The Effect of pH on Yellow Dyes from the Garden

yellows on line

First of all, I know that my well water is acidic. It measures about pH 6.0 here in the mountains of North Carolina.  The water is ideal for most dyeing. There is no iron or other minerals that might dull the colors. The acidity is another issue. 

Most of the yellow dyes in my garden, or those that I might gather locally, are flavonoids. That means that they require a mordant in order to attach to the textile. No mordant means no yellow. It’s that simple. Some of the dyes may also contain some tannin or other colorants but the yellow is what we’re talking about here. 

Last summer Joy Boutrup and I taught a class together at Penland School of Crafts, located near my home in western North Carolina. A student in the class was especially interested in gathering local plants for use as a dye source. She struggled to get the locally gathered dyes to attach to her textiles, especially onto mordanted cotton. 

Joy had the answer-of course!

When the dye meets the mordant in a textile, an insoluble lake is formed. This lake is formed most readily in neutral or slightly alkaline conditions.

An alum mordant makes a very strong bond with wool but there is no chemical bond between cellulose and the mordant.  Instead, the mordant is deposited as an insoluble compound on the textile.

An additional issue is that many of our local plants are acidic. When the plants are boiled in our already acidic water, the pH of the dyebath becomes so low that the dye may struggle to attach to the mordant in the fiber. In fact, the mordant in the cotton can be damaged or even removed if the bath is acidic enough. This is exactly the reason why we don’t add an acid to a cochineal bath when dyeing cellulose. The mordant would be damaged and little dye attaches. 

The remedy: Add a small amount of chalk (calcium carbonate) to the dye bath to neutralize the acid that is present. This will do no damage to the dye or the textile. Chalk is not an alkaline but will neutralize an acid that is present. Within reason, there is no possibility of having too much chalk and any excess will simply precipitate in the bath and rinse out of the fabric

Since my own broom (Genista tinctoria) is currently in need of a serious trim, I began a series of flavonoid dye tests with that and then compared other dyes from my garden and environs. 

I used all fresh plants at 300% w.o.f. and dyed both wool and cotton. The wool was mordanted in alum. The cotton was mordanted using tannin plus alum and soda ash. After making the dye decoction, I divided the dye bath in two equal portions and added both wool and cotton to each bath.  Chalk was added to only one of the baths.

The results were quite surprising (but also very consistent) and made me realize that I have likely not been achieving the maximum amount of color from some of my local dyes. 

The plants I gathered and used were

    • Broom (Genista tinctoria)
    • Wild grape leaves
    • Apple leaves
    • Dyer’s Chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria). I used the flowers and after gathering a basket of the small flowers I tested the dye content in the entire plant. 
    • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhena) . We often think of sumac as a good source of tannin but the leaves, according to Dominique Cardon, are also rich in flavonoids. 
    • Weld (Reseda luteola). This is my “go-to” yellow dye. I almost always use dried plants and I rarely add chalk with weld on cotton but frequently  add it to a wool bath. 

After boiling the plant material I recorded the pH of the decoction. The pH was measured again after the addition of chalk. Each dye bath was approximately 4 liters and I added about 1 TBS of chalk. 

The chalk will alter the appearance of the bath from transparent to cloudy and nearly opaque. 

weld in pot w/wo chalk
Weld baths: no chalk on left, chalk added on right
plant pH after boiling pH after addition of chalk
Dyer’s broom 

(Genista tinctoria)

5 6
Wild grape leaves 4 6
Apple leaves 5 6.5
Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) (flowers) 4.5 6.5
Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) (whole plant) 4.5 6.5
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhena) 4 6
Weld (fresh plant) (Reseda luteola) 5.5 6.5
Weld (dried plant) 5.5 6.5

The samples below are wool. Individual samples on the left had chalk added to the bath. Those on the right did not.

In every case, I achieved  deeper and brighter yellows colors when the chalk was added to the fresh plant baths. The only exception was dried weld, which was used at 50% w.o.f. When dyeing with the fresh weld plants, deeper yellow hues resulted with the addition of chalk. When I used dried weld plants, the chalk made very little difference.  I asked Joy about this and she indicated that is was possible that some of the acids disappear in the drying process. It will require more tests and explorations to confirm this.

The cellulose samples are especially notable. The high acidity of some baths made without the chalk was enough to damage the mordant significantly. The grape leaves and the sumac, which were the most acidic, destroyed the mordant in the cellulose and only the tannins that are present in the leaf were able to attach and color the fabric. 

cellulose no chalk
Palette of color on cotton without the addition of  chalk.  Left to right: Chamomile flowers, broom, apple leaves, chamomile (whole plant), weld, sumac, grape leaves
cellulose with chalk
Palette of color on cotton with the use of chalk.  Left to right: Chamomile flowers, broom, apple leaves, chamomile (whole plant), weld, sumac, grape leaves

If your water is not acidic, or has calcium in it, then these tests may not be relevant but the addition of chalk will never harm the fiber or the dye and may release more color.

