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


Ground control with Irit Dulman

Edited to add: This post has been edited to remove all references to techniques, images of work that isn’t mine, and images of other workshop participants. Huge apologies to anyone I have upset or offended – it was not my intention. 😦

Last week I headed back to the wonderful Atelier Fiberfusing run by Dorie van Dijk, just outside Amsterdam. I love the space and relaxed atmosphere (as well as the food) that Dorie has created here.

Previous workshops I’ve attended here have been with felters Andrea Graham and Lisa Klakulak. This time I was there for a workshop with Irit Dulman, one of the leading experts in ecoprinting with natural dyes.

Here are some of the results I achieved over the four days.

first bundles result
Bundles unwrapped
Peony leaves gave good colour without further treatment
Peony leaves on silk
Geranium and rhus leaves reacted well with iron
Geranium and rhus leaves on cotton
Geranium and eucalyptus leaves on silk
Geranium and eucalyptus leaves on silk
Cow parsley on silk
Cow parsley on silk
Eucalyptus buds
Eucalyptus buds on silk
Cowparsley print overdyed with weld
Cowparsley print on silk
After overdyeing with madder
Silk top printed with sumac leaves
negative 1
Gingko leaves and grasses on silk

We covered an awful lot in four days – all in all, a fantastic workshop that has motivated me to continue experimenting and make more of natural dyes in combination with ecoprinting!

Natural dyeing workshop with Cordwainers Garden

I’m still finding my feet with this eco printing lark. Results are slowly improving – here’s a cotton bag, mordanted with aluminium acetate, bundled with peony leaves, coreopsis flowers (only two – the slugs ate all the rest!), eucalyptus leaves and some sycamore “helicopter” seeds, and put into an onion skin dye bath.

peony bag1

I dipped the peony leaves and sycamore seeds into an iron mordant before bundling. The sycamore seeds didn’t show up at all, but the peony leaves worked quite well. The first picture below shows peony leaves with the head of a coreopsis flower in the foreground (damn those slugs!).

peony bag2 peony bag3

So off I headed to a workshop on natural dyeing run by Kate Poland of Cordwainers Garden, a community garden set up on a disused piece of land belonging to the London College of Fashion in Hackney. As well as growing fruit, vegetables and dye plants, they are also co-ordinating a project called Grow a London Garment – trying to grow, design, dye and sew a linen garment from scratch, using flax grown in various locations across London. They are currently on the lookout for flax spinners, so get in touch if you know anyone!

The workshop was held at the fantastic Surrey Docks Farm in Rotherhithe, right next to the river. It was slightly surreal to be picking leaves from the dye garden with Canary Wharf looming just across the Thames!

dye garden

We started with some itajime shibori – folding pieces of silk before clamping or tying them, wetting them and then putting them in a madder dye bath for a couple of hours. Kate had dug up the madder root came from the farm’s dye garden, and ground it in a coffee grinder before simmering it in water. She took the pot off the heat before we put in our fabric.

madder bathmadder shibori

Then we went on to bundling, using leaves and flowers from the dye garden as well as a selection Kate had brought with her. Rather than getting clear leaf prints, we were aiming for a watercolour effect, using more flowers than leaves.

kate bundling

We steamed the bundles for about 20 minutes before opening them – the results were very successful.

steamed bundles steamed bundles2 steamed bundles3

The dark purple comes from hollyhock flowers, the orange is onion skin, and the yellow is dyers’ camomile. Below you can see a close-up of the onion skin.

steamed bundles4 steamed bundles5

I also used woad leaves, which were’t very visible when the fabric was wet. You can see them more clearly in the picture below, when the fabric was dry and ironed – the stalks are sticking up on the left of the picture between the purple hollyhock petals.

steamed bundles6

While all this was going on we had a curious spectator peering in through the window – love the haircut! 🙂

rasta sheep

Finally, we set up some solar dyeing to take away with us. We each chose a single type of plant dye – hollyhocks, dyers’ camomile or Hopi sunflower seeds (which have to be boiled first to extract the kernels, from where the colour comes) – and put them in a jam jar with water and fabric to take home.

Here’s my jar of hollyhock solar dye – you’ll have to wait for a few weeks for the results!

solar hollyhock


Pattern to Print

I had a splendid outing yesterday with my sister Women of the Cloth to Hall Place in Bexley, a Tudor house and gardens just off the A2. There’s a splendid great hall and decorative plasterwork, but the main purpose of our visit was to see Pattern to Print, an exhibition about silk-printing company David Evans.

evans wotc

It’s a small exhibition but definitely worth the trip. David Evans was a silk merchant who set up a silk printing factory in Crayford in 1843, in a former printworks. The factory specialised in block printing at first; this was replaced by screen printing in the 1970s.

The exhibition begins with s 55-minute film, dating from the 1980s if the hairstyles are anything to go by! Fascinating viewing, it covers all the stages of silk production, including growing mulberry plants and spinning the yarn at a silk farm at Lullingstone Castle in Kent (which produced the silk for the Queen’s coronation robes and Princess Diana’s wedding dress, but closed down in 2011).

But what really comes across is the labour-intensiveness of producing the blocks for printing. Every stage done was done by hand, from burning and carving the wooden moulds to cast the pewter blocks, to inking and printing the fabric itself. To carve the blocks, the block makers had to produce their own chisels and files to match the requirements of the design: as the commentary notes, the actual carving of the block was of secondary importance!

Wood marked out for carving the mould to cast the block
Wood marked out for carving the mould to cast the block

From the master block, other blocks were produced for different colours – all had to line up exactly. By the time David Evans closed down in 2001, it had a library of around 70,000 blocks and 11,000 designs. The blocks were sold at Christies, and many of them went to the Cantrol Collection of Textile Printing Blocks, about which I can find very little information.

Blocks used to produce two-colour fabric
Blocks used to produce two-colour fabric

The blocks on show are items of beauty, amazing for their intricacy and precision. Some have been used by designers for Top Shop as inspiration for modern garments – I particularly loved a tortoise design (sorry about the funny reflections on some of the photos, but most exhibits were under glass).

evans block tortoise

There are also covetous pattern and swatch books.

evans swatch book

After block printing, some of the silk was overdyed with madder, a natural red dye, to make the colours more subtle. A rail of Liberty prints shows samples of silk before and after overdyeing.

The three samples on the left show the block-printed silk before dyeing with madder. The fourth, fifth and sixth samples show the same fabric after overdyeing with madder. The unprinted silk on the right has been dyed with madder.
The three samples on the left show the block-printed silk before dyeing with madder. The fourth, fifth and sixth samples show the same fabric after overdyeing with madder. The unprinted silk on the right has been dyed with madder.

The madder was mixed with lime and cow dung to a secret recipe that only David Evans himself knew. The factory even had its own herd of cows to produce the dung!

Fittingly, all the information “panels” are printed on silk.

evans banner

Movingly, the final piece of printed silk is also on display, dated 4 July 2001 at 10.47am.

evans final

Pattern to Print runs until 26 March.