Iris Eco Dyes

The tall Bearded Iris are almost done, a short two weeks or so of bloom. Iris sibirica ( or siberica) likewise. You have to move fast to eco print or dye with them fresh or faded; alternatively, you can freeze them. I have done both and that's what I would like to share with you mad eco dyers out there – it will take a couple of posts. To start with: Iris hybrida, which is a heritage variety in Eastern Canada, probably imported by early settlers and still plentiful in gardens here. Iris do hybridize freely and most likely descend from ancient varietiies such as Iris pallida and Iris germanica, of which florentina is a cultivar. The latter two, I. germanica and I. florentina are most likely the irises available to medieval and Renaissance painters and manuscript illuminators. These artists used their iris to obtain not blue but green pigments. Art historians and popular art history writers have been a tad vague about exactly which varieties were used, so one has to dig…but cheap and available is what artists usually go for…”The Techniques and Materials of Medieval Painting” by Daniel V. Thompson (Dover Books) tells rather vaguely of how green was obtained from iris but is even vaguer about blue or purple. Thus experiments have to be the way forward for contemporary eco dyers.

..and cutting to the chase: this is the range of colours obtained from the Tall Bearded Iris, above. The colours are shown on papers and on cotton string. Greens are obtained when the substrate, paper or fabric, has been pre soaked in alum (alum acetate is what I used) then steamed as usual for eco prints. Blues are obtained when NO alum is used in the steamed bundle or stack. Purple and bluer- blues are obtained from pounding with a rock etc, treading (yes, treading), grinding in a mortar, or simply smooshing hard with the fingers – NO cooking, just resting for a period of time. BTW, the string was dyed in a crock pot with alum and blossoms. The photo colour is far from true. I obtained a lovely moss green on the cotton string

The medieval painters and illuminators thought that iris green was fugitive and welcomed later sources of green as more reliable. They obtained it by squeezing the juice from the iris blossoms onto a piece of dry alum-soaked cloth, presumably linen, letting the pigmented cloth dry, then repeating the process until the green colour built up. The “clothlet” was transported in a seashell, for example, and egg white (“glair”) was added for the iris pigment to leach into. This was the source of a transparent green.
More next time on how the iris pigment behaved on silk, wool, linen and cotton rag paper, after I used all of the previously mentioned processes with and without alum as mordant. If you are inclined to try dyeing with iris ( do we need to say “eco dye” ?) then pick the faded blooms and either go to work right away or freeze them for later.
El Camino de los irises: it has been a pilgrimage indeed, working with them. Here they are laid out on vintage kimono silk, ready for the steamer:
More on iris next time.


15 thoughts on “Iris Eco Dyes

  1. Hi Wendy: Missed your last few posts but just read this lovely iris info. Our iris here in Seattle (not sure at all of latin names) are long gone and i whisked some away in the freezer..will keep hold of your post here for reference..thanks!

  2. not only do we not need to say ‘eco dye’…it’s no longer legally permitted [at least here in Australia] as somebody has cheekily trade-marked it and named their product ‘eco-dye’ which would now imply that anything that is referred to as being ‘eco-dyed’ owes its colour to that product. sigh.

    i’ve avoided using it myself [even though others have applied it in reference] as it was originally coined by Canadian dyer Karen Diadick Casselman who considered it [at least in the 90s] as very much hers. i will admit to using ‘eco colour’ as my book title as well as coining ‘ecoprint’ but heck, eco-anything has become completely overdone in recent years [besides being rarely actually true!]

    let’s just get on with enjoying natures colours, preferably without toxic mordants. those iris colours are always a joy and have you noticed the delightful fragrance that accompanies them?

    1. India,

      My comment expressed my thinking that medieval artists did not need to use the term “eco” if they were referring to the only kinds of colour available to them, i.e., natural plant colours…however, if they had used the term, they would perhaps have been abusing it from our contemporary perspective since poisonous substances galore formed part of their colour inventory. As you rightly suggest, the “eco” in eco dye or eco print can refer to more than natural dyes per se – it also embraces the notion of using non toxic adjuncts… Wondering if we should also use the term to refer to avoiding the use of toxic plants? I have to day that my research has turned up comments about iris being poisonous!

      …As for trademark matters: that is the stuff of commerce, not the stuff of scholarship and the free exchange of knowledge, thus Dr. Casselman, having developed her terminology in an academic (university) context, could likely not have trademarked her term “eco dye” anyway. But there other kinds of IP protections in place to safeguard her scholarly research.

      Thanks for the feedback


      1. something like [on average] 80% of the denizens of suburban gardens turn out to be at least slightly toxic when we start looking closely.
        – there’s a good reason many children refuse to eat Brussels sprouts…they are poisonous [contain cyanatogens]
        if it smells bad, it generally IS bad
        but sometimes it can smell delightful [ie lily of the valley] and be toxic too.

        avoiding breathing the vapours or licking the fingers is a good plan.

  3. Love it! What beautiful colours. Irises are one of my favourite flowers, and I feel that I’d have a hard time picking them fresh to dye with. It’s the same reason why I’ve never dyed with Queen Anne’s lace even though I’ve loads of it growing in my yard. Just don’t have the heart to pick the blooms. You suggest that dye can be obtained from the faded blooms, too. Have you tried it?

    1. No need to pick them, Ms. G-Bird. You can use the spent ones, even mushy ones. They keep on giving even after having printed beautifully. However, I did pick the ones that fell over in the heavy rain and wind – tnose are the ones you see in the Iris Camino pic. I brought them into the house then as they fell over and either used them up in prints, inks or dyes or froze them (the latter great tip from India Flint who told of freezing blue pansies)

      So try the dead and dying ones, for sure

      1. Hurray! I’m glad to hear it and will definitely give that a try next year. I’m afraid the irises are already finished for the season here.

  4. I have been using my black iris to get purple for a number of years now but so far only laying a wet flower (from rain or watering) on my paper has given me that color – anything else (like soaking in water for example) gives me brown so thank you for a few new ideas on what to try. So far the color has not faded over the years (I use the papers for ATC’s).

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