For much of the past year I’ve been spending alot of time learning and experimenting with plant based dyes. What has really excited me has been learning about the colours that are within the landscape that I live in. This is so closely related to the Norfolk Horn project. I want the colours I use to be related to its place and its history. Before this I had only ever used acid dyes – I think I wrote about this in a very early post – like many I hadn’t used plant based dyes because I thought they were time consuming, not very light fast, drab and not particularly environmentally freindly when you look at the chemicals used as mordants and modifiers. Never say never. The Norfolk Horn project was the catalyst that got me thinking.
One of the classic books on the subject is A Dyers Manual by Jill Goodwin. Jill was incredibly knowledgeable and very well respected. Her book is a classic text on the subject. It was, and continues to be an inspiration to dyers since it was first published in 1982. It has been the one book that I have kept going back to. In particular the section on woad. Ian Howard of Woad -Inc recomended Jills work to me when I started my journey with woad. Sadly, Jill died in 2013 aged 95. Like many of us, whilst we will be very familiar with her through her writing we have no real idea about her. There is so little. So it was with some amazement that I stumbled across this little peice of tv gold on the East Anglian Film Archive :
These are my first ever attempts at dying with natural dyes. I have to say I really like the results.
I’ve been feeling the first twitches of wanting to learn more about dyeing with natural dyes for a while but have resisted the urge. As if I don’t have enough to do. But its been creeping into my conciousness. On Sunday I went on a natural dyeing workshop with Janet Major and the Norfolk Smallholders training group.
For the workshop we had to bring along 60g pre-mordanted fibre and a plant dye bath of our own making. Of course I used Norfolk Horn. I had a 50g ball of Kentwell Halls 4-ply (gifted me by the lovely Erica Eckles) and some of my own hand spun lace weight.
I have been saving up onion skins all year and had accumulated quite a lot, about 500g of mostly white onion but also a few redskins and some garlic as well as the stalky plaits. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to make use of them.
I’m not good at preparation – I’m working on it – I only started prepping for the workshop 3 days before. Ooops, supposed to soak dye material for a few days. Not enough time. I figured that if I made the skins into smaller bits a larger surface area would get more chance of getting the dye out in a shorter time. I blitzed them in the food processor with plenty of water. I put the chopped up mush in a slow cooker that I use for dyeing. Topping up with more water to the maximum fill level. Brought it to the boil and left to simmer for about an hour. I left it to cool overnight and strained off the liquid the following day. Smelt pleasantly of rhubarb.
The mordant, Alum, on the other hand, proved to be a bit trickier. I do not recommend trying to source a chemical of any kind on the high street the day you need it. I thought it would be relatively easy to get on the high street. That was a mistake. Chemists and Pharmacies are not what they used to be – the folks at my local Lloyds pharmacy blinked looked at me strangely and gave me that ‘uh oh! I’ve got a live one!’ look before saying ‘What was that Alan? Nooo, never ‘eard of it. No we don’t do that’. I got pretty much the same response in Boots and in the local hardware store. If I was more organised I would have bought some on-line weeks ago. But that would make me a whole different person and would not be nearly as exciting or fun.
I have a copy of Jenny Deans ‘Wild Colour’ and in it I remembered reading about using Rhubarb leaves to make a mordant. This appealed to me as I have limited (no) income at the moment and it also makes use of something that is usually discarded. I had a pleasant walk up to the village allotments. Whilst I was there I er herm cough cough ‘borrowed’ some leaves. Not the stalks, as that would be theft and a bad thing. But I eased my conscience with the knowledge that no one was going to miss a leaf or two. I gathered 1kg leaves. Jenny Dean writes that 500g of mordant should treat up to 1 kg fibres. So I had more than enough. I heartily recommend both the book and Jennys blog here: Jenny Dean
The leaves were chopped and put into the slow cooker. Again topping up to maximum fill level. Bring to the boil and cooked for an hour. Left to cool in the pan overnight then strained out the liquid.
To mordant the fibres (already scoured, clean and damp) pop the fibres into the mordant solution bring the liquid up to simmer and cook for half an hour or so. Leave to cool, then rinse. It did colour the fibres a gingernuty yellow:
The all the pre-mordanted skeins were dyed in the onion dye bath for about an hour. Then we experimented with modifiers. I choose iron and copper. The copper didn’t have a strong effect but did enriched the colour to a vibrant gingernut. The iron on the other hand did. I used a small amount (5ml) on one and a larger amount (15ml) on another. it really darkened the brown taking out the gingery tones.
The final skein I dipped in an indigo dye bath for one minute. I knew it would be a khaki type green given the gingery base:
I was surprised that the different fibres took the dye differently. My own handspun was paler and more golden than the millspun. What struck me most was the intensity of the colours achieved. When it comes to colour I’m not a pastel wishy washy person. Colour needs to sing. I think this may be one of the myths’ that has kept me from experimenting with plant dyes. The outcome of this experiment has definitely encouraged me to do more.
I’m waiting for some alum and will repeat using that as a mordant for the same dye bath. I want to know if the rhubarb mordant had an influence on the colours I achieved. I also want to test the colour fastness so I’ve left these little beauties on the table in the workshop. I will let you know the results when I get round to it.
So there you are, six different shades from the same dye bath using materials that I have to hand. Whats not to like…