Natural Dyeing Final Thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot about why there are so many variations within natural dyeing. I never found two sources that gave the same times for any part of the process. I found a little more similarities when it came to the properties of mordants but really, it was hard to get a consensus on pretty much anything.

That’s a pretty high barrier of entry to someone new to the process! I know some people are very into experimenting and don’t care how a project turns out but my time is valuable to me as are all of the components needed to dye.

This was not a particularly cheap project despite trying to keep it as low cost as possible. I bought 2 skeins of yarn ($20), a stainless steel steamer ($40), alum ($13). Since I used edible flowers and walnuts and alum is also used in pickling I felt okay using my own cooking thermometer, stainless measuring spoons, measuring cup, stainless tongs and basin. Even using all that, I spent almost $75 on this project! I can use the pot and alum again for other projects but you can see why I’d want some guidance.

Besides the obvious reason of natural dyes being one of those things that is handed down so “this is how I do it” and “this works for me” is common, I think the cost does keep people from doing more experimentation.

Coming from the cookbook publishing world as an author I know that publishing pays authors very little and gives no budget for recipe testing. I can only imagine that’s equally true in the even more niche craft arena. These books and blogs are a labor of love, not a money maker. It takes time and money to take a scientific approach to figuring out natural dyeing methods. Lots and lots of yarn, time, and money. Most people don’t have that. Even bloggers who are not beholden to publishers have the pressure to churn out new content and new projects all the time.

Ideally, a dyer could say “this is what the scarf looks like at 30 minutes, at 60, at 90” and either decide what is best or present the info and leave it to the reader to decide. I don’t think they have the luxury of during this. Very very few people are paid to experiment in natural dyeing! I think it would be a fun project to make and publish if you were a textile student at a college or university but I can’t imagine many other people being able to do that.

Baring actually replicating their techniques and documenting variations, I do think these authors should either include how they came to the conclusion this was the best or correct way to do the project (bizarrely virtually none did) or simply say, “I can’t test all the variations but this is what works for me” (which a few did).

I read a book that I believe was a PhD thesis, Weaving Rag Rugs: A Women’s Craft in Western Maryland by folklorist Geraldine Niva Johnson, that was published in 1985 and sue mentions that there is talk of funding craftspeople who have skills that were once common or even that are regional and obscure to continue doing them and perhaps teach others. I know Maryland has a folklife grant that does this but it’s not enough to live on. I’m not sure if other states have this program but I do think it’s needed. That’s the kind of funding that could really solidify and advance something like natural dyeing.

I am very motivated but having to piece together information that contradicted each other on a subject I knew little about was very daunting. For most of my life I would not have had the funds to to spend on a “fun” project like this or even take up something like weaving at all. For something like natural dyeing where you can literally forage for the dye or grow it yourself, there should be as few barriers in place as possible.

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 6: This is the End?

Our last post found me holding a loaf of bread in one hand and pulling off maple leaves on the side of the road with the other.

I brought them home and refrigerated them for a couple days while I debated using them.

We had some unseasonably warm days so I went for it.

I damped the scarf and the cotton towels again and rolled the leaves into it. I put the “bottom” of the leaves directly on the scarf.

I boiled them for 1 hr in my steamer pot with 1/2 teaspoon alum, turning every 15 minutes. I left it rolled for 24 hrs and then I unrolled it and let it air dry.

I did get some good leaf prints! I think I achieved my goal of foraging fall while out and about in my everyday life and turning it into something.

Do I love it? No. I was hoping for an abstract sort of print and I think I did do that but I think the alum darkened the scarf too much during the leaf printing. The scarf started out much lighter and got muddier looking as the project progressed.

You can see how much lighter the yarn is than even the blank spots on the scarf. I think it would have looked better with more contrast. I thought the alum might change it a bit but I wasn’t expecting it to be so much darker and muted, everything I read said that alum “brightens” color while iron darkens it which is why I used alum. I would not call this “bright”.

