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How to Make Black Walnut Dye

My buddies at Rocks and Salt grabbed a sack full of black walnuts while they were doing an event in Pennsylvania.  Quit a good haul!  If you ever had questions on how to dye with these bad boys, here ya go!  Here’s my process extracting the dye and getting it on my print table,  with the end results being my fine linen cowl neck tops.

You collect black walnuts aka juglans nigra, in eastern North America in late fall/early winter.  I live in Brooklyn NYC, so harvesting dye stuff is possible but tricky.  I certainly don’t get the haul that someone out in an area with “real” nature does. So this was a great surprise.

When I got the shopping bag full of them, I couldn’t get to it right away, knowing it would be a chunk of time to get into all of them. The bag was full but they were in various stages of decay. The organizer of Rocks and Salt’s event had grabbed Bags of them from her yard and did a call out to anyone that wanted them.  They are great friends and instantly thought of me.

When you get your black walnuts, you should tend to them as soon as possible.  They rot and mold fairly quickly, especially if they’ve been rotting a bit on the ground. Also bugs.  Little worms love these things, so be prepared to remove some your collection.  The super saturated dye comes from the hulls, so you have to crack and remove the outer soft shell. You can use a mallet or rock, but be careful and not be too aggressive or the dye will splash everywhere and it is super saturated and long lasting. WEAR GLOVES when collecting and handling, no joke!  You’re hands will be stained forEver. My gloves got holes in the the thumbs while I was breaking the husks apart…my hands were brown for longer than a Month! Not exaggerating. Stained hands for a MONTH.

Once you separate the hulls, you can dye with them immediately. They are a substantive dye which means you don’t need to prepare your fabric with a mordant.  (The walnuts and husks in the center I saved to experiment with later, check back.) Since I had so much of it I wanted to be able to store it for later use, so I left them to dry out on a table for a few days.  So they didn’t mold, I came and moved around the bits twice a day.

Once they were fully dried, I used this amazing coffee grinder to pulverize the bits. One; so that they fit better in a jar. Two; so I could measure them easier, and the dye would be extracted in shorter amount of time. Three; I like to bundle dye with the grounds!  You can use them as chunks too.  Fresh is always best, if you just want to throw the hulls in a pot and dye with them immediately.

Save shell and nut for later! I put in my freezer until I was ready for them.

When ready to make dye bath, simmer your hulls in a small-medium sized stainless steel pot for at least an hour (I usually simmer, let it sit overnight, then simmer again), and then pour the dye through a strainer or colander to get all the bits out.  (It is Impossible to clean your fabric when it’s covered in dye stuff.)

You can store extracted dye for later use in fridge or add your fabric immediately.  You can even use your dye to draw and paint with by making a really saturated brew.

If you’re fabric is ready to be dyed (always scour your fabric), bring a large stainless steal pot, half filled with water to boil, then lower to 180 degrees.  The pot should be big enough for the fabric you are dyeing.  You want the fabric to have enough room to move around without folding over on itself and bunching up, causing dark or lighter spots.  When water is 180, add your strained, saturated, dye mixture into the pot and stir.  Make sure your fabric is wet then wrung out, as you never should add dry fabric to a dye pot. Unbunch your fabric and slowly add in to the pot.  Keep at 180 for an hour, stirring every 5 minutes, and then leave it in the pot over night.  I even check on it, stirring, when I pass by it during that time.

Rinse in cool water.  Wash in hot soapy water, preferably synthrapol, Then rinse until water runs clear.  For the life of the piece, any naturally dyed piece should be washed in cold water to preserve the color.

I had 5 yards of prewashed linen.  Because my pot is a little too small for that amount of fabric I heat the dye and pour over the fabric in a 5-10 gallon tub.  Rather then simmering the fabric, I let it sit for a week, tending to it a few times a day.  You need to stir and move your fabric around so it doesn’t dye spotted and inconsistently.

After it sat for a good amount of time I removed the fabric, twisting as much of the dye out as possible, but not letting dry.  Damp, I folded the fabric back and forth and then rolled it up, in a sudo-shibori style.  With fabric set aside, I brought the dye bath back to 180 degrees and added 3 Tablespoons of iron powder.  I placed the fabric back in the tub and then carefully poured the iron’ed dye bath so that it covered half the rolled fabric, and let it sit for 2 days. 

After dyeing and washing,  I then silkscreen my the yardage with water based textile ink.  Each color/image is a step in the print process.  Once the ink is dry it needs to be heat set or “cured” so that the ink bonds to the fiber and is washable.  

Cut it up, and sew it.  Only 4 made per 5 yards created.

This skirt was one of a kind and sold! But see below, I may have a cowl neck top left in my online shop!


Fun Fact: Black walnuts are a natural source of iodine and great for your thyroid, antifungal, and antiparasitic. Here’s a link to more info on health benefits and making black walnut tincture.

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