The Surprise of Indirubin!

Why would a white plastic button turn purple from an indigo dyebath?

Indirubin is one the most curious components of indigo. It is sometimes referred to as the “red” of indigo. Indirubin only occurs in natural indigo and you will not find it in a synthetically produced pigment. Indirubin is valued for its medicinal applications.

Some dyers have been successful at manipulating the extraction and pH of indigo in order to reveal the mysterious purple/red color of indirubin on a textile. I have no real experience with this process.

At one point I did learn how to analyze an indigo pigment in order to determine the presence of indirubin. If indirubin is present, it is an indicator that the pigment is made from plants and not synthetically produced.  Natural indigo has varying amounts of indirubin. The process of analyzing uses solvents and chemicals so it is not something that I want to do on a regular basis. 

I purchase all of my indigo pigment from Stony Creek Colors, as I know that their indigo comes from plants (and, consequently, contains plenty of indirubin).

Now that I maintain several large “active” indigo vats, I will occasionally dye a ready made garment. A white linen blouse is not a good choice for wearing apparel in the dye studio, but one that has been dyed a rich indigo blue is perfect. 

After dyeing, just before the final rinse, I always boil an indigo dyed textile in order to remove any unattached dye. Cellulose is boiled vigorously with a small amount of neutral detergent for about 10 minutes. Wool and silk are brought to a near simmer and held at that temperature for the same amount of time. 

Once I started using indigo from Stony Creek I noticed that the water from the final boil was always tinted a purple hue. I assumed this was the indirubin that was being rinsed from the textile. Interestingly, I observed that the purple color in the boil water is temporary, and will disappear as the bath cools. 

Recently, I dyed some linen shirts that had plastic buttons. The buttons stayed white until the final boil. When the garment was removed from the boil bath, they had become purple. I have now learned that indirubin is less easily reduced and the undissolved indirubin will stain plastics and other petroleum derived materials. Some of the polyester threads used to sew the shirts are also tinted purple. 

Summer Arrowood, the chemist at Stony Creek Colors, tells me that all the plastic vessels in her lab are dyed purple from the indirubin!

Will these buttons remain purple after multiple washings? I don’t know. There is always more to observe and learn from the natural dye process.

Slow Process

Natural dye has never been a quick way to color my textiles. First there is the mordanting, then the extraction of plant/insect material – not to mention growing, gathering, or drying the plants. Did I mention collecting seed? And what about the weaving, where I actually make cloth from threads? 

These last 18 months at home have been a chance to dive in deeper (and slower) with some processes. Just before COVID came to our doors, a friend gave me a small jar of sourdough starter. So yes, I am one of those who has made sourdough bread every week for the last year and a half. What a gift – both sour dough starter and the time to use it!

It was my fermented indigo vats that gave me the courage to take on sourdough bread making. I thought that if I could keep indigo vats alive for a number of months, then I could certainly keep a sourdough starter going as well. That has proved to be true.

The first fermentation vat was started in July of 2019. It was a relatively small vat (20 liters) but I used it a great deal. A year later it was used it to “seed” a larger 50 liter vat. The success of this first experiment gave me the confidence to start two more 50 liter vats in 2020. All are still going strong. Over the last two years I have made many additional one-liter vats in order to test reduction material, alkalinity etc. That first large vat that I created in 2019, after being used heavily for over two years, is finally giving me lighter blues.

Now I am in the midst of another slow process – sukumo. Debbie Ketchum Jirik of Circle of Life Studios very generously took a group of zoom class participants through the entire process of small batch composting of indigo leaves based on the teaching and book of Awonoyoh. Every 3-4 days we logged in, watched the sukumo being lifted from its container and stirred by hand. Does it need water? Does it need heat? What does it smell like? Conversations were focused and interesting. Several class participants were also in the process of making their own sukumo along with Debbie. I am not so fortunate. I have to gather more seed, grow more plants, and dry more leaves before I will have enough plant material to do my own composting. 

This experience has given me a far greater appreciation of sukumo. I was recently gifted a significant amount of sukumo and had planned on making my own large sukumo vat. Now, understanding more of what sukumo is, I am experimenting with using smaller amounts of sukumo in combination with my fermented indigo pigment vats. When I told my Japanese colleague, Hisako Sumi, about this, she indicated that Japanese industrial production has used this approach since early in the early 20th century. There is even name for this hybrid: “warigate”. Yoshiko Wada translated this for me as  “WARI GATE” / “split vatting” and it was mostly done using synthetic indigo. 

