Re-visiting Local Plants.

Last week I was a student in a class with local dyer, Dede Styles, at Cloth Fiber Workshop. Dede describes herself as a “heritage dyer”. She learned the craft from Mary Frances Davidson, another heritage dyer from our North Carolina mountain region, who wrote a book on the local dye plants. The Dye Pot, originally published in 1950, is still in print today.

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Dede discussing her naturally dyed yarns

Dede dyes mostly wool and uses only local plants that she can collect herself (with the exception of cochineal and indigo which do not grow here). Her knowledge of plants, local water sources, and seasonal growing patterns is exceptional. The dye plants she uses are very specific to this part of the country, though some are found in other areas.  They are chosen because they give good color that lasts.

She carried buckets of her own “creek water” to the workshop rather than use city water from the tap and described how she can obtain a certain color with a particular dye using water from her creek.  Water from “over the mountain” will produce a very different hue.

Dede dyes yarn in quantity, outdoors, using large stainless steel, iron, or copper pots. Her philosophy about dye amounts is to “cram as much dye plant material as possible into the pot”.  After cooking, she strains the liquid. All the yarn for a certain project must be dyed at the same time in a single dye-lot since results are not exactly repeatable. As someone who measures everything carefully and precicely, this is a refreshing approach.

Fall is a good time to gather local plants. We observed what was growing around the weedy area near the railroad tracks, paying special attention to stands of goldenrod, sumac, and fall asters.  Dede knows a lot.  She told us that many people think they are allergic to goldenrod, but the ragweed that grows nearby is really the source of the allergens – goldenrod is only pollinated by bees, thus there is no airborne pollen! The white asters seem to produce more color than the purple fall asters, says Dede – likely because the purple asters grow in damper areas – and maybe the dyestuff is diluted. She pointed out the difference between sumac and the similar looking Goldenraintree, which contains no dye.  Some plants are biennials and thus will only be found growing in the same area on alternate years. As we walked, Dede talked about responsible gathering of plants, and the damaging use of herbicides by roadsides and railroad tracks.  Gentrification, she says, is the enemy of wild dye plants. Springtime, when the tree sap is running,  is the only time to easily gather bark from a fallen tree.  And of course, she wanted to be sure we knew the difference between Virginia creeper and poison ivy – neither one of these is a dye plant but they are often found growing together in the same vicinity as the dye plants.

I hope that there are more “Dedes”  out there where you live  – people who know their plants from deep experience and observation and who are willing to share what they know. We owe it to ourselves to honor them and to learn from them. Dede told us that she is working on a book. It will be about the local Western North Carolina plants: where they grown, where to find them, and when to gather them responsibly.

Thank you Dede!

And a follow-up to my own earlier experiments with some locally gathered dyes – flavonoids. Some of them came from my garden (coreopsis, broom, chamomile, marigold, and weld) others from “the field” (black oak bark and goldenrod) and a couple were purchased (osage and Persian Berries). I dyed mordanted silk and subjected them to lightfastness tests. The weld from the garden will continue to be my “go-to” yellow dye.

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Flavonoid dyes after 3 weeks exposure to direct sun

 

Alum in the dyepot? How do YOU mordant your textiles?

My first experience with natural dyeing occurred many years ago. My first teacher, Mabel Myers, was a Navajo weaver who taught at Navajo Community College in Arizona (now called Dine College),  where I was studying for a year during college. After spinning wool for my first rug on a long Navajo spindle (my first spinning), we went to the Lukachukai Mountains, where we gathered some leaves (I don’t know what kind) and white, powdery alum from the ground. When I asked Mabel how she knew that this was “alum” she took a taste. That’s how she knew!

We returned to the classroom. The  yarn, leaves, and alum mordant all went into a dyepot and cooked for a while. We obtained brown, gold, and orange colors. The hues were deep and rich and they are still in that wool today, nearly 50 years later.

 

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My first natural dyeing with unknown plants

Since that first experience with natural dyes I have learned a lot about dyeing. Now I know that the BEST method of dyeing is to apply the mordant first, and then the dye,  after rinsing out any excess mordant. This is the approach used by professional dyers and in industry. It is the most economical use of both dye and mordant. When mordant and dye bind together, preferable IN the textile, an insoluble compound is made, called a lake. If mordant and dye go into the dyepot together, some of the mordant and dye will bind together in the bath before ever having a chance to penetrate inside the textile.

While in Madagascar last month, I watched dyers add bark (the dyestuff), raffia (the textile), and crystalized alum (the mordant), to the dyebath all at the same time. My “professional dye knowledge” told me this was not the best approach. But then I began to think.

