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.
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, Interweavebooks.com
- 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, Interweavebooks.com
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.