Earth Tones

Rust, Brown and Gray

Neutrals, unsaturated colors – these have never been my favorite positions on the color wheel, but I am finding them more intriguing as I get older and I want to explore this palette which is completely new to me. They are the colors of stone, sand, clay and mud, very earthy. But I feel that blue is an earth tone also. After all, our blue marble of a planet is mostly blue with hints of desert brown when viewed from a distance of 18,000 miles.

Last fall and winter I took another online class from Maiwa, this time on Tannins, Oxides and Indigo. It is all about creating those very browns and grays on cloth with tannin and iron, as well as an oxide. Since I do my dyeing outdoors in summer, I have been waiting the better part of a year to practice what I learned in the videos and how-to procedural texts. Now is the time!

It seems like we went from winter damp and cold to summer heat in a matter of minutes. Or perhaps it’s just that perception of time speeding up as we age. In any case, I finally set up my outdoor dye studio, revived one indigo vat and am working on reviving a second. Then I got out the iron sulfate, a variety of tannins, and calcium hydroxide (pickling lime, aka calx) and set to work on the neutral palette. I dyed skeins of cotton yarn, pieces of cotton fabric and cotton socks. And indigo blue goes so nicely with the earthy browns!

Cotton fabrics dipped in various sequences of tannin, iron sulfate, calcium hydroxide and black tea. Indigo should need no explanation.
Cotton yarns in (L to R) indigo, iron + calx, tannin + iron, tannin + iron + calx, tannin + cochineal + iron + calx
Cotton socks in indigo, tannin + iron + calx + black tea

The online class had several modules on using rusted or rusting metal to make prints on fabric. I gathered many interesting metal pieces that would create great texture and imprints, but decided against using the metal for the time being. It is very destructive to the cloth and while I know that is part of the iron oxide aesthetic, I wanted to preserve the integrity of the fabric as much as possible, so I used solutions of tannin, iron sulfate and lime to dip the fabric and get the rust, gray and brown colors. I hope this will be less damaging to the cloth than contact with rusty metal would be.

We still have a month or two of decent dyeing weather ahead; I can’t wait to see what else I can do in this range of earthy colors.

What I Dyed This Summer

Summer of 2021 – the online studies continue. These last few months I have been learning and practicing the art of natural dyeing. Up to now I have always sworn by synthetic dyes for their speed, convenience and reliable colors, especially on cellulose fibers like linen, cotton and rayon. I long ago committed the whole routine to memory: soak fiber in vinegar or soda ash solution, paint with acid or fiber reactive dye, heat or batch cure for up to 24 hours, rinse and soap, admire the beautiful color!

For a long time I have respected dyers with knowledge and experience of natural dyes because they are so nuanced and more complicated than synthetics. So many factors influence the colors: fiber type, water minerality, pH, mordant type and quantity, not to mention tannins. The process is long and laborious with many more steps and time involved in each one. I cannot yet remember without referring to my notes which dyes want a dose of calcium carbonate or calx, nor the ideal ratios of tannin, mordant or dyestuff to weight of fiber. Additionally, natural dyes work best on protein fibers like wool and silk, while my preferred fibers are cellulose, which require extra steps and time.

Since until recently so many of us were still home-bound and unable to move around freely, it seemed the time was right to learn something new, so I signed up for an online course. As with everything else, there are both costs and benefits to learning this way. No travel is involved, thus saving time and money, but also limiting the ability to experience new sights, tastes and smells. The course of study can be done on one’s own time, allowing one to keep pace with instructions or take one’s time. We watch informative and instructional videos as many times as needed, and there is time for Q & A with instructors at the end. We can experiment and perform the assignments on our own time and in our own space, after the necessary chores of life are done and out of the way. Of course we don’t get to meet and hang out with like-minded students, except by email and/or Zoom, but students can join the course from anywhere in the world. There is both freedom and limitation – sort of like life in general.

