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!