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Natural v>\Ats> 
avid weaving 

Sara hAorQaiA, ward 

College of the 
Atla \Atio 


Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2011 with funding from 

Lyrasis Members and Sloan Foundation 

Table of Contents 

1) Introduction to Project 

2) Historical Significance of Natural Dyes - with an emphasis on Western Europe 

i) Pictures of cochineal dyeing with Carolyn Grace 

3) A Garden to Dye For 

i) Brief information on dye plants 
ii) Dye plant pressings 
iii) Pictures of dye garden 

4) The Natural Dye Process - Traditional Methods 

i) Pictures of dye process 

5) Alternatives to Traditional Dye Methods 

i) Table of alternative mordants 
ii) Pictures of alternatives 

6) Solar and Bundle Dyeing 

i) Pictures of bundle dye process 

7) Colors I Dyed For 

i) Pictures of Maine dye samples 

ii) Pictures of Colorado dye samples 

iii) Pictures of exotic silk and yarn samples 

8) Weaving 

i) Pictures of weave textures 
ii) Pictures of weaving samplers 

9) Working Bibliography 

Natural Dyes and Weaving 
A brief introduction to natural dyes 

Natural dyes have been used throughout the history of humankind in a variety of 
ways - to color our clothes, paint our skin and change the color of our food. I came to 
the College of the Atlantic with a strong desire to learn more about the plant world, and 
how plants can be effectively utilized in the field of Human Ecology. I also wanted to 
feed my strong artistic drive. My senior project, Natural Dyes and Weaving, perfectly 
combined my two interests. Not only did my senior project turn out to be a lesson in 
botany and art, but also in gardening, weed management, chemistry, history and lots of 

he Historical 

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History of Natural Dyes — with an emphasis on Western Europe 

Until 1856 when synthetic dyes were introduced, extracting color from plants was 
the primary source of obtaining dyes. Today few people use natural dyes and those who 
do, not only preserve a rich tradition, but use more ecologically sound practices. 

Prehistoric people discovered dyes by accident, and throughout the years recipes 
were tested and refined. From 1520 through 1856, approximately 520 books were 
published on the development of new ideas, chemistry, economics, politics and recipes 
related to plant dyeing (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 1964). Plant dyes were commonly 
used for fiber arts such as weaving, knitting, crocheting, macrame, spinning, hooking, 
quilting and stitchery (Casselman, 1980). Plant dyes were also used in cosmetics, picture 
paintings, plant rubbings and body painting. Although plants played a major economic 
role in dyeing for centuries, in the last 150 years natural dyes have been replaced with 
synthetic ones — a change that had significant economic impact on European growers. 

Natural colors played important roles as cultural symbols, often reflecting status, 
class and religion (Lessons to Dye For, 1999). Roman emperors, for example, wore 
clothes made of the hard-to-get reds and purples, while poorer people wore common 
earth tones. Further back in time, the name "Picts" was given to the ancient Celts 
because it meant "painted people." These prehistoric people pierced their skin with flint 
tools and rubbed blue woad plant dye into their skin to frighten enemies in battle (Grae, 
1974). Natural dyes also played a role in war when the British fought the Americans in 
red coats dyed with madder root (Lessons to Dye For, 1999). Madder root was 
considered a luxurious red dye and perfect for the army of the King of England. 

Ancient dyers discovered three methods of dyeing — substantive, vat and 
mordant. In substantive dyeing, the plant pigment is taken directly into the fiber without 
fading or washing out. Onion skins are an example of a substantive dye. 

Vat dyes are water-insoluble and must be acted on by bacteria or chemicals and 
reduced to a substance that is soluble. When a textile is immersed in a vat solution and 
then exposed to air, the dye is oxidized and fixed on the fiber (Grae, 1974). 

Mordant, the most commonly used method of dyeing, is derived from the Latin 
"Modere" meaning ''to bite" (Kierstead, 1972). When a fiber such as wool is treated 
with a mordant, the dye combines with the wool fibers, and after the pigment is received, 
the fiber's pores close, thus making the colors fast (Kierstead, 1972). Mordants can 
"brighten" or "sadden" a color. For example, chrome gives a golden hue, tin brightens 
the color, and iron darkens it (Kierstead, 1 972). 

Mordants that were used through the centuries include wood ashes, blood, urine, 
lye, tree galls, clay, crab-apple juice, sumac, iron nails and old horseshoes (Cassselman, 
1980). Today common mordants include the salts of alum, tin, iron, copper, chrome, 
ammonia, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, washing soda and vinegar. One of the most 
important and ecologically sound mordants is alum, which is mined from the earth and 
often used as a food preservative. Not only is alum much safer than other mordants, 
when it is combined with cream of tartar it brightens colors. Although ancient people 
used alum, it was not common in Europe until the 15th century when it was imported 
from Turkey and countries in Asia Minor (Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, 1964). 