My course, Maiwa’s Natural Dye Workshop, offered the option of purchasing a package of supplies or sourcing our own materials. I chose the latter, using a lot of what I already have and ordering the rest from trusted local suppliers. I went through the studies as my time allowed and I followed instructions with my own level of attention to detail. While I am very satisfied with what I have learned and accomplished, there is a lot yet to master and commit to motor memory. I expect to continue experimenting into the foreseeable future.

The first dye I worked with was walnut. Although it was not in the course curriculum, I had acquired several pounds of green walnut hulls from local trees as they were starting to ripen just as I was beginning my study. I put all of the walnuts in a large pot of water and cooked them for a few hours, then left the whole thing to steep overnight. The next day, I removed the walnuts then dyed a few skeins of yarn and a large piece of linen fabric. The wool and silk noil yarn absorbed the color beautifully. The linen was tannined with gallnut and mordanted with alum, but it took on only a light brown color. I performed additional processes on the linen; more about that later.

Next up, madder. I used chopped up madder root pieces rather than an extract. I dyed two skeins of wool yarn which took up the red color intensely, then dyed a piece of linen in the leftover dyebath. I did not add additional madder for the linen, effectively dyeing it in an exhaust bath, hence the lighter orange color.

Wool yarns dyed in madder, linen fabric dyed in leftover madder exhaust bath.

Cochineal. These little bugs live on prickly pear cactus in the southwest U.S., Mexico, parts of Central and South America. If you squish a live bug, it appears to bleed, but its body is full of carminic acid, a red colorant used in foods, drinks, lipstick, etc. I bought whole dried bugs, which resemble grain, and ground them in a mortar and pestle, although you could buzz them into fine powder in a coffee grinder too.

The dye is very sensitive to pH, giving a more true red in an acidic environment and a more magenta hue in an alkaline environment. I used water out of the tap to make the dyebath and did nothing extra to affect the pH. My projects all came out purplish-pink. In a future experiment I will try to get a redder hue with some kind of acidic assist, but I’m happy with my results. I dyed the yarns first, a wool and soysilk, which is a protein fiber made from soybeans, a plant source. I added a small amount more of cochineal to dye the linen.

Yellow dyes: weld and myrobalan. I tried without success to use marigold and himalayan rhubarb; they gave only a dirty beige color. I’m not sure if it was something I did or a bad batch of plant material. The weld gave a brilliant bright yellow on linen and a gold on silk. Myrobalan gave a soft creamy yellow on linen. Someday I will try again with the other yellow dyes as they are supposed to yield bright colors.

Cutch gives a warm medium brown, which shifts to a rusty reddish brown with a calx afterbath. A piece of cotton fabric and a skein of linen/rayon yarn took on a nice brown color. The linen fabric shifted to a reddish brown in an afterbath of pickling lime (calcium hydroxide).

Logwood gave me a deep purple dye on a multitude of different fibers. Interestingly, the dye almost completely exhausted into my various projects, leaving nothing for a later exhaust bath. I’m not complaining as I got great color and used every bit in the dyepot. Very efficient!

Eastern brazilwood, or sappanwood fine sawdust, gave a great intense red dye, leaning slightly toward orange or brown. This is from an Asian tree, not the one that gave the country of Brazil its name. I got good saturated reds on all my fibers: linen, cotton and silk.

Indigo, alone and overdyed with weld for a light green color complete the cool part of the color spectrum. I did three dips in a weak indigo vat for a light clear blue and green on linen.

Indigo and indigo overdyed with weld on linen.

Using iron, or ferrous sulfate, after dyeing makes colors go darker or grayer. I wanted to see how dark I could make the piece of linen fabric I originally dyed in walnut. I overdyed it in a dark tannin made from chestnut bark, then did an iron afterbath and got a steel gray.

Finally, an exhaust dyebath made of leftover dyes. One bath contained leftover madder and cochineal, giving light pink colors; another contained all the leftover dyes: red, yellow and brown, yielding a terracotta color.

