This is my blog to share my adventures, misadventures, exploration, and experimentation with fibre- and as it turns out, with life as well. There is some of both. One thing leads to another. Collecting, spinning, weaving, dying, learning, building a web of relationships. Here we are: welcome.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Forays into natural dyeing

Like everybody else, when I was a kid, I learned to dye with onion skins. That set a switch in my brain.  From time to time over the years I've played with plant colors.  Then I started painting and got my color fix there. When I started playing with fibre, that long-ago switch turned on.  It had just been dormant: I already had two books on natural dying.  So I got two more, and started cruising the net looking for people with the same activated switch.

The next thing I knew, I was out wandering around the neighborhood collecting leaves, bark, flowers, and cooking them in specially reserved pots.  I now have an odd variant of the kosher kitchen: one set of pots and utensils for cooking food, another for cooking dye plants. 

It's interesting, because you never quite know what you are going to get. You control what you can, but there are too many variables to be of what is coming out.  So there is mystery.  Fun and mystery, and you get to dabble in ancient arts.  What could be better?

For this fall's experiments, I made up mini-skeins from a cone of commercial natural 2-ply wool I picked up at a studio sale (where I lost my head but got some great yarn and tool bargains).  Here is a quick summary of results.  At the bottom, a list of some useful books.

Alfalfa (lucerne):  I found an interesting legume in my driveway-- birds plant all kinds of things out there.  I was wandering around crushing leaves in my quest for possible dye plants, and this one turned quite dark when I pinched it. So I gathered up some shoots, and made a little batch of dye solution in my small pot.  I was pleased with the lovely soft sagey green these two little alum-mordanted samples took up.  The legume leaves looked familiar, and I confirmed that it was alfalfa.  Who knew?

Rhubarb root (left side):  I had dug an overgrown patch of rhubarb late this summer, and trimmed off the old part of the root.  It had some good pieces, so I chopped those up and boiled them for about an hour. I actually got two batches from the roots; there was so much color that I covered the drained roots again and got a dye bath nearly as intense as the first.

I used the first to dye the five mini-skeins on the left, pulling out a skein after 1 minute, 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 45 minutes.  The first four were alum-mordanted, the last was not.  I do not think yarn needs to be mordanted for rhubarb: it contains a good amount of oxalic acid, which is a natural mordant.  As you can see, I got a good range of colors ranging from a medium light yellow to an almost rusty orange.  This bath is still good for more color! I do not think I could get a pale yellow until it is almost exhausted.

Goldenrod flowers (top right):  The two skeins at the top right were done in a goldenrod solution. I simmered the flowers for one hour, let cool, and strained.  The wool was added and simmered for one hour and allowed to cool.  Since most yellow in plants is due to the pigment carotene, the overall tone is similar to the rhubarb root, but softer overall, and, in this case, with a little green undertone, as I had left the top leaves on the flowertops.

The two skeins at bottom right in the photo are the alfalfa dyed skeins above. I adjusted the color for the yellows so the color isn't quite right for the green here.

Black beans:  A year or so ago I noticed that a towel I'd used to clean up the stove after a black bean boilover stayed kind of blue for a long time. So I decided to try it as a dye..  This was from the first soak water for black beans I was preparing a fe days ago for soup.  I poured it off into my large dyepot, and added three larger alum-mordanted mini-skeins to it.  I simmered them for an hour, removed one immediately, and let the other two stay in the dyepot overnight. 

I was pleased with the dark, purplish color they all had.  It is hard to see the difference in the photo, but the one on the right is slightly paler and dustier in tone than the other two.  This is the one I removed immediately to wash.  The two I left to sit overnight have a deeper and richer color.  I suspect too that different strains of black beans, or differences in the soil they are grown in, might make a difference in the color one gets.

Wild carrot flowers:  I still have some dye solution I made up from wild carrot flowers.  I set it aside (got a bug and never got around to it).  If it isn't too off, I might give it a try and see if I can get a yellow that would go well with the black bean purply color.

A few books to try:

  • A Dyer's Garden, Rita Buchanen, 1995,
  • A Weaver's Garden, Rita Buchanen, 1987,Dover Publications, Mineola, NY.
  • Dye Plants and Dying-- a handbook, first printing 1964 (it went on for a number of printings).  Collection of pieces originally published as Plants & Gardens, Vol.20, #3.  Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Brooklyn, NY.  Readily available used.  
  • The Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing, Eva Lambert & Tracy Kendall, 2010,
Newer is not necessarily better.  The Lambert book is pretty and has a lot of info, but is not well-laid out, and it focuses on a few plants, many of which are exotic and must be purchased. It does eliminate the use of toxic metal mordants, which is a good thing.

I prefer Buchanen's book The Dyer's Garden, which is clearly written and easy to follow, with wonderful photos of yarn she's dyed with plants.  Both her books include garden and horticulture ideas and suggestions, with discussions of a number of plants.  She does include discussion of metal mordants, but addresses the toxicity issues well.  I'd suggest skipping chrome, which is highly toxic, and must be disposed of at landfills that accept hazardous materials.  Alum, tin, and iron are safe, and copper can be used judiciously with safety precautions.

The booklet by Boston Botanic gardens is a treasure trove of information: history of dyestuffs and the dyeing industry that developed in Europe, home dyeing, anthropological studies of dye materials used in other cultures.  These vary in depth and quality, but are a great source of ideas for contemporary home dyers to try out.  Ancient mordants are discussed, some of which are fascinating in themselves.

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