Shining Colors: Natural dyes on silk hankies and caps

A look at creating a rainbow of silk using natural dyes

Devin Helmen Oct 13, 2021 - 5 min read

Shining Colors: Natural dyes on silk hankies and caps Primary Image

Silk hankies that have been naturally dyed in a rainbow of colors. All photos by Devin Helmen.

I love working with natural dyes. They are always surprising to me, as there are so many variables that can affect the color of the finished fiber. I generally dye wool, but have been throwing a few silk hankies or caps into dyepots as I make them to get an idea of how silk takes color. And what a delightful experiment that has been!

A rainbow of color

This collection is the result of two years of dyeing. I mordant the silk with alum and keep them on hand to throw into dyepots whenever I am struck by the ‘Color-Bug’ and do a run of dyepots. The pale peach is from an exhaust of a madder dye bath. There was still some dye left in the pot after I dyed a large amount of wool and it resulted in a pale and complex sort of color which will combine with others to create depth and interest. The bright fuschia is from cochineal and is richly saturated and intense. Next up are yellows from wolf lichen and from dyers chamomile-bright and shining and the sort of intensity which will bring summer flowers into the dark and cold winter days of Minnesota. I overdyed some of those yellows with indigo to get two shades of green, a bright springlike green and a more subdued one. Last in line is the subtle and constantly interesting blue of indigo. Silk hankies 2

Devin captured a rainbow in these beautiful naturally dyed silk hankies.

Spinning the hankies

I spun up samples of the various colors and am enthralled with the resulting bright and richly colored yarn. The silk shines in the light and the slight texture gives an interest to the yarn which will add to the depth of any use. I plan to use some of this for weaving bands and possibly some for embroidery, which will show them off to their best effect. Both projects are fantastic uses for smaller amounts of precious yarns.

Spun silk hankies

Some of Devin's dyed hankies spun into skeins.

Silk hankies and caps are silk preparations that result in a more textured yarn and draft more like wools than silk top which results in a delightfully sleek and smooth yarn. Both preps of silk have a shine which shows off color fantastically. Spinning them can be intimidating, though. I generally spin silk hankies and caps on a spindle and do not predraft, which is a common way of spinning them. Instead, I spin straight from a corner or edge and draft as I go. I spun these samples on a wheel, and for that I attenuate the silk cap or hanky into a loose roving, just pulling from one edge with my hands 10 to 12 inches apart and stressing my wrists as little as possible. Once I have done that, I spin as I normally would with a short forward draft, though I keep my drafting hand and my fiber hand about 8 to 10 inches apart. This distance lets you draft the silk fibers without putting too much stress on your hands and wrists as the fibers pull apart easier. I don’t worry about the amount of twist in the singles, as long as the yarn stays together, and spin a fine thread. When I ply, I aim for a high-plying twist to ensure a durable yarn which will work up easily without loose silk fibers catching and creating problems.

Silk hankies or caps are affordable and easily available preparations of silk and I encourage anyone who dyes to keep some on hand and to try dyeing them. They add a luxury and shine to your collection of colors and they feel delightfully indulgent to spin.

Devin Helmen has been immersed in fiber since learning to spin at age 8. They spin, knit, and weave in beautiful Minnesota. Devin enjoys writing and teaching about fiber arts and has a passion for spindles and everyday textiles. They blog, intermittently, at