What a satisfying way to spend the summer – outdoors in a shady spot with simmering pots of mordant, tannin and natural dyes. It really does take all summer, as these are not speedy processes. The cotton and linen go through three steps, each involving soaking overnight to achieve the deepest colors. I probably would never have tried this if not for the required down time and isolation after the pandemic began. I am thankful I found an upside to an otherwise terrible time. And there is still so much more to learn!

My Winter of Online Learning

A year into the pandemic now, in-person meetings, classes and workshops are still canceled or postponed. We are still staying home more than ever, shopping in-store infrequently, ordering take-out food rather than dining in restaurants, working or learning remotely and spending lots of time in front of screens.

This past winter, several opportunities came up to take online courses, join Zoom meetings of like-minded folks and learn by watching videos until my eyes wore out. The weather outside was cold and wet, my studio was cold, so what else could I do? I signed up for Slow Fiber Studios‘ streaming Conversations with Cloth. I enjoyed Season 1 so much, I signed up for Season 2. What a great opportunity to hear and learn from the world’s leading experts on shibori and artful dyeing! There are only two episodes yet to stream, but if you missed the series, you will be able to download the entire program later this year. Check the website and/or get on the mailing list to be kept up to date.

At about the same time, I was perusing the offerings of Maiwa School of Textiles, which always has fascinating workshops, and discovered they were offering online courses, so I signed up for their Journey into Indigo. It’s a detailed set of how-to videos accompanied by Q&A between instructors and students from all over the world. Even experienced dyers will find there is always something more to learn. Another set of online workshops starts next month; mark your calendar if you are interested and try to register early.

My local weaving guild has a wonderful lending library of books and DVDs. Following pandemic protocol rules for checking items out, I am able to “try before I buy”. Just recently I have been reading Liles‘ and Boutrup/Ellis‘ books on natural dyes, as well as watching Michel Garcia’s Natural Dye Workshop No. 4: Beyond Mordants. It is 4 hours of DVD lecture/demos, with many “why didn’t I think of that?” moments, as well as almost more information than you can stand about “green chemistry” and sustainable production methods. Having now tried this one, I am sure I will buy.

Spring has sprung now and soon I want to be outdoors, planting my garden and later up to my elbows in indigo. While many states are starting to open up, giving us hope to resume our normal lives soon, there are undoubtedly going to be restrictions in place for a while longer, so you may want to make note of some online or distance learning opportunities you have yet to take advantage of. Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of organizations that have traipsed through my email inbox lately. Don’t ever stop learning!


Purple Dye from . . . Carrots?

Confession: I am not a natural dyer. I tend to be all about speed and convenience, so synthetic dyes and the usual auxilliary chemicals are what I typically go to for quick color on fiber. Yet I truly admire and respect people who study natural dyes; they are so much more nuanced and influenced by mordants, pH, etc. They are more complicated and require much more study and experimentation.

Recently when I harvested some carrots from my garden that I had planted from a mix of colored-carrot seeds, I was surprised and pleased to get a rainbow variety of shades: white, yellow, orange, red and purple. I sliced and grated them for soup and salad and noticed that the purple carrots are almost midnight black all the way through and they stain my fingers when I handle them. By contrast, the red carrots have a thin red skin and ordinary orange flesh inside.

It turns out that purple is the default carrot color; the orange variety was developed later. The plant was originally grown for its seeds and leaves, and later on for the tap root we consider an essential kitchen vegetable. How wonderful that we are now re-discovering the original colors.

The dark purple carrots in my garden got me wondering if I could dye with them, so I performed a very unscientific and non-reproducible experiment. I made a couple of butterflies of wool and silk yarn and cut a couple of scraps of fabric. One is a commercial silk crepe and one a fragment of my handwoven alpaca and wool crepe with a silver metallic ply. I grated and chopped a few small purple carrots and put them in a pot with water, white vinegar and potassium alum. I did not measure anything! I brought it all to a simmer, submerged my yarn and fabric samples and let it cook for about 30 minutes, then took it off the heat and let cool to room temperature.

