Over the last year I’ve posted about some of my experiments in dyeing fabrics and threads with plants gleaned from my garden to be used in my winter, off-season stitching projects. Since then I have expanded beyond my own garden to use plant materials foraged from the world beyond. In the fall I had great success with goldenrod (Solidago) flowers. It turned old cotton sheets the most wonderfully soft shade of 70′s era yellow.
Around that time (mid-fall), the black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) started to drop their nuts. I had heard that they make a good dye and can be boiled down further to make a good quality, fade-proof, chestnut brown ink. Since Davin has been doing more ink work as of late, I thought it would be fun to collect a few nuts and experiment with using them as both a dye for my projects and an ink for his. The experiment has been a huge success so I thought I would share the process and the results with you here.
You Will Need:
- Several whole black walnuts
- A large non-reactive pot (I use an enamel stockpot reserved for dyeing projects)
- Gloves to protect your hands, optional
- Cheese cloth
- Metal sieve (optional)
- Rubbing alcohol
- Whole cloves (optional)
Forage and Ferment
For this project you will need whole black walnuts with their fragrant, green husks still intact. I collected 69 fruits, which turned out to be far more than one would need to produce a large quantity of ink. It took me ages to process it all. You could easily cut that number in half and come away with a nice batch of ink. I picked mine up off of the ground at the flea market we frequent, but I see black walnut trees all over the city, especially in older public parks. Their sticky green hulls are generally considered a nuisance and most people would appreciate it if you hauled a few away.
Back at home, I tossed the fruit into one of the large enamel stockpots that I use for dyeing, and forgot about them for several weeks so that they would have time to blacken and ferment. I’m sure they don’t need to sit around for quite that long, but I didn’t have a chance to get to the task.
Once blackened and soft, you can choose to pull away the fruit and discard the nut (we threw ours into the yard and the squirrels quickly scooped them up), or cook them whole and remove the nuts after.
Note: Once the nuts are blackened they leave a stubborn, persistent stain. I suggest wearing rubber gloves for the remainder of the process and protecting any surfaces that you are concerned about with plastic. Clean with cloth or rags that you don’t mind staining. Protect your clothing with an apron. If you can, cook the dye/ink in a non-reactive pot that is reserved for dyeing.
Round One: Cooking the Fruit
To begin, I added water to the pot, just enough to cover the fruit, and simmered on a medium-low heat on the stove for nearly an entire day. I then turned it off, put the lid on, and let the pot sit until the next morning.
Note: Black walnuts produce a strong smell as they cook. It isn’t toxic or nauseating, but I suggest cooking on a day when you can leave the windows or kitchen door open, or better yet, do the whole thing outside on a portable stove.
The next day I strained out the solids using cheesecloth set inside a metal sieve for stability. Don’t forget to wear your gloves!! I have since found large, cotton, drawstring bags that would have been much easier to use. I worked through my extra large pot of dye in batches, pouring the ink and sludge through the cheesecloth until it was full and then pulling up the sides and squeezing out as much of the colour as possible. I then set the solids aside and put them into a second pot with more water to cook on the stove. I have since used the liquid from this batch to dye fabrics and threads (photo near top of page), while the first batch was used to make ink. If you are only planning to make ink, you can go ahead and compost the solids. Please note: Black walnut contains a toxin called juglone that may injury or even kill some garden plants. Concentrations of juglone are high in the hulls. Ohio State University suggests composting the leaves for a minimum of 2 months and the bark for 6. Since I would have been adding mine to the compost in the winter months, I tossed it into my city’s green bin instead.
Round Two: Cook It Down
Once the solids were removed, I put the liquid back onto the stove and set it to simmer for several hours until it was thick and dark. I tested it a few times along the way by dipping a paintbrush into the ink and writing with it. I suggest cooking it down a little bit more than you want since it will be thinned out slightly by the addition of a preservative.
I then strained the liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with fresh cheesecloth to ensure that all of the tinier bits were removed, and then poured it into large Mason jars to cool. If you have a large batch, I suggest breaking it down among a few jars, making sure that there is a few inches of space left in the jar so that the preservative can be added. I ended up with 2 jars of strong ink.
Once my ink was cooled to room temperature I poured rubbing alcohol into the jars, adding in about 20% of the volume of ink (I eye-balled it). Rubbing alcohol acts as a preservative to prevent the ink from going off or forming mould. I have found that it also helps the ink dry a little bit faster on paper.
You can leave your finished ink in large Mason jars or divide it into small, clean bottles for easy accessibility. I purchased these tinted dropper bottles, typically used for medicinal tinctures, at a local bottle supply store, but I also poured some into an old hinge-lid jar (I have seen these at the dollar store) and a used vanilla extract bottle. You may have bottles in your recycling bin that will work. I put a whole clove into each bottle for good measure. I had read that they make a good preservative, and even thought I had already added the alcohol, I figured it couldn’t hurt to double up.
Since we were giving a few bottles away as gifts, Davin used the ink to make hand drawn labels. They look great, but more importantly, we love the quality and consistency of the final ink. It goes on more smoothly than any of the inks we have purchased, especially when using a dip pen and nib. Not a bad haul considering the main ingredient was picked off the ground and cost absolutely nothing!
I’d like to give away a bottle of our homemade black walnut ink to 2 readers.
All you have to do to enter is answer the following:
How would you use homemade ink/dye? As always, you can just type in “count me in,” and that will count as an entry, too.
I will be choosing 2 winners at random at midnight on January 20, 2014. Winners will be contacted by email.