All of the dyeing here was done over a small wood fire. Wood is scarce. Madagascar is a seriously de-forested country. Charcoal is still made regularly from wood and used for nearly all cooking. The women were very skilled at controlling temperature by increasing or decreasing the amount of wood on the fire or moving it closer or further away. Perhaps the process is optimized to conserve the most valuable resource: the fuel.

Maybe time is the most valuable resource. The women worked together but their dyeing activity went hand-in-hand with childcare and there were many small children around, observing and participating when appropriate. When everything goes into the pot together the dye process takes less time.

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Or maybe the dyepot itself was the most valuable resource. I only saw two pots. Pre-mordanting would require not only a single use of a pot, but might also necessitate the storage of mordanted textiles while they awaited dyeing.

Exposure to dyers in different parts of the world causes me to have a more open mind about process. It encourages me to think more about what I am doing and why I do it. The “BEST” process is not always best for everyone.

What is Local Color?

Most of us working with natural dyes have no immediate tradition from which to learn or elders to teach us. We are re-inventing natural dye, trying to learn from books, teachers and other dyers who are willing to share what they know and, of course, our own experiences and mistakes.

Many of us purchase our natural dyes from suppliers in the form of extracts or dyestuffs that are grown and harvested in other parts of the world. In this way, we can access all of the classical dyes, such as indigo, madder, cochineal, weld, pomegranate, etc. These dyes do not necessarily reflect where we live or where we come from.

I was in Madagascar for two weeks during May for the International Festival of Plants, Ecology and Colors. Following the conference our small group spent time in a  village in the northwest deciduous region. There we saw women harvest raffia from the local palm trees and wild silk from cocoons in the local mangrove forest. Natural dyestuffs are gathered in the immediate surroundings and are coaxed from the leaves, barks, resins, and fruit of local plants. The ONLY dyes available are truly local dyes, which the dyers gather themselves and about which they possess a deep knowledge of experience. Most of the plants used for dyeing are also used medicinally. Importing dyestuffs is not an option here.

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Peeling away bark from tree (Hiragana madagascarensis). Bark is taken from one side only, in order to keep the tree healthy.

The  region is rich with sources of natural color, including reds from teak leaves, indigo from the local Indigofera erecta, gold and yellow from barks, and black from tannin and iron-rich mud. Wood ash and citrus fruit provide adjustments in pH when needed.

My own local environment does not have such range of color available in “the wild”, though I do maintain a garden of dye plants. I came home from this trip with a deeper understanding of what LOCAL color really means and now have a new resolve to identify local dye sources from my own immediate environment. No doubt, they will be variations of a yellow color since plants containing flavonols and tannins are in abundance.

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Local raffia, dyed with local plants
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Raffia weaving: red dyed with teak leaves, brown from tannin and iron rich mud, blue from fresh leaf indigo.

I have already begun the dye experiments in the search of my own “personal colors”. All of the dyes will be put through rigorous testing for light fastness and wash fastness. In the end, I hope to identify one or two dye sources that are abundant and easy to harvest here in western North Carolina. Of course, collection of these plants must pose no threat to our environment.

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Initial tests of local plants on silk with alum mordant and post mordant of ferrous acetate. Garden dye plants included for comparison.

I’ll report back once the testing is complete.

World Connections Through Natural Dyeing – please become a part of this!

When we find something that truly engages our passion, we tend to broaden our community to include other people who share that same passion. This has happened for me repeatedly with natural dyeing. I have mentors from Europe and Asia and have met dyers all over the world who have taught me lessons and shared information about their practices. I have a global community of friends through natural dyeing.

Last fall, I was in Oaxaca, Mexico. While there, I was introduced to a long and deep tradition of dyeing  with plants and dye sources that I  never had access to. Rocio Mena Gutierrez, a young designer and natural dyer from Mexico, recently sent me some amazing photos of old indigo tanks and logwood trees from the Oaxaca region.

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200 year old indigo tanks, where they hope to process indigo this fall in Oaxaca, Mexico
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Rocco at the indigo tanks.
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Logwood tree, Oaxaca
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Heartwood of the logwood tree, where the dye is contained

Couleur Garance, the natural dye gardens in Lauris France, will be holding its biennale Symposium on Natural Colours in October, 2017. I attended this event in 2013. It is a remarkable meeting of dyers, scientists, growers, artists, and artisans. It is to be held in the setting of the natural dye gardens of Lauris. These are the gardens that Michel Garcia helped to found.

