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.