Comfrey has had a long relationship with humans. It grows in sun or shade in damp areas. Look for it near ditches or river banks. Or in damp wasteland or grassland. It appears throughout summer and has white or pink flowers. It’s one of those plants you don’t notice until you do, and then you see it everywhere, spreading exuberantly.
Comfrey is the common name and Symphytum Officinale is its botanical name. It is also known as Knitbone, Bone-set and Consolida because it’s the orthopedic remedy of herbal medicine.
The root contains allantoin which stimulates the growth of bone cells and the epithelium on ulcerated surfaces. The old herbalist books talk about the glutinous juice in the Comfrey root soldering and gluing together pieces of meat when added to the cooking pot, making it into one lump. In the past this substance was used on bandages to make stiff casts to hold broken bones in place, while the allantoin also helped the healing.
More commonly today it is used by gardeners as ‘green manure’. Comfrey has a deep root system that can mine into compacted soil and access minerals and nutrients that are hard for other plants to reach. These minerals are stored, so cut leaves can be used to line potato and runner bean trenches, releasing potassium for the vegetables as they grow.
Comfrey leaves can be chopped or bruised and packed into a container. Over the course of 4-6 weeks they rot down and produce a dark brown liquid which is a superfood fertilizer for garden plants. It is called Comfrey Tea and the plants love it.
These 3 skeins were dyed with Comfrey picked in April, May and June (from left to right). I don’t know if the advance of summer made the colour more yellow, or if it was just different leaves.
Like the gardeners, dyers are interested in the leaves. I used at least the same weight of leaves as weight of fibre. To make a dyebath cut the leaves up and cover with boiling water. Soak overnight. Then simmer for at least and hour. Drain the dye liquid off the leaves and cool.
I have always used wool mordanted in alum but I have read that you don’t need a mordant for wool, although mordanting improves the fastness. Cottons and other vegetable fibres do need a mordant. But if you want to dye some wool without mordanting, give it a go.
Once the fibres are added to the dyebath simmer for at least an hour. Leave it to steep overnight.
These 2 skeins were both dyed using leaves picked in May. The skein on the left was a natural pale grey yarn. The skein on the right was natural white but after letting the fibres soak in the dyebath overnight I decided I wanted more colour so repeated the process with more leaves added to the dyebath. Expect khaki, yellow-brown and gold-brown from the glorious, green Comfrey.