There are several reasons why I love natural dyeing. The first is because dyeing with natural materials allows the dyer to participate in an entire process. From growing the seeds or harvesting in the wild, to drying and then extracting the dyes, the dyer’s hands have guided each step and created the end result. There is power in that. Creative and self-sufficient power.
The second reason why I love natural dyeing is because it forces the dyer to see the world in a new way. No longer is a hollyhock just a pretty flower, but rather it is a source of gorgeous teal dye. No longer are oak galls a weird wasp-created arboreal phenomenon, but rather they are a source for tannins used in mordanting cotton. No longer is pee something to flush down the toilet, but rather it is something to save in jars and ferment to create Old Sig indigo dye vats. Um…. Well, it’s true. See? A whole new world of possibilities unfolds before you.
The final reason why I love natural dyeing is because it bridges the gap, in a very satisfying way, between science and art. Dyeing is all about chemistry and all about variables, and there is always room for experimentation. The list of variables that affects the outcome is long: When was the plant harvested? What part of the plant is used? Was the plant used fresh or dried? Was the plant material fermented first? Was heat applied to extract the dye? Did the dyebath boil or simmer? How long was the fiber left in the dyebath? What was the pH of the water? Was the mineral content high or low? Was the fiber properly scoured and mordanted? Was a modifier used? What type of pot was the dyebath in? The list goes on and on. It might seem daunting, like there’s no way to get all these things right, but in reality all these variables are chances to play and to be creative. A natural dyer gets to be a naturalist, a botanist, a chemist, and an artist. You get to be all the things.
On May 19-20, my friend E and I hosted a natural dyeing workshop for some of our friends. It was the first time either of us had ever really worked with natural dyes, although we’d both read quite a bit and had been daydreaming about dyeing for ages. Hosting an informal workshop was the perfect impetus for getting off our asses and getting the dyepots brewing. It was a total blast, and the results were good. Below follows the basic process and methodology we used to achieve these colours. We tried to keep good notes and be at least semi-scientifical about it all.
We used 9 different dyestuffs to create 10 different dyebaths: alkanet root, eucalyptus pulverulenta, safflower petals, annatto seeds, onion skins, walnut hulls (inner brown hulls, not the green), birch bark, elm bark, and what will forever be known as the stinkyass osage orange FAIL. Our predominant resource was Jenny Dean’s Wild Colour, but we also supplemented a few areas with tidbits picked up from forums on Ravelry or from other dyer’s notes online.
The format of the workshop was simple. Everyone came with ten 20g mini-hanks of yarn premordanted with 8% aluminum potassium sulfate and 7% cream of tartar, and they each brought either a stainless steel or enamel stock pot. Over the course of the day, we prepared 10 different dyebaths—one in each pot. Each person then put one of their 20g mini-hanks into each different dyebath. On day one, we completed the dyebaths, and on day two we played with modifiers. At the end of the workshop, they took home 10 different colours.
On the whole, the workshop was a total WIN. We had fun, learned a lot, and got great colours from most of the dyebaths. It was a pretty adventurous start not only to invite a bunch of people over to dye with, but to attempt 10 different dyebaths in 2 days. But, I figured that if we could accomplish something that crazy, everyone would go home feeling completely confident in their ability to continue experimenting with natural dyes on their own. I think we succeeded.
Live happy, dye happy!