The main point of my visit to Turin was to attend the Slow Food Convention (Terra Madre Salone del Gusto) – mainly an excuse to gorge on so many delicious things! However, I encountered a surprising number of textiles on my trip so thought I’d share some of them with you. 🙂
The Japanese stand at Salone del Gusto offered several workshops, including the chance to dye a T-shirt with Commelina communis, aka Asiatic dayflower.
Well, I’d never heard of this flower so of course I had to sign up!
Fumiko Fujii, the dyer running the workshop, explained that the flowers are collected and then pressed flat on to paper, which is soaked in water to extract the blue colour. However, it is not fast when washed! For this reason it is used to paint the initial designs on kimono and washed out later.
So Fumiko had added some indian ink to the dye so that it wouldn’t wash out, and I used this to draw my practice design on paper – the snail logo of the Slow Food organisation.
However, when it came to painting the design on the T-shirt, I decided to use the pure Asiatic dayflower extract – and not wash it! 🙂 I added some red highlights with dye made by soaking hibiscus flowers for three days. It was much trickier painting the T-shirt because the absorbent fabric caused the dye to spread.
But it was lovely to meet Fumiko and learn about another Japanese dye.
The best-known textile in Turin is of course the Turin Shroud. But in the city’s wonderful Egyptian Museum are some garments that are far older and definitely authentic. These pleated linen dresses, for example, are in amazing condition for fabric that is around 4,000 years old.
There were also some great examples of Coptic weaving and embroidery from the 3rd to 11th centuries AD.
And this is the remains of a design for weavers to follow, drawn on papyrus.
I also loved the patterns created by the bandages on mummified animals.
There was some great weaving too.
And the patterns caused by some of the displays turned them into mini installations.
Finally, we made a trip out to the suburbs to the Leumann Village. Rather like Saltaire and Port Sunlight in the UK, Leumann Village was built by enlightened entrepreneur Napoleon Leumann to house workers in his cotton mill. The village included a church, a school, public baths and a railway station.
Today the factory is home to various factory shopping outlets, but there is a small museum where you can see how the workers lived.
The day we visited there was also a textile fair and exhibition, which included some fabulous sculptural felt work by Esther Weber.
It was definitely a blue fingernail week last week! It started with a couple of days in Hove with a wonderful group of textile friends who try to get together every couple of months to do a little felting or stitching.
This time, Barbara was rash enough to offer her garden to do some indigo dyeing – though some parts (usually featuring pale limestone!) were definitely out of bounds to people carrying dripping blue fabric. 🙂 The weather was glorious – the last two days of our prolonged heatwave – and the food and drink was plentiful and excellent. Barbara even baked a belated birthday cake for Carol, my partner in Women of the Cloth.
In between the eating, drinking and laughter we even found some time for dyeing, and everyone produced some great work.
When I got back home, it was time to filter my second indigo extraction from my homegrown indigo, which I’d fermented and left to settle while I was away. This produced another 4g of indigo.
Then on Friday I harvested 75g of indigo leaves, blended them with iced water till it was bright green and strained it through silk.
I used this to dye two silk scarves, one plain and one ecoprinted. Interestingly, some of the leaf prints seemed to resist the dye, while others changed colour as they were overdyed.
Also interestingly, the silk I used to strain the vegetation shows a range of colours, from the expected turquoise, through pale green to red from indirubin.
All natural indigo contains indigotin, the blue pigment, and indirubin, a red pigment – the indirubin is usually hidden by the indigotin, but shows up once the indigotin is exhausted. Fascinating to see it separated out here!
This year I planted more Japanese indigo – I got the seeds from Ashley Walker of Nature’s Rainbow at the natural dyeing workshop I did in January. He said that there were two variations – broad leaved and narrow leaved, and that he had found that the broad leaved variety contained more pigment. So I planted them in two separate patches, and thanks to the wet spring and summer heatwave they have grown really strongly.
I’d read about extracting pigment by drying and composting the leaves, but this seemed to be quite a large scale process – I got the impression that I would need several years’ worth of leaves before this became worthwhile! But then I joined a Facebook group on indigo pigment extraction methods, whose admin Brittany Boles published a description of aqueous alkali precipitation extraction and also linked to a detailed account of the process by Fibershed.