I recently found the following note that I had made during a class with Michel Garcia several years ago referring to grape leaves:

“If they are too sour they will dissolve part of the mordant.”       M. Garcia

 My own notes continue to say:

After boiling the grape leaves the solution of a pH 4 – too acidic – it will remove the mordants. Sumac will cause the same effect. Boiling breaks the bonds of the tannins and gallic acid is released. Add chalk to the bath to decrease the acidity of the dye bath – you cannot be in excess of chalk.

Sometimes we’re just not ready to absorb information the first time we hear it. This is exactly why I continue to question, keep notes, and actively test and observe. 

It’s summertime! Enjoy your yellow flavonoids!

Note: I purchase my chalk from a potter’s supply store. It is inexpensive and can be purchased in quantity. Potters refer to it a “whiting” and rarely refer to it as chalk or calcium carbonate. Do check the MSDS though, just to be sure. 

Upcoming: On July 13 I am presenting a Zoom webinar, entitled Colors from the Garden, as part of the John C. Campbell Folks School’s Appalachian Traditions Series. You can sign up here:

Madder Roots, Harvest, and Comparisons

For  a number of  years I have been using  madder (Rubia cordifolia) sourced from Maiwa (in Vancouver, BC almost exclusively for my dyeing. I particularly appreciate  the fact that it is finely ground so that I am usually able to just put the dye into the bath along with my textile. If dyeing yarn, however, I typically will  place the ground dye into a net bag  to keep small particles of madder from physically attaching to  the fibers.  

I once heard Michel Garcia speak about the fact that you can nearly double the yield from madder root if it is finely ground. It makes sense. More surface area means that it’s easier to extract the dye. 

Early last year I harvested about 5 pounds of madder roots (Rubia tinctorium) from my garden. The plants were started  from seed and they had been in the ground for about 5 years. I dug up the entire bed (about 4’ x 8’), pulled up the largest of the roots, leaving the smaller roots in place. I amended the soil, added some chalk, and the plants have continued to grow in the same location. My theory is that I can continue to harvest every few years by  leaving the roots in the same place and repeating the amendment process  We’ll see…

I cleaned and dried the roots. Some of the dyes are developed by in the drying process so that is important.  A few weeks later, I dug up another small patch.  With this second batch, it occurred to me that maybe I could grind up the roots before drying them. It was easy to chop up the fresh roots into small pieces with an old food processor that I have designated for studio use. Once chopped, the roots dried very easily on horizontal screens.

Last month, I was preparing a major piece for an exhibition and I wanted to use my own madder. The large, dried roots proved to be problematic. I wanted to grind them as fine as possible but was not sure how to proceed. 

I tried a mechanical corn grinder. It was a terrible experience! The grind was very coarse, the roots jammed in the grinder, and it was not at all successful. I tried the old food processor – not powerful enough to be effective.  I even tried grinding small amounts in a dye-designated coffee/spice grinder. It was better, but still not very good and it would have taken far too long since the capacity of the grinder was very small. 

I did some research, and finally decided to purchase  a powerful electric grinder that is recommended for medicinal herbs (roots) etc. It was amazing! First, I quickly broke the roots into smaller pieces by hand, which allowed me to pull out the “chaff” (the stem pieces with no dye). I put the smaller root pieces into the grinder and I had finely ground madder root in just two minutes!

I’ve learned a lot (of course). Madder root, even when dried completely, still has elements (sugars maybe?) that coated the bowl of the grinder with a layer of sticky madder. The bowl of the new grinder cannot be immersed in water so I had to work hard to clean it out. But the madder is all ground and the grinder is  now ready to grind my dried sumac leaves and some other tannins. 

In our book,  The Art and Science of Natural Dyes, Joy and I discuss and show examples of how a dyer sometimes has more control over the color when using madder roots rather than extracts.  The source (and type) of the roots is also a factor.  Madder contains many different dyes and the two different species contain different combinations. 

As  I began my tests for the exhibition piece, I did many samples and used madder roots from a variety of sources.  The woven shibori project utilized mordant printing with different strengths of aluminum acetate, ferrous acetate, and combinations of the two mordants. When Rubia tinctorium is used with iron mordants, it is possible to achieve distinct purple colors. The purples are not possible with Rubia cordifolia, as the dyes within the roots are different. I was very happy to observe that my own madder was the very best of all!

madder comparison cotton
Ground madder root @ 50% w.o.f. on cotton with mordant printing. Left to right: Rubia tinctorium from my garden, Rubia tinctorium from France, Rubia cordifolia from India (Maiwa). Note the purples achieved from the Rubia tinctorium with an iron mordant.

