Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Natural Dye Experiment

Back in May, I brought these beautiful lilac blooms into the house, and as I enjoyed them, my mind wandered to whether I might be able to use the blooms to dye fabric. I've not really been interested in trying natural dyeing, but I think something Shirley Goodwin in New Zealand was showing on her blog intrigued me and stuck in the back of my brain. She had picked pansies from her garden and put them in mason jars with water, mordant and wool yarn. But she also had some pansy blossoms that she had bagged and stored in the freezer. These went in a second jar, and when she processed both after the jars had sat in the sun for awhile, she found the blossoms that had been frozen released more dye color than the fresh blossoms. That made sense to me as freezing anything tends to break it down a bit. As the lilacs began to fade, I did a quick google to see if those blooms would indeed produce some natural dye, and popped the spent blooms into the freezer. When I received the bountiful birthday bouquet of orchids in August, those fading blooms also ended up in a bag in the freezer.

This weekend I finally did something about it. I did a bit more research of the process, with my original site being the only one that said to use vinegar for blooms, leaves and stems, while everyone else, including Shirley, said to use Alum and Cream of Tartar. Well, I had the Cream of Tartar but no alum on hand, so vinegar it would be. But first, the dye stuff needed to simmer in water, approximately two parts water to one part dye stuff ratio. There wasn't much of the lilacs to work with.

But there was more of the orchids. I simmered both pots for the minimum hour and then some, and left it all in the pots until the next day per recommendation of one of my sources.

It all looked very promising, although I know from my procion dye experience, how the dye stock looks often has little to do with how your fabric will look in the end. I must admit I was not expecting the lilacs to produce such a dark brown liquid.

And I was not counting on the orchids to produce a color similar to their blooms but they did. Such a dark rich red reminding me a bit of beet juice.

With the dye stock cooled and having soaked overnight, it was time to strain out the blossoms, leaves and stems. I mostly strained, then squeezed what additional liquid I could out of the stuff with my gloved hand.

For a dark to medium dark value, my sources suggested a one to one weight ratio between the dye stuff (before adding to water and simmering) and fabric. That came to about an 1/8 of a yard of cotton for the lilac dye and a 1/4 yard for the orchid dye. These were to be simmered in a solution of 4 part water to 1 part vinegar for at least an hour, allowed to cool and rinsed before adding to the dye stock. What kind of vinegar was not specified so I used white vinegar. The fabric is a good quality bleached muslin. Again, a minimum of 1 hour simmering in the dye stock was suggested, with the recommendation to go longer if you could, which I did. I could see that the fabric was picking up color but was not going to be very dark, and of course, even lighter when it was dry. Again, I let these cool in the pots and sit overnight.

And now for the big reveal, which is always the exciting part of dyeing. I rinsed the fabric in cold water and if I remember right, also did a quick swish through a solution of Orvus Paste and another rinse before tossing over the shower rod to damp dry. As I ironed the lilac piece (top), I could barely see any tint at all and in fact thought, well, this isn't much different than unbleached muslin. I had better hopes for the orchid (bottom) as the color was more visible, but as I ironed it looked like the fabric was starting to turn brown. I panicked, reduce the heat setting on the iron and tried to get the rest of the wrinkles out but again, once dry, there seemed to be almost no color in the cloth. They really do have to be against something white to see the tint, and I almost feel like the camera is being too generous in the amount of color it picked up. I took these to art group Monday, and under the light in the space we were meeting in, the lilac one had a bit of green tint to it, which according to the natural dye chart I found is the color lilac blooms should produce.

All in all, a lot of time spent with disappointing results. I can think of several reasons why these did not come out better, primarily that I did not use fresh blooms, and perhaps even that I did not use alum. I'm trying to see an upside to the natural dyeing, primarily I guess that I'd be adhering to the "waste not want not" mentality by using dye stuffs readily available from the garden. But one site I found suggested that because of the amount of simmering that must be done to extract the dye and thus use of electricity or gas, this may not be as ecologically friendly as the term "natural dye" would suggest (unless you are trying Shirley's solar method), and in fact some dye stuffs are poisonous and must be handled and disposed of with care. The biggest downside for me is the fact that the end product will not be particularly wash-fast or light fast.

Lesson learned, and a better appreciation for my forefathers and mothers whose only option was to dye with natural dye stuffs. As for me, I am very happy now to return to my procion dyes!   


Living to work - working to live said...

How disappointing! Whe I was at school I had a chemistry teacher who was a doctor of chemistry. It turned out he had been in industry and had come to teaching after a career at ICI. His expertise - dyes! I think then the penny dropped for me that who,e it seems very easy to get unwanted stains in unwanted places the who,e dye process is a branch of science all on its own.


Hope you don't mind if I don't try this any time soon. Love your experiments though!


The Idaho Beauty said...

Hilary, you are so right about dye process being science. That is very evident with the procion dyes where there is a chemical bonding at the molecular level (yes, I've done that kind of research as I learned to use them). Indeed, take your time deciding whether or not you want to dive into the natural dyeing. You may have second thoughts when you read the next comment. :-)

The Idaho Beauty said...

Fellow blogger Connie Rose (http://constancerosedesigns.blogspot.com/) had difficulty leaving a comment so e-mailed me this information - she has some experience with this!

"Vinegar will not work with cotton, only with silk and wool -- read: animal fibers. You can PREmordant cotton cloth with plain soy milk. Research ecodyeing for details. What you did would be considered ecodyeing rather than natural dyeing. The latter typically uses powdered or liquid plant extracts or A LOT of plant material that needs to be steeped or simmered for a very long time to extract color. Also, in lieu of alum, you can throw a wadded up piece of aluminum foil into the pot.
Good on you for trying. There's a steep learning curve with natural and ecodyeing."

She also mentioned in a separate e-mail in response to my surprise about the aluminum foil:

"When I did ecodyeing, 5 years ago now, I'd premordant in soymilk a bucketful of torn pieces of cotton and linen at one time. Would let them air dry, iron them, and put aside for use later. Some of the cloth I'm using now to back my hand stitched pieces are the some of the same fabrics...I threw them in the washer after I was done with ecodyeing, to wash out the soymilk.
India Flint's book Eco Colour is a must have if you ever get into it proper. I think I got the foil idea from her. I used to wrap foil around short lengths of PVC and roll up fabric and plant material on them, ersatz aluminum pipe!"

I'd run across soymilk as a mordant for natural powder pigments (have some that were gifted to me) while I was researching the plant dyeing so I wondered if it would work them. Thanks Connie for the info. I hope it is helpful to you, my readers, as well. Goodness - so much out there one can experiment with!