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.
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?
First the safflower petals are soaked overnight, squeezed, strained and removed. This dye turns alum-mordanted fabric yellow (better on silk than on cotton).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I was intending to leave it for at least a couple of weeks, especially as the “solar” contribution has been somewhat patchy recently (feels like autumn already!). in fact, I’d forgotten about it completely. But yesterday I suddenly remembered it and thought I’d check it.
To my consternation, there was some white mould growing on the top.
I’m not sure if this was because I should have been shaking it regularly, or because I didn’t fill the jar right up to the top. But it didn’t seem like a good idea to leave it for much longer.
So I removed the fabric and unpicked the stitches. The colour was impressively dark when it was wet – the same shade as the dye, and similar to the colour achieved by steaming in bundles. But by the time it was dry, it had lightened considerably to a sort of battleship grey.
Maybe it would have been darker if I had left it longer or if the sun had been stronger, but I’m quite happy with this colour.
It also had quite a strong medicinal smell, but by the time it was dry this had faded.
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.
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!).
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!
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.
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.
We steamed the bundles for about 20 minutes before opening them – the results were very successful.
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.
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.
While all this was going on we had a curious spectator peering in through the window – love the haircut! 🙂
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!