Eco Textiles and Natural Dyeing

June 16, 2011

This year my garden is supplying dye plants.  “Experiment” is the word! The June garden brings lush greenery and many kinds of blooms that can be used as plant material for natural dyeing.  Both whole plants and plant parts can be used to colour cloth and natural fibres and as mordants. With the help of several books about natural dyeing (see my References page) I am learning how to print and colour textiles with natural dyes. After dyeing and printing with plants, I plan to develop the art textile further with stitch and applique.

My aim for this part of the summer is to colour vintage linens and silk with dyes obtained only from plants in my garden and whatever I can find in the fields and hedgerows around here.  (I may cheat a bit and buy the odd dried dyestuff like cochineal or osage orange, IOW, dyestuffs I cannot make myself.)

Mordants

For my first attempts, I mordanted all the textiles by soaking them in an alum solution overnight before dyeing them. I also soaked some of them in tannic acid after a first overnight soak in  alum. The tannic acid was obtained by simmering sumac leaves for an hour.  Some of the textiles were mordanted in three stages: with alum, tannic acid, then alum again by soaking the textiles for at least two hours each time in each mordant (but mostly overnight).

The textiles were then simmered for an hour in the mordant,  then rinsed;   finally, immersed wet in a dye bath and simmered for an hour; then rinsed again, dried in the shade and ironed.

Dye Baths

I prepared the dye baths by cooking up at a simmer about one pound of plant material to one pound of dry textile (I used my kitchen scales to weigh them). I drained off the dye liquor, submerged the textile in it and simmered that lot for an hour.  The perfume of simmering plant material is wonderful! After dyeing, I added (for some pieces of cloth) a tad of iron – just a scant teaspoonful- in order to shift the colours to darker hues and to add greys or even blacks.

Three books have been helpful to me so far:

1. Wild Colour: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes by Jenny Dean

2. Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens by Karen Leigh Casselman

3. Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for beautiful Textiles by India Flint

About the Vintage Linens

The linens I dyed have a special provenance: they are vintage refectory linens  from a local monastery that relocated last year. The linens have been embroidered in the corners with red cross stitch as an inventory control marker; and several have been carefully darned by hand. The nuns took care of their linens, even the humblest kitchen cloths, some of which may have been hand woven.

In addition, I am dyeing vintage embroidered tray cloths, doilies, handkerchiefs, damask linen table napkins and the like, all from my stash.

Eco Prints

My aim is  to obtain prints of the fresh plant material that will provide me with inspiration for stitching. Likely several layers of dye and print will precede  stitching, and maybe some will come after stitching.

Dye Plants this month 

I used what was available in plenty in my garden so far this month of June.  Later in the month and later in the summer, other dye plants will be plentiful. Some plants were used for overall dyeing and others for ecoprinting , i.e., obtaining coloured marks from individual leaves, buds, petals, flower heads etc. Here is my list so far (…and more to come later this season).

1. Sumac (Rhus typhina)  leaves for a light green-yellow overall dye colour and for a tannic acid pre-mordant

Note: To make a dye or a tannic acid mordant: simmer fresh sumac leaves in plenty of water to cover for one hour; strain and use as dye or pre-mordant.

2.Anthemis Tinctoria/Golden Marguerite flowers for yellow eco prints.

Note: The yellow daisy-like flowers will bloom around June 24th, the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Another name for this plant is Saint John’s Daisy.

3.Calendula marigolds for yellow eco prints

4.Tagetes (“marigold”) flowers for orange- yellow eco prints. (The yellow blob inadvertently on the right is my shoe…La Natura Lista makes comfy and colourful shoes…)

5.Purple pansy flowers for blue and purple eco prints

6.Perennial Geranium flowers: magenta for pink eco prints.

Note:  G. macrorhizum has red seed heads shaped long and pointy like a crane’s or heron’s beak, AKA, bill. The seed heads  also print beautifully. The flowers are larger, pale pink and white and are done blooming now. The common name for this plant is Cranesbill.

7.Geranium leaves for green eco prints.  See the leaves as well as flowers in the image above.

The leaves print beautifully in rich bright green on linen with the alum- tannic acid-alum mordant sequence, especially if steamed in an eco bundle.

Note: Pelargoniums are the oft-named “geraniums” we see in the markets each summer for use in summer-only planters.