 

 

Garden Series: Madder, detail of finished piece
Garden Series: Madder, detail of finished piece

I am very encouraged to keep growing…and dyeing….

I have begun using my own copy of The Art and Science of Natural Dyes in the studio and in my teaching. No, I do not have all of those recipes committed to memory! I have found it very useful to add tabs to the book, making it easy to navigate and find exactly what I’m looking for.

book

Note: Maiwa now carries very finely ground Rubia tinctorium roots.

 

 

It’s Goldenrod Season

I  have always enjoyed how the goldenrod grows and blooms alongside the purple asters – a beautiful combination of complimentary colors. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is a member of the aster family. There are many solidago species native to North America, and they can also be found in other parts of the world. 

Is goldenrod a good source of dye? Yes, but with reservations. 

Though it is not one of the “classical” dyes, and it’s lightfastness does not match that of weld, it was used as a locally available dye in North American and Europe. Dominique Cardon (Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science) writes about goldenrod’s  historical use, along with weld and Persian berries, to dye the yellow hats the Jews were required to wear in the south of France in the 13th century. 

I’ve always read that goldenrod does NOT dry well for future use – so I never tried to dry it. I can accept the fact that some dyes deteriorate in the drying process. Black walnut hulls are a good example.

A couple years ago I was teaching a class here in Asheville, NC on dyes that could be sourced from the local food co-op. I used dried goldenrod plant material, as it is used medicinally. It resulted in very good color. So I began to wonder….. CAN A GOOD DYE BE OBTAINED FROM DRIED GOLDENROD? 

It’s one thing to read a statement about a plant – it’s another thing to know and understand that statement. I  had never tried to dry goldenrod. This year I finally got around to doing my own testing.

I gathered fresh goldenrod, and used that to dye aluminum mordanted wool, silk, and cotton. There are many yellow dyes in goldenrod and they may include quercitron, isoquercitron, kaempferol, astragalin, isorhamnetin. Since the dyes in goldenrod are primarily flavonols, a mordant is required. 

I  dried goldenrod from that same harvest. Plants were hung upside down in a dry space with plenty of air flow. Only the flowering heads were used as a source of dye. I was able to accurately determine the weight of the plant before and after drying. 300 grams of fresh goldenrod flowers resulted in 100 grams of dry flowers. 

IMG_3141
100 grams of dried flowers (left) and 300 grams fresh flowers (right)

I dyed with fresh goldenrod at 300% w.o.f, while the dried was used at 100% w.o.f. Because I knew the weight before and after drying, I was confident that I was using the same amount of dye, whether it was fresh or dry plant material.

The results: The dyes seem not to have suffered from the drying process. Careful drying is likely a key element. So yes, I will dry some goldenrod and I will complete lightfastness tests on all three fibers. The goldenrod will not replace the weld that I grow and dry each year, Weld will always be my primary yellow dye as that has proven to be the best, and most lightfast yellow dye. But it is good to know a bit more about the dyes from plants available in my neighborhood. 

goldenrod samples

Thus far I have used only the flower heads for dyeing. Maybe next year I’ll experiment with the stems and leaves from the entire plant. 

 

The Art and The Science of Natural Dyes by Catharine Ellis and Joy Boutrup, available in late fall, is now available for pre-order.

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.

IMG_0674
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.

IMG_0765
Flavonoid dyes after 3 weeks exposure to direct sun

 

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.

P1100713
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
lac % 6
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.

local plant tests
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.

Eucalyptus – What’s in the dye?

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.

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.

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Eucalyptus cinerea (left) and Eucalyptus globulus (right) on non-mordanted wool

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.

Version 2
Eucalyptus cinerea: (left to right) no mordant, 2 hour bath with mordant, 30 minute bath with mordant

 

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Eucalyptus globulus: (left to right) no mordant, 2 hour bath with mordant, 30 minute bath with mordant

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.

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Alum mordanted linen fabrics were dyed with small, leafed branches of dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria). Time in the bath ranged from 15 minutes to 2 hours. The most brilliant yellow was achieved after 30 minutes. After that time the color got deeper and duller, most likely from the tannins released.
img_9416
Henna, (Lawsonia intermis) which contains flavonols (mainly luteolin), naphthaquinone (lawsone) and tannins: (left to right) mordanted wool 30 minutes in bath, mordanted wool 1 hour in bath, un-mordanted wool 1 hour in bath. The mordanted wool is slightly more yellow than the sample with mordant.

