Did you see my last post thinking about the sustainability of natural dyes? I’d pretty much decided that if I was ever going to try it, then it would be for fun rather than sustainability. Recently I went to workshop with textile artist and natural dye specialist Lucila Kenny in Amsterdam to see a dyeing demo, have a go myself, and ask questions.
What did we dye?
During the workshop we used 3 dye pots which gave deep pink, brown, and mustard. A variety of substrate samples were dyed so we could see the differences in the tones. On the bottom row of the picture below you can see the samples, left to right: white cotton, unbleached cotton canvas, bleached cotton flannel, flannel dyed with logwood, polycotton.
Then we added ferrous sulphate (iron) to each of the pots to change the colour, and we each got to dye a scarf in a new colour to take home with us. Mine went into the bath that was originally brown (dyed with guayacan), and it came out dark grey! FYI it’s cotton and silk (bleached white pre-dye). Here’s the before and after dye colours
All the while, Lucila was giving valuable information about the dyeing process, the history of dyeing, and showing us what’s possible colourwise. Here are some fun facts from my notes.
Fun facts about natural dyeing
- Natural dyes have been around for 4000 years. The first synthetic was created in 1859 by a chemist in a lab in England whilst he was in search of a malaria vaccine.
- The plants that yield the most stable colours are madder root, weld seeds, and indigo leaves. (Dyeing indigo is apparently a little more advanced, we didn’t cover it in the workshop). No plant yields a green colour – the irony! You have to overdye a yellow with a blue.
- Don’t bother trying to dye on synthetics. We had a piece of polycotton in our samples and in all cases it looks like you spilled something on it.
Learning to dye is like learning to cook. Patience, time, and enjoyment of the process is key.– Lucila Kenny, natural dye specialist
My top 3 tips from the workshop
1. Natural dyes are unpredictable
There are many variables that will affect the final colour. pH of the water, the plant growing conditions, the fabric you use etc. It’s like cooking – everyone can follow the same recipe but it might still be a little different. What I liked is that Lucila pointed out that you can dye in any way you want as long as you follow the basic principles. For example, it’s accepted that you need to clean your fabric first before you dye. Some dyers swear by pre-washing with soda ash (sodium carbonate) but you could also just do a washing machine wash with your usual detergent.
Note! There will probably be fabric shrinkage when you dye so you need to allow for that. Fabrics have to cook in the dye bath for about an hour at 80 degrees. Lucila estimates shrinkage at c5-10%. Note to self – dye fabric before it gets sewn rather than the final garment to minimise risk…
2. Safety matters
Be careful with what you’re using, both plant and mordant wise. For example, alum (potassium aluminium sulfate) is a common mordant with lots of other non-mordant applications. It is considered “safe” – but it is an irritant. Common sense says to wear gloves and to keep supplies and equipment away from children.
3. Getting started with dyeing doesn’t have to be complicated
Ever read those tutorials which have so many steps that you can’t even face getting started? Good news is that it doesn’t have to be so complicated.
A minimalist natural dyer’s equipment list
- A big pot (compulsory). It needs to be big enough that your chosen item to dye can move around freely. Can you use a cooking pot? Well, if you only plan on dyeing with food waste and using for example, soy milk as a fixing agent, then maybe not. But all dye resources I’ve read recommend using a pot that is not used for cooking purposes. Makes sense to me if there are non-food dyestuffs/mordants/fixing agents in use.
- Bucket, wooden spoon and gloves are likely somewhere in your house already.
- Electric camping stove (optional). Again for separation purposes to keep it away from your food prep area.
There are a ton of methods and recipes available to you and there is no one right way. To simplify, you could, for example, choose dyestuffs that don’t need a mordant. If you do use one, you can save time by adding it directly to the dyepot just before adding the fabric (as opposed to pre-soaking).
Lucila’s onion skin dye: Cook onion skins at 80 degrees for an hour (if you have time, soak them for a day beforehand). Once cooked, strain out the skins. Then add the alum then fabric. Cook fabric for an hour, ensuring frequent stirring to ensure an even non-splotchy dye job. Then rinse, let dry and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised at the tone of the eventual colour. Ta-da!
Ideas for natural dyeing more efficiently (and maybe “sustainably”)
- Choose plants that can be used for dyeing without a mordant, e.g. those high in tannin. This does mean though that not every colour possibility will be available to you. Some say you can use aluminium pots for a little extra fixation help without adding to the process. Note, however, that Jenny Dean states in her book Wild Colour that the dye particles may actually be attracted more to the pot than the fabric. So she recommends using stainless steel pots (did I say already there isn’t one right way?!)
- See if you can adjust your processes a bit. e.g. fabric needs to be pre-washed, can you put it in with your regular washing? If you need a mordant to fixate your colour, can you add it into the dye bath instead of pre-soaking your fabric in it? (though Lucila acknowledged results may be better if you pre-soak). Head to the comments on my other blog post and read all of great tips from a lady named Christine.
- Reuse your dye bath until there are no more dye particles. The colours won’t be as intense in subsequent dye baths but it would be such a waste to not use it, and personally I really like the tonal shades.
- Recognise that natural dyeing is a luxury and treat it as such. As well as being time consuming, there’s not enough space to grow the plants for dyeing if we all wanted natural dyes; and to quote my scientist friend Grace, natural dyes can double the amount of land required to produce fabric.
Have I changed my mind on whether I’ll be doing natural dyeing at home? Well, I must say I had a super time at the workshop thinking about all the different possibilities. Looking at the fabrics and colours really made me happy and excited in a way that other crafts like knitting do not. I have Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour book (also recommended by Lucila) as a resource so I’ll be reading that in detail and thinking about whether I want to buy a big pot and an electric camping stove.
Till next time
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