I have made many small test vats, using varying amounts of sukumo, in addition to indigo pigment and other materials to boost fermentation. These test vats were ultimatley used to ‘seed” a larger vat. I now have my own 50 liter hybrid vat that combines sukumo with Stony Creek indigo pigment.

My latest “slow process” is vermiculture. I recently spent an afternoon with friends, sorting worms from castings and beginning my own worm “farm”. This is another of those long term, slow processes that bring me closer to the earth, and makes me appreciate the small miracles of watching things grow. And I know that this compost will feed my indigo plants.

But not everything must be slow….

Stony Creek Colors has just released information about their newest product: IndiGold. It is a pre-reduced liquid indigo, grown in Tennessee and designed to be used in combination with fructose and lime (calcium hydroxide). I have dyed with the earlier available pre-reduced indigo but I was never sure exactly what it was and didn’t want to use the reduction chemicals that were recommended. I stopped using that product a long time ago when Michel Garcia introduced us to the “quick reduction” vats made with sugar and lime. But there are some occasions, particularly when teaching a one-day workshop, that it is impossible to make a vat and dye with it on the same day. 

Stony Creek sent me a kit for test dyeing and I was amazed at how quickly the vat was reduced and dyeing to full strength. It took only minutes – not hours. Stony Creek Colors told me that they”skip the chemicals” and use an electric hydrogenation process plus an alkaline to reduce the indigo. There are no chemical reduction agents! I used the vat all day long and it was still in reduction the next day. 

This will not replace my slow, fermentation vats but it will make “quick” dyeing possible when needed. 

Once again, Stony Creek is changing how we think about indigo and its production. They are currently posting information through a Kickstarter Campaign to support this new venture.

Black: An Improvisation

I recently took on a small weaving commission that required the use of black wool yarn. For a brief moment I contemplated purchasing the wool in the required color and then decided that I could dye it. I was surprised at how easy it was to achieve a rich, deep black color on the wool using only indigo and madder. 

Commissioned weaving using wool yarns dye with indigo blue, madder red, black from indigo and madder

It inspired me to continue my current series of color studies, woven in cotton and linen, with an in-depth exploration of black dyes. 

Initially, I wanted to achieve all the black hues without the use of an iron mordant. My years of mixing hues with primary colors gave me the confidence to believe that I could mix a good black for cellulose using 3 primary colors: blue, red, and yellow. The key was going to be finding the correct proportions. 

The first step was to build up a deep layer of indigo blue (usually 8-10 dips in the vat) followed by a mordant, and finally red and yellow dyes. That red could be madder or cochineal but I chose to use only madder, since that is what I am growing in the garden.  My preferred yellow is weld.  Each different combination results in a subtle variation. Some “blacks” are more purple, while others are a bit more green, or brown. I began using black walnut  and cutch as a substitute for the madder and weld and sometimes added madder or weld to those.  Each is a distinct hue, and definitely in the “black” family. I am confident of the lightfastness of these hues because of the primary dyes that have been used. 

Dark indigo alone, on far left + combination of cutch and madder resulted in a neutral black
close up of “black” hues in the series on cotton and linen fabrics

These multiple shades of black, put me in mind of the paintings in The Rothko Chapel in Houston, which is the site of a series of large large “black” canvases by the artist, Mark Rothko. These black canvases are painted with layers of crimson, alizarin, and black.

But no exploration of black would be complete without some experiments using tannin and iron. Instead of building up layers of primary colors, I soaked the textile in a gall nut tannin bath, followed by a short immersion in an iron bath. I wanted to use as little iron as possible, but still achieve a very dark shade. I decided that 3% weight of fiber would be the limit of the amount of iron I would use.

Most often, I use ferrous acetate instead of ferrous sulfate because it is less damaging to the fiber. Cellulose fibers are are somewhat tolerant of ferrous sulfate so I did experiments with both. That is where I was most surprised! Without exception, the ferrous acetate resulted in deeper colors than the same amount of ferrous sulfate. 

Why? I wasn’t sure. So I consulted my colleague, Joy Boutrup, who always knows these things. 

