example of it turns up, that gives us another piece of the jig-saw. You can be so familiar with an image, you don’t see what’s obvious in it, for years. I only noticed the orange and white banded hats of the whalebone scrapers in the George Walker (1814) image above, after I had seen a similar 1780s’ hat in a Whitby museum exhibition of knitted items on loan from the Polish Maritime Museum, put two and two together and realised I was looking at a now forgotten piece of occupational costume; not just a random, slightly eccentric hat.

In fact, the General Carleton Cap was in danger of being assumed to be of Baltic origin, despite being found on a Whitby-owned ship,  (it was a ship that traded between the Baltic and England) although I hope I have now put it beyond doubt that what we are looking at is a piece of Yorkshire knitting and retrieved this hat’s most likely provenance.

In the current issue of PieceWork magazine, I’ve tried to tell the story of the 1780s’ Yorkshire-knitted hat, found in the wreck of Whitby ship, General Carleton, over two hundred years after she sank. I have also figured out a version of the hat, which was based on notes I took from looking at the original hat when it was on loan to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, a couple of years ago. It was not possible to do a stitch-for-stitch reverse engineer as I wanted to make the pattern accessible to as many people as possible, so chose a commercial yarn with the closest quality I could find, to the original. In fact, the original appears to have been made from a handspun which has a grist somewhere between DK and Aran. Rowan’s lovely Aran Tweed yarn was used for my published version, but I hope to bring out a more precisely reverse engineered version later in the year, which will require handspun. I think the original colours were probably natural light, natural dark, and an orange-y madder; a bit like this. The madder was probably less faded. The orangey colour is the result of several things – including a too-hot dye-bath, and maybe using hard water: madder gives true red with soft water.

I think the chance survival of that single hat on the sea-bed, of banded natural and orangey/red  colours, probably is the final, lone survivor of thousands of similar hats. Which implies they were made on a commercial scale.  Consider the whalebone scrapers’  hats in George Walker’s illustration, above. This image, courtesy of Yorkshire Ancestors, was taken from a first edition so we know the colours of the hand-tinted plates are true to the artist’s intentions. It does start to look like an occupational costume.

When I had written my article for PieceWork, and sent off the pattern and sample General Carleton hat, I was idly wandering through Manchester Art Gallery when – by some fluke – I spotted an engraving of a watercolour by Joseph Mallord Turner, called ‘Marine Dabblers’ (1808). Check out the hats on the mariners to the right! (And possibly echoed on the child, far left).

The Carleton hat was knitted no later than 1785. Turner in 1808 and Walker in 1814 seem to have been recording a similar hat, possibly partially thrummed, with a small tassel, and bands of contrasting colour. We know 17thC English sailors wore thrummed caps. So this is possibly a descendant of those thrummed-all-over ones in 17thC woodcuts.

And – yet again – note the sailors are – as ever –  sans gansey. As they always are in 18thC and early 19thC illustrations.

The other lesson we can take away from this is: a knitted item may have been worn by hundreds, even thousands of people, and yet there may only be one extant example that is a chance survivor.

For a much more in depth look at the Carleton hat, and the pattern that reproduces it in Rowan aran, PieceWork’s annual knitting issue, January/February 2014 is now available digitally or in hard copy. I hope some of yous, who enjoy my ramblings here, will enjoy it. And if anyone is brave enough to knit this – send us some pictures!