Throughout history, a few plants have stood out for their significant economic and 
historical uses. These plants include indigo (blue), woad (blue), madder (red), weld 

(yellow) and saffron (yellow). The important sources of tannin dyes, which all give 
reddish-tones, include hemlocks, chestnuts, oak and mangroves (Schultes, 1973). 

Indigo, Indigofera tinctoria, is the most unusual and important dye plant. The 
name indigo is derived from "indicum," the Latin word meaning "from India" (Brown, 
1978). The leaves of this shrubby tree contain a colorless compound of indoxyl called 
indican (Grae, 1974). Indigo is unique because of the vibrant blue it produces — a blue 
that does not wash out or fade in light (Grae, 1974). Indigo's first recorded use was in 
China over 6000 years ago, and it remained an important trade item between India and 
other parts of the world for over 2300 years (Simpson, 1995). Eventually indigo was 
cultivated wherever the climate allowed (Kierstead, 1972). In the late 1800s, indigo was 
the last dye to be replaced with a synthetic dye (Grae, 1974). 

Woad, Isatis tinctoria, is one of the oldest dye plants. This biennial is native to 
Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, and has been cultivated in Europe for many 
centuries. Woad, like indigo, contains indigotin in its leaves, although less concentrated. 
For centuries, woad was an important economic crop in Europe (Grae, 1974). Woad 
could be combined with other colors to produce reds, violets and purples. Because of the 
wide range of colors woad produced, it became known as the "Universal Dye of the 
Middle Ages" (Kierstead, 1972). Woad holds a more important place in English 
economic history than any other dye plant (Kierstead, 1972). In fact, the buildings where 
woad was crushed and fermented became known as woad mills, and the smell emanating 
from them was so foul that Elizabeth I forbade its production within five miles of any of 
her estates (Cannon, 1994). Woad was the primary source of blue dye until the 17th 
century when indigo was introduced. After the trade routes with India were established, 

woad growers in England fought the use of indigo and using indigo carried severe 
penalties. In Germany, where woad was grown extensively, anti-indigo laws were 
common. In France, cloth dyers were not allowed to use indigo until 1737 (Grae, 1974); 
consequently, indigo's use was delayed for almost 250 years. Today woad is considered 
a weed, not an exotic dye, and is listed as a pest of alfalfa fields in northern California 
(Grae, 1974). 

Madder, Rubia tinctorium, an ancient source of red known as "dyer's root" 
contains a dense concentration of red pigment in its woody stem. The name "madder" 
means red in several languages (Grae, 1974). The origin of madder is unknown, but 
some botanists speculate that it came from India (Cannon, 1994). The plant was 
cultivated for centuries by the Egyptians and East Indians and later by the Europeans 
(Kierstead, 1972). Madder quickly became economically important in Europe, especially 
in Holland, where it became the principal source of wealth (Grae, 1974). Unfortunately 
by 1869, cultivation of madder dropped from 70,000 tons a year to nothing because 
chemists were synthesizing artificial madder. The European countryside was filled with 
unfilled abandoned madder fields and thousands of starving farmers (Grae, 1974). Today 
madder is cultivated only in a few places to supply a demand from artists for a certain red 
pigment of superior quality (Kierstead, 1972). 

Saffron, Crocus sativus, is unknown in the wild. The vibrant yellow of saffron is 
taken from the plant's pistils and stigmas. Saffron is a unique dye plant because of the 
intensity of color it produces without the aid of a mordant. The origin of saffron is 
unknown, but saffron was grown throughout Spain at the time the Spaniards came to the 
New World (Kierstead, 1972). It was also much esteemed in ancient Persia where 

documents and robes were dyed with it (Cannon, 1994). Today saffron is heavily 
cultivated in New Mexico and other areas and used to color food (Kierstead, 1 972). 

Weld, Reseda luteola, one of the best yellow dyes, is native to the Mediterranean 
and has been used for thousands of years (Brown, 1978). In 1243 Cardon, who wrote the 
oldest rules of the dyer's profession in the West, forbade the use of any other yellows. 
Weld, at this time, was thought to give the most permanent color (qtd. Cannon, 1994). 
The Romans used weld for dyeing wedding garments and robes of vestal virgins 
(Cannon, 1994). Overtime, weld was gradually superseded by black oak, which by 
weight produced a more vibrant color (Cannon, 1 994). 

Plant tannins also produce color and are found in small amounts throughout most 
plant tissues, although they concentrate in bark and damaged tissues such as galls and 
wounds (Cannon, 1994). Perennial plants often have more tannins in their leaves than 
annuals, and evergreen trees have a higher tannin content than most deciduous trees 
(Simpson, 1995). Because the reddish-tones of tannins are harder to extract, plant 
material such as bark must be soaked in a dyebath at least one week before use. One 
primary use of tannins is in commercial leather tanning. 