“I think the reason for the grey instead of black with iron sulfate is due to the higher acidity of the sulfate. The acetate is much less acidic. The  tannin complex cannot form to the same degree as with acetate.”

The pH of my ferrous sulfate solution was 4. The ferrous acetate was pH 6. (My tap water is from a well and is a slightly acidic pH6.)

The grey and blacks achieved with the tannin and iron are quite one-dimensional compared with those that result from a mix of colors and not nearly as interesting, Yet they are likely a more economical approach to achieving black; the multiple indigo dips, mordanting, and over-dyeing takes considerably more time and materials than an immersion in a tannin and an iron bath. 

Always observing always learning, here in the mountains of North Carolina…

Studio image of completed woven panels

The Life of an Indigo Vat

Over the years I have built, used, and discarded many indigo vats. Sometimes I have kept them going for a very long time. I have finally declared the 5 year old, 100 liter henna vat “done”. I have added indigo pigment, lime and additional henna to it many times and although it is still dyeing well, the space available for that dyeing (above the “sludge” at the bottom) has gotten very, very small. 

As many of you know, I have spent this last year at home getting to really know my fermented indigo vats. I have followed a rather strict protocol. Each vat began with a certain amount of indigo pigment, a source of alkalinity (soda ash or wood ash lye) and various plant based materials to begin and sustain the fermentation (wheat bran, madder root, dried indigofera leaves, etc.). Only small amounts of lime and bran have been added over the last year to sustain pH and fermentation. At no time have I added additional indigo.

Last May I was trying to achieve a wide range of blue shades from the very palest to very darkest. I was a bit dismayed to find that all of my vats were dyeing too dark to give me the pale shades I desired at the time.  I knew (in theory) that if used the vats enough, the indigo content of the vats would decrease but had no idea how long that would take, or how much dyeing I would need to do. No matter how much I dyed, it didn’t seem to happen.…

Now, a year after the vats were first made, I can see progress.

Indigo on cotton cloth: 1-15 ten-minute dips. May 2020

Indigo on cotton cloth, same vat: 1-24 ten-minute dips. February, 2021

Some observations:

This is a long process….

Two dips in May, 2020 gave the equivalent shade as 5 dips in February, 2021

The dark blue that was achieved from 12 dips in May, 2020 was not achieved, even after 24 dips in February 2021

The subtle differences in the darkest shades are difficult to discern from the photos – but they are there.

I now realize the value of having a number of vats: from old to new, weak to strong. It’s something I have heard Michel Garcia say on more than one occasion, but sometimes we just have to observe and learn the lessons on our own. 

This spring, I will not discard my weakening vats, but will add another vat for the strong, deep blues that I am currently needing to build up black colors on my woven cellulose fabrics. 

One Bath Acid Dyes – and “Textile Tattoos”

I have used one-bath acid dyes extensively in my own work, especially for cross-dyeing my handwoven fabrics that are constructed of both cotton and wool. The acid dyes attach only to the wool or other protein fiber. When combined with indigo, which attaches to both cellulose and protein fibers, very interesting combinations can be achieved. 

The “one-bath acid dyes” that Joy Boutrup and I discuss in The Art and Science of Natural Dyes include henna, madder, pomegranate, cochineal, lac, and rhubarb root. Since publishing the book, I have extended the palette with the addition of other dyes, mostly due to the help from Michel Garcia when he was here in my studio several years ago. 

Michel and I were discussing dyes that I might choose NOT to use because of their poor tolerance to light. Alkanet is one of those. A purple color is extracted from alkanet root by means of an alcohol extraction. The color is beautiful and enticing , but very fugitive. Michel indicated that the alcohol extraction does some damage to the dyestuff. 

The one-bath process extracts different dyes from the plant than from those that are obtained from using more traditional methods. While experimenting, we treated alkanet as a one bath acid dye (for protein fiber only) and a beautiful purplish brown color emerged that is quite fast to light. It’s a warm neutral color that I have not achieved using any other dye. 

Safflower petals are another dye source that he showed me can be used as a one-bath acid dye. A golden yellow is dyed onto wool or silk that is quite lightfast and requires no mordant. The safflower petals can still be used after the one-bath process to extract the traditional reds and pinks by altering the pH, though the red colors are still not fast to light. 