After dyeing, the water in the pot, as well as the leftover carrot debris, was still very dark purple. This rather surprised me, as my purple beans turn green when I cook them. Presumably the purple carrots retain some anthocyanin nutrition after cooking.

I rinsed the fabric and yarn samples and picked out carrot bits, then hung them up to dry. I ironed the fabric pieces and fluffed the yarn and found it curious that the silk absorbed more color than the wool, and the silk tends to be a bluer color, while the wool is a redder, pink color. It’s just chemistry, I guess! I don’t know yet if the colors will be light- and wash-fast, but these samples are unlikely to see much daylight.

I did a little research on using natural dyestuff from the garden, and found that the ratio of plant matter to yarn varies from 2:1 to 4:1. That means you might have to use up to 4 pounds of plant matter to dye one pound of yarn or fabric. My garden is so small, I don’t think I would be willing to sacrifice that much food to make dye! It was fun to experiment, but I don’t think I am ready to call myself a natural dyer yet.

Partly Sunny with a Chance of Indigo

In a normal year, I begin my outdoor indigo dyeing season in mid-summer, when the days are warm and nights don’t get too cold. This year is anything but normal, with a global pandemic keeping us all at home, every day indistinguishable from another. It’s so incongruous to have news of the infection and death counts rising sharply every day, while here in the Northwest we are having an unusually pleasant early spring. Blooms, green leaves, partly sunny days; it all seems like the perfect staging for a glorious garden party! Instead it is contrasted with dire economic forecasts and scary public health statistics, as well as the by now familiar guidance for social distance, mask-wearing, hand washing, etc.

But since we are in a spate of warm days now and I have a lot of time on my hands, I decided to revive my indigo vat early this year. Having no proper indoor space for the vat and the messy dyeing process, I must leave it outdoors in a spot that will receive a good amount of sunlight and heat. I can control the addition of ingredients like indigo, alkali and oxygen reducer fairly easily, but the vat temperature is the hardest thing to control. Night temperatures are still falling to a range from high 30’s to mid 40’s F, so reheating some of the vat liquid is necessary almost every day. In spite of the extra time required for heating and resting afterward, I wanted to give it a go.

I enjoy waking up a tired and sleepy indigo vat with heat, fresh indigo and chemicals. I’m using lime and fructose so it’s not as Frankenstein as it sounds. The vat bubbles to life with a dark, shiny flower and the aroma of warm, fresh indigo. I love that smell as much as baking bread!

The indigo vat with a healthy flower in a sunny spot outside.

My first dyeing effort was a fold and clamp project on a runner I wove from an interesting stiff ramie yarn. It absorbed the dye beautifully and turned a beautiful blue with just four dips. Then I got out an old T-shirt I had previously dyed with a stitch resist. It has always looked unfinished to me, so I just dunked it in the vat a few times to darken the pattern and lower the contrast. I think I’m ready to wear it now.

As long as our nice warm weather holds, I will continue indigo dyeing. I plan to do a little every day, and hope to update this with more photos.

Dyeing Yarn in a Ball

I have been using a lot of fiber reactive dye on cellulose fibers this summer: tie-dye t-shirts, painting handwoven yardage, shibori samplers, etc. It’s getting cool and damp outside now, where I do my dyeing in summer, so I am wrapping up my projects and putting the dyes and resist tools away. I still have a bit of leftover dye stock and mixed colors in the refrigerator, but not enough to cover a large project. I hate to throw out dye while it is still viable, so I need some small projects to use it up.

