Plant dyes with Nature’s Rainbow part 2

For an account of the first day of this workshop, see Plant dyes with Nature’s Rainbow part 1.

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.

Coral colour coming out of madder root at lower temperature

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.

For the workshop we compared two madder recipes, one from Jim  Liles’ The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing and the other from Ethel Mairet, the author of a seminal book on vegetable dyes written in 1916.

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).

Contrasting shades of madder from different baths

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.

Brian photographing the woven rainbow samples

And here is the collection of plant-dyed wool and silk that I ended up with.

plant dyed woolplant dyed silk

Huge thanks to Sally for her organisation and to Susan, Ashley and Brian for such a wonderful colourful weekend!

Useful links

Nature’s Rainbow
International Feltmakers Association

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Plant dyeing with Nature’s Rainbow, part 1

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.

natures rainbow fleece and weaves natures rainbow dyed yarnnatures rainbow dyed fabric

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.

Mordants

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.

Hay boxes

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.

 woad bath in hay box
Ashley’s woad bath in an improvised hay box

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.

Yellows

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.

straining dyer's chamomile

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.

adding wool to weld

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.

yellow dyebath

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.

coreopsis dyed wool

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.

woad dye bath woad dyed wool

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.

A felty December

With the short cold days, the indigo vat has gone into hibernation and there are few leaves around, so the emphasis this month has shifted to felt. Here are some of my felty highlights.

Felt Matters

Felt Matters

I was very proud to be featured in the latest issue of Felt Matters, the quarterly magazine of the International Feltmakers Association (IFA). The theme of the issue was “blue”, so they seemed to think that my work with indigo would fit the bill. 🙂  In fact, there was quite a lot about indigo in the issue, including a piece by one of my indigo heroes Rowland Ricketts and an article about indigo dyeing in Kutch, India.

The IFA is a great organisation, with lots of groups in the UK and round the world who meet up for workshops and exhibitions and do a lot to promote feltmaking. Membership includes annual public liability insurance as well as four issues of the magazine, so it’s a great deal.

Felted soap is a thing…

felted soap

Who knew? For my Christmas markets I decided on the spur of the moment to make some felted soaps as stocking fillers. At the first market people looked at them but weren’t sure what they were or how they worked, so I got my felted soap elevator pitch down to a fine art:

  • easy to grip when wet
  • good for exfoliation
  • no more yukky mess on the soap dish.

Essentially, all those first world problems with soap solved in one go!

At the next market I added a little notice listing these benefits and they sold out within two hours. Important marketing lesson learnt. 🙂

…and so are felted pots

Anita Thorpe of Diverse, who has a Makerhood showcase of local makers in her shop every Christmas, saw some of my felt pots on Instagram and said she’d be interested in including some in the showcase this year.

felt pots

And with a selection of succulents they look rather nice and have sold unexpectedly well. Important visual merchandising lesson learnt!

Felt tea cosy

Just thought I’d bung this in because it was a commission from a friend for her aunt.

felt tea cosy

Felt swap

Finally, the theme of the second felt swap of the year was “A taste of winter”. I sent my felt swap partner, Oliva, a felt icicle that had been dip dyed with indigo (one of the pieces featured in the Felt Matters article above).

Ombre icicles

Oliva sent me what I thought was a foaming beer mug in front of a wintry window – but it was actually a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream! I’m sure that says more about me than about her work – thank you Oliva!

felt hot chocolate

Felting workshop with Dagmar Binder

I’ve finally joined the International Feltmakers Association (IFA). I’ve been meaning to do it for a while – just never got round to it.

One of the main advantages for me is that public and product liability is included in the membership fee, which is handy. 🙂

Another is the chance to meet other local felters (the IFA is organised by region) and to attend workshops with well-known tutors without having to travel to the Netherlands or Belgium (though I will probably still pop over there occasionally).

And so I found myself last weekend in a lovely room in north London with Dagmar Binder and 10 other enthusiastic feltmakers. I’ve long admired Dagmar’s work, especially her surface structure and subtle painterly colour blends. Dagmar had brought along plenty of samples to inspire us.

dagmar samples dagmar samples dagmar samples

We started the first day by making a sample, experimenting with different fibre layouts and combinations with needle felt to produce different results. This was very illuminating and will be a useful reminder for future experiments.

dagmar sample

The workshop was for two days but the sample took quite a long time – I took mine home to finish in the evening on the first day. So our time for making a bigger project was a bit limited.

But as you know I am never short of ambition 🙂 so decided to try a multi-pocketed circular layout inspired by a dahlia. Here are a couple of shots of the work in progress.

felt work in progress felt work in progress

I did scale my ambition back during the day – the original plan was to have some central spikes – as I needed to get it to the stage where it was felted sufficiently to be able to take it home to finish without it falling apart.

This is the final piece after finishing at home.

felt dahlia felt dahlia

I’m pleased with the result but as ever see room for improvement. If I did it again, in less of a hurry, I would lay out the petals more evenly. And I’m not happy with the central section, which is too large.

Also because I tried to avoid having too many layers of fibre in the centre I truncated the resists for the lower pockets. However, I think that extending all the resists to the centre would make the centre less flat and would give the piece more volume overall.

It reminded me of an earlier dahlia-inspired experiment (on a much smaller scale), based on the same principles but slightly different technique – here are the two samples together.

felt dahlia samples

This was a very useful workshop. I learned a lot about stabilising felt, combining needlefelt and fibre, and different layouts of fibre to produce different effects.

Dagmar is a patient tutor who encourages students work out answers for themselves by close observation of what happens throughout the felting process.

dagmar teaching
Dagmar (right) advising students in class

Thanks to Cathy and Sue and other members of the IFA for organising the workshop.