These discoveries energized my own work and as I went deeper,  I began noticing that many of the plant dyes that are used for the one-bath acid process have also been used as natural hair dyes: henna, madder, alkanet, dock, rhubarb root, cassia leaves (Cassia obovata, also referred to as “neutral” or “colorless” henna). These can all be used successfully for one-bath acid dyes and result in very lightfast colors. Dried Indigofera tinctoria leaves (“black henna”) are also used as a dye for hair and when combined with henna results in a very dark color. 

The application of henna as both a hair dye and as mehndi, (a temporary dye for the skin) is the same: finely ground plant material is mixed into a paste with water, acidified with lemon juice, and allowed to sit on the hair or skin for several hours. When the paste is washed away the color remains. These are considered non-permanent dyes for the skin and hair and may be repeated after the color fades. 

Acid dyes are very lightfast but are not as fast to washing. (This applies to both natural acid dyes and synthetic dyes.) If applied to the skin or hair, they will eventually be washed away.  BUT importantly, we don’t wash our woolen fabrics as aggressively or as often, thus the dyes are suitable for wool or silk textiles. 

I was curious to see if these dyes could be used for direct application to woolen fabrics. There is a Moroccan tradition of using finely ground henna leaf in this way on fabrics woven of wool and cotton. It is well documented in the book Die Farbe Henna / The Color of Henna Colour of Henna: Painted Textiles from Southern Morocco by Annette Korolnik-Andersch and Marcel Korolnik.

I made a paste of each of these dyes using finely ground plant material with a small amount of water. I acidified the paste with vinegar (citric acid would damage fabrics that contained cotton) and allowed it to sit overnight once applied to the textile. The colors are strong and clear, although some dyes spread more than others. They are not quite as deep as those dyed in a heated bath, though steaming the textiles will result in deeper colors. 

hand application of dye paste

I have observed that the freshness and quality of the dyes matter. Organic henna, used for hair and skin dye, resulted in a bright clear color while other henna powders that I have used produced duller colors. 

This approach has revealed to me one more way of understanding and using natural color and given me more opportunity to combining it with my own woven textiles. It has taught me more about plant categories, alternative applications, and the need to constantly be open to new ideas. 

What Size is YOUR Indigo Vat?

I now have, and am actively using, three 50 liter (15 gallon) indigo vats, in addition to a 100 liter (30 gallon) henna vat. 

I am loving the size of the 50 liter vat! The vessel is tall and narrow. It’s just the right shape for a vat, with a relatively reduced surface area, and a great size for studio immersion dyeing. I have been dyeing samples, skeins of yarn, my own shibori work, and even clothing in those vats. 

Like most dyers, I began with what I then thought was a “large” 5 gallon vat. That is still the most practical size for teaching workshops and I am guessing that it’s the size/shape that many dyers start with – and most stay with. 

But, I don’t think it’s the best for studio work. IT’S TOO SMALL!  When working with natural indigo vats, whether they are fermentation vats or quick reduction vats, there is going to be a lot of ‘sludge” at the bottom of the vat. With some vats this can be up to 1/3, or more, of the total depth. If you keep the textiles above that sludge , it doesn’t leave much room for dyeing. I am afraid that many dyers might tend to let their textiles dip into that “wasteland” at the bottom, exposing the fibers to concentrated lime or plant material. As a result, the dyeing is not as good as it could be. 

A 50 liter/15 gallon liter vat is a much greater commitment than an 18 liter/ 5 gallon bucket, both in terms of financial investment and engagement.  Yet, it is so much more useful and the dyeing is so much better! It’s also harder to just “give up” on a larger vat. You get better at maintaining and problem solving.

This is the vessel that I use. It’s a hard, durable plastic. I place it on a wheeled dolly. Otherwise it’s too difficult to move. A heavy duty plant caddy works just fine. 

Sometimes I suspend samples and other small pieces from the top, using stainless hooks and wooden rods. 

I have experimented with several types of baskets, nets, etc. to hold my larger textiles and keep them away from the bottom of the vat. I have finally settled on using a large, mesh laundry bag. It fits the vessel nicely, is flexible, re-usable, completely contains the textiles, and prevents things from getting lost in the bottom. 

As I experiment with the fermentation vats, it becomes necessary to do a lot of dyeing. I am working on a long-term woven series, but regular dyeing has become increasingly important with my fermentation vats – and more possible, now that I am staying home.

