Saturday, September 24, 2011

Plant Materials and Natural dyes

Harvesting Black Berry Vine Skin
There are a whole variety of plants which can be used to make plant dyes. Since learning how to dye with black berries and oregon grape roots, I have started experimenting using different plants and materials to dye with. I have tried dying natural materials such as black berry vine skin, with the oregon grape roots producing a yellow color. Dying the black berry vine skin with the black berry fruit, produced a strong dark burgundy color.  The red alder tree, the bark and wood were traditionally used to dye cedar bark red.

Ripe Black Berries
To dye cedar bark black, soak the cedar bark in an iron mordant. To make an iron mordant quickly, for example, boil 1.25 liters of water with 1/2 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup of rusty nails or rusty steal wool for one hour. Leave it to stand for 24 hours and then pour off the water into bottles. This water is the iron mordant. Soak cedar bark in iron mordant until black. Using canning jars, add bark to canning jar, pour over boiling water, add rusty steel wool, pour over more boiling water. Let cool, cover and set in sun or near heat source, like wood stove, fire place, or block heater for 2-3 days, shaking jar once in a while.

Often equal amounts of the plant materials containing the color are needed to produce these dyes. Dying natural fibers such as cedar bark (a dark color), dune grass (a light blond color), black berry vine skin (a light color) all need a mordant for fixing the plant dye so the color does bleed when it gets wet. I am experimenting with dying spruce roots different colors too and will share those pics in future posts.

5 strand Iris leaf braid
All plant fibers that you are going to dye, should be clean. If time permits, wash the plant fibers with washing soda. Boiling for an hour and leaving it soak for a while before using. Not all fibers require this, but experiment. Wool should be cleaned, as well as dog-hair, and then soaked in a mordant and dye mixture.

Alum Mordant prepares the plant fibers to help them absorb the dye better. Potassium Aluminum Sulphate is sold in spice racks at your local super market as Alum. It is also found in fermented urine, which was the traditional method of mordanting material in the old days. Interesting to note if you search the internet, that two mordants are often mixed together to optimize results. The most common mordants I know include iron, tannin, ammonia and alum mordants. Salt, vinegar and wood ashes can also be tried as mordants. Alum mordant usually gives the best results, as it is cheap, very reliable and gives bright colors. Ammonia eats material, and iron mordants less so, but ammonia should be used sparingly or not at all.

Tannin powder can be purchased at wine kit making stores, but you can also use tea. Orange Pekoe Tea contains also contains tannin. Presoak your fiber in the tannin mordant before soaking in the plant dye mixture.

dune grass, aka sea or beach grass
Plant dying materials
Collect the flowers, berries, roots, bark or whatever you plan to use to extract color from. About equal amount of plant dying materials to fiber that you are dying. Cut up roots, bark, flowers, etc into smaller pieces and place into canning jar filling it about 1/2 way. Pour over boiling water covering all of the plant dying material. This canning jar is now filled with the plant dye mixture.

Natural fibers are not often commerically dyed and therefore rarely available. But preserving the knowledge in using natural dyes and fibers help future generations when commercial methods may fail or markets become too expensive. Fibers that I am experiementing with are dune grass, black berry vine skin, iris leaves, cedar bark, and spruce roots. In the future they may be more fibers that I want to dye different colours.

cedar bark
Each time you dye some fibers and discover a new plant dye, keep careful journals of everything you do. If you have a digital camera. Takes pictures of every step that you are taking from harvest, cleaning and storing your material and plant dyes. Experiment using different mordants, or soaking the fibers in the mordant first before dying in the plant dye, or mixing the mordant and plant dye together in a canning jar with the fiber. Find out what works best with the materials you have available.

Plant dyes
Red - cedar bark, Red alder bark, alum mordant
Burgundy, Black berry fruit, alum mordant
Yellow - Oregon Grape Root, alum mordant
Black - cedar bark, Iron mordant

Once you have worked out how to make some colorful plant dyes, there is no need to stop experimenting some more. I can find many suggestions on which plants are good for which colors, however, each land has it own plants which can be used to make dyes. Asking elders, or researching weaving and basketry columns, blogs, articles, even field guide books on identifying species are most helpful. Remember Experiment and try out different plant materials for different colors and note how dye colors look on different fibers.