Why Use Natural Dyes?
My journey with natural dyes began over steaming pots of onion skins and turmeric and with a mysterious flowering vat of indigo. It was about 12 years ago, and I was taking a beginning weaving course at California College of the Arts. The course included a couple units on dyeing-- bothe synthetic and natural. I can still remember how enthusiastic the guest instructors were in explaining the process. You have to be excited about the natural dye process, because it can't compete with the simplicity, vibrancy, and consistency of the synthetic dyes.
As I waited to dip my limp, skein (all tied up to prevent tangling) into the murky vat of indigo, the experienced graduate students assisting the class warned, no dared, "If you want blue, just use synthetic dyes, but if you want a spiritual experiecence of achieving blue that requires repeatedly dipping your fiber into a vat, exposing it to air, and then dipping it in again, and again, dye with indigo!" Jokes on them, I am hard wired for laborious, tedious, time-consuming art projects. Bring it!
All of this preamble to explain, that this natural dye business is one of those things you do because you love it. Otherwise, it is too time consuming, has multiple steps, and can be independable.
To add to the precarious nature of the natural dye process, I am attempting to dye plant fibers (like cotton and linen) which don't take natural dyes as well as animal fibers (like wool and silk). And another hill to climb, I am using upcycled, woven cloth (like church linen) that have been chemically treated, washed, bleached, and who knows what else. Bottom line, these old fibers might not be as receptive to natural dyes.
In addition to loving the process, perhaps the most important reason to go natural is to benefit the earth. This doesn't mean that the process is harmless, though. If you are going to use natural dyes at home, it's important to use completely seaparate pots, spoons, etc. Anything in high concentration can be toxic, and the mordanting process uses alum, which also can be harmful in large quantities. Still, the natural dyes are much more earth friendly and human friendly than the synthetic dyes.
So with that, here goes nothing!
Our zinnia dye adventure began in the garden by snipping off the zinnia blooms from their stoic stems. (Perhaps more acurately, the process began in March when Patrick started zinnia seeds indoors, under a growth lamp).
That day, we happened to have 10 1/2 oz of zinnias blossoms in bloom.
So, we prepared about half that amount (5 oz.) of linen fabric.
We set both the fabric and the zinnias of aside to prepare the fabric to receive the dye.
Mordanting the Fabric with Alum
Especially for plant fibers, like linen, there needs to be an agent to help bind the dye to the fiber. This agent is called a mordant. For this dye job, we are using two mordants: alum and tannins. Alum is hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate. It can sometimes be used in canning preserves, but it is a very common mordant in natural dyeing.
In a 3 gallon enamel pot, we brought our alum bath to a boil, and then down to a simmer --- at about 190 degrees Farenheight. We then added our fiber to the pot.
NOTE: You can reuse your mordant bath several times before adding more alum to it. This is one that we had from last year's zinnia dye.
We simmered the fabric in the alum bath for an hour, at 190 degrees.
Next, we cooled the alum bath and rinsed the faric in cold water -- carefully reserving the rinse water to add back to our alum bath for next time.
Once alum bath was completely cooled, we returned it to a jug for use next time.
Mordanting the Fabric with Tannins
Next, we prepaerd a tannin bath to further mordant the fabric. Tannins occur naturally in wood and acorns. It is an extra helper in mordanting plant fibers like cotton and linen.
To prepare the tannin bath, we heated 1 1/3 gallons of water and 2 Tbl of tannins (pulverized) to 180 degrees.
At this point, we added the linen to the tannin bath and returned the temperature to 180 degrees.
The linen simmered in the tannin bath for an hour. Then, we rinsed out the tannins and hung the fabric to dry.
We dumped the tannin bath into the woods since it can not be reused.
You can see that the tannin bath, itself, dyes the fabric a little--well, tan. The amount of tannins you use will affect the deepness and richness of the final dye color.
Preparing the Zinnia Dye Bath
We heated the same 3 gallon pot of water and 10 1/2 oz of zinnia blossoms to 140 degrees. They simmered for 2 and 1/2 hours to extract the pigment from the flowers.
After pulling out the blossoms from the bath and squishing the water out of them, we added the 5 oz of linen to the dye bath.
We left it simmer for 2 1/2 hours before pulling the fabric out and cooling it to room temperature.
Finally, we rinsed the dyed fabric with warm water and hung it to dry.
The resulting color is very subtle, but I am happy with it. I wonder if using only red zinnia blossoms would produce a deeper yellow, or if this linen is just a poor receptor. At any rate, there is always over dyeing and tie-dyeing with another natural dye. Layering colors is another way to diversify the range of colors and sometims to mediate undesirable outcomes.
A Couple of Notes
We love this book, Harvesting Color, by Rebecca Burgess! Please seek it out if you want to deep dive into a natural dye vat of your own.
Also, at this point we only had one dye pot to work with. If we had had two, it would have cut time in half. You can imagine we acquired a new pot before beginning our next adveture in dyeing.
Please leave a comment if you have any questions! Happy dyeing!!!
These naturally dyed fabric will hopefully become a
Anna Lentz, artist and writer, blogs about making a creative life connected with nature at Spring Bird.