I’ve taken some of my white or light colored clothing (too impractical to wear in the studio) and turned them into indigo dyed “dyeing clothes”. It took some courage to put a large linen tunic in the vat but I’ve been surprised at the even dyeing of even these larger,  constructed  pieces. I always do at least 3 long dips into the vat, which will assure that the dye “evens out”. I would never have attempted dyeing clothing in a 5 gallon vat.

Maintaining a good dyeing temperature is important, especially with the fermented vats. I have successfully used a band-type pail warmer and plugged it into a digital temperature controller. This has been keeping the vats at a regular temperature in my unheated studio. 

AND if you are going to make wood ash lye for a fermentation vat, this is the time of year to connect with friends who are burning wood. You will want to identify someone who burns only hard wood in an efficient wood stove. That will result in the best ash for making lye. 

A New Book from Dominque Cardon

Dominique Cardon, French researcher of natural dyes and author of the classic reference book, Natural Dyes: Sources Tradition, Technology and Science, has just provided dyers another important resource and insight into the natural dye process:  Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours

For several years, Cardon has been translating and publishing a series of books that document the work of 18th century French dyers. The 18th century was the classical period of wool dyeing in France. Last year, Des Couleurs pour les Lumières. Antoine Janot, Teinturier Occitan 1700-1778 was released, but only in French. This book was based on the original dye notebooks of Antoine Janot, a professional dyer from the Occitan region of the country.

Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours, which Dominique wrote in collaboration with her daughter Iris Brémaud, begins by providing background information on Janot and a description of the project. The most useful part of this small book to dyers is its practical nature.  It includes a full palette of Janot’s colors and their recipes along with process information. It is written in both French and English.

Both books are published by CNRS EDITIONS

The dyed colors are represented as visuals that were matched from actual wool samples from the original notebooks. Cardon used a color analyzer and the CIELAB system to accurately portray each hue. CIELAB is an international system that scientifically analyzes colors by using a system of coordinates to “map” them graphically and very precisely.

Descriptions of mordanting and dyeing include % weight of dye materials along with other additions that were made to the baths. In some cases, helpfully, an explanation of the WHY is included. 

Examples of green colors in the book which use indigo as a base.

Examples of mixed colors in the book that do not use indigo

The key to some of the color palette is a full gradation of indigo blues, from the very palest to very deep. Each blue has its own name such as “crow’s wing” (the very darkest) to “off-white blue” (the very palest). The CIELAB system allows an accurate visual description of each of these blues. 

Dominique Cardon, showing and discussing her research into the shades of indigo dyed wool at the TSA Symposium, 2014

These blue shades are critical to achieving greens, purples and greys.  Instructions for mixed colors designate which blue to start with. A full range of indigo blues, from lightest to darkest, is not an easy thing to accomplish. I have been working on that very thing consistently for the last months in my own studio, so it is especially meaningful to me right now.

Blue value tests done using different indigo vats in my own studio.
Indigo blues on woven cotton/linen from my own studio. This is a work in progress. The palest colors are the most challenging.

I have recently been doing color replication work for logwood purple using a combination of indigo and cochineal. A systematic approach to dyeing the initial indigo blues is a huge help in approaching this kind of color matching.

Attempt at matching logwood with a combination of indigo and cochineal (the cotton ties reveals which is which)

It is rare to be able to gain such a deep insight into a professional dyer’s process and results. Historical color descriptions, such as “wine soup”, “celadon green”, and “crimson” become more than just words on a page when colors are able to be seen accurately with the eye. 

For dyer’s looking for a deeper insight into the world of professional natural dye, this book is a treasure. 

I ordered my copy directly from France and it took several weeks to arrive.  According to Charlotte Kwon, the book will also soon be available from Maiwa.

Dyeing with Fresh Indigo Leaves

On some days it’s hard to believe how recently we traveled freely worldwide, meeting new people and experiencing new places. Three years ago I attended the natural dye symposium in Madagascar, where I first met Hisako Sumi who started me on my current journey of making and maintaining indigo fermentation vats. As I was harvesting Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the garden, I was reminded of the fresh leaf indigo dyeing that we saw being done in Madagascar. 

Many of us are growing indigo in our gardens right now and have likely had the pleasure of experimenting with fresh leaf indigo dyeing on silk.  It’s like magic to see the lovely turquoise color emerge from the cold leaf bath.

