Natural dyeing with apple tree bark

natural white Romney handspun 2-ply wool dyed with apple tree twigs and bark

natural white Romney handspun 2-ply wool dyed with apple tree twigs and bark

We were trimming our apple trees this fall, and I thought I remembered something online about dyeing with apple tree bark. I did a super-quick search (as the branches were coming down practically) and found enough to make me want to save some of the branches for an experiment…

I wouldn’t normally want to fell a branch just for the bark, nor strip a tree of it’s bark while it’s live.. but since this was coming down anyway, I thought I’d give it a try.

Once they were stripped of leaves and other little twigs, I went back online to look for other natural dyers.

Linda Ash did her dyeing in August, on 50/50 wool/bamboo batts. She indicated that apple tree bark is high enough in tannins to be used without a mordant, which will deliver a rosy-pink colour. Her photos remind me of a pale madder.  She didn’t indicate how she prepared her dyebath though.

Rachel Kessler took apple tree bark and soaked it out on her porch in October for a week. She indicates that letting it soak will bring out more colour once the water is boiled. She started hers on a sunny porch – but by October 2 we had 40+ cm of snow on our porch this year, so I was hesitant – but she left hers out longer than intended, and hers froze too… so I wasn’t too worried.

Once brought inside and thawed, she soaked her wool/alpaca/silk blend yarns in ordinary water, and then simmered the skeins along with the bark for about 2 hours. Then she cooled the dyebath (skeins, bark, and all) overnight. Like Linda, Rachel indicates that barks have enough tannin (natural mordant) so they don’t need additional mordants like alum. She notes that lichens (along with tea and coffee) are the same. However, she suggests that adding a mordant may impact the final colour if desired. The colour she got wasn’t nearly as pretty as Linda’s though… her final dried yarn is sort of a caramel.

Chaz Wyn used tree trimmings harvested in March and soaked the twigs in water for a week before simmering the branches for two hours below boiling, then straining out the trimmings, adding the wool, and heating the dyebath with the wool for about 30 minutes. They then left the dye bath to cool for 3 days. The resulting wool is soft yellowish brown. She was hoping for a bolder colour, and suspected that older branches may have given a bolder colour.

Textile artist Natalie Stopka also reiterated that bark does not require a mordant, because they have a higher level of substantivity than leaves or flowers. This substantivity means that colourant in bark bonds with fibers at a molecular level. She specified cellulose fibres (linen, cotton, etc) rather than protein fibres though (wool, silk) and I’m mostly interested in wool. She did note that a mordant can help improve the colour up-take, that bark reacts well to modifiers, and it often holds a lot of colour.

Natalie mentions that it’s specifically the inner bark that is rich in dye, and to expose it, the twigs can be shaved down using a knife. However, she doesn’t like the work for that, so opts for chopping her twigs up into small pieces using garden shears. Off larger logs she uses a spokeshave to get both the outer bark as well as the soft inner bark.

Although I don’t have a wood burning stove or fireplace, she also notes the benefits of one for dyers:

“It is also useful for making wood ash lye, a pH control and modifier. Rather than purchase soda ash or ammonia, you can fill a plastic bucket 1/3 with cold wood ashes and top with cold water. Leave it for about a week until the ashes settle out and the liquid feels slimy. Decant the wood ash lye into a glass jar without disturbing the sediment, and it can be kept indefinitely. A 1705 dyer’s treatise on right proper lye making and the merits of various ashes can be found here.”

.. of course reading this, made me put out a call to friends to see if anyone has a wood-burning stove and would be willing to collect ash for me….
Fran writes in her blog about using the bark from crab apple trees. With a variety of different mordents she got soft pinks, light yellows, pale grey, plus the unmordented buttery yellow.


My dye experiment

I liked the idea of soaking the twigs and bark in clean cold water before using it to dye with, so decided to start there. We had just had a rather large snowfall (45cm in some places in Calgary, 40cm here at my place!) so I gathered up a bunch of snow the night before and let it melt in my dye pots overnight.

