Safflower dyeing with Kazuki Yamakazi

Safflower is an interesting dye because it contains both red and yellow dyes so, depending on the fabric and pH, it produces different colours. Apparently it takes 400 square metres of safflower plants to produce 1kg of petals.

There’s a section on safflower dyeing in Jenny Dean’s book Wild Color, which explains the methodology. ESP and I tried this out last year, using a pack of dried safflower we bought in Malaysia, but it wasn’t very successful.

So ESP was dispatched to this workshop at 10iss to find out how it should be done!

Dr Yamazaki of Kusaki-Kobo Dye Studio is descended from three generations of natural dyers and researchers in Japan. He started teaching and creating artwork with natural dyes in 1985 and has since been active in research and education of natural dyes in Japan and abroad.

Here’s a sample of the master dyers’ range of colours, including safflower, on very fine Japanese silk – how gorgeous are they?

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First the safflower petals are soaked overnight, squeezed, strained and removed. This dye turns alum-mordanted fabric yellow (better on silk than on cotton).

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The petals are washed to remove the yellow and soaked in an alkaline solution for two hours to extract the red dye. After straining and before adding the fabric, citric acid is added to neutralise the dye bath. Distinctive small bubbles form at this stage.

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If too much acid is added the red dye will start to precipitate out – sometimes this is done deliberately to extract the dye to use in cosmetics.

Silk added to this dye turns orange, while cotton turns red or dark pink.

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The difference in colour is because the red dye also contains a second yellow dye, which is absorbed by silk but not cotton. You can see in the photo below that the silk (top row) is more orange than the red cotton below.

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To get pink silk, you need to use cotton as a “dye bank” to absorb just the red dye and then extract it. At around pH4 the dye is locked into the cotton. If you then put the cotton into a bath of pH6-7 the dye is released from the cotton. Squeeze out the cotton and remove it from the dye bath before adding more citric acid. Then add the silk – you get bright pink!

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Japanese dyers might repeat the entire process six times to get intense colours into the dye bank.

The process doesn’t work well with wool, despite the fact that it is a protein fibre like silk. This is because wool needs to be heated to more than 30C to open the scales, but the pigment begins to break down at 30C, so you just get a pale pink.

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9 thoughts on “Safflower dyeing with Kazuki Yamakazi”

  1. Great colours….and a fascinating process, but if it requires so much land to produce the petals, perhaps a bit dubious on the sustainability of it all.

    1. I don’t know enough about safflower production to comment on its sustainability Anna, but I do know that oil is produced from its seeds as well. So maybe the petals for dyeing are a useful bonus?

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