The indigo that grows in Madagascar is Indigofera erecta. It is a perennial in that climate and the leaves are harvested from the bushes as needed. The leaves were used to dye the raffia fibers directly. There was no vat or reduction. 

Yet, the dyers took this “cold” process one step further. The ambient temperature dyebath produced a lovely clear turquoise blue color on the raffia. When heat was applied, the color deepened and shifted.

This approach of heat application was new to me. When I inquired about it, both Hisako and Dominique Cardon indicated that they were both familiar with this phenomenon. Hisako sent me an image from a scientific report done by Dr. Kazuya Sasaki that documented the range of color that could be obtained from fresh leaf woad by increasing the temperature. Once armed with that information I was able to reproduce that range of color, nearly exactly, on silk and and on multi-fiber test strips, though the results were not precisely the same as those we saw in Madagascar. 

Indigo vat dyeing compared to fresh woad leaf dyeing of various fibers, at different temperatures.

I have always understood that the process of fresh leaf dyeing with indigo is primarily used on silk – a protein. Yet, the dyeing we witnessed in Madagascar was done on raffia. Why did this process work so well on raffia- a cellulose fiber? I posed the question to my colleague, Joy Boutrup. “Raffia is almost pure lignin” she said. Lignin is an organic polymer and has a strong affinity for dye. 

This week I repeated the tests with Polygonum tinctorium on silk broadcloth and raffia. I used a greater quantity of leaves this time – a blender full of leaves for a few small samples vs. less than 100 g. I puréed the leaves this time rather than chop them up. The “coldest” blue is a deeper shade but otherwise the results are very similar. I freely admit that I don’t understand, chemically, why the colors change with the temperature:

  • Are there other dyes attaching?
  • Has the indigo been transformed by the temperature? 

Maybe someone else can enlighten.

I have always suspected that the lightfastness of the fresh leaf indigo dye is not to the same level as the color obtained from a well reduced indigo vat. I will do lightfast tests on this range of color and report back in a later blog. 

Three years ago, the trip to Madagascar taught me about an approach to dyeing that I had never seen before –  truly one of the gems of travel. We may not be free to move around for now,  BUT other opportunities continue to present themselves on the web. One of the most exciting upcoming events is this year’s Textile Society of America Symposium: Hidden Stories: Human Lives.

Originally planned to be held in Boston this fall, Hidden Stories: Human Lives will now be live and completely online October 15-17. This biennial event brings together scholars, curators, and artists from all over the world who will present their original research in the form of organized panels and talks. Fee structures for the symposium have been completely re-vamped in order to make this event accessible to all – no matter where in the world you might be. Registration has just opened and you can see the full program here. In addition, You can also read about the keynote and plenary speakers. Hope to see you there!

Lightfastness of Dyes – an Historical Perspective

A dear friend recently put a small booklet into my hands: Fast Dyeing and Dyes by James Morton.  It is the bound proceedings of a lecture that Morton delivered to the Royal Society of Arts in London, 1929. 

Morton’s father, Alexander Morton, founded the weaving company of Alexander Morton & Co, in England in the late 19th century.  The son, James was trained as a chemist and specialized in the use of permanent lightfast dyes for cellulose textiles. In the narrative, James recounts work that he  accomplished in 1903 to develop a palette of lightfast dyes for textiles. It was an interesting time in the development and use of textile dyes.  Up until the second half of the 19th century, natural plant and insect dyes were the source of all textile colors, but by the early 20th century chemical dyes were quickly replacing the natural dyes in industry. 

Morton’s company specialized in producing woven furnishing fabrics for curtains, carpets, upholstery and tapestries.  He spoke of observing one of the company’s tapestries in a store window display. After only a week’s time, the colors had faded dramatically. This led him to question the dyes they were using. He commandeered his family greenhouse (which had previously contained tomato plants) to set up a series of lightfastness tests. He tested fabrics from his own company as well as those from others. The results he described as “staggering”. Even deep shades of color applied to expensive fabrics became almost white after only a week’s time. He made detailed notes and documented each sample. 

