Working with Natural Dyes
As many of you know, I'm currently teaching an online slow fashion workshop, Slow Fashion Style. Teaching this workshop has been an amazing experience filled with an incredibly inspiring community of students. In creating all the lessons, posts, tutorials, and interviews I realized that I'd like to share some of this information here on my blog. So, today, I'm sharing some of the class resources here too. Today? Natural dyes.
I am fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there is a strong natural dye and slow fashion community. While this traditional craft has seen a recent resurgence it's been around since the beginning of time. Truly. We've been looking to trees, foliage, flowers, minerals, and food scraps to create color forever. Like any art or craft form, I think the more you work with the materials and techniques the more you'll learn about the process and the more confidence you'll gain in experimenting.
While I first experimented with tea and coffee dyes as a college student many years ago, I didn't really start working with dyes until more recently. Easter always provided an opportunity to experiment with plant-based dyes to color the Easter eggs but the practice hadn't yet penetrated my studio work. Last summer I took a natural dye workshop with my friend, Sasha Duerr, of Permacouture Institute and I was instantly smitten.
At the workshop we collected various plant materials from a local organic farm and worked outside on portable camp stoves and farm tables while a local chef prepared our seasonal lunch. Yes, it was heavenly. From there I purchased a couple of dye books, collected various compost materials, began identifying local wildflowers with dye potential, started collecting castoff wools and secondhand silks, and the habit was born.
Disclaimer: I've dyed with a few dozen materials on a few dozen projects but I still feel like I'm just scratching the surface. The alchemy of natural dyes is really compelling. In studying with Sasha she addresses how the seasons, rainfall, harvest, life of the plant, and also the mordants, water, and soak time all effect the final results of any given dye project. Let alone the fabric being dyed.
For some reason this frees up the process for me and puts it more squarely into the world of art work and creative experimentation than the world of precision and expertise. That said, there are some dyers who have created more dependable recipes and favorite techniques to yield more predictable results. Of course. But I think the experimentation and trust in the unknown is where the greatest creative potential resides.
I have to mention India Flint as a major source of inspiration in plant-based dye work but also a leading figure in eco-prints and slow fashion. She's based in Australia and her work is simply stunning. While she has spent much of her time studying and working with eucalyptus (and writes beautiful passages about how one dyer could spend her entire life studying just one plant) she also works with various plant materials and travels the world teaching workshops. I have two of her gorgeous books and I revisit them regularly not just for her recipes but for her insight. She is a mentor in the dyeing community and she's rightfully earned this role.
More locally for me are two amazing dye leaders: Sasha Duerr of Permacouture Institute and Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed. They have both recently published natural dye books and I recommend them both for anyone interested in dyeing. Their recipes are easy to follow and their tutorials are straight-forward. But more so I think their organizing efforts, and founding small companies, speaks to their investment in creating community and advocacy for sustainable practices in the fiber and textile industries.
I'm sure many of you have also noticed the recent trend in shibori. In short, shibori is a Japanese resist dye technique that includes using various folds, binds, and tucks to create pattern on the fabric. It's amazing. A friend of mine recently hosted an indigo dye party and as another friend unrolled her first shibori dyed garment she turned to me and said quietly, "It's like magic". Precisely. It IS like magic.
So when you combine the excitement of working with natural dyes with the magical excitement of shibori it makes for a fairly addictive and exciting hobby. It might not be long before you find yourself collecting every light-colored cotton, linen, silk, or wool item from your household and tossing it into a dye pot. I've had to resist my white cotton curtains on many occasions.
I also really love Shabd Simon-Alexander's work with various dye techniques. While she doesn't work exclusively with natural dyes she holds a great wealth of information on how to create various dye results. Her book Tie Dye is somewhat amazing in its range of techniques and results. It didn't really occur to me to use direct application for natural dye until I read her book. It's how I created this multi-color shibori dye with last season's Easter egg dyes (photo below).
On the thought of direct application, India Flint's eco-prints are truly stunning. Check out this page on her website for a sample of her exquisite botanical prints using dye techniques. Also Lotta Helleberg creates gorgeous botanical prints in her artwork. (Hi, Lotta! So wonderful to have you in the workshop.)
These photos are all results of my recent dye experiments. Some of the clothing I already owned and some I sourced from my local consignment shops. It's important to use 100% natural materials when working with natural dyes. Most professional dyers also use mordants but I've yet to use mordants in my home dye projects.
What are mordants? Simply, mordants are a binding agent between fabric and dye. They help create a strong bond and also help with the usual lightfast and colorfast issues that come with natural dyes. Common mordants include iron and alum. I've also known folks to use vinegar, salt, seawater, soy milk, cow's milk, and even urine. It's chemistry. The plant-based dyes will fix to a mordant better than they will fix to plant-based fibers such as cotton and flax. For this purpose, I usually use wool or silk or other animal-based fibers in my home dye projects as they often have better results without mordants than plant-based fibers.
Mordants can also alter the color of the dye and help the dye to keep from fading with subsequent washes and even bright sunlight. I haven't used mordants because I dye from my home kitchen, where my family prepares meals and where I have a toddler running about. When using a home kitchen it's important to have good ventilation and to have dye pots specifically marked for dyeing only.
You should always use separate tools for your dye pots and spoons but in my small kitchen this simply means one large stainless steel pot and one wooden spoon clearly reserved for dyeing. In my initial experiments I only used edible dye materials like coffee grounds, onion skins, carrot tops, and red cabbage leaves and I refrained from any mordants. This gave me a certain peace of mind in my first experiments with dyes from home.
Once I started using wildflowers like fennel, sour grass, and eucalyptus I became even more regimented with ventilation, reserved tools for dyeing, and storing dye materials out of child's reach. Now I've invest in additional dye tools and found increased sources of cross-ventilation like opening doors and using fans. If I'm dyeing something very potent I simply don't do it when my toddler is home. Next summer I hope to create a small outdoor dye area in our garden. At that point, nontoxic mordants and ventilation won't be an issue.
If you're looking for added dye inspiration take a look at my Natural Dye board over on Pinterest or check out the sites of any of the folks I've mentioned above. If you need to purchase supplies and can't find them locally I'd recommend Dharma Trading Co as a good online source. Natural dyes are not only a magical and addictive textile experiment but they also can offer new life to faded, worn, or otherwise lackluster garments already in our possession.
I tossed a pair of my son's discolored pajama bottoms into this summer's indigo vat and now they have quickly become an adorable updated favorite. Who can resist a two-year-old climbing around in the morning in his shibori indigo pajamas? Not me.