Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble

I've been debating the merits of learning natural dyeing for a while and have felt an attraction to learn more about the types of dyes used by ancient and indigenous cultures. That, coupled with an interest in more ecology-friendly dyeing processes led me to wonder about the benefits of natural rather than chemical dyeing.

A few months ago I met Sarah Burnett, a life long natural dyer who lives right in my area and was offering a local class this week in natural dyeing. So I signed right up.
See all those containers lined up on the work tables in our kitchen area? The names and origins of the natural dyes are themselves fascinating -- cochineal, madder, safflower, weld, black walnut, to name a few. The processes are more labor intensive and product specific than working with cold water reactive dyes, where one size pretty much fits all; and the results are, surprisingly, not dissimilar to what I get working with chemical dyes. In my usual Libra-like fashion, I weighed the pluses and minuses of natural versus chemical dyes.

For me the negatives of natural dyeing are the lengthy time it takes to mordant and soak the fabrics before dyeing (one hour each before each successive application of dye) and the hot water processing. Lining up pots of dyes and bringing the solutions up to and maintaining proper temperatures while stirring every ten minutes is less flexible than the direct application processes that I use (painting, layering, silk screening). Sarah did say it is possible to do direct application dyeing with natural dyes and then let them air cure for four weeks to set them.

Here's Sarah. She has primarily a weaving background and is fascinated by shibori, a Japanese resist process which creates compressed areas on fabric surfaces that resist applied dyes. When the fabric is opened up, the dyed and undyed areas create a variety of patterns, depending on how the resists are done. Shibori is a labor intensive process that, with patience, can yield lovely results.
Stitched, bound and clamped resists are alluring and I've worked with all of them over the past 12-14 years that I've been dyeing and printing, but currently I've been favoring less labor intensive resists that are applied with brushes and screens and stamps and stencils, etc.
So I reaffirmed during this two days that my personal work will continue to be with those processes and my shibori days are in the past!

All in all, the two days were enjoyable and informative and provided a lot of new information to digest and consider. What natural dye process would I DEFINITELY return to again after this first experience? I would have to say indigo, which is probably the most toxic of the natural dyeing processes we used because it requires lye and thiorea dioxide to activate it. I've worked with it before in classes but didn't see how I could maintain an indigo pot in my studio.

However, we mixed a small three gallon vat and I could heat that to the correct temperature right in my own studio and store it in between dyeing sessions. With a lid and an gas cartridge face mask and open window I wouldn't worry about fumes;I think I could store the solution and reactivate it to use again over a period of months, which would lessen the amount of chemicals I'd pour down the drain. The unique gradations of blue that indigo offers -- difficult to duplicate with chemical dyes --could be a wonderful addition to my processes.

So all in all, it was a positive experiment to try natural dyeing. I met some terrific people, enjoyed a break from thinking about my own series and got to explore a whole different approach to dyeing right in my own home town -- a winning combination!


  1. Jeanne, you might find this new book of interest: "Eco Colour" by Australian textile artist India Flint. See my recent blog post for more details.

  2. OK, I'm reading this after spending the last 4 days with Kerr Gabrowski doing soy wax, thiox, and MX dyes and I'm thinking I'll probably start glowing soon, but I know myself well enough to know I wouldn't have the patience for the natural dyes.

  3. I love, love indigo. I think the thing to do is just do lots of dyeing once you have the mordants and dyes mixed and do enough to last for awhile. I would love to try the direct application - haven't seen that done.

  4. Welcome to the world of natural dyes! It is always very interesting hear how people turn from synthetic dye to natural! You might be itnerested in learning to use extracts of natural dyes of which there are a number on the market. They come in a powder from and can be mixed with water and used immediately-no soaking heating etc although you still have to mordant.
    with best wishes Helen, a very passionate natural dyer!

  5. You can do a lot with natural dyes that is not discussed in most traditional natural dye books!

    Colour has been applied to surfaces for thousands of years using natural dyes and earth pigments, whilest chemical dyes for a little more than 150 years.

    Unless your going for a solid color with no mottling it is NOT necessary to stir the fabric, or fiber, every 10 minutes! On the contrary I do a lot of cold water dyeing and simply leave my cloth to sit, in the dyebath, for days or weeks on end.

  6. If your working primarily with silk or cotton fabric you do not need to heat your indigo dye vat, period!

    Only wool requires heat, heating the wool opens the fibers to recieve the pigment (indigo is actually a pigment not a dye as it sits on the surface of the fiber).

    I keep my vat year round in my stuido sink, it lives in a 4 gallon bucket with a lid.

    Also you don't have to use lye you can use fermented urine for your vat - this I recommend you keep out of doors.