So last week as our heatwave reached its peak I took the plunge and had a go at fermenting some of my homegrown indigo.
I cut about half the broad leaved plants down to 7-8 inches and stripped off the leaves, ending up with 215g. I covered them with bottled water (chlorinated water is a no no and there wasn’t much rainwater around!) and kept the leaves submerged with a couple of stones.
A couple of days later I could see an oily slick on top of the water – a good sign that fermentation was happening.
Then only a couple of hours later the water had turned bright green and there was a characteristic fruity smell – bingo! I decided to remove the leaves, because if you leave them for too long the yield of indigo pigment apparently drops drastically.
I added lime (calcium hydroxide) to reach pH 10 and then whisked…and whisked…and whisked until the liquid was a deep indigo blue.
Because I’d used a dark grey bucket, I decanted a bit into a clear jar so I could get an idea of how the pigment was settling. Two days later I could see a dark blue line at the bottom of the container where the indigo had settled.
So I decanted most of the liquid from the bucket, adding it to my current indigo vat.
Then I poured the sludge at the bottom into a coffee filter.
After filtering and drying, I was left with 4g of homegrown indigo.
I also saved the stripped stalks of indigo and stuck them in a jar of water. One week later they have developed new roots – ready to replant for the next round!
I don’t know how pure the pigment is – apparently this method produces fairly low grade indigo, with bits of leaf and other impurities. But it’s a great feeling to have grown and extracted my own indigo pigment! 🙂
We started by learning about the history of marbling and saw examples of different patterns.
Then we started to get our hands dirty with suminagashi, a marbling technique used in Japan. This uses sumi calligraphy ink or other permanent inks, just floating on water, no size. These are some of the small samples I did.
We also tried it on rice paper.
And I’d read that it works on silk too, so I took some unmordanted fine habotai silk in to try – it worked beautifully.
Then we moved on to Western marbling. Unlike suminagashi, this mixes carrageen moss (a kind of seaweed) with the water to thicken it and support the colour. Patterns are created with toothpicks, combs or spatulas – sometimes a combination.
We tried with acrylics and gouache – most people seemed to get better results with gouache. The colour of the paper also affected the final result. Below are some combed patterns.
Below left is another combed pattern; on the right is a freeform pattern.
Below left is an antique straight pattern; right is a freeform pattern.
Below left is Spanish Moire pattern, made by rocking the paper as you place it on the size – close up it looks like folds of fabric. On the right is Italian pattern (nearly! – I should have added more wetting agent).
Below left is ghost marbling – one pattern marbled on top of another. On the right is a combed pattern.
I did have a go at marbling silk with gouache, but this came out very faint. It may have been better if I’d mordanted the silk first. (Paper for marbling requires mordanting with alum, unlike suminagashi.)
We also learnt how to make our own brushes and combs, as well as about polishing the paper afterwards, so it was a busy three days!
I have since washed the suminagashi silk and the pattern remains very clear. Could be another new product line? 😉
On day 2 we turned to red, looking at madder. Madder is very invasive, so Susan advised growing it in an enclosed area, like a tractor tyre. It also takes around three years before you can start harvesting the root, where the colour resides, and then after digging it up, washing it, drying it and snapping it into pieces she leaves it for another year in paper bags.
The root contains around over 15 different pigments, ranging from yellow and orange to coral, scarlet and brown. Some of these pigments emerge more quickly than others – for example, yellow and coral come out first, but alizarin, which gives the red colour, is not very soluble and is the last to emerge.
For this reason, despite traditional instructions that say madder should not be heated above 60°C, Susan and Ashley have found that working the bath quite hard for at least a week, cooling it and reheating it, produces the best reds. You can also add an alkali modifier to shift the colour from orange towards red.
The Liles recipe involves over three days of heating and straining to extract the best red pigments from the madder. The Ethel Mairet recipe by contrast is a very low effort method where the dye is extracted in the dyebath (no preparation required). They gave very different results.
Ashley and Susan had prepared the Liles method in advance and brought a madder dyebath which combined three days of extract. The Ethel Mairet bath was created by adding dry madder root to the dyebath (contained in an old paid of tights to prevent pieces getting caught in the wool and silk fibre).
