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


Cochineal dyeing with Michel Garcia

The official title of this workshop with Michel Garcia at the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca was “Cochineal dyeing in four ways”. It was rather an understatment, as we ended up with 19 different colour swatches from cochineal!

Michel Garcia cochineal demo

Mexico was an appropriate place to do this workshop, given that cochineal is the most popular dye used there. Mexico once had a monopoly on it – it was the second most valuable export after silver – but after the Mexican War of Independence in the early 19th century cochineal was also produced in Guatemala, north Africa and the Canary Islands.

You can visit cochineal farms around Oaxaca. The cochineal beetle, Dactylopius coccus, lives on Opuntia cactus species. The red colour comes from the carminic acid that makes up around 20% of its body. To make the dye, the dried beetles are ground up in a pestle and mortar and then added to the dye bath.

Michel used three different fabrics – wool, silk and cotton – along with different combinations of mordants and astringents to produce 19 different shades from cochineal, ranging from pink and orange to purple and dark brown. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the variations in colour you can get from one dye.

Cochineal on wool

The fabric Michel used for this was actually a mixture of wool warp and cotton weft, so it was interesting to see the difference between the way the protein and cellulose fibres reacted.

cochineal samples on wool

For two of the swatches in this photo he used a one-bath process – one containing persimmon, citric acid and cochineal, the other containing gallnut, citric acid and cochineal. You can see very clearly how the tufts of wool at the edges have taken up the colour much more strongly than the cotton weft.

The other three swatches were premordanted (with alum or symplocos) before dyeing in a separate cochineal bath.

Cochineal on silk

Michel also compared the one-bath and two-bath processes on silk.

cochineal swatches on silk

In the photo above, two swatches were dyed in one bath, the first one containing unripe persimmon, citric acid and cochineal, the second one cutch, citric acid and cochineal.

The other two swatches were premordanted (one in saturated alum and the other with aluminium tartrate) before dyeing with cochineal.

Cochineal on cotton

For the cotton demonstration Michel used strips of cotton that he had prepared with different combinations of aluminium acetate and ferrous acetate mordants – it’s a great idea if you do lots of testing with natural dyes.

The strip below was dyed with cochineal and pomegranate rind.

cochineal swatches on cotton

The strip below was dyed with cochineal and gallnut extract.

cochineal swatches on cotton

Finally, Michel demonstrated his artistic side, using different combinations of mordants to paint an image onto cloth that didn’t appear until it was submerged in the dye pot. 🙂

Michel garcia cochineal dyeing

All in all, a very intense but stimulating workshop.

Ecoprinting with mordants and natural dyes

Feast or famine: I haven’t posted for a while, so today you’re getting a long photo-heavy post! All the garments featured are upcycled, bought from charity shops or auctions.

With most of the previous ecoprinting I’ve done I have not mordanted the fabric. I’ve used mostly silk and wool, which are protein fibres and tend to print OK if I bundle them with a piece of cloth soaked in iron. The vintage cream silk dress below, for example, was not mordanted in advance – I just used maple leaves and an iron “blanket”.

maple dress

So I extended this method to other silk garments that were already dyed different colours. The scarf below was a strong lime yellow, and I printed it with different geranium (cranesbill) leaves. I picked the leaves from the garden of lovely embroiderer Lucy Goffin, who makes beautiful bespoke structured garments and also runs the fantastic Marchants nursery with her husband Graham.

ecoprint geranium scarf

This is an orange silk skirt printed with maple leaves. The orange was quite dark, so the print is quite subtle.

ecoprint maple skirt orange 2 ecoprint maple skirt orange

And this was a pale pink silk blouse printed with larger maple leaves.

ecoprint maple pink blouseecoprint maple pink blouse 2

Just as experiment, I also printed an unmordanted yellow cotton T-shirt with sycamore leaves. As well as the shape of the leaves, I love the shapes produced by the long stalks – so you will see quite a few sycamores featuring below!

ecoprint yellow sycamore tshirtecoprint yellow sycamore tshirt 2

I then mordanted a batch of garments with alum, and dyed them with natural dyes before ecoprinting on top.

