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.

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.

Fresh chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), Maiwa dried chamomile flowers (Anthemis tinctoria), Mexican chamomile (Tagetes lucida)
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.

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.

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


Indigo Reduction Materials

Michel Garcia has inspired and informed many of us in the use the organic indigo vats. He has given us a simple one, two, three (1:2:3) recipe that refers the proportions of indigo, lime (calcium hydroxide) and reduction material (often a sugar).

But nothing is ever as simple as 1:2:3! Dyers work hard to determine how to keep their vat active, when to add reduction material, when to add  lime, and how to best dye their textiles.

A key issue dyers must think about is the selection of the best reduction material that is also readily available. Michel commonly recommends the use of fructose or a fruit that is high in sugar, such as bananas. These high-sugar materials assure that the indigo vat will go into reduction quickly and successfully. I recently had a reader ask me if dextrose will work as well as fructose. I didn’t know, so I tried it. It was slower to reduce, but in the end resulted in colors very close to those obtained with fructose. On the other hand, cane sugar resulted in no reduction whatsoever.

Vats were made with fructose and dextrose

In November I was in Oaxaca, Mexico for the 10th Intentional Shibori symposium, where Michel Garcia and I were both teaching workshops. Our time in Mexico proved to be another opportunity to realize how much more there is to learn about indigo vats.

One day, we were eating fresh oranges and Michel mentioned that we could use the orange rinds to reduce an indigo vat. I was surprised (and a bit skeptical) since I knew that oranges were acidic. It turns out that the orange juice is acidic but the rinds are full of pectin, which is an excellent reduction material.  We ate a lot of oranges, cooked the rinds, and used that juice to make our vat. Of course, it worked!

Further discussion of indigo vats in Michel’s class revealed that some vegetables can also be used to reduce the indigo vat: turnips, zucchini, etc. Some of these vegetables contain pectin as well as sugars.

I never really know something until I’ve tried it. In the last few weeks I have made nine small indigo vats using citrus skins and chopped vegetables. I made the vats in glass jars with 1 gram of indigo per liter of solution.  A great deal can be learned about an indigo vat when it’s made in a transparent container. I can see the color of the vat, the amount of un-reduced material at the bottom, and the speed (or slowness) at which the vats reduce. The use of the vat for dyeing is the ultimate test.

The “citrus series” was made with

  • Cooked orange rinds
  • Cooked lemon rinds
  • Commercially available ground orange peel
  • Commercially available pectin from the grocery story (additives included dextrose and fumaric acid)

When using fruit, I cooked the rinds from several small oranges or lemons in water and used that liquid as the basis of the vat. I used the 1:2:3 proportions (by weight) as a guideline for the commercially available orange peel and pectin (1 part indigo, 2 parts lime or calcium hydroxide, 3 parts reduction material).

Samples dyed in the vat 1 day after making the vat and 9 days later. Reduction of the indigo vat is sometimes not complete for several days. The vat made with cooked lemon rinds never reduced well and continued to have a great deal of un-reduced material in the vat. All dying is a single dip in the vat.

The “vegetable series” was made with

  • Zucchini
  • Turnip
  • Carrot
  • Sweet potato
  • White potato

I used the equivalent of one medium sized vegetable per liter of vat liquid. The vegetables were chopped into small pieces and boiled for 15-30 minutes or until the vegetable matter was very soft. The liquid was then strained to make the vat.

A vat in a pint size jar is enough for testing.
The color of the bubbles on the surface of the vats is an indication of the reduction. The light colored bubbles of the white potato vat (back row, center) indicates the weakest reduction. This is confirmed by the color of the vat and the dyed color on the cloth.

Every vat worked to some degree. In the “citrus series” both the orange rind vats reduced first, the pectin vat was slow but after a week the color achieved matched the orange rind vats. The lemon rind was the weakest from the beginning and also has a great deal of unreduced material at the bottom. The white potato was the slowest of the vegetables to reduce and the resulting color continued to be the weakest.

“Vegetable vats” after 24 hours and 5 days.

Some of these latest experiments were more successful than others but they were a huge revelation for me. There are indigo reduction materials everywhere! Some are better (and more available) than others. I can imagine a new use for the abundance of zucchini in the summer garden and I can use waste from my food kitchen to feed my indigo vat.

Several years ago I was doing indigo dyeing on the Island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. We harvested local Aloe Vera leaves as a reduction material. I later tried reducing a vat with Aloe Vera that was growing in a pot as a houseplant. The houseplant did not reduce the vat.

My studio doesn’t smell as sweet after cooking potatoes and turnips as when cooking orange rinds or bananas (neither does the vat), but it’s another valuable reminder of the complex world of natural dye and the resources at our fingers.