A few experiments with Natural Dyes
I have done a bit of hand dyeing of fabric to use in my work in the past – usually using synthetic Procion & Acid dyes. I have occasionally gathered elderberries to dye wool, boiled up tea bags to age fabric and experimented with rust dyeing but nothing too substantial. Recently, however, I have been doing a bit of dyeing with plant dyes that you can forage from your back garden, kitchen waste and the hedgerow. The aim was to produce some artwork for an exhibition call for entries that required the use of just natural dyes and materials.
After a bit of online research I found a really interesting book by Rebecca Desnos Botanical Colour at your Fingertips. It has beautiful photos to inspire you and clear instructions on how to extract dyes from easily-sourced plant materials including avocados, nettles, onions and garden herbs.
The first dye I tried was avocados. After a week I’d saved up enough stones and skins from three or four avocados to dye a small batch of materials (silk, silk scrim and cotton muslin). It’s a lot easier to dye protein-based materials and fibres with natural dyes (including silk, soya bean and wool) as the process is more straight forward. In fact, with some dye stuffs - especially those that contain natural tannins such as nettles, tea (think of how difficult it is to remove tea stains from clothes) and avocados the fabric or fibres don’t even need to be pretreated with a mordant in order to fix the dye permanently. A lot of dyes from flowers and berries do require a fixative or mordant to ensure that the dye doesn’t wash out or fade.
I’m not going to go into the details of different mordants here, but they often come in the form of metallic salts which require careful handling. As I was experimenting with some dye stuffs that did require mordanting, I chose to use Alum (aluminium potassium sulfate) which is supposed to have a lower toxicity than other metallic salts. You can find some good instructions here for mordanting silk and other materials on this website - Wild Colours.
A good alternative is to use soya milk (Rebecca Desnos explains this in her book) as a mordant which can be used to treat protein and cellulose fibres - cotton, bamboo, linen - which don’t usually have a natural affinity with plant based dyes. The soya binds to the fibres allowing them to make a permanent bond with the dye material.
Well, I was generally really pleased with the results that I got from my experimentations. I must say that this isn’t a process that you can rush. It takes time to collect the materials either scraps from the kitchen, garden or hedgerow (make sure to take secateurs and gloves for the nettles!) To extract the dyes, you have to spend a few hours boiling and reducing and reboiling to concentrate the plant material. Then further time with the dyeing process. It’s like alchemy - and the surprise comes when the colour is quite different to what you expected. Especially with avocado stones/skins which produce amazing yellowy pink colours. Other things are more predictable - greens from nettles and goosegrass.
After I had produced my dyed cloth, my next task was to create some artwork. The aim was to produce some pictures for an exhibition - which in the end I have decided not to submit work for in the end, but in the process I have come up with some new ideas for designs, colours and materials that I wouldn’t have used before and I am going to use the resulting designs for other projects.
I used iron water and walnut ink to paint leaf designs on to the fabric that I had dyed and then explored hand stitched decoration using both the dyed threads I had produced and natural silk threads. I like the results, which I am going to incorporate into some existing ideas – combining natural and manmade materials. Being restricted to just using natural materials for me was too limiting - especially as I usually use machine embroidery techniques for which I would have to spend hours hand dyeing threads to use or using too limited a colour palette.
I have a feeling that this process could become very addictive, though. Now I can’t walk past a patch of weeds or hedgerow without seeing if there is anything I could harvest to make a dye with and the family asking whether they should save the avocado stones for me after lunch!