Natural dyes were more or less phased out after 1 856 when William Henry 
Perkins produced the first synthetic dye at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. 
He was trying to derive quinine, a treatment for malaria. Instead, Perkins produced a 
purple, which he called "mauve." By 1859, chemists had discovered other colors. Most 
colors are synthesized from aniline, which is derived from coal tar (Brown, 1978). 
Because dyes fade quickly, azo compounds are added to make the colors fast (Brown, 

1978). Very quickly the synthetic dyes took over, leaving natural dyes a thing of the 

Today a handful of people still prefer to use natural dyes. Weavers, for example, 
often feel that dyeing is an important part of the weaving process. Sue Grosjean, a 
weaver from Franklin, Maine, spends a large part of her summers dyeing wool with local 
flora to be used throughout the year. Grosjean prefers the look of natural earth tones in 
her woven rugs. Although she uses an array of mordants, she prefers alum because it is 
less toxic than other mordants. At one time she used chrome, but has since abandoned it 
because of its toxicity. Grosjean said that plant dyeing is not only satisfying, but helps 
her to gain appreciation and knowledge of local plants. 

John and Carolyn Grace, weavers and owners of Swan's Island Blanket 
Company, also prefer to use natural dyes in their traditional Maine blankets. In the 
summer of 2000, Carolyn Grace and I spent an afternoon dyeing wool with cochineal 
bugs that she later used for stripes in a blanket. Carolyn repeatedly expressed the 
importance of using only natural dyes because of the unique signature it gives her 

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Creating a dye garden in Bar Harbor, Maine 

A lot of thought went into planning my dye garden. For example, my biggest 
obstacle was limited gardening space; I only had 1 00 square feet to work with. 
Consequently, not only did the plants have to grow well in Maine, they also needed to 
yield a large amount of dye from a small amount of plant material. I wanted plants that 
were historically important and that would also allow me to experiment with different 
types of dye processes. The plants chosetuncluded: Dyer's coreopsis {Coreopsis 
tinctoria), marigold (Tagetes spp.), weld {Reseda luteola) and woad {Isatis tinctoria). 

In the spring of 2000, 1 started my dye plants from seed and germinated them in 
the College of the Atlantic's greenhouse. The seedlings hardened off near the end of 
May, at this time they were a few inches tall. While the plants were in the greenhouse, I 
began to till my 1 00-square-foot garden plot in the College of the Atlantic's community 
gardens, and repeated this until the soil flushed its upper-most seed bank. Once the plot 
was largely weed-free and composted, I planted the seedlings around the first of June. 

Throughout the summer, I watered, weeded and mulched the dye plants until they 
were ready to be harvested around the middle of August. However, in the case of Dyer's 
coreopsis, which is a fast grower, I plucked and froze hundreds of its flowers throughout 
the entire summer. I also compensated the yield by potting additional marigold and 
Dyer's coreopsis to supplement my anticipated dye needs later in my project. 



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Brief Information on Dye Plants 

Dyer's Coreopsis 

Dyer's coreopsis, a native wildflower of the Great Plains, was an incredibly satisfying 
plant to grow. This coreopsis is a hardy annual and capable of withstanding long periods 
of full hot sun and overcrowding. This plant, once matured, produces hundred of nickel- 
sized gold and red flowers. I plucked and froze the flowers until I had enough to create 
an adequately-sized dyebath. I experimented with both frozen and fresh flowers and did 
not notice any differences in the two different processing methods. The entire coreopsis 
plant can be used in the dyebath and the flowers produce a deep rich brownish-red color. 


Marigolds are an annual and one of the most common garden plants in the United States. 
They thrive in well-drained soils in all gardening zones. Marigolds, like Dyer's 
coreopsis, can survive long hot spells with little attention, and the flowers can also be 
frozen. However, they require attention early on; they must have their tips pinched off at 
seedling stage to promote branching. The marigold plant makes a very rich blood-red 
dyebath, but it also emits a strong irritating odor that makes it necessary to complete the 
dye process outdoors. 


I chose the weld plant because of its historical reputation of producing an unmatched 
lightfast clear yellow color. Weld is a biennial and needs a little extra attention in its 

early stages. Once established, weld thrives in hot sun with little water. I did routinely 
have to thin the weld section, because of overcrowding, to promote growth. Weld plants 
make a very flat rosette 6-10 inches wide of shiny, bright oblong leaves with wavy 
rippled edges (Buchanan, 1995). The plant sends up stalks with small yellowish flowers. 
I harvested the entire plant right when it had begun flowering in mid to late August. 