In both recipes the wool was added to the dyebath at room temperature and heated to 82°C (simmering temperature) for 1.5 hours (Liles) or 1 hour (Mairet). Liles then instructed us to remove the wool, cool it and rinse it before putting it back in the bath at 70°C for 10-15 minutes. Then it was drained, cooled and gently rinsed. By contrast, after simmering the wool for an hour Mairet recommended boiling for the final five minutes before removing the wool, cooling it and rinsing.
In both dyebaths we resisted the temptation to agitate the fibre lest we felt it. We carefully turned the fibre over once in the Mairet bath.
We also used a dyebath created by vigorous boiling of the madder root left over after 3 days of the Liles madder extraction process. Ashley called this his surprise “4th extract”.
The results were interesting. The Liles recipe, extracted over days 1-3, gave the strongest colour (seen in the two samples on the right), followed by the Liles fourth extraction (sample bottom left). The Mairet recipe resulted in a very patchy sample that was much paler (top left).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, overdyeing with indigo some of the yellow samples dyed the previous day continued, and soon there was a splendid range of greens hanging outside.
The buttery mid yellows gave the brightest greens when overdyed; more orangey yellows gave a more olive green.
Ashley also demonstrated how multiple dips in woad helped get a deeper colour. The wool on the left has been dipped in woad five times while the wool on the right has been dipped only once.
Susan showed us a sample card of how acid and alkali modifiers after dyeing can change the colour, depending on the fibre and the mordant.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to overdye the madder samples with indigo to see if we could get purple shades, but we had quite a lot to take home already! We spent the last hour of the workshop splitting up all the samples so that everyone had a good collection to take home.
Suan and Ashley were very generous, offering us more weld, madder roots and all the leftover dye baths to take home. Many of us also bought seeds to start our own dye gardens!
There was just time to take a final photo of the beautiful rainbow of samples before heading back out into a grey January evening.
And here is the collection of plant-dyed wool and silk that I ended up with.
Huge thanks to Sally for her organisation and to Susan, Ashley and Brian for such a wonderful colourful weekend!
The advantage of the International Feltmakers Association’s regional groups is that they all organise their own workshops and activities to bring local felters together. But members of other groups are equally welcome if they are willing to travel.
So it was that I found myself heading for Ipswich a couple of weekends ago to attend a workshop on plant dyeing for felters, organised by Sally Sparrow of region 7. My god daughter lives in Manningtree, not far from Ipswich, and was willing to put me up for the weekend as well as drive me back and forth.
The workshop was run by Susan Dye (how’s that for nominative determinism?) of Nature’s Rainbow, ably assisted by her partner Ashley Walker and weaver and knitter Brian Bond. As inspiration, they brought along samples of yarns, fabrics and fleece, plus knitted and woven pieces in a whole spectrum of strong, bright colours.
Susan and Ashley grow their own dye plants on their allotment in Hitchin, specialising in grand teint – the medieval dyer’s guild term for the most light-fast and wash-fast colours. These include dyer’s weld (yellow), woad (blue) and madder (red).
As well as these, they also brought along other plants they had grown – dyer’s chamomile (yellow) and dyer’s coreopsis (yellowy orange) – for us to play with.
Although I have dabbled with natural dyes, it’s been mostly on silk, so I wanted to get some tips on the tricky problem of dyeing wool without felting. However, I learnt so much more that can be applied to all natural dyeing , whatever the fabric or fibre.
Susan provided a very comprehensive handout on mordanting, including lots of safety information. There was lots of useful detail here – for example:
Dyer’s cream of tartar, often used with alum to help it dissolve, is different from baking cream of tartar, which has additives like anti-caking agents. If you can’t get dyer’s cream of tartar, it’s better not to use any at all.
Soak silk for at least 24 hours before mordanting – it is very resistant to wetting out.
After mordanting in alum, do not rinse the items immediately but store them damp for about a week. This is called ripening and really helps the mordanting. Then rinse thoroughly in cold water before use.
A hay box is a non-electric version of a slow cooker, where you bring the food to the boil initially on a stove and then put it in a box insulated with hay, which preserves the heat and allows it to carry on cooking. It was a cooking method encouraged during the Second World War to save on rationed cooking fuel.