To finish off the last of the dye before it goes bad, I loosely wind off balls of cotton, linen or rayon yarn, then put the balls in those plastic mesh bags that some fruit and veg are sold in (cherries, small tomatoes, etc.) The bag keeps the yarn from tangling excessively. I throw the yarn in a soda soak until it is saturated, squeeze out excess liquid, then put it in a clear plastic container (like grated cheese is sold in). I add the dregs of dye stock and water to cover it. I put the lid on and leave it 24 hours in a warmish place. Every so often during the first few hours, I swirl the container around to make sure the yarn is completely submerged and the dye liquid can penetrate to the center of the ball.

The next day I rinse the yarn, starting with cool, then gradually warmer water. Finally I soap it in hot water and rinse again, all while it’s still in the mesh bag. The agitation from washing does unravel the yarn a bit, but not enough to tie itself in knots. I hang the bag on a clothesline to dry, usually over another night.

Winding the dyed, washed and dried yarn back into a ball.

When the yarn is dry, I wind it back into a ball and add it to my collection of colorful yarn remnants, which will eventually wind up in handwoven towels, placemats, scarves, etc. The coloration of the ball is not even, varying in intensity from lighter on the inside of the ball to darker outside. There are also little white, undyed areas where the yarn was touching itself while wound in the ball. Not only do I find this color variation NOT objectionable, I admire and value it. It is another source of delight in seeing unexpected color happen!

Tie-Dye in the Neighborhood

Some time ago, a young neighbor asked if I could make him a tie-dyed shirt with the classic spiral design. I thought a better idea would be to teach him to make his own.

On a recent pleasant summer afternoon, some neighbors came over for a little tie-dye party. They brought t-shirts and handkerchiefs; I mixed up a soda ash solution and fiber reactive dyes in 3 primary colors, plus black. I provided mixing containers and plastic squeeze bottles, and the kids went to town, squirting dye with abandon.

My young neighbor turned out to be a natural at tie-dye; his sister just wanted to do abstract art on her shirt.

The adults produced their own t-shirts of various designs, and after curing, rinsing, washing and drying, we had a show and tell and admired each other’s work.

I have some other dyeing projects in the pipeline, but it might be a couple of weeks before I finish them. Meanwhile I thought I would post this quick story of how to perk up your mood with just a bit of color and messy fun.

A Paper Fabric Tote Bag

In my previous post on Shifu and Shibori, I posted a picture of a handwoven fabric whose texture reminded me of canvas – too stiff and coarse for clothing, but great for something utilitarian, like a bag. It turns out I have been in need of a carry bag for my rigid heddle loom for quite a while and the piece of shifu fabric had the perfect dimensions, 21 inches wide by 2.25 yards long, to create a bag for a loom sized like mine.

This fabric is woven with linen and cotton threads in the warp; the weft is paper plied with rayon. The hand of the fabric may resemble canvas, but the weave structure is not as tight and the fabric is not as strong as true canvas, so I decided to line the bag with some of my stash of old denim recovered from worn-out jeans. The denim lining will withstand the stress of the load of loom and tools the bag will hold, leaving the outer fabric to coast on its good looks alone. (Thanks to Judilee Fitzhugh for sparking that idea!)

I cut a large rectangle for the bag, two for the side panels, two for exterior pockets and two long strips for handles. I pieced the denim scraps together and cut that into rectangles of similar size. I added interior pockets for small tools, including two long, skinny pockets for stick shuttles or pick-up sticks. I used a jeans foot on my sewing machine to ride over the thick layers of fabric and lining, and used up two of my largest size machine needles in the process.

The used denim lining of the bag, with interior pockets.

The bag comfortably holds my folded loom and a variety of accessories.

Packed up and ready for class or workshop!

Shifu and Shibori

Several years ago I joined with a few other local weaving guild members in ordering some washi, or paper, yarns from Japan. My order included 3 yarns: a very thin all-paper yarn made from twisting and spinning a 2 mm wide strip of paper, a thicker yarn made from plies of paper and rayon, and a flat, ribbon-like strip of 2 mm wide paper wrapped with criss-crossing cotton and rayon threads. The goal was to weave shifu, or fabric woven from paper yarn.