This is a cotton apron dyed with oak leaves and printed with sycamore leaves.

ecoprint apron

This T-shirt was dyed in the oak leaves after the apron, so it was a paler brown, before printing with maple leaves. The maple leaves were quite thick and waxy, so they seem to have acted more like resists than printing themselves. You can also see very clearly the effect of using an iron blanket, as I mistakenly forgot to include it in one part of the bundle! I may have to overprint this with something else.

ecoprint maple tshirt ecoprint maple tshirt2

Finally, it was back to silk. Here’s a silk top dyed with onion skins and printed with sycamore leaves.

ecoprint onion sycamore ecoprint onion sycamore2

Another silk top dyed with pomegranate and printed with sycamore leaves. Both the onion skins and the pomegranate gave very similar golden yellows after dyeing (sorry – forgot to take any photos), but I simmered the pomegranate bundle with the sycamore leaves for less time, so it’s brighter.

ecoprint pomegranate sycamore ecoprint pomegranate sycamore2

The cotton apron picked up more details from the leaves than the cotton T-shirts, and the silk was even better, perhaps due to the relative thickness of the fabric?So many combinations and permutations to try!


Eco printing samples part 2

In my previous post on eco printing I wondered whether the faintness of the prints, especially on felt, was due to the fact that the steam couldn’t penetrate the felt very easily when it was rolled up.

simmer sample group

So I performed a similar experiment but this time I immersed the bundles in hot water and onion skins and simmered them for an hour. Then I left them to cool overnight and opened them up the next day.

The results were definitely better, particularly on felt.

simmer sample felt eucalyptus

Interestingly, the eucalyptus on felt (above) printed orange, no matter what the mordant, while the rose leaf and petal dipped in iron mordant (below) came out best.
simmer sample rose felt

The iron mordant also worked best for sycamore leaves on felt (below).
simmer sample sycamore felt

Oak leaves on cotton mordanted with aluminium acetate (below) gave a  lovely clear print, regardless of which mordant was used on the leaves (or even when none was used at all).

simmer sample oak cotton

Sycamore and rose leaves also printed quite well on cotton, but those dipped in the iron mordant were clearest.

simmer sample rose cotton simmer sample sycamore cotton

On silk, iron-mordanted sycamore and oak leaves did best, while eucalyptus and rose leaves were pretty similar for all mordants.

simmer sample sycamore silksimmer sample oak silksimmer sample eucalyptus silk simmer sample rose silk

Conclusion? It looks as if full immersion rather than steaming is the best way to go, unless I can get a large pressure cooker or find some other way of forcing steam through the fabric more efficiently.

Eco printing samples

My eco printing so far has been a bit hit and miss, so I thought it was time to be a bit more systematic. From the reading I’ve done on the subject, there are so many variables – from the pH of your water to the time of year you pick the leaves or flowers – but I thought it would at least be useful to have a few reference samples to work from.

I used four different types of fabric:

  • white merino felt
  • white cotton (pre-mordanted with aluminium acetate)
  • lightweight cream silk from an old wedding sari
  • some sort of synthetic open-weave fabric from an old curtain.

Only the cotton was pre-mordanted – the other fabrics weren’t treated in any way.

Then I prepared four different mordants:

  • vinegar
  • milk
  • alum solution
  • iron solution (well, not really! I’d bought some ferrous sulphate but couldn’t find it anywhere, so I ended up shaking some rust flakes in water in the hope that the effect would be similar. Of course, rust doesn’t dissolve in water, so this was pretty pointless really).

And the vegetable matter I was testing:

  • eucalyptus leaves
  • rose leaves
  • oak leaves
  • Japanese knotweed leaves
  • onion skins.

