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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?

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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.

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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….

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Woven Shibori with natural dyes is here!