I can’t see doing anymore printing on the scarf but I feel like it needs something else. I might embroider it a bit? I don’t know how much more time I want to devote to it.

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 5: The End?

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure if this is the end or if I might try to do something else with it. It’s been done for over a week and I keep going back and forth.

I don’t love brown or earth tones so I was hoping the eco printing would add some vibrancy to the walnut-dyed scarf. I used what I could find and while it did add color, it was mostly yellow and green shades. I left it wrapped up 24 hrs and the colors are really dark so that’s good at least!

This picture is it in really bright light and backlit. Indoors or worn it really looks more like a natural leopard or cheetah print and less like mold.

I can’t decide if it looks as bad as I think it does or is it just that I don’t like the colors.

I did “forage” some bright orange maple leaves the yesterday outside of the local Italian market. I was debating about eco printing it again with them it but the splotches from the flowers really are all over the scarf. Would the leaves make it look worse? It doesn’t seem like I’d have to mordant it again so it wouldn’t be a big project.

The big question is did I ruin it by the eco printing? I was hoping the red and gold flowers would add red, not just yellow. I wasn’t expecting clear flower outlines because I used squishy, fluffy marigolds and mums but some color variety would have been nice.

Maybe adding leaves would fill in the gaps and make it look more intentional?

As my guild reminded me when I mentioned I was working on it during our last meeting, it is supposed to be an experiment and learning experience but I also want it to look good!

Natural Dyeing Adventures- Black Walnut Scarf part 4: Eco Printing

It took a few days but I got the scarf woven and off the loom. Man, that was tedious. The yarn was basically the same color as the loom, my hands and the table and it was really difficult to stay focused.

I did some simple fringe. As you may recall, I had some issues warping so one end was a little short but short fringe is fine!

When I was in Frederick I “foraged” some marigolds and a few mums to do the eco print. I stuck them in the fridge overnight so they didn’t dry out.

Sunday morning, I whisked together 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon alum and 1 cup water in my big pot. I brought it to a boil. I then added about 2 quarts of water, the scarf and 2 clean, new “flour sack” towels from Aldi I had on hand for craft purposes and simmered it at 180° for 20 minutes.

I pulled them out of the liquid and into a basin.

I took them right outside to my big table and laid out the scarf. I sprinkled it with flowers and topped it with the the towels, folding the towels to the width of the scarf.

I placed two skewers on the end (one would work but I only had shorter ones) and tightly rolled the towels/scarf around the skewers. I tied it shut with kitchen twine.

I dumped out the alum water and added fresh water to cover the bundle. I boiled it for 1 hr, turning it every 15 minutes.

I removed it from the pot and placed it in a basin for 24 hrs.

I did a lot of reading about eco printing. Like everything else with weaving and dyeing there was no real consensus on how long or how exactly to do anything. A manufacturer of alum had you soak the cloth cold, other sources said you had to heat it. Some had you steam or pressure cook the bundles, others had you boil it for 15 minutes, an hour, two hours, four hours, soaking overnight. Some used a mordant like alum (which I chose hoping it would be more colorfast and bright) some did not. Some used iron, some used nothing.

I decided just to do what made sense and hope for the best. I didn’t want to monitor a pot for hours so I didn’t. I couldn’t fit the bundle into the steamer compartment so I boiled it. I don’t know how people boiled or steamed larger bundles! This was a small scarf in a 8 qt pot and it was tight. I did see one example where they wrapped around hoses because that was what they had on hand and that seemed to work rather well because you could form it into a circle and fit it in the pot more easily.

Some sources had you keep the bundle wrapped up for a week! I don’t know where they live but that sounds like a recipe for a moldy project to me.

After I planned all this out and started executing the project a book I ordered from the library came in, The Modern Natural Dyer: A Comprehensive Guide to Dyeing Silk, Wool, Linen, and Cotton at Home by Kristine Vejar which has a similar project but eco printing on old wool fabric/blankets to turn into an a sewing kit of some sort. Her instructions were a bit different than what I ended up doing, timing-wise but it was good to see what I pieced together was on the right track.