I selected some of the twigs I’d collected from the cut tree, and shaved down the outer and inner barks into one of my dyepots. Then I cut down a bunch of the twigs as well and put them in the dyepot as well. Why not!?

I had enough water to cover the bark and twigs, but then wanting to use my dyepot, put the mix into an old water pitcher instead that I’ve been using as a watering can outside, and is no longer used for drinking water.

Within an hour or so, the water in the pitcher had changed from clear to yellow-brown… and that’s without adding any heat at all! Very encouraging!

I left the pitcher sit for 3 days – after a few hours it had become a golden brown-yellow, and never got any more intense than that, so I figured it would be fine. Interestingly, just like how flowers or celery will take up dyed water, the edges of the twigs turned kind of orange – maybe a sign of things to come?

Dyeing wool

After the three days, I poured the pitcher of water and twigs/bark into my dyepot, and added more water to cover the dyestuffs. I wanted to use melted snow again, but ended up just using tap water. I put it on the stove at medium to just barely simmer for an hour before straining and adding my materials.

I read that the closest thing we can get to water used during the medieval period is likely distilled water, though in future I think it would be nice to use rainwater or melted snow to reduce the amount of minerals found in Calgary’s hard water. (Plus.. I’m not going to go out and buy water for dyeing…)

Apple tree bark and twigs dye with handspun natural white Romney two-ply wool.

Apple tree bark and twigs dye with handspun natural white Romney two-ply wool.

I had some handspun natural white wool yarn, Romney sliver originally from the UK, but bought at a supplier south of Calgary which is now out of business. I spun it z-twist as a single, and then did an s-twist two ply.

I simmered the dyepot with the wool yarn in it for 30 minutes, and then let the dyepot cool with the yarn in it overnight. I rinsed the yarn the next morning and hung it to dry out of direct sunlight.

The tannins in the bark are supposed to bond with cellulose fibers better than protein fibers, but I really just wanted to dye my wool. I have white linen to dye, but linen doesn’t take up dye super well… and I don’t have any cotton that I want to use for SCA purposes.


So the resulting colour is sort of a soft mustard. There’s a little pink to it, but it’s not really edging towards coral or orange really. I’m happy with it, but am not sure it’s a unique enough colour to spend the extra energy stripping the bark as well… versus the results I got throwing twigs and leaves all together into the dyebath… (stay tuned for my post on that!)

Follow up

I shared photos of my results on the Natural Textile Dyeing Facebook group, and a member named Tamra suggested adding little baking soda to the bark bath to get more pink tones from the apple bark dye baths.

Keep in touch!

Check out my blog post about dyeing handspun wool yarn for knitting, crochet, naalbinding or weaving with apple tree bark on Dawn's Dress Diary.Want to see what else I’m working on? I’d welcome you to subscribe to my blog (if you sign up with WordPress) but if that’s not your thing, I’d invite you to follow my blog on Facebook (where I also post articles that interest me and other things, or follow me on Instagram where I post crafting, sewing, costuming photos, along with cute dogs, selfies, and food…

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5 comments on “Natural dyeing with apple tree bark

  1. How interesting! Now I’m wondering about the apple prunings in the woodshed – and the contents of the ash bucket. (I’d better sort out the nails first, though – I don’t think I want the colour saddened.)
    I’m always keen to see information about dye plants I actually have access to – so many of the traditional dye plants aren’t grown in NZ.

    • Dawn says:

      I haven’t tried the wood ash lye yet – thought I’m slowly decanting a little bit to play around with later. I probably should pick up some pH strips first though.
      My tree bits were only about 2 weeks old when I worked with them- I suspect fresher will work better than dried out dyestuffs… but perhaps just using more of them might result in good colour?

  2. […] one of our Apple trees and I saved the bark for dyeing. I’ve not done this before but I’ve been doing some research on […]

  3. […] first thing you should know is that I basically followed these guidelines. I cut the apple tree prunings into small pieces. I discarded anything old and dead. I soaked them […]

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