Woad was my most difficult dye plant because I initially had trouble establishing it in the 
garden plot, and then it required constant mulching. Woad, a biennial, is famous in Great 
Britain and throughout Europe for its historical blue dye and hardiness in colder climates. 
It adapts very easily, but thrives best in deep rich soils. The woad plant makes a flat 
rosette of glossy deep-green foliage. The leaves are oblong, 6-10 inches long, with 
smooth or wavy edges. Because of its adaptability, woad is often considered a "noxious" 
weed. Therefore, knowing its growing capabilities, I took special care in removing every 
inch of rhizome from the garden plot after harvesting. Woad requires a somewhat 
complicated extraction process. I grew about 30 woad plants and only received enough 
blue dye to color a half-pound of wool. 

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Dye Process - Traditional Method 

After harvesting my plants, I started the dye process. For centuries people wrote 
books on the dye process; however, I still felt it was a good lesson in trial and error to 
experiment with many different methods. Over the course of this project, I developed my 
own system and consulted the literature only when I felt unclear about a specific subject 
or part of a process. The dye process below illustrates the method I used for Dyer's 
coreopsis, marigold, weld and many other plants. 

The dye process begins with finely chopping the plants into small pieces. The 
best tool for this is a sharp pair of gardening clippers, since these work especially well for 
chopping woody stems or thick stalks. One can successfully shred most plant and flower 
material by hand. A good rule of thumb is a ratio of 2:1, with twice the weight of plant 
material to fiber-being-dyed for an average dyebath. Put the plant material into a 
stainless steel pot, the bigger the better, and cover it with cool tap water. The dyebath 
color deepens with the amount of plant material added. This amount is completely up to 
the dyer and the color she wishes to obtain from the dyebath. I always used as much 
dyestuff as possible because I enjoy deep rich colors. 

Add the water and bring the pot to a boil in a well-ventilated area, preferably 
outside, since the plants can emit a very strong unpleasant odor. The dyebath can be 
boiled anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours. Boiling the dyebath draws out the dye 
molecules from the plants. As the dyebath boils, a large amount of the liquid evaporates, 
and this can be remedied by adding fresh water to keep the desired level. Once one 
reaches the desired color (taking samples in a mason jar and holding to the light for 
examination) the pot should be taken off the heat and left in a safe place to cool. Once 

cooled, strain the dyebath into a clean container. Some people do the actual dyeing with 
the dyestuffs left in the bath* however I found that straining the dyestuffs out makes the 
process less messy in later stages. Wear rubber gloves and squeeze the dyestuffs to 
remove any excess dye. The dyebath is now ready for a mordant and fiber. 

"In Egypt they also colour cloth by an exceptionally remarkable kind of process. They 
first thoroughly rub white fabrics and then smear them not with colours but with 
chemicals that absorb colour. When this has been done, the fabrics show no sign of the 
treatment, but after being plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye they are drawn out a 
moment later. And the remarkable thing is that although the cauldron contains only one 
colour, it produces a series of different colours on the fabric, the hue changing with the 
quality of the chemical employed, and it cannot afterwards be washed out." 
-- Pliny the Elder (Smith, 1993). 


Mordanting remains a very common and important step in most of natural dyeing. 
Mordants help the dye molecules permeate the fiber, and help prevent the dye from 
washing out or fading in light. Mordants will not erode the surface of the fiber, but they 
form a molecular bond, called a 'lake', that provides a suitable surface for dyeing. The 
mordants and dye bond with the dyestuffs to form a permanent color (Casselman, 2000). 
Traditional mordants include mineral salts of alum, tin, iron, copper and chrome. Most 
dyebaths fall between 6-11 on the pH scale. Mordants usually change the pH of the 
dyebath, and changes in pH levels determine the color. The dyebath should not be too 
high or too low on the pH scale, because this is the fastest way to damage fibers. A 
serious dyer always comes equipped with a role of litmus paper to check each dyebath. 

In a nutshell, mordants change the color of the dyebath. For example, alum 
intensifies yellow, chrome intensifies oranges, copper intensifies greens, iron "saddens" 
the color and tin brightens colors (Casselman, 2000). 

A good test for mordants is the paper cup test - put a very small pinch of each 
mordant into a paper cup and properly label the cups. Then fill the cups halfway with 
liquid from the cooled dyebath. After mixing the liquid and mordant, the possible range 
of colors becomes obvious and the dyer can then decide on which color is most desirable. 
Traditional Mordanting Methods 

There are three traditional ways of mordanting fiber: pre-mordanting, post- 
mordanting and simultaneous mordanting. The first, pre-mordanting, is when the dyer 
treats the fiber with a mordant before adding it to the dyebath. The advantage to this 
method is that the dyer obtains an array of colors from a single dyebath just by adding 
pre-mordanted fibers. The drawback to this method is that it takes extra time and 
planning. If alum is being used, pre-mordanting gives the best results. 

