A New Use for Walnuts – The Indigo Vat

It’s black walnut season again in eastern United States – and soon the trees will be releasing their nuts and husks from the tree.

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This summer I had the pleasure of teaching, again, with Joy Boutrup at Penland School of Crafts. As always, when Joy and I spend time together, we begin investigating and learning more about the practice of natural dyeing. 

We were experimenting with “quick reduction” indigo vats and the used of lime (calcium hydroxide) vs. lye (sodium hydroxide) as the source of alkalinity in the vat. We made a vat that was reduced with henna (Lawsonia inermis). This is the vat that I commonly use in my studio. The sugars present in the henna reduces the indigo.  Joy was looking at the molecular formula of lawsone, (the active dye ingredient in henna) and noticed that it is very similar to juglone (the active dye ingredient in black walnut hulls) They are both oxidation dyes, which means that they will dye protein without the use of mordants. 

 

The question: Could black walnut hulls be used to reduce an indigo vat in the same way that henna does?

We tried a small test vat. When I test a new indigo vat I often make it in 1 quart mason jars. This allows me to test multiple ideas on a small scale, without risking large amounts of dye or other materials. These small vats give me enough information so that I can scale up to a larger volume at a later time. I used 4 grams of indigo, two walnut hulls, and about 10 grams of lime. 

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In June I had only whole frozen walnuts. I thawed them a bit, and covered them with water (no more than a quart, as this becomes the liquid for the vat).  As the walnut hulls softened more, I broke them up with my fingers and cooked them for a short time. The liquid was yellow. Joy cautioned against heating too much, which would turn the liquid brown as a result of oxidation. We wanted the oxidation to occur in the indigo vat.  So we stopped heating while the liquid was still very yellow. Next we strained the solid pieces out, and poured the liquid into the mason jar. We added the hydrated indigo and the lime.

Within a few hours we had a nicely reduced vat! I continued to dye test strips in the vat for a number of weeks. After a few days the color became lighter, but after the addition of supplemental organic materials (sugar, more walnut juice, cooked fruit juice etc.) the reduction improved and the blue color deepened as the indigo reduction improved. 

I  observed that after about 10 days the indigo blue got dull and the samples showed a wicking of a brown matter into the white cloth. Then, after about 30 days the color reverted to a clear blue again.  I described this to Joy.  She was not surprised and indicated that the juglone was by then inactive, having polymerized into a pigment that does not dye. Yet the sugars in the plant material continued to reduce the vat. 

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I also tried adding puréed pieces of walnut hull to a test vat, but there was so much plant matter it made dyeing difficult – very messy. Thus, I now use only the liquid extraction. I have made several small vats since and they have all behaved consistently. 

When I collect this season’s walnuts I plan to scale up to a larger vat. 

In the spirit of understanding the plants that I use, this year I have planted a single henna bush in my garden. It will not winter over. It is not a local plant for me. I am thrilled to have discovered that walnuts,  a tree that grows locally in abundance,  can be used to reduce an indigo vat.