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Dye Gardens of Lauris

Couleur Garance has invited artisans and teachers from Mexico to participate this year, bringing a global perspective to the event. Their challenge, now, is to raise funds to help the Mexican presenters travel to France.

In the spirit of international learning and community, I invite you to join me in helping to support this project. They have set up an online fundraiser to help make this possible.

I send this out, as I am about to embark on an adventure of my own. Tomorrow I will travel to Madagascar and the International Festival of Plants, Ecology, and Colours. I don’t know what I will learn, or whom I will meet, but I feel confident that I will return home with a deeper understanding of the world and its use of natural color. Most of all, my world community will again expand, as a result of this experience.

How to Finish Indigo and a Natural Dye Book in the Works…

Last week I received several questions about how to finish textiles after dyeing with indigo. What now comes naturally to me, I realize, is not well understood by all dyers.

First, back to the dyeing: the textile should be dyed in long immersion baths (10-20 minutes). Without the long immersion, the dye will only sit on the surface of the textile and will not be lightfast.

Once the dyeing has been completed (and all the dye has oxidized) the textile must be neutralized. There is a great deal of alkalinity in the fibers from the calcium hydroxide (lime, calx) and that requires neutralization. Without this step, the textile will be vulnerable to damage. It will yellow over time and it won’t have a good hand.

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Many years ago, I made the assumption that only protein fibers needed to be neutralized. That is definitely NOT the case. All fibers must be neutralized!

Neutralization takes place in a water bath, to which a few “glugs’ of white vinegar (5% acetic acid) have been added. This is equivalent to about 1 tablespoon (10 ml.) per liter of water. Allow the textile to soak in the vinegar bath long enough for the acid to fully penetrate into the fiber (a few minutes to one hour, depending on the density of the textile). You can actually see the color brighten during this step.

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Silk, neutralized fabric on the left
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Cotton, neutralized fabric on left

Next, the textile must have all excess dye completely removed. The best way to do this is in a heated bath, to which a small amount of pH neutral detergent is added. Heating will cause the vat dye molecules in the fiber to combine into larger units, making them stronger, while also removing excess dye that has not attached to the fiber. Boil cellulose for about 10 minutes. Protein fibers can be heated to an appropriate temperature and maintained at that temperature for about 10 minutes. After this step a thorough rinsing should be performed. THAT’S HOW TO FINISH INDIGO!

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How did I come to understand all of this? I would still be wondering about much of it without my friend and colleague, Joy Boutrup. Joy is a Danish textile chemist, engineer and creative thinker. In an earlier post, I mentioned that we have taught together many times at Penland School of Crafts. Joy has helped me to understand process and the reasons behind the process. In its most recent issue, Fiber Art Now magazine has published a wonderful article about Joy, written by Lasse Antonsen.  I encourage you to read it here.

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Penland School of Crafts, NC

Joy and I are currently writing a book on natural dyeing! It will be a practical handbook for dyers, which not only explains HOW to dye but WHAT is happening in the process and WHY we might choose one process over another. Schiffer Publishing Co. will publish the book. Release date is targeted for late 2018.

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Joy, printing with indigo in the Penland studio

As I work through studio processes and words of explanation for the book, I realize how much I have learned from Joy’s deep understanding and perspective and I value her as a collaborator. Our book should help all of us to become better dyers.

How Much Indigo in the Vat?

As I learned to use organic indigo vats, I started with recipes from Michel Garcia: “one, two, three”. Michel talks about the vats in simple terms. It’s as easy as 1,2,3. This also represents the proportions of indigo, lime, and sugar that go into the vat:

  • 1 part indigo
  • 2 parts lime
  • 3 parts fructose sugar

It’s simple, right?

Not always.

I probably get more questions about making and maintaining an indigo vat than anything else. There are so many unknowns. It’s taken me a number of years to feel comfortable with those unknowns and to gain the confidence to solve problems with the vat.

I recently had several people ask me about the quantity of indigo in the vat. That’s an important question. Unless you know how much indigo, you can’t really determine how much sugar (or other reduction material) or how much lime.

I’ve watched Michel make vats with very small amounts of indigo and what I would consider very large amounts of indigo. What is the difference? Will you get a darker color from a vat with more indigo?

The answer is “yes” and “no”.

I made 3 small fructose vats with varying amounts of indigo

  • 2 grams indigo per liter of vat liquid volume
  • 5 grams indigo per liter of vat liquid volume
  • 8 grams indigo per liter of vat liquid volume

As you can see from the samples dyed the very next day, there was a great deal of difference in the colors produced from each vat. Even on day 3 there was significant difference. But one week later, the 3 shades of blue are much more similar. All of these samples represent only one 20-minute dip in the vat.