After making these careful observations, his goal became one of identifying a few colors (produced by chemistry) that could be relied upon and that performed well. Morton believed that even a limited range of colors that would remain on the textile over time was far preferable to a large palette of color that would degrade quickly. The company trademark Soundour was born – a combination of the word “sun” and the Scottish word “dour” meaning stubborn or hard to move. He identified the Alizarines as “good friends” which kept their shades. This was a class of chemical dye, based on the synthetic manufacturing of alizarin, the primary red colorant in madder root.  In 1869 it was the first natural dye to be produced synthetically. Colors derived from minerals were acceptable as sources for light browns.  Indigo was deemed unsatisfactory for longevity on cellulose but Indanthrene vat dyes, new to the market, served as a good source of yellows, blues and greys. (These are the same vat dyes that I previously used in my own work.)

All the chosen chemical dyes were tested thoroughly, both in the greenhouse and on rooftops in India, where the sun was hot and intense and the humidity was high. The result was a carefully chosen palette of color that could be advertised as reliable and be priced accordingly – significantly higher priced than other fabrics on the market. The goal was to have colors that would last as long as the textile itself.

What strikes me about this story is the recognition of lightfastness being of value at a time when there was such excitement about the ability to easily produce almost any color through the use of the new “chemical” dyes. Morton changed the industry’s awareness of and approach to the use of synthetic dye color.  Interestingly, he stated that “Some manufacturers questioned the wisdom of raising the standards so high…”

I can’t help but see a parallel to today’s re-discovery and excitement about natural colors. That excitement often causes a “blind spot” when it comes to objectively looking at the longevity of some dyes. If the experience of making color is the singular goal then it doesn’t matter so much how long the color will ultimately last, but if there is a customer with an expectation that the color will last as long as the textile, then colorfastness is a different and critical matter. 

Professional natural dyers have made decisions over the centuries to provide customers with the best quality colors possible. The Dyer’s Handbook: Memoirs of an 18th -century Master Colourist, by Dominique Cardon makes the following statement about testing for “false” colors: “It is not enough for the dyer to have acquired knowledge on the drugs that are necessary to him and on their properties, and to have managed to employ them with success. He must also distinguish the fast colors from the false ones…”

All dyes fade – that’s a fact. And all textiles will deteriorate. My colleague, Joy Boutrup, says that acceptable fading of a dye results in a lighter version of the original hue while the integrity of the original color is maintained: a lighter indigo blue, a softer madder red etc. – not an “ugly beige color” that has no relationship to the original. And the ultimate goal is that the color last as long as the textile.

My own current study of “fast” and” fugitive” dyes on wool yarn: Indigo over-dyed with cochineal vs. logwood. Original colors (left) and after 3 weeks of direct sun exposure (right)
“Fast” and” fugitive” dyes: Cochineal vs. Brazilwood. Original colors (left) and after 3 weeks of direct sun exposure (right)

The Effect of pH on Yellow Dyes from the Garden

yellows on line

First of all, I know that my well water is acidic. It measures about pH 6.0 here in the mountains of North Carolina.  The water is ideal for most dyeing. There is no iron or other minerals that might dull the colors. The acidity is another issue. 

Most of the yellow dyes in my garden, or those that I might gather locally, are flavonoids. That means that they require a mordant in order to attach to the textile. No mordant means no yellow. It’s that simple. Some of the dyes may also contain some tannin or other colorants but the yellow is what we’re talking about here. 

Last summer Joy Boutrup and I taught a class together at Penland School of Crafts, located near my home in western North Carolina. A student in the class was especially interested in gathering local plants for use as a dye source. She struggled to get the locally gathered dyes to attach to her textiles, especially onto mordanted cotton. 

Joy had the answer-of course!

When the dye meets the mordant in a textile, an insoluble lake is formed. This lake is formed most readily in neutral or slightly alkaline conditions.

An alum mordant makes a very strong bond with wool but there is no chemical bond between cellulose and the mordant.  Instead, the mordant is deposited as an insoluble compound on the textile.

An additional issue is that many of our local plants are acidic. When the plants are boiled in our already acidic water, the pH of the dyebath becomes so low that the dye may struggle to attach to the mordant in the fiber. In fact, the mordant in the cotton can be damaged or even removed if the bath is acidic enough. This is exactly the reason why we don’t add an acid to a cochineal bath when dyeing cellulose. The mordant would be damaged and little dye attaches. 