In post-mordanting, the dyer adds the mordant after removing fiber from the 
dyebath. This method works best when using iron and tin, which are more safely handled 

The third and easiest mordanting method is the simultaneous method, where the 
dyer adds the mordant directly to the dyebath. However, one must conduct the paper cup 
test before adding a mordant in order to get the right color. I used simultaneous 
mordanting most frequently and liked the results most of the time. 

Once a mordant is chosen it must be measured and dissolved in a jar with warm 
water before adding it to the dyebath. The table below shows the mordant measurements 
I used for four ounces of dry weight of fiber. 

Alum; aluminum potassium sulphate - 1 heaping teaspoon 

Tin; stannous chloride - % teaspoon 

Iron; ferrous sulphate - % teaspoon 

Copper; copper sulphate -1 teaspoon 

Chrome; potassium dichromate - l A teaspoon 

(Casselman, 2000). 

Once the mordant is added, the fiber can then be added. However, before the 
fiber goes into the dyebath, it must be washed with a mild detergent and soaked overnight 
in cool water. Pre-soaking opens the fiber's pores, which makes it more ready to absorb 
the dye molecules. Pre-soaking also lessens the shock to the fiber when the dyebath is 
heated. For my project, I dyed only with wool and silk fibers - two protein fibers that are 
excellent receptors for dye molecules. 

After adding the fiber, the dyebath, is slowly brought to a very low simmer and 
kept this way for about an hour while stirring occasionally. The fiber should have 
enough room to float about freely. Once the fiber is added to the dyebath, the water 
should never boil. Boiling the mordanted dyebath has severe negative effects on the fiber 
quality, especially wool, which will felt. 

After an hour on the heat, the pot is removed and left in a safe place to cool. 
After the dyebath cools, the fibers are removed and washed starting with very hot water 
and slowly dropping the temperature until cool. Leave the fibers in a shady place to dry. 
Vat Dyes 

Exceptions exist, such as the woad plant which requires a special dye process 
known as a "vat" dye to extract the blue indigo pigment. Vat dyes are water-insoluble 
and must be acted on by a bacteria or chemicals and reduced to a soluble substance. The 
color magically appears when the fiber is immersed in a vat solution and then oxidized in 
the air (Grae, 1974). The amount of literature on vat dyes is staggering, but luckily 
natural dyer Rita Buchanan developed an easy and straightforward woad-processing 

Buchanan's process starts by using fresh leaves of 24 woad plants. The leaves are 
put into a clean heavy-duty pail. Pour boiling water over the leaves and cover the bucket 
with a tight fitting lid and leave it for an hour. 

After an hour strain the dark fluid from the leaves, and using rubber gloves, 
squeeze the leaves to remove any excess dye. Add one tablespoon of baking soda and 
pour the solution from one container to another for three minutes. After this step add one 
tablespoon of Spectralite, a reducing agent, to the dark liquid and stir briefly. Next, 
cover the liquid once again and set in a large container of water hot enough to keep the 
dyebath at a temperature between 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Once the dyebath sits in the double boiler for an hour, carefully lower the pre- 
soaked fiber into the dyebath, and take care not to cause bubbles, as this oxygenates the 
dyebath. Soak fiber in the mustard-yellow dyebath for 20 minutes and then lift it out. 

Magically, as the fiber oxidizes with the air, it turns blue. The fiber should dry in a shady 
place for as long as it soaked in the dyebath. Successive dips can be done to intensify the 
blue color. The dyebath can be used until all the pigment is used up (Buchanan, 1 995). I 
thought the woad dye process provided a wonderful learning experience, though I was a 
little disappointed with the mottled blue color. 

Once the dyebaths are exhausted they must be properly discarded. Alum and iron 
dyebaths can be poured around either garden or native plants that prefer acidic soils. 
Copper can be poured over a gravel driveway where it will be out of the reach of animals 
and water sources. Chrome and tin, very toxic substances, should be taken to a hazardous 
waste site (Buchanan, 1995). 

I used traditional methods for the majority of my dyes, and felt satisfied with the 
majority of my results. However, I was concerned with the excessive use of mordants 
that many recipes demanded. I knew that they were somewhat toxic substances, but I ran 
into very little literature regarding the dangers traditional mordants pose, or on the proper 
way of disposing them. As a Human Ecology student, I knew the importance of 
embracing ecologically sound dye practices, but I had a hard time learning what these 
practices were. 

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Dye Process - Alternative Method 

During the summer of 2000, 1 attended a week-long seminar at the Humboldt 
Field Research Institute, located in Steuben, Maine. The course, taught by Karen 
Casselman, was titled "Indigenous and Investigative Natural Dyes." Casselman, a 
Research Associate at the Nova Scotia Museum, has taught natural dyes courses 
throughout North America, Europe and Australia. Her natural dye research is published 
in books, workbooks and articles. I arrived at the seminar feeling confident that I knew 
just about everything there was to know about natural dyes. However, I left realizing that 
this was not the case. 

Casselman introduced me to a very important aspect of natural dyeing that I 
completely neglected to consider. She made me realize that I needed to redirect my focus 
from looking at old dye recipes to examining the actual dye process. 

Casselman is a pioneer in the new philosophy of natural dyeing using what she 
calls "ecodyes." I recognized the importance of her ecodye philosophy. She said that 
dyers are interdisciplinary by definition, and our work includes disciplines of ethics, 
ecology, textiles as aspects of gender, race, environment, labor and health. She brought 
up the fact that our work is very dimensional - we do not live in a vacuum, and our work 
must reflect this reality. Casselman pointed out that we need to pay closer attention to 
where and how we work, the materials we use and how we harvest and manufacture 
materials. We need to examine our own methods and techniques and see the impact they 
have on the environment (Casselman, 2000). 

Alternative Mordants 

Casselman questions the use of traditional mordants. She suggested we must 
limit or banish use of traditional mordants in order to move towards becoming 
sustainable dyers. 

Chrome is used industrially in leather tanning and as a photographic developing 
agent. Copper serves as an agricultural fungicide. Iron is used as a soil additive, and tin 
is a close relative to dental fluoride. Of the five traditional mordants, alum is the only 
one documented not to have negative or toxic side effects (Casselman, 2000). 

If traditional mordants are so harmful, why do we continue to use them? 
Tradition is one reason. These mordants, with the exception of chrome, have been used 
for thousands of years and documented in many sources. Old habits die hard. 

Even though they're harmful, traditional mordants are inexpensive, easy to use, 
and their results so appealing. However, regardless of tradition and expense, there are 
ways of getting around dangerous mordants and still achieving successful results. 

Ecologically sound mordants have become the logical and ethically sound 
solution. Ecological mordants come from five categories: cosmetics, food, household 
products, metals and natural organisms. During the seminar, we experimented with many 
alternative mordants and they worked just as well, if not better, than traditional mordants. 
I soon realized I was surrounded by ecological mordants in my everyday life. Below are 
a few alternative examples that Casselman published in her book Ethical and Ecological 
Dyes: A Workbook for the Natural Dyer (2000). 



How to use 




pound into fabric 

'marble' effect 




intensifies color 



soak ashes and strain 

increases pH 

baking soda 



shifts color 



cook and strain 

tannic acid increases yellow/brown 




brass item intensify color 




increases pH 



substitute for water 

lowers pH 



soak used tobacco in 
water, strain 

chemicals in tobacco=mordant 




substitute for alum 




darkens colors 

copper pipe 



as above 

cream of 



aids in alum absorption 



rub onto fabric 

similar to alum 



post-dye soak 

shifts colors 



mix pigments with 

traditional fabric sizing and pigment 

fruit juice 


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post vrjpveUnT 

traditional mordant in aboriginal 

glass cleaner 


post dye treatment 

substitute for household ammonia 

Glauber's salt 



aids dye penetration 



pound into fabric 

see eggs 




dilute solution=pastels, strong = hair 
colors, can modify other dyes 

During my experiments, I used three alternative mordanting techniques that 
worked very well. These techniques included plant-as-mordant, pot-as-mordant and 
mordant tea. 

For the plant-as-mordant experiment, I used sumac, which grows both in Maine 
and in the Rocky Mountains. Sumac contains natural tannic acid that acts as a mordant to 
produce deep rich purples. 

In the second method, pot-as-mordant, I used old brass and copper pots filled with 
dye liquor and fiber and left to soak. The metal ions from the pots shift the dyebath 
color, thus also acting as a mordant. 

The third technique I used was mordant teas. I made a juniper ash mordant tea, 
and soaked my fiber in the mixture prior to being added to the dyebath. Soaking in 
juniper, or any other wood ash, can also be done after the fiber is removed from the 
Alternative Dyeing Technique 

After learning about ecological mordanting substitutes, Casselmen turned the 
focus to our dye technique. She said that as dyers, we have come to rely on traditional 
mordants as compensation for good technique. She taught us alternative methods to the 
traditional dye process. 

The alternative dye process starts by extracting dye from plants. Instead of 
boiling the plants, as done in traditional methods, we took extractions. Begin by filling a 
stock pot with shredded plant material and adding a small amount of water, just enough 
to cover half of the plant material. Cover the pot and steam the plants, just like you do 
vegetables, then strain dye liquor. Repeat the steaming and straining process three times, 

or until the plants look exhausted. My observations found that the second extraction 
yielded the highest dye concentration. 

Once the extractions are complete, add the fiber and mordant to the dyebath. Heat 
the dyebath and leave it to simmer for an hour, making sure there is enough liquid for the 
fiber to float about freely. After an hour, take the pot from the heat and let it cool, 
leaving the fiber in the dyebath. Repeat the heat and cool step once a day for a week. 
Leaving the fiber undisturbed in the dyebath for such a long period of time gives the fiber 
a chance to absorb the maximum amount of dye, which aids in color fastness. 

The dyebath is strained, and the fiber remains in the strainer to dry. Contrary to 
previous methods, in which the fiber is immediately rinsed, the fiber has a chance to 
"rest" in the strainer. This step allows the fiber to absorb any excess dye. Once the fiber 
is completely dry, I put it into a black plastic bag and left it in a hot sunny place to heat- 
set for either a few days or weeks. Heat-setting the fiber helps with fastness, although 
fastness can also be achieved by steaming the fiber. After rinsing the fiber, leave it in a 
shady place to dry. 

Although the alternative dye process takes longer than previous methods, it 
enables us to cut back or even stop using toxic mordants. Revising the dyeing technique 
aids in the quality and fastness of fiber. Ultimately, what determines a good dye job is 
the technique and patience we put into our work. 

Substantive Dyes 

Substantive dyes bond without the aid of a mordant, and represent another way to 
avoid using dangerous mordants. Materials that produce substantive dyes include onion 
skins, tumeric, oak, walnut, sumac, indigo, woad and lichens. 

During the seminar, we experimented with two different types of lichen dyes, and 
learned that lichens can be processed in one of two ways. The boiling water method 
starts by gathering a bucket full of 'weedy' lichens. They soak overnight, covered 
halfway with water and liberally doused with table salt. The fiber is then sandwiched 
between layers of lichen and heated. The pot, set up as a double boiler, heats and cools 
over a period of three days. The boiling water method produces earthy browns and a 
heavenly smell. 

The second lichen processing method is the ammonia method. This process 
begins by filling a mason jar 2/3 full with crushed lichens. Ammonia is added to cover 
half of the lichens, the lid placed firmly on, the jar shaken and left to stand for three days. 
The ammonia starts a microbial reaction, which later produces the dye. After a few days 
a brown liquid forms and water is added, in the same ratio as ammonia. To ensure 
agitation, the jar is stirred until bubbles form, the lid replaced and the mixture left to 
stand for a year. However the jar must be shaken once a day to continue the microbial 
process. Leaving the jar next to the toilet is a good place in making sure the jar has its 
daily shake. 

After a year, the mixture turns from a dark brown to a deep rich burgundy color, the 
lichens are strained, and the dye is ready. Pre-soaked fibers are quickly dipped in the 
dyebath and it produces deep purples which exhaust to light pinks. 
Sustainable Salvaging 

The last thing that should be mentioned concerns harvesting dyestuff. Lichens, 
for example, have many closely related species, many of which are incredibly rare. 
Because most of us are not lichenologists, it may be hard to distinguish a weedy lichen 
from an endangered one, therefore its best not to harvest at all. 

A safe rule to follow when collecting is to collect only weedy plants, making sure 
they are properly identified, because many weedy and noxious plants produce great dyes. 
Dyestuffs, such as onion skins, can be gathered from the grocery store. Public parks, 
after pruning, are another great place to gather leaves and branches. Better yet, grow a 
dye garden. 

Karen Casselman and her natural dye seminar gave me faith. I realized that 
natural dyeing is not a musty old craft, but instead an art form that has a lot of room for 


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Solar and Bundle Dyes 

Solar and bundle dyes are another natural dyeing alternative. These methods use 
the sun to provide 'heat', and instead of dye pots, plastic bags are used (Casselman, 
2000). Both techniques produce interesting and individualized results. However, the 
down side is that these techniques act more as pigments (semi-permanent; only partially 
absorbed), instead of dyeing, where color is entirely absorbed. Consequently, solar and 
bundles dyes are not very fast to washing and light, but it is the results that make these 
methods so appealing. 
Solar Dyes 

To make a solar dye, add moist plant material to a zip-lock bag along with damp 
fiber. Add a mordant tea for additional moisture and seal the bag. Place the bag in a 
sunny location and knead it daily to ensure even dyeing. After a few weeks, remove the 
fiber and dry it thoroughly. At this stage, the fiber can either be 'saddened' in an iron tea, 
or re-dyed (Casselman, 2000). Because solar dyes are classified as pigments, only wash 
the finished piece if necessary, and only after it has plenty of time to 'rest.' 
Bundle Dyes 

The second technique, bundle dyes, produces interesting colors and patterns. I 
experimented with many bundle dyes using silk scarves, a fiber I found to work 
exceptionally well. 

To make a bundle dye, the silk should first be mordanted with alum. The moist 
silk is laid out flat, liberally sprayed with an ammonia-based glass cleaner, such as 
Windex. Salt and plant material are sprinkled over the silk. Any plant material will 
work, and I found that both roasted or rotten red onion skins produce amazing results. 

More salt is added. At this point rusty nails, horseshoes or another metal object can be 
added for an interesting effect. 

Next, bundle the silk and its contents and secure the ball with many rubber bands. 
The bundle is placed in a zip-lock bag and sprayed again with Windex. Seal the bag and 
set it in a sunny place. 

After a few months, the bundle is removed and completely dried. The bundle can 
either be added to a dyebath or unwrapped. However, it is crucial to let the bundle totally 
dry before unwrapping. The rubber bands that hold the bundle together, act as a resist on 
the silk, and unwrapping prematurely creates a muddy effect. Once unwrapped and 
rinsed, the silk is heat-set using an iron. 

Today one of the most financially successful natural dyers, Christopher Leich, 
works extensively with bundle dyes. This Kansas City-based artist ferments barley and 
other grains in his silk bundles. The mold from the fermentation process imprints 
beautiful designs on silk. Leich' s work is not only popular among the people of 
America's Bread Basket, but also worldwide. 

Of all my experiments with natural dyeing, I found bundle dyes to be the most 
rewarding. The creative possibilities seem endless, and I love the batik-looking results 
bundle dyes yield. 

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Colors I Dyed For 

This section focuses on colors produced from the dye process. My dyes were 
extracted primarily from plants harvested in Maine during the summer of 2000. I also 
have color samples of plant dyes collected during the fall of 2000 in Colorado's Rocky 
Mountain region. The last dyestuff I experimented with were exotic dyes, purchased at 
the Taos Wool Festival, in New Mexico. 

I dyed many of my fiber samples using traditional mordants, although I tried to 
limit mordant use to Vi of the recommended measurements. I also re-used mordant baths 
when possible. Most of my experimentation with alternative mordants took place near 
the end of my dyeing trials, and primarily on silk fibers. 

In my use of traditional mordants, I avoided chrome because of its toxicity. The 
only exception to this was with my exotic dye samples, for which I purchased small pre- 
mordanted yarn samples. When handling the chrome samples, I used extreme caution. 

For future dye projects, my goal is to stop using traditional mordants completely. 
However, I think this will take many years of practice and experimentation. Near the end 
of my dyeing work, I was able to substitute traditional iron mordant with an iron tea. 
Soaking fiber for weeks in a bucket filled with water and iron nails makes iron tea. 

Color extracted from the same plant can vary. Variations may be caused by one 

or more of the following things (Smith, 1993): 

species and variety of plant 

time of year and age of plant when harvested 

dry vs. fresh plant 

soil and climate where plant grew 

type of processing of fiber 

when mordanting was done 

ratio of dyestuff to fiber 

purity of mordant 

• metal of pot 

• water hardness 

• other trace elements in water 

• acidity or alkalinity of water 

• temperature of dyebath 

Considering the numerous variables, it is often hard to repeat the same color 
twice. This is the beauty of natural dyeing and what makes this art unique. 

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I wove samplers over the course of many cold Colorado afternoons, on a 
Harrisville Designs floor loom, with a 22-inch weaving diameter, using a ten-inch dent 
reed. I felt somewhat limited with the size of my weaving because of my small loom. 

Each weaving focuses on a particular plant and the different color variations I 
obtained. For example, in the case of the Dyer's coreopsis sampler, five distinct colors 
came from the flowers, just by using different mordants in the dyebath. I feel that the 
samplers really represent the influence of mordants. 

Once the wool was measured and the loom warped, I started weaving. Each 
sampler incorporates a different twill variation. After completing the weaving, I cut the 
cloth from the loom and washed and ironed each piece. All of the samplers bled excess 
dye when washed, but the colors remained strong once dry. The final ironing helps heat- 
set the dyes one last time. 

I found weaving the samplers very satisfying. It gave me an opportunity to enjoy 
and experiment with the naturally dyed fibers. Most importantly, weaving was a very 
rewarding finish to all the hard work I put into the dye process. 


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Working Bibliography 

Adrosko, R. (1971). Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing . Dover, NY. 

Barber, E. (1994). Women's Work. The First 20,000 Years: 
Cloth and Society . Norton, NY. 

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (1964). Dye Plants and Dyeing: A Handbook . 
Vol. 20. No. 3. 

— Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (1964). Natural Plant Dyeing: A Handbook . 
Vol. 29. No. 2. 

Brown, R. (1978). The Weaving. