Adventures in Natural Dyeing 2012

I do not profess to be an expert in natural dyeing, but I do profess to be an addict! Every summer for about three years, I have researched and experimented with natural dyeing. It is a glorious pursuit because exploring natural dyes allows me to further learn about the world.

Plants that I have known all my life reveal their secret colors in a dye pot. A palette of colors obtained directly from the earth offers intimate knowledge, and the possibilities for textile surface design broadens. I am particularly interested in plant dyes and their interaction with cotton, silk, and wool fibers.

My very first step is to prepare the fibers for my natural dyeing experiments. I assemble a quantity of approximately 1 oz skeins of cotton and wool yarn.

After washing or scouring the fibers, I then proceed to mordanting. A mordant is any material that combines with the dye substance to form a permanent color. If fibers are not mordanted, most natural dyes will wash out of the fiber. Mordants are often metallic salts but can also be natural plant materials. I only use alum which is the least toxic of the mordants. Persimmons and oak gulls contain alum and can be used as a mordant. Mordants can be applied to yarn before dyeing, while dyeing, or both before and after dyeing. The mordants are added to water, then yarn is immersed and simmered up to 2 hours depending on the fiber.

After the yarn or textile is mordanted, it is ready to be dyed! Additional preparations include collecting potential dye plants and cutting into small portions to be placed into the dye bath. Below is the common plant mullein which produces a yellow dye. I am tearing leaves into small bits.


Coreopsis flowers make a brilliant orange with the addition of ammonia applied after the dye bath.

Above the coreopsis flowers are bundled into cheesecloth to keep the bits of flowers from getting tangled in the yarn.

Above silk fabric, cotton yarn, and wool yarn that has been dyed using coreopsis flowers are drying in the shade of the garage.

Red kidney beans in an iron pot make a purple, grey color. Drain the beans and use the residue for the dye bath. Then cook the beans the rest of the way in another pot for a tasty addition to a meal.

Eucalyptus can produce a soft yellow in a non-reactive pot, and bluish grey in an iron pot.


Dyeing with Clay

Above is a detail of clay drying on fabric.

A soy milk mordant must be prepared and applied to the textile for the fibers to take up any dye from clay. You may buy soy milk from the store or just make your own as shown below.

Immerse cotton cloth in a clay mixture after mordanting in soy milk.

Above clay covered fabric and garments are drying.
Beware, may attract curious farm yard ducks!

Textiles must dry fully before excess clay may be scraped off and the textile washed. Detail of drying clay on fabric below.

Dyeing with Rust

I must acknowledge master rust dyer Pat Vivod from Troy, IL because she is my inspiration. It was a workshop with her that initiated my explorations with rust as a potential for dye and surface design. Rust is a resilient dye. Below is my table top prepared for rust dyeing and a meager collection of rusty objects.

For rust to dye textiles, a rusty object must come in contact with the textile and both parties must stay moist. In addition, pressure must be applied to the rusty object and textile. Below I am unwrapping a bound shibori silk scarf from around a rusty pipe.



Eco Printing

I must acknowledge India Flint located in the south of Australia for providing me inspiration and an introduction to eco printing.

There are many different ways to make an eco print. Usually the process begins with a collection of plant materials. The next step entails tucking and folding the materials into a textile and bundling with some hemp cord. Here I have a few bundles awaiting boiling and steaming in my crockpot reserved for dyeing.

Above is an example of bundles cooling after the boiling and steaming process.

The bundles should be allowed to rest for at least a week. When you can no longer wait any further, textiles can become unfolded and plant material shaken out.

Natural dyeing is an adventure. Discovery is a big part of the natural dyeing process. Many different variables play into the particular color attained by botanical materials. Variables that can alter the dye bath include season of the year, amount of rain fall, and chemical make-up of the soil. Much excitement and anticipation can occur awaiting the cooling of a dye bath with skeins of yarn or curing of a textile bundle. One never quite knows what to expect.

Below are images following a natural dyeing talk I presented at Ballard Nature Center in Altamont, IL. Thanks to everyone that made the event possible!

What a wonderful audience and a great venue!

The following images are just a few details of my naturally dyed textiles.