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.

Dyes from the Local Food Co-op

I welcome the opportunity to teach a workshop, especially when it will teach ME something new.

A few days ago I taught Dyes from the Local Food Co-op  at Cloth Fiber Workshop in Asheville. The class came about when I was measuring some herbs and spices at our local food co-op. I noticed that a number of the dried materials in the glass jars were the same as the dye plants I was using in my studio: buckthorn bark, annatto, chamomile, and dock root. Obviously, the co-op was not stocking these substances for dyers, but….. it caused me to think about the multiple uses of these plants. For many years I have been taking a tincture of Isatis tinctoria, or WOAD, prescribed by my Chinese medicine doctor. How much overlap would I find between the dye and culinary/medicinal plants?

IMG_6449
French Broad Co-op, Asheville, NC

After taking an inventory of the materials available at the local co-op I decided on a collection of plants for this class. The criteria for the dyes included the following:

  • Each plant has some historical reference as a dye plant, and is preferably included in Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science by Dominique Cardon.
  • Each has an alternative use, such as medicinal or culinary.

Not all of these dyes are excellent performers. For reasons of poor light fastness or wash fastness I would not choose to use many of them in my regular studio work. But each dye has a story and may have been used throughout history because of its striking hue, availability, and/or affordability, despite a poor performance as a color over time.

Some of the dyes have been assigned a Natural Color Index Number (CI#). This is a reference database of color hues, names, and products maintained by the Society of Dyers and Colorists and the American Association of Textile Chemist and Colorists. It includes both synthetic and natural pigments. The inclusion of these natural colorants confirms the important historical reference  and unique quality of their colors.

Our dyeing was done on silk fabric. Some dyes required mordants, while others did not. Some roots and barks required alcohol extractions, while others extracted in water. Some dyes were affected by alkalinity. Others contained tannins and were altered with ferrous acetate. Alternative sources of the same plant resulted in color variations, suggesting that different parts of the plant were used, or possible changes in the growing season or drying process. When appropriate, we used alternative methods of dyeing such as a one-bath acid dye or fermentation.

Christina Whiteman photo2
Chris Whiteman photo

The dyes we used:

  • Alkanet, Alkanna tinctoria
  • Annatto, Bixa orellana
  • Avocado pit, Persea americana
  • Black Walnut, Juglans nigra
  • Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
  • Buckthorn, Rhamnus frangula                
  • Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla
  • Cloves, Syzygium aromaticum
  • Dock root, Rumex crispus
  • Eucalyptus leaf, Eucalyptus gunni
  • Goldenrod, Solidago canidensis
  • Henna, Lawsonia intermis
  • Mahonia, Mahonia aquifolium
  • Rhubarb root, Rheum officionale
  • Sandalwood, Pterocarpus santalinus
  • Sassafras bark, Sassafras albidum 
  • St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum
  • Turmeric, Curcuma longa

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The exploration of natural dye continues….

WovenShibori_Revised_FrontCover

 

 

Woven Shibori with natural dyes is here!

Digging Deeper into a Single Dye – Madder (Rubia cordifolia)

I’ve been using a lot of madder. I have madder roots from my own garden and extracts on the shelf,  but right now I’m focused on the fabulous ground Rubia cordifolia from India that I purchased from Maiwa. It’s ground very, very fine. Charllotte tells me that it’s ground on a mill stone.

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Madder (Rubia cordifolia) on linen

Because the particles are so small, the dye is extracted more easily than from chopped madder root. The color is redder than I would expect from a rubia cordifolia. I love it!

Once the fibers are mordanted correctly I’ve usually been content to make a full strength dye bath. There is always leftover dye in the bath, which most often  gets turned into a dye lake. I didn’t have a full understanding of how much dye was actually in the dye pot or what  remained after the initial dyeing. In order to control my colors and  mix them effectively I needed a clearer picture of dye strength and hue.

I embarked on a systematic observation of the dye. The fiber was linen. It was treated with tannin and mordanted with aluminum acetate. I weighed out the total amount of dye that was needed for my various samples.  Typically I do 2-3 extractions in order to make my dye bath but this time I decided to continue extracting until there appeared to be no more color coming from the ground root. This took SIX 20 minute extractions! I realized that I had previously been wasting some of the dye.

The fabric was dyed with the extracted liquid. The amount of dye ranged  from 6.25% w.o.f. to 100% w.o.f. I also did exhaust baths of the dye.