8.Rose blooms and buds for pink/red/magenta eco prints.

Note: Dried rose petals and buds give a purplish brown colour and an overall mottled pattern on mordanted linen (alum-tannic acid-alum)  if the petals are crushed small, as for tea.  (see textile images below)

9. Rose leaves for green eco prints

10. Apple leaves for warm yellow overall dye on linen with alum and tannic acid; pale yellow with alum. Chartreusey green on cotton if baking soda is added to the last minutes of the dye bath. Grey-greens with iron.

11. Silver maple seeds for khaki-green-brown dyes, overall colour.

12. Purple Sandcherry leaves for purplish eco print colours; colour shifting to blue-blacks with an iron modifier.

13. Hibiscus flower tea (dried): deep pinks,  used here for overall dye.

14. Plum tree bark: warm browny pinks.

15. Vidalia onion skins: a range of yellows, rusts and oranges.

Vintage refectory linen dyed and ecoprinted with garden plants:

These linens were first dyed one colour all over: 

From the left: Sumac gave a first dyeing of green-yellow, later modified with iron liquor to give greys and grey-green;  plum tree bark gave light and darker rose-browns, darker with iron liquor;  hibiscus petals, originally producing pinks,  shifted to greys with iron ; apple leaves gave a warm yellow on cotton and chartreuse on linen withbaking soda in the dye bath at the end; maple seeds gave yellow on linen (weak bath);  sumac gave a range of yellow greens on linens and cottons.

Eco prints and bundles

Then the dyed linens shown above were “eco printed”:  tightly bundled up with other kinds of fresh leaves and blossoms,   fastened securely with elastics and strings and left to develop their coloured prints, either by steaming for an hour or by resting in the sun for many days.

I obtained a lot of  inspiration from India Flint’s blog and book about these processes of ecobundling and ecoprinting. Here are a few images of eco bundles.

Eco bundle 1

Calendula, tagetes, pansy and geranium leaf bundled with alum mordanted vintage damask linen.

Eco bundle 2

This damask linen napkin was mordanted with alum then bundled with pansies (blue-purples) , purple sandcherry leaves (dark blues) , perennial geranium leaves (yellow greens), geranium seed pods (pinks).  The whole was sprayed with 5% vinegar and left to develop by resting in a warm place outdoors, inside a wee ziploc plastic bag.

Developing the eco print

So far, I have found that a reliable way of obtaining a print is to make sure the plants make good contact with the cloth by bundling them up tightly with elastics and string; then by steaming the tied-up bundle at a simmer for an hour at no more than 200 degrees. I used a double boiler with candy thermometer attached until I was sure I could recognize the right kind of “simmer”.  I have also tried leaving the bundle in a plastic baggie in the sun to get the print.  The longer I left the bundles, the deeper the colour – but so far I have only managed three days…Keen curiosity is the enemy of patience in this process!

Dyed and ecoprinted vintage linen refectory cloths

The magic of these overlapping marking/colouring processes is the unpredictable nature of the changes in colour and mark as the layers of dyeing and printing proceed. You can only predict so much…so you learn to embrace the change…For example: In the vintage linen collection, the pale yellow linens (on the far right in the image above) developed as follows:

After immerison in a one colour dye bath, the linens were bundled with various plants and left to develop their colours by resting undisturbed for a few days and/or by being steamed for an hour.

On the left, cloth was first dyed with apple leaves to give light yellow; then eco printed with marigold flowers(yellows); geranium leaves (greens) and flowers (pinks); and purple sandcherry (dark blue-black) .

On the right,  purple sandcherry (blues and dark greys), geranium leaves (greens), and pinks from magenta perennial geranium all darkened with iron liquor on yellow sumac-dyed cloth. The iron modifier shifted the whole range of colours towards greys.

Cloth on the left is dyed with sumac leaves first to give light green, then bundled with tagetes (marigold) petals (for orange yellows), rose leaves and perennial geranium leaves (for medium to light greens) and magenta perennial geranium petals (for bright pinks)

. Cloth on the right is dyed with the sumac for yellow-green and eco printed with tagetes (yellow orange), geranium leaves (light green); purple sandcherry leaves (purple-blue) and rose leaves (medium green);  iron liquor is added to the rinse to shift all hues towards greys, light to dark: this gave moss green-greys instead of yellow greens and dark grey blues instead of purple-blues.

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