The remedy: Add a small amount of chalk (calcium carbonate) to the dye bath to neutralize the acid that is present. This will do no damage to the dye or the textile. Chalk is not an alkaline but will neutralize an acid that is present. Within reason, there is no possibility of having too much chalk and any excess will simply precipitate in the bath and rinse out of the fabric

Since my own broom (Genista tinctoria) is currently in need of a serious trim, I began a series of flavonoid dye tests with that and then compared other dyes from my garden and environs. 

I used all fresh plants at 300% w.o.f. and dyed both wool and cotton. The wool was mordanted in alum. The cotton was mordanted using tannin plus alum and soda ash. After making the dye decoction, I divided the dye bath in two equal portions and added both wool and cotton to each bath.  Chalk was added to only one of the baths.

The results were quite surprising (but also very consistent) and made me realize that I have likely not been achieving the maximum amount of color from some of my local dyes. 

The plants I gathered and used were

    • Broom (Genista tinctoria)
    • Wild grape leaves
    • Apple leaves
    • Dyer’s Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria). I used the flowers and after gathering a basket of the small flowers I tested the dye content in the entire plant. 
    • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhena) . We often think of sumac as a good source of tannin but the leaves, according to Dominique Cardon, are also rich in flavonoids. 
    • Weld (Reseda luteola). This is my “go-to” yellow dye. I almost always use dried plants and I rarely add chalk with weld on cotton but frequently  add it to a wool bath. 

After boiling the plant material I recorded the pH of the decoction. The pH was measured again after the addition of chalk. Each dye bath was approximately 4 liters and I added about 1 TBS of chalk. 

The chalk will alter the appearance of the bath from transparent to cloudy and nearly opaque. 

weld in pot w/wo chalk
Weld baths: no chalk on left, chalk added on right

plant pH after boiling pH after addition of chalk
Dyer’s broom 

(Genista tinctoria)

5 6
Wild grape leaves 4 6
Apple leaves 5 6.5
Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) (flowers) 4.5 6.5
Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) (whole plant) 4.5 6.5
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhena) 4 6
Weld (fresh plant) (Reseda luteola) 5.5 6.5
Weld (dried plant) 5.5 6.5

The samples below are wool. Individual samples on the left had chalk added to the bath. Those on the right did not.

In every case, I achieved  deeper and brighter yellows colors when the chalk was added to the fresh plant baths. The only exception was dried weld, which was used at 50% w.o.f. When dyeing with the fresh weld plants, deeper yellow hues resulted with the addition of chalk. When I used dried weld plants, the chalk made very little difference.  I asked Joy about this and she indicated that is was possible that some of the acids disappear in the drying process. It will require more tests and explorations to confirm this.

The cellulose samples are especially notable. The high acidity of some baths made without the chalk was enough to damage the mordant significantly. The grape leaves and the sumac, which were the most acidic, destroyed the mordant in the cellulose and only the tannins that are present in the leaf were able to attach and color the fabric. 

cellulose no chalk
Palette of color on cotton without the addition of  chalk.  Left to right: Chamomile flowers, broom, apple leaves, chamomile (whole plant), weld, sumac, grape leaves

cellulose with chalk
Palette of color on cotton with the use of chalk.  Left to right: Chamomile flowers, broom, apple leaves, chamomile (whole plant), weld, sumac, grape leaves

If your water is not acidic, or has calcium in it, then these tests may not be relevant but the addition of chalk will never harm the fiber or the dye and may release more color.

I recently found the following note that I had made during a class with Michel Garcia several years ago referring to grape leaves:

“If they are too sour they will dissolve part of the mordant.”       M. Garcia

 My own notes continue to say:

After boiling the grape leaves the solution of a pH 4 – too acidic – it will remove the mordants. Sumac will cause the same effect. Boiling breaks the bonds of the tannins and gallic acid is released. Add chalk to the bath to decrease the acidity of the dye bath – you cannot be in excess of chalk.

Sometimes we’re just not ready to absorb information the first time we hear it. This is exactly why I continue to question, keep notes, and actively test and observe. 

It’s summertime! Enjoy your yellow flavonoids!

Note: I purchase my chalk from a potter’s supply store. It is inexpensive and can be purchased in quantity. Potters refer to it a “whiting” and rarely refer to it as chalk or calcium carbonate. Do check the MSDS though, just to be sure. 

Upcoming: On July 13 I am presenting a Zoom webinar, entitled Colors from the Garden, as part of the John C. Campbell Folks School’s Appalachian Traditions Series. You can sign up here: