Autumn Harvest

by Kerstin Zurbrigg

We are taking a seasonal approach to working with plant and mineral pigments as a dye source by harvesting towards working with three or four locally growing plants.


This season we chose to work with fruit, seed, blossom and beyond in an exploration of late September, early October gleaned Goldenrod, Black Walnut, acorns and Pokeweed.  Our intention was to gather from plants in our own immediate areas and to bring them together for a small community dye experience.  We hope to grow on these meetings in future and to inspire each other to share our experiences of working with the plants and minerals in our fibershed.

It is now mid-October and after a seemingly long drawn out summer we find ourselves turning into the fall season rather quickly.  Looking at the landscape in our city, suburban and rural spaces one can’t help noticing how rich our resources are for working with plant dyes–the possibilities are endless though the season determines so many of the factors which influence our choices.  We began collecting for our dye pots in late September and met when notable fall patterns were setting in–cooler nights, fewer blooming plants and berries, shorter days and plethora of fallen acorns and nuts.   

Black Walnuts on the branch 

fallen acorns (gather cap alone or cap and nut may be gathered)

Late fall and poke berries are still on the stem.  Harvest with wildlife in mind!

Goldenrod blooms


Here are a few guidelines for preparation for fall plant dyeing and the steps we took in preparing to work together.

*Gather pokeberries, freeze or use immediately.  There is no need to separate stem and berry.  (Note: if you do freeze your berries make sure to mark things well as the berries are not edible!)

*Collect fallen acorns, both caps and nuts can be used for dyes and inks.  Consider using the acorn caps alone as the nuts are an important food source for the local wildlife.

*Harvest Goldenrod (mostly blooms, some smaller leaf matter).  Goldenrod gathered in the early stages of budding to blooming to be dried for use.

 Note: dried Goldenrod will lose a little brilliance over time or if harvested in mature stages

*Pick Black Walnuts before they fall or you may also harvest fallen hulls although they will carry more grubs and larvae.  Separate the hull from the nut and either give the nuts to the squirrels or enjoy them yourself.  The hulls can be used straight away or dried for future use as a dye stuff or to make a rich drawing ink.  

In general it is a good idea to spread your harvested plant material on an outdoor table or porch before processing to allow insects time to find new homes.  In all of our collecting, we were mindful of the amount of our harvest both in thinking about both how the plants sustain their continued growth, but also in relation to the nourishment they provide for the wildlife in our backyards, empty lots and meadow spaces.  

October Goldenrod Dye Pot Notes and Reflections

We used three species of goldenrod gathered in wilder spaces and in our home garden for our dye pot. Despite our late harvest, ample amounts of blooming Goldenrod stalks were available to fill our dye pot.  We are fortunate to have so many species of goldenrod growing regionally as it creates an extended blooming and potential harvest time–from August right through to the middle of October. 

October blooming Goldenrod running wild in suburban parks and fields.  Silver Spring, MD

The plants gathered came from areas which we knew well, either from frequent walks near abundant wild spaces, or from neighbors willing to share a harvest and from our own garden cultivation.  Each variety of Goldenrod can bring its own palette and the time of harvest as an effect on the hue as well.  Harvesting Goldenrod later in the season tends to bring warmer, muted shades of gold and even green-gold if more leaf matter is included in your dye pot.  In contrast, harvesting Goldenrod before it’s full bloom, in late August to mid-September, will give sharper yellow-greens to shades of striking gold.  

Fireworks Goldenrod, Solidago rugosa.  City garden plantings abound–notice the pattern of blooming from the tips first then the base of the stalk.

We worked with small skeins of breed specific wool from local farms. To attain different hues we allowed for the first skeins to take the strongest color, then added subsequent skeins which took up the pigment in lighter variations of golden to lemon yellow.  We also worked with iron as a color modifier in a post dye soak.  Our proportions for the first skein to enter our dye pot was about 3-4 times the weight of freshly harvested goldenrod to fiber.   In general, a ratio of equal weight dye stuff to equal weight of fibers will release a strong, vibrant hues and with our generous start our subsequent skeins had plenty of pigment to draw from.

Here below are a few rough guidelines for working with a basic Goldenrod dye.

Fill a large non-reactive pot (stainless steel is generally best) with cool water.  It is a good idea to add enough water so that your fibers can move about freely unless you wish to play with contact printing to create a range of colors on your fibers.  

Cut the Goldenrod blooms and stalks into small pieces and allow to soak for an hour or so in your dye pot.  Gently bring your pot up to “below a low simmer” and hold the temperature there for about 40 minutes then bring the heat up to a gentle simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Much color is released in the first 30 minutes and the extra time and heat at the end helps to draw a rich color without compromising the integrity of the plant.  Too much time and too much heat may muddy your dye bath when working with specific plants–especially fresh blooms.  In contrast, nut hulls, bark, roots and berries can benefit from longer soaks and heating times.  Goldenrod is a strong plant and responds well to a little extra heat at the end of your cooking time to really draw out the constituents.  There is much room for experimenting with longer soaks and multiple heatings to pull all the complexities of pigment into your dye pot.

After heating, strain your plant material from the liquid and carefully add pre-soaked, scoured and mordanted fiber.  If you have any concern about “shocking”, felting or overheating your fibers, you can allow the strained dye pot to cool slightly before adding your fibers.  Heat the pot to below a simmer (or to a temperature appropriate to the fibers you are working with) and hold it for about 40 minutes to an hour.  You can let your senses be a guide to this timing.  Watch for the color take-up, observe how the color of the dye liquid changes over time and make your own decisions as to how long you wish to hold the heat in your pot.  In the end, experience is always our best guide and learning to respond to the particularities of each plant and each dye extraction,  is part of the joy.  The smell of the goldenrod can also be an indicator of how robust and active it will be in your fibers.

After heating, and reaching a color which feels right to you (remember fibers will dry a few shades lighter than they appear in the pot), let your fibers cool in the pot overnight.  Rinse and dry, or you may try allowing the fibers to cure a week or more before rinsing the fibers.

Compost your plant matter and dye exhaust.

We experimented with adding skeins in succession to create a variety of hues.  


Adding an iron post mordant can shift the color towards green. Goldenrod on greys can also produce lovely greens.

Consider introducing Goldenrod into your own garden space especially if you have interest in encouraging a wilder and naturalized space.  Be aware though that Goldenrod spreads itself through rhizome and seed and can move about in your garden–it will use all the space it can find and yet can also be tended and encouraged to be in balance with your other plants. Fireworks Goldenrod is known to be less fast spreading.  Goldenrod encourages pollinators and brings drama to your yard in the later summer and early fall season. 

Goldenrod on natural gray yarn

Have you been working with Goldenrod this season?  Please share your thoughts and photos on Facebook and Instagram with #chesapeakefibershed

Looking for more resources on dyeing with Goldenrod take a look at the recipes from these books listed on the Chesapeake Fibershed Natural Dye and Upcycling pages on our webpage: 

Harvesting Color; How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, Rebecca Burgess

Wild Color; the Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes, Jenny Dean

Indigo, Madder and Marigold, Trudy Van Stralen

Make, Thrift, Mend, Katrina Rodabaugh

November Pokeweed Dye Pot Notes and Reflections

A dance of balance; Seeing Pokeberry

It is November and just last week the shifting temperatures in our region quite suddenly plummeted to the mid-thirties giving us a clear indication that we have entered a new season.  The leaves on the deciduous trees are beginning to fall in fleeting piles, and although it may be difficult to find berries on the stems of the local pokeweed, their eye-catching central stems of magenta play against the brilliant yellows of the turning leaves.  We gathered our pokeberries for dyeing in early September and froze them for use later in the season. Even so, on these changeable days of late autumn it is possible to find a few overlooked berries on the uppermost branches–at least enough for a little ink making.  

