Symplocos – A Plant Mordant

Symplocos is a plant species that accumulates alum mordant. It is one of number of plants that grows in acidic soil around the world, and thus is able to absorb available aluminum from the ground. Although different parts of the tree absorb alum, it has been determined that the fallen leaves have a high concentrations of alum and are the most sustainable source of mordant. By harvesting the fallen leaves, no damage is done to the tree. These leaves can be used as an alternative and highly effective source of mineral alum, while also imparting a pale yellow color to the fiber. 

One variety of symplocos is native to Indonesia and utilized by weavers and ikat dyers with when dyeing red with morinda (Morinda citrifolia) on cotton. The Bebali Foundation has been studying the mordant process for a number of years and has made symplocos available to dyers around the world, while supporting the local women who gather the leaves. Michel Garcia worked with the foundation to develop recipes for both protein and cellulose fibers. All of these recipes are available online at The Plant Mordant Project.

I have experimented with symplocos many times with great success. Recently I have been introduced to a variety of symplocos  (Sympolocos tinctoria)  that is native to the southeastern United States. It is described as a small tree or shrub, “deciduous or weakly evergreen”. It is also known as “horse sugar” or “sweetleaf” because horses are attracted to the sweet leaves of the plant. As I researched, I read that it grows in “very acidic soils”. It is sometimes described as a source of yellow dye, but nowhere did I read that it was a source of alum. 

Leigh Magar, a textile designer and dyer, brought me a handful of leaves last year that she collected at her home near Charleston, South Carolina. I proceeded to test the leaves as a source of mordant, comparing them to the symplocos that I have from the Bebali Foundation, and also to mineral alum. I ground the leaves and used Michel Garcia’s recipe. The results were very good. 

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Mordant only applied to wash-fast wool knit: 1.) no mordant, 2.) mineral alum mordant, 3.) Bebali symplocos mordant, 4.) South Carolina symplocos mordant
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Weld and madder dyes applied following 1.) no mordant, 2.) mineral alum mordant, 3.) Bebali symplocos, 4.) South Carolina symplocos
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South Carolina leaf on left, compared to the larger symplocos leaf from Bebali. Both leaves were ground fine before applying them to the textile.

Last month I was finally able to travel to Leigh’s home in South Carolina to see the plants myself and to gather some of the leaves. Our regional variety has leaves that are smaller than the Indonesian variety but they are shed in much the same way. The leaves yellow as they age and drop from the tree. They are easily gathered from the tree at this time. Leigh tells me that shedding seems to be more more prevalent in the spring, although the tree sheds its leaves all year long.  

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Older leaves yellow on the tree before falling to the ground

I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Braiding Sweetgrass by Laura Wall Kimmerer. In the chapter entitled The Gift of Strawberries the author talks of wild strawberries as unexpected gifts received from the earth. Finding alum in a plant is very much like a gift – to be received gratefully – but not to be turned into a commodity. I will treasure this gift of alum and appreciate Leigh’s generosity in sharing it,  but it will not replace the mineral alum that I purchase from a supplier.

 

And a couple notes on our book: The Art and Science of Natural Dyes. First of all, I am very appreciative of the many notes and emails I have received from so many of you. It is exciting to both Joy and me that the book is finally out and truly being used. 

There is one important omission on pages 169 and 170. The mordants used for the photos of the dyed samples should cross reference mordants #1 – #5 (top to bottom), from the mordant mixing chart on p.150.

 

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And about the spiral binding – we chose the binding very intentionally so that the book would open easily and stay open. The book is meant to be used, referred to, and likely to get stained, like a much used cookbook. Many of you have told me how much you love the binding but I have also heard from a few of you that pages can easily slip out of that spiral. A dyer in Australia showed me a perfect solution; she threaded a piece of cotton yarn through the binding, locking the pages in. I have now done this to my own book and would suggest that you do it to yours as well. 

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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.