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Madder exhaust bath, linen

Madder is an interesting dye because it contains so many different colorants. The alizarin is what gives us the red, but it also contains other colorants: yellow, orange an brown. The initial dye at each depth of shade was dominated by the red. Exhaust baths contained less  red, while the orange dominated. The colors obtained from the initial dyeing at 50% w.o.f. and 100% w.o.f.were very similar but the stronger bath continued to give me red before the color turned more orange.

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Dye % range and exhaust baths

The test was repeated  on wool with similar results.

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Madder % range on wool

Dye extracts are what drew me back into natural dyeing but I’m finding that working with plant material is far more compelling. Each plant and dyestuff is unique and since these are natural products they are subject to the changes in growing seasons and processing. Testing my dyes in order to understand the nuances is time well spent. It will make me a better dyer.

 

Weld (Reseda luteola)

I recently presented a program at the NC  Arboretum on weld (Reseda luteola). There is a growing interest in natural dyes in our local region and I was hoping to inspire dyers to begin growing their own. A few days before the program, I was asked by a local dyer why I was not talking about native plants such as broom straw or goldenrod, which were both seasonably available at that time. It was a good question. It question deserved some serious thought.

These are the reasons I chose to encourage dyers to use weld:

  • It is considered one of the “classical dyes”, that has been used by dyers for centuries. It is the oldest documented source of yellow and was used by both the Greeks and the Romans.

    Weld on cotton with tannin and aluminum acetate mordant
    Weld on cotton with tannin and aluminum acetate mordant
  • I have observed that it is more lightfast than any natural yellow dye I’ve used. I have performed lightfast tests and it has outperformed any natural yellow dye I have compared it to.
Recent lightfast tests using yellows harvested from my garden, August, 2015. Weld (Reseda luteola), Saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria), and Dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) all contain the same colorant, luteolin
Recent lightfast tests using yellow dyes on cotton. All were harvested from my garden, August, 2015. Weld (Reseda luteola), Saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria), and Dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) all contain the same colorant, luteolin
  • When combined with alum mordant it produces a brilliant, clear yellow. When combined with indigo it  results in lively, grassy greens. The smallest amount of iron will turn the color to olive green.
    IMG_6949
    Indigo + weld

    Weld + .5% iron on cotton and linen
    Weld + .5% iron on cotton and linen
  • Weld is native to Eurasia but it grows very easily in our NC mountain climate and region (zone 6). It has weathered both mild and very cold winters. I have grown a crop of weld for the last 5 years. Each year I harvest approximately 5-6 pounds of dry dye material from a 4’x8’ raised bed in the garden. That is plenty for my own work and enough to share with the classes I teach. There are also seeds to share.

    Weld will grown over 6 feet tall the second year
    Weld will grown over 6 feet tall the second year
  • A small amount of weld goes a long way. Dried plant material is used at 50% weight of dry fiber and results in very strong color, with plenty of dye left in the pot for over-dyeing other colors.

    Weld + indigo, used with woven shibori resists
    Weld + indigo, used with woven shibori resists
  • Weld is not fussy about its soil and will grown readily wherever the seeds land, though it is not considered an invasive plant.

    Weld seedlings in the gravel outside my studio, where I strip the plants after drying
    Weld seedlings in the gravel outside my studio, where I strip the plants after drying
  • Weld can be difficult and expensive to obtain. There are not many sources where weld can be purchased, either in extract or plant form.  Growing and drying the dyestuff makes sense for the studio dyer.

    Dried weld (leave and flowers) stored for later use and the discarded stems, which don’t contain much dye.
    Dried weld (leave and flowers) stored for later use and the discarded stems, which don’t contain much dye.

All of the attendees at the program left with a small packet of weld seeds. I have already heard from several people that their seeds have sprouted. Weld is a biennial. the plants will establish themselves this fall and then grow to 6’ or more next summer when they go to seed. Then they will be ready to harvest and dry for future use. The seeds will self sow and others can be gathered from the plants

When plants are hung upside down to dry, it is easy to harvest seeds
When plants are hung upside down to dry, it is easy to harvest seeds
Seedlings coming up in the garden today. These self sowed from the plants.
Seedlings coming up in the garden today. These self sowed from the plants.

Broom Update

The Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) is gone. I appreciate all of you who warned me about the potential problem of letting it go to seed.

The dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) is now in full bloom and there is plenty of room for it to spread.

broom in bloom
broom in bloom
dyer's broom, detail
dyer’s broom, detail
left, cotton woven shibori with various mordants, right, wool  with alum mordant. dyed with broom
left, cotton woven shibori with various mordants                                                                                   right, wool with alum mordant                                                                                                                        dyed with broom