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Dye tests done with a single long dip in the three different vats

Why would you use 8 grams of indigo per liter instead of 2 when you can get a similar color from both these options? There is more indigo in the vat, which means more can be dyed over a longer period of time before additional indigo must be added. If I were doing a short-term vat for a small amount of dyeing, 2 grams of indigo per liter would probably be plenty.

The questions to ask are:

  • What  quantity of textiles will  be dyed in the vat?
  • How many people will be using the vat?
  • How long do you want to keep the vat?
  • How quickly to you need to get strong color from the vat?

The coloration of the reduced liquid in the 3 vats is different, indicating varying amounts of indigo in reduction. But the textile is only able to absorb so much dye at a time. We always build up color with multiple, long dips in the vat.

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Three indigo vats reduced with fructose: 8 grams, 5 grams, and 2 grams of indigo per liter

The other thing you can see through these glass jars is the amount of sediment at the bottom of the vat. The weakest vat has very little and it gets progressively deeper with the stronger vats. It’s important to keep our textile above this sediment when it’s dyeing.

I currently have a 30-liter vat that I have been using for over a year now. I’ve added indigo to it a couple of times, and of course plenty of reduction material and lime. The vat is still working well but over the months the sediment has gotten very deep, which has reduced my dyeing space so much that it’s time to make a new vat.

The “1,2,3.. ” proportions are guidelines and easy to measure if you’re using fructose. How many bananas or sweet potatoes do you need to reduce 10 grams of indigo? Take a good guess. Making small experimental vats in glass jars has taught me a great deal about how the vat works. We don’t always know but have to start somewhere.

Observe carefully. One must be patient with the indigo vat.

What We Call Things

While in Oaxaca, Mexico, a friend gave me a small bag of dried dye material. She had obtained it from dyers in the Teotitlan Valley. It was identified locally as “Mexican chamomile”. It was very aromatic and easy to believe that it was a type of chamomile, possibly related to dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), also known as know as golden marguerite.

I wanted to compare this “Mexican chamomile” with the chamomile I had at home. I had dried chamomile flowers from Maiwa and some whole plants from the end of the season in my garden. Both of them were Anthemis tinctoria.

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Dry and fresh dye materials

I dyed mordanted wool fabric with all three of these “chamomiles” and achieved very different results. Both of the known chamomile dyes produced in a soft, predictable yellow color while the Mexican “chamomile” produced in a much deeper, richer tone. When I completed lightfast tests on the three samples, the Mexican chamomile actually deepened in hue, which led me to believe that it contained a tannin. I guessed that it might not actually be chamomile.

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Fresh chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), Maiwa dried chamomile flowers (Anthemis tinctoria), Mexican chamomile (Tagetes lucida)
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Lightfastness tests. Right side was exposed to direct sun for 3+ weeks.

After reporting these results to the friend who had given me the dye, she told me the plant had another local name: “pericon”. Once I knew this, it was easy to identify the plant in both Tintes y tintoreros de América by Ana Roquero and Plantes Tintóreas de Guatemala by Olga Reiche. Both of these are excellent dye books, written in Spanish.

The dye plant in question was Tagetes lucida, a type of marigold. The entire plant is used for dyeing, which explains the presence of tannin in the dye. The whole plant is likely to contain tannins while the flowers alone would not.

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Tagetes lucida,  Wikipedia photo

I have located sources of seed for this plant. The seed companies also refer to it as “Mexican tarragon”, “sweet smelling marigold”, and “Mexican mint marigold”. The leaves are a savory herb and can be used as a substitute for tarragon.

I bring all this up to emphasize the importance of using Latin names for our dye plants. Local names are only useful to local people. I understand that there is a great deal of emphasis on the use of local plants for dyeing but as we travel and meet dyers from other places it becomes important to talk about our process in a common, international language.

While in Mexico I took a workshop on plant taxonomy with Alejandro de Ávila at the Botanical Gardens in Oaxaca. I marvel at the incredible system of plant names that can be understood around the world and encourage dyers to get into the habit of using the Latin names for plants.

I will grow Tagetes lucida (or “Mexican chamomile”, or “pericon” or Mexican tarragon” or “sweet smelling marigold” or “Mexican mint marigold”) in my garden this year and think about the Teotitlan dyers who gather it wild and use in their weavings.

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Jacobo and Maria Luisa Mendoza, Teotitlan weavers and natural dyers in their home studio, with Rocio Mena Gutierrez