Pokeweed or Pokeberry, Phytolacca americana, is native to most landscapes across the US and, although Pokeweed can be considered a noxious weed, it carries an important history as a medicinal plant in indigenous culture, and plays a valuable role as a wild food source for our local suburban, city and country fauna.  Pokeweed is a perennial plant capable of reaching a height of 10 feet.  It grows wild throughout our area and in some parts of the world is cultivated as a garden plant.  The stalk of the plant is a notable red-magenta and the sculptural branches and leaves carry traces of the same color in the leaf veins and stalks.  In the late summer its white to light pink blooms appear singularly, and star-shaped along tall vertical spikes.  As the blooms fade and mature to berry the color shifts from verdant green to a dark purple when ripe.  With a little squeeze the berries release the magenta liquid, which albeit of a transitory nature, have been used for a multitude of things including an ink and a textile dye.

A word of caution…

Pokeweed is, as Rita Buchanan writes in her book, A Weaver’s Garden, “a more or less-or-less poisonous plant” and great care should be taken to make sure this is understood as the root, leaves and berries all carry elements which are poisonous in varying degrees–the root being the most dangerous.  That said, pokeweed does have another interesting history as a spring edible but only the 5-6” fresh green shoots of the early spring can be harvested, and even then, they need special preparation to release toxins (see Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus). The pokeweed root is highly poisonous. The berries are poisonous too, although it seems less so after cooking, care should still be taken in handling the liquid.  Given the potential dangers involved in absorbing toxins through our skin, and as well, bringing toxic substances into dye projects with groups (sometimes including children ), I have often wondered why we embrace the processes involved in working with pokeweed.  And yet, because of the vivid color of the berries, Pokeweed carries a significant invitation as the potential for a local red.  And, despite warnings of its fugitive nature there seems to be an irresistible urge to just see what will happen.

Color release from pokeberries…a simple ink.

As building developments continue to encroach on important ecologically rich resources in our fibershed area, Pokeweed in particular provides important sustenance for deer communities and migratory birds. Fresh and dried leaves and berries continue to provide nourishment in the later fall and through the winter.  For many gardeners the sight of pokeweed is a warning call to action as the general belief is that this strong, vigorous plant will quickly take over an area. Even with careful attention to removing the plants down the last root fragment, poke does have a way of re-emerging through the transport of seed (thanks to the birds and deer!).  Noticing where pokeweed grows can be a helpful indication of soil imbalance as this plant tends to find its home in disrupted areas and in particular it gravitates to areas which are not easily able to move water (see Weeds and What they Tell Us, Pfeiffer).   Nancy Lawson, author of the Humane Gardener, questions the notion of pokeweed being invasive and out of balance and speaks of pokeweed as a plant that almost chooses its allies, and grows with grace, balance and in a visual partnership (and perhaps a deeper relationship too), with local trees and bushes. It is as though pokeweed is a great transformer, capable of standing out in dramatic color statements of reds and magenta, and yet its form has us wondering how well we actually know its shape, as the architecture of pokeweed is as varied as the multitude of landscapes it appears within.  An exercise in overcoming preconceived notions might be to embrace the beauty of this plant and allow it to grow alongside other strong growing cultivated plants–just to see.  Perhaps an over abundance of Pokeberry plants is only an indication of an environmental imbalance and, in order to allow Pokeweed to maintain its proclivity towards natural balance within our ecosystem, our task is to caretake the health of the soil, rather than eradicate the plants we call weeds.  

In an area of my own yard I have let Pokeweed run its course for a number of years, in large part to allow a small supply of berries for use in the dye pot. This year it has been a quiet, understated visitor.  Instead of spreading as it has in the past, it seems to have satisfied itself with two modest corners where it continues to provide food for the wandering deer (lower leaves and berries) and to the local and visiting birds who take from the berries on the upper most reaches.  I am hardly able to harvest enough for a dye pot as I recognize the insistent needs of the wildlife and have been content to use a few berries to create fugitive and yet poignant color notes on paper–exploring wild ink in a simple recipe of pokeberry juice alone.  (See Make Ink by Jason Logan for more on ink making with pokeberries). 

Fall Pokeweed and Tulip Poplar…a wild tangle of yellow and magenta.

Here are some notes and guidelines about building your dye pot

Slow cooking pokeberry…

Many pokeweed dye recipes speak of the importance of using vinegar or acetic acid to prepare the fibers and to extract the dye from the berries without which the signature magenta of pokeberry is quite fleeting and incredibly light sensitive.  Carol Leigh’s recipe for pokeberry dye holds a place of honor as her research has been a great resource in developing pokeberry dye light-fastness in textiles.  Even with extreme measures, high ratios of dye stuff to fiber, and the use of an acidic environment to prepare dye bath and fiber, expect to see changes in the vivid coloring of your pokeberry-dyed textiles over time.  It may be that through the processes described below you will be able to attain and hold magenta for many years and still you may want to consider using pokeweed to dye fibers which can be overdyed in the future–textiles without intricate knit colorwork or woven pattern work.  

Like many dye processes, it seems exactitude of measure is not a necessity, but rather a sense of proportion based on experience and observation can be your best guide.   Carol Leigh makes reference to this phenomena and speaks of her general practice of working with pokeberries and other wild foraged plants, supporting the idea that cultivating a sense of how much is enough is our best measure.  I would advocate for the same practice to be applied to your foraging in the field and even your own backyard.  A general rule is useful, but does not necessarily speak to the specific conditions and needs of the community of wildlife supported by the plants you harvest.  (Carol Leigh estimates about 1.5-2 gallons of berries (off the stem) will be sufficient to dye 8 ounces of wool.  In her book , Harvesting Color,  Rebecca Burgess interprets and brings her own vision to this recipe, and suggests a ratio in a weight of poke to weight of fiber as roughly 25:1.) 

For our pokeweed exploration we soaked approximately 1 ½ gallons of pokeberries on the stem in a solution of vinegar and water overnight.  We added approximately ½-1 cup vinegar per gallon of water.  Our fibers were pre-treated with cold soaks in, roughly, a 1:1 ratio of water to vinegar.  Some of the fibers had a four day soak in this solution and others had an overnight soak and a few had an on the day soak too.  Many recipes also advocate simmering your fibers in an acidic solution before the dyeing process.  

Our dye vat was slowly heated over the course of two hours after which the pokeberries were strained.  Half of our pre-wetted and pre-treated fibers were added to this dye liquor and the dye pot was returned to a gentle heat for approximately two hours. The remaining fibers were added to a large mason jar of hot dye liquor (taken from our extracted berries), and allowed to sit and ferment for four days. Our intent was to allow for long slow seeps in the dye pot for both the extraction and for the subsequent dyeing process to allow for color intensity.  Overheating (bringing the temperatures above 160) will denature the dye stuff resulting in a significant color change from a red/magenta dye to a grey.

After the process of dyeing, allow your fibers to oxidize and cure (for an hour, to a day or more) before carefully soaking and rinsing. 


Here are some of the colors which emerged from our pots…


Pokeberry dyed farm yarns dyed at the Flying Goat Farm studio.  The fibers allowed to sit and ferment retained a clear pink-magenta (right) and the cooked fibers took a more earthy tone towards a magenta-red (left).  

Reflecting on the collection of recipes and experiences shared in dialog it is clear that variables such as the high proportion of berry to fiber, working with a highly acidic pre-mordant and dye bath environment, as well as a close watch on heating below a temperature of 160, will all assist in drawing colors into your fibers.  As with all dye plants, there seem to be so many variables to work with and so many directions to take your fiber–so much potential. The joy of the experience was in the slow cooking, the element of time and the freedom to follow our own sense of when things were ready to move from one process to another–a process of being in tune with the plant, with each other and with the balance of things. The question remains how and what do we dye knowing that this particular dye source can be more changeable by nature. 

 Please share your adventures on our Instagram or Facebook @chesapeakefibershed

A few resources on dyeing with Pokeweed are listed below:

A Weaver’s Garden, Rita Buchanan

Carol Leigh of Hill Creek Fiber Studio:

Harvesting Color, Rebecca Burgess

For ink making see:

Make Ink; A Forager’s Guide to Natural Ink Making, Jason Logan