Autumn 2013

Autumn 2013

Friday, September 21, 2012

Colours from Nature

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Apple Basket. This time, it’s all about colour and dyeing and really not much else; I’m trying out a new format with shorter, more to-the-point posts. So, get your hot drink – at least if you’re anywhere near here – put up your feet, and let’s talk about colour!

These past couple of weeks, I’ve been dyeing. I work with natural colours, dyestuffs from plants. I enjoy the rather laborious process of soaking, mordanting, and dyeing, the gradual revealing of the colours lurking inside and the way they connect with the fibres.
Cooking up a pot of copper mordant ...

I am still quite a newbie: I tried some dyestuffs out last autumn, and then the weather turned cold, and I injured my shoulder, which took the fun out of lugging big pots of water and long, wet skeins of wool around. And my dye studio (heh) is in the bike shed, which makes for a very nicely ventilated work space – very important – but also not a warm place to hang out in winter. So, anyway, I came back to it all recently: I’m rediscovering things I learnt last year and learning new things, too.

Most of the dyestuffs I use come from far away, and I get them over the internet: logwood and fustic from American trees, madder root from Turkey, I think, indigo powder (which I haven’t tried yet).
Walnut husks on the boil
But I have also this time worked with walnut husks, saved from the nut orgies of last Christmas; oak leaves from the trees surrounding our little garden; and I’m saving up onion skins. I even chose St. John’s Wort for the flower bed – but it will be a while before they grow flowers enough to be useful in any way. I have seeds for woad that I had planned to grow and use this summer (stupid shoulder); maybe next year.

Dyeing with plant dyes is a days-long process; the fibres usually need to be prepared to better soak up the dye, and the plant bits themselves need soaking or steeping to draw out the dye. So day 1 is putting the say, skeins of yarn in water to soak overnight. Day 2 is mordanting the yarn and soaking the dye materials. Day 3 is finally dyeing – and depending on what you’re using, day 4 (or even day 5) may be taking the yarn out of the dye pot after steeping overnight.
Logwood on alum

Logwood on copper
Some dyestuffs yield deep, saturated colours with very little prompting: logwood is one of my favourites, also because I get lovely purples and blues from it. And I looove purple ... and blue.

Other materials, like oak leaves, need soaking, boiling, and steeping and then boiling and steeping of the fibres in the dye solution. But the end result is very satisfying: I got a rich, light brown colour on wool yarn from leaves that I had picked myself. Very nice.
Oak leaves on alum
And you get the distinct aromas from cooking wood chips or leaves: oak leaves give off that rich tannin scent that reminds me of strong black tea, while fustic smells a bit like liquorice root; it makes the whole process resemble cooking even more :o)

Cool mordanting with alum

Mordanting with copper

Mordanting is soaking or simmering the fibres in a solution of a metal salt, often alum or copper sulfate. You can use iron or tin or chrome; I avoid the heavy metals for health and environmental reasons, and iron is better used as a modifier after dyeing, since it can weaken wool fibres. 
Your choice of mordant affects the colour you get; using logwood, I get purple with alum and navy blue with copper. Madder produces a red-orange on alum and brown on copper. The brown colours from walnut or oak tend to be darker on copper.

Madder dyed yarn, partially overdyed
with walnut
About 20 kilometres from here lies Hvolris, an Iron Age dwelling site. Three houses have been constructed, a smithy, sheep in the hills, and a museum shop. Several times a year they have activities, open weekends, markets and fairs, with re-enacting people in Iron Age, Viking or Medieval garments staying at the site. The first weekend in September is such a re-enactment weekend; the site is divided into areas according to time period, and everybody there live in their tents, cook – and dye – over open fires, and sell their wares.
Being a historical re-enacter means that there are dyestuffs you are not ‘allowed’ to use, at least if you belong to the earlier ages. The Mediaeval people sometimes choose to be late Mediaeval to get to use logwood and cochenille imported from the Americas :o)
I go round to chat to some of the dyers, look at the colours and gather tips. Most people are very helpful and do not mind divulging their ‘trade secrets’; after all, it’s not like me knowing which dyes someone has used means that I can go home and exactly replicate their yarn.
One lady I talked to this time had produced a stunning green on wool. Now, you may think that green is easy – I mean, look around, green is everywhere, right? Not so. The green leaves on trees and bushes will produce colour – yellows and browns. I have seen an eye-wateringly bright yellow made with birch leaves (gotta try that next spring!), and my own oak leaves gave me brown, as mentioned. Usually, you have to first do the yellow and then overdye with indigo to get a proper green; which, incidentally, is why the Robin Hood stories keep talking about the Lincoln green garments of the Merry Men. The concept of camouflage clothing: green in the forest, was not invented. The complicated dye process as well as the expensive blue ingredient meant that only the rich could afford to wear green; so we are reminded that Robin of Locksley comes from the upper echelons of society.
But I digress: this lady had produced her lovely green from reed flowers, on alum-mordanted wool. So, it can be done. At least in the part of the country where she has her summer house: the quality of the water influences the colour results, as well. Levels of acidity or alkalinity, mineral content, etc. all play their part in the process. I have talked with Iron Age re-enacters who get better or at least different colours in Hvolris and at home. Some prefer rain water to tap water – which reminds me, I did think about getting a rain watergathering thingy. Hmm, I could have gotten a lot of water with this rain we’re having ... but, well, it might rain again.

As always, I turn to the books to learn about something new; these are my go-to books for dyeing, as well as a couple of more essayistic works on colour:

Dean, Jenny Colours from Nature Search Press 2011
Dean, Jenny Wild Colour Octopus 2010
Dean, Jenny Craft of Natural Dyeing Search Press 2011
Lambert, Eva & Tracy Kendall Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing Search Press 2011

Balfour-Paul, Jenny Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans The British Museum Press 2011
Finlay, Victoria Colour. Travels through the Paintbox Hodder & Stoughton 2002

That’s it for this time – I will be back with more, including updates on my knitting. For now: thank you for stopping by, have a great weekend, and
Happy knitting!

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