As is evident on the blog lately, I have become increasingly interested in making my own one of a kind fabric to use in my quilts. Ergo, dyeing it myself! As a kid I always wanted to be the person who knew everything about plants for the inevitable moment when I would need to survive on my own in the wild (Note: I am definitely not that sort of person, I would die so quick). But through dyeing I have found a different way to interact with the natural world. This has opened up a new creative approach for me – as a dye scientist!
After the indigo shibori dyeing class in the spring I have taken out a few books on dyeing from the library, specifically natural dyeing. But none of it made any sense to me, it was so overwhelming to read about chemicals, and pH, and percentages, and scientific names. In university I had taken a textile class where we learned about different dyes and dye techniques around the world, which has been super helpful as I’ve explored more of the textile world, but I was a bit cloudy about how to go about doing it myself in my own back yard.
So I decided to take another class! This time I had to drive three hours south for a weekend workshop at ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design), another dream in itself: to get to pretend to be an ACAD student for a weekend – Yay! Seathra Bell was our instructor and with just four of us as students it was a perfect class size to learn and experiment in. Check out Seathra’s work here: http://www.seathrabell.com or on instagram: http://www.instagram.com/seathrabell/. Her stuff is so beautiful, and she has such a passion for textiles and natural dyeing – simply amazing!
First we learned about scouring the fibres, yarns, and fabrics, which can be a different process depending on if what you are dyeing is protein (eg. wool, silk, etc.) or cellulose based (cotton, bamboo, etc.). The protein samples we treated with orvus and the cellulose with soda ash and synthrapol. This cleans and prepares the fabric for dyeing. Next up was the mordant. This allows the dye to adhere and fix to the fibres. There are many different mordants available and what you use will depend on the material you are dyeing with and the dye you are using. This is where experimentation or knowledge from other dyers comes in to play. For our class, we used alum (proteins) and an alum/tannic acid mix (cellulose).
Next we prepared the dye baths. Seathra brought in four different natural dye products for us to try: onion skins, marigold heads, cochineal insects, and walnut husks. I was a bit sad about the cochineals but when I saw how little we needed to use to make our dye bath I felt better about it.
Basically we put these in separate pots with water and simmered for about an hour to an hour and a half. Then we let it sit overnight. Scouring, mordanting, and preparing the dye bath isn’t hard but is a long process and was what we did on the first day alone – no dyeing yet!
*I should also note here that everything used in this process—pots, spoons, etc. is designated for dyeing only, do not use to cook food as well!
Now to the dyeing! At this point, regardless of protein or cellulose based origins, everything went into the pot and then it was just a matter of watching the pot at a simmer and stirring to ensure even contact with the dye. Some dye materials are more fragile than others (marigolds vs. walnut husks) but a good way to go about it, I think, is to treat everything like it’s fragile and keep it hot at a simmer, adjusting the temperature if you need to so that it doesn’t start to boil. We dyed everything for about an hour, hour and a half before removing the fibres, yarns, and fabrics from the bath and then rinsed with warm to progressively colder water until they ran clear and hung to dry. This timing is the usual saturation point for dyeing but if the dye bath was closer to being exhausted and you wanted to try to get as much out of it as possible, you could let the material sit in the bath overnight.
Seathra made sure we had a good sample of fabrics and fibres, everything from mureno, wool, and silk to cotton and bamboo, so that we could experience how the dye affects each one. You can definitely see the huge range and variety of shades that can be achieved!
One last thing, you can change colour by overdyeing, either with another colour or with a rust, copper, or vinegar solution. We had both rust and vinegar to try and from my and the other students’ experiments it seemed that the rust produced a change more often than the vinegar (and we all know how much I like rust!). We did try adding vinegar to the pot for the last dip in the cochineal dye bath and it was quite apparent how the tone of the colour changed from a more mauve-purple to a fresh, clean pink. What I learned most this weekend was that experimentation is key and I would definitely like to try a copper overdye in the future.
I came away from this class with a huge appreciation for natural colours and in amazement of what can be achieved from humble kitchen scraps and plants found in one’s own backyard. I already have plans for what to try next!