While twisting and spinning the paper yarn does make it stronger, it is not usually recommended for use as warp yarn, because it will not often stand up to tension on the loom. Shifu is frequently woven from cotton or other fibers in the warp and paper yarn in the weft only. I used my paper yarns primarily as weft in a variety of projects: a couple of scarves with Tencel and cotton warp, one length of fabric with cotton and linen warp, and one with an overtwisted rayon in the warp to get a crepe effect.

Later, on the advice of another weaver, I did try warping with the flat, ribbon yarn, which was a little stronger than the other two. To my surprise, it stood up to the tension of my Baby Wolf loom, so I was able to weave a fabric of approximately 95% paper.

I had enough of the flat yarn to put on a warp 3+ yards long by 24 inches wide. I wove alternating rows of the thick and thin paper yarns for weft, and got about 2.5 yards of this fabric before running out of the paper weft. I wove the remaining 24 inches or so with alternating thick and thin rayon yarns. I took the fabric off the loom and separated the two fabrics by cutting between rows of machine zig-zag stitching. Having already woven and washed some other paper yarn projects, I fearlessly wet-finished, line-dried and ironed my paper fabrics. They held up beautifully! Then I wanted to dye them in indigo using shibori methods.

On a warm summer day, I got my indigo vat set up outdoors and did some folding and clamping for itajime shibori. I wet out the fabric bundles and dipped them in indigo numerous times for a dark shade and high contrast with the undyed portions. Then came the rinsing and soaping and more rinsing. Who would have thought that paper could withstand so much washing? Not me, but I was very happy to learn what a strong fabric paper can make. I dyed a few other shifu pieces as well that day, so now all my paper projects have indigo shibori patterns on them.

Now I am taking the next step: cutting and sewing the handwoven paper fabric into garments. I made the largest piece into a top using my favorite old Burda pattern (See my previous post New Work from Old Fabric). The fabric of linen and cotton warp with paper weft has a texture and hand very similar to canvas. This will probably be made into something utilitarian, such as a bag or table runner. I will have to ponder the other small pieces for inspiration.

Learn more about the time- and labor-intensive craft of creating handmade paper yarn and shifu: Susan J. Byrd has written a book and posted online videos about making paper yarn. Hiroko Karuno also has authored a book and articles, as well as videos, on making paper thread and shifu.


New Work from Old Fabric

Many years ago (don’t remember how many), I took a large piece of commercially-made linen/rayon fabric, cut it into four equal-size pieces, prepared each piece using different shibori methods, then dyed each one in indigo. The fabric was originally about 56 inches wide by 3 yards long; I divided it in half lengthwise and crosswise, so each piece ended up about 28 by 54 inches.

The first piece was a radiating series of lines of ori nui stitching, where you fold the fabric, then stitch along the fold and gather. The second piece was a radiating series of lines of a simple running stitch and gathering. For the third piece, I machine-stitched and gathered several rows, then left the remainder of the fabric unstitched, but hand-pleated and bound it with a rubber band at the end. Piece number four was hand-pleated in large folds then bound with a few rubber bands.

I dyed all the pieces in indigo, then tried to figure out how to combine all of them in a single garment design. They sat on a shelf and years went by. Every now and then I would take them out, sketch some design ideas, give up, and put them back on the shelf. This year it dawned on me I could make two garments of simpler design. I used an old Burda pattern (3221) and made one pullover tunic with the fabric pieces oriented vertically, and another pullover top with the pieces oriented horizontally.

Why didn’t I do this ages ago?

Tunic front: radiating lines of ori nui stitching, gathered and dyed in indigo.

Tunic back: radiating lines of running stitch, gathered and dyed in indigo.

Top front: rows of machine stitching, gathered, and hand-pleating, bound and dyed in indigo.

Top back: hand-pleated and bound, dyed in indigo.