I laid out a strip of felt and put five eucalyptus leaves on it. The first one had no mordant; the other four were each dipped in a different mordant. I then laid five rose leaves next to them, treated in the same way. I put the strip of synthetic fabric on top, and rolled the bundle around a piece of bamboo, and tied it up. This was bundle 1.

I repeated this three more times with different combinations:

  • Bundle 2: cotton and silk with eucalyptus and rose leaves
  • Bundle 3: felt and silk with oak leaves, Japanese knotweed and onion skins
  • Bundle 4: cotton and synthetic with oak leaves, Japanese knotweed and onion skins.

eco sample bundles

I colour coded them with different bits of yarn, although it was pretty obvious which was which. Then I steamed all the bundles for 1.5 hours and left them to cool overnight.

The results were mixed, to say the least.

Bundle 1 - eucalyptus and rose leaves on felt (above) and synthetic (below)
Bundle 1 – eucalyptus and rose leaves on felt (above) and synthetic (below)
Bundle 2 - eucalyptus and rose leaves on cotton (above) and silk (below)
Bundle 2 – eucalyptus and rose leaves on cotton (above) and silk (below)
Bundle 3 - oak leaves, Japanese knotweed and onion skins on felt (above) and silk (below)
Bundle 3 – oak leaves, Japanese knotweed and onion skins on felt (above) and silk (below)
Bundle 4 - oak leaves, Japanese knotweed and onion skins on cotton (above) and synthetic (below)
Bundle 4 – oak leaves, Japanese knotweed and onion skins on cotton (above) and synthetic (below)

The onion skins were by far the strongest on all fabrics except the felt, whichever mordant was used.

Onion skin with alum mordant on silk
Onion skin with alum mordant on silk
Onion skin with milk mordant on silk
Onion skin with milk mordant on silk

The cotton gave the strongest prints overall, in rather an acid yellow (presumably due to the aluminium acetate mordant).

Eucalyptus prints on cotton
Eucalyptus prints on cotton
Japanese knotweed and onion skins on cotton
Japanese knotweed and onion skins on cotton
Onion skin with milk mordant on cotton
Onion skin with milk mordant on cotton
Rose leaves with no mordant and vinegar on cotton
Rose leaves with no mordant and vinegar on cotton

I was most disappointed with the felt – the best prints were the eucalyptus and the Japanese knotweed, but they were very faint.

Eucalyptus on felt
Eucalyptus on felt
Japanese knotweed on felt
Japanese knotweed on felt

Very little printed on the synthetic fabric at all, as far as I could see.

Why were these prints so faint? I’ve seen amazing prints produced by textile artists like Irit Dulman, especially on felt. I wondered whether steam alone can penetrate right into the bundle of felt, which is fairly thick. So I did another experiment where I submerged the bundles in a pot of onion skin dye – this will be the subject of a future post! 🙂

In the meantime, to try to darken the prints, I put all the samples above into a post-mordant of ferrous sulphate.

The iron worked wonders on the silk. It really brought out the Japanese knotweed prints, turning them a dark khaki. And the eucalyptus and rose leaves became much more distinct.

Silk eco print with iron post-mordant
Silk eco print with iron post-mordant
Silk eco print with iron post-mordant
Silk eco print with iron post-mordant

The prints on the cotton that were previously strong yellow turned much darker, and two of the oak leaf prints that were previously very faint came to the fore beautifully.

Cotton eco print with iron post-mordant
Cotton eco print with iron post-mordant
Cotton eco print with iron post-mordant
Cotton eco print with iron post-mordant

Even on the synthetic fabric the prints were now faintly visible, whereas before they were practically non-existent.

Synthetic eco print with iron post-mordant
Synthetic eco print with iron post-mordant
Synthetic eco print with iron post-mordant
Synthetic eco print with iron post-mordant

The felt remained disappointing, however.

Felt eco print with iron post-mordant
Felt eco print with iron post-mordant

So maybe if I’d used a proper ferrous sulphate mordant on the leaves before steaming, the results would have been different – who knows?