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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alejandro de Ávila at the Botanical Gardens in Oaxaca.
Variety of marigold at the Botanical Gardens
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.
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.
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).
The “vegetable series” was made with
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.
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.
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.
We are about to have our first killing frost here in western North Carolina and it’s time to collect seeds. This morning I watched a squirrel cross the road with an enormous black walnut in his mouth. There are plenty of black walnuts in the freezer. I’ve collected seeds from my French marigolds. I’m not sure of the tagetes variety but the seeds were brought back 8 years ago from Couleur Garance in Lauris, France and the plants grow taller (about 1 meter tall) than our garden shop variety. They produce plenty of flowers that are easy to harvest and dry.
Weld and marigold seeds
My Japanese indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) is blooming so next year I’ll have my own seeds to plant. We had an unusually dry summer here and the seeds on the madder plants didn’t mature but usually I would be collecting those as well. I’ve been collecting and drying staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves as a great source of tannin.
Sumac leaves, stripped from the branches
The tiny weld (Reseda luteola) seedlings in the garden will turn into a valuable crop of dye next summer. Each year I harvest about 5 pounds of dried weld from a 4’ x 8’ bed.
Japanese indigo flowers
As I prepare my own garden for the winter, the North Carolina Arboretum is preparing the first Growing Color Symposium, November 5, 2016. The event was conceived with the idea of dyers and farmers collaborating to grow plants that produce color.
Anne de la Sayette , of France, is our keynote speaker. I met Anne when she and Dominique Cardon were co-chairs of the ISEND Natural Dye Symposium, La Rochelle, France in April 2011. Anne created and led the Regional Center for Innovation and Technology Transfer in Horticulture (CRITT) where she initiated and managed a 15-year innovative project on natural dyes. We are very excited to have her here.
Sara Bellows is another of our speakers. She founded Stony Creek Colors in Tennessee She is raising and processing indigo right here in the United States. We are all anxious to hear more about this project.
There will be other speakers and displays. Come and join us if you can. We hope this is only the beginning of a long conversation about growing color here in the mountains of North Carolina and beyond.
Eucalyptus is not native to where I live but I have watched dyers (with a bit of envy) from other parts of the world use these plants as a source of color and tannin. Each year I grow a plant or two for experimentation. These experiments have led me to some interesting observations.
The variety commonly found at our local garden center is Silver Dollar Gum (Eucalyptus cinerea). A friend, visiting from Australia, fondly recognized it in the garden as “gummy”. It will grow as an annual here and I always dry the round “silver dollar” leaves for dye. Sometimes I can even acquire them amongst the floral arrangements in the local grocery store. This year I had a additional variety (Eucalyptus globulus). It was grown by a friend from seeds that she brought from a tree in her yard in Ethiopia.
Silver dollar gum (Eucalyptus cinerea)
Dye tests were done on wool, both with and without an alum mordant, using dried leaves at 100% of the weight of fiber. Plants contain many different colorants. In the case of the Eucalyptus leaves, they contain both a flavonol and a tannin. The flavonols are typically yellow in color and require a mordant to attach to the fiber. The tannins produce a variety of colors and do not require a mordant.
I placed non-mordanted wool fabric in the bath with the leaves. It was brought to a low simmer (approximately 190 degrees F). The color was slow to come but after about 2 hours the Eucalyptus cinerea resulted in a deep red/orange, while the Eucalyptus globulus turned a deep brown.
Alum-mordanted wool was dyed in a separate bath. The fiber quickly (within 30 minutes) turned a brilliant yellow from both varieties of eucalyptus. I removed some of the fiber from the dyebath when the yellow was still bright. As the rest of the fiber stayed in the bath, the tannins were released, changing the color of the wool from yellow to either a deep yellow/orange or a yellow brown. After two hours in the bath the mordanted fiber had been dyed by BOTH the flavonol and the tannin.
Several years ago I heard Michel Garcia say that the clearest yellow color from plants may come at the beginning of a dyebath, before any tannins are extracted. As the fiber stays in the bath with the dyestuff, the tannins are released and the color becomes deeper and duller. The eucalyptus is a dramatic illustration of this principle but other plant materials also indicate the same principle.
I have not yet completed lightfastness tests on any of these samples but they are in process. I would guess that the deeper, tannin-rich colors will be more lightfast than the brighter flavonols.