For dyeing, when you have to bring a pot of dye up to a certain temperature and then keep it there for an hour or so, a hay box can help save energy as well as on heating appliances.
There are various sites that explain how to build one, but Susan and Ashley have improvised with cardboard boxes and old cool bags, lining them with old blankets, duvets, fleece jackets and the like. It’s particularly important to insulate the top of the dye pot, as this is where most of the heat escapes.
We started with the yellows, setting up baths of dyer’s weld, dyer’s chamomile and dyer’s coreopsis. Chamomile and coreopsis give different shades of yellow, but they are less light fast than weld, so anything dyed with them should be kept out of the sun.
We poured boiling water onto the plants and then put the pots in hay boxes for an hour. Because only the chamomile and coreopsis flower heads are used for the clearest, brightest colours when dyeing, they also release their colour more quickly than weld, where the whole plant is chopped up. Then we strained out the plant material (using old tights!), and let the bath cool.
The alum-mordanted wool (mostly organic merino from the Falklands) had already been separated into 50g hanks and wetted out well, so we put 50g in each dye pot and reheated to 70°C.
To get clearer, brighter colours from weld it needs to be kept below 70°C – at higher temperatures you get more of a straw colour. Then it was back in the hay box, gently flipping the wool once to minimise felting, until we were happy with the colour.
This was the basic method used throughout, with wool and silk repeatedly added to the dye baths until they were exhausted. Susan had brought along record cards to note the type of fibre, temperatures, times, and mordants, and was very insistent that the card stayed with each sample so that we knew exactly how each one had been treated.
After cooling and rinsing, the wool was hung up to dry – we soon had a fine range of yellows!
Indigo and woad
In the afternoon the blues were introduced, with Ashley making up three baths: one from natural indigo stock solution, one from woad stock solution and one from woad powder. At home Ashley creates an indigo bath from leaves grown in his dye garden. The plants are harvested before they flower and the leaves are stripped off.
In the case of Japanese indigo, the leaves are put in cold water and slowly heated to 90C. Then they are left for an hour to cool to around 60C – the liquid is a greyish tan colour. After removing the leaves, alkali is added and the liquid is oxygenated by whisking or decanting it between containers. Once it has turned green it can be stored indefinitely in this form. (For woad, boiling water is poured onto the leaves instead of putting them in cold water and heating.)
To make the dye bath we added the reducing agent and checked the pH (for wool pH 8-9 is best).
The woad bath was rather weak – it turned out that the stock solution had been over reduced because the woad powder contained much less indigo than estimated.
However, overdyeing some of the yellow wool with the weak woad gave a fantastic lime green colour that was almost fluorescent!
Ashley explained that to get good greens the indigo or woad bath mustn’t be too strong, or the blue will overwhelm the yellow.
Coming soon in part 2 – We complete the rainbow with madder.
I am so slow on the uptake sometimes. About 18 months ago at a textile fair, one visitor mentioned that she would be interested in buying any offcuts or fabric samples I didn’t want, as she could use them in her work.
However, it wasn’t until I got another similar request just before Christmas that I thought there may be a new product line in this. Then when I was having a bit of a clear out between Christmas and new year I came across a load of old experiments, samples and pieces that hadn’t worked out quite as I hoped – enough to fill a whole box.
I thought I should do a bit more market research, so I took a small bag of pieces along to our felting group to get some feedback on how big the pieces should be, how many in a bag and how much to charge.
What I wasn’t expecting was the enthusiasm with which they pounced on the fabric – within 10 minutes most of the indigo samples had been snapped up! This made me think that there was indeed a market for these pieces. 😉
So I ordered some bags and stickers and spent a couple of evenings ironing, trimming, sorting and folding.
And now I have two sorts of scrap bags for sale on Etsy: indigo shibori and ecoprinted/natural dyes. The fabrics are a mixture of type and weight. Some pieces are upcycled, with bits of lace trim or other embellishments.
They are perfect for small craft projects, patchwork, scrapbooks, creative collages and much more (some of the lighter fabrics may need stiffening support or interfacing).
The minimum size of each piece is 15x15cm (6×6 inches), but most are a bit larger than this. Because they are hand dyed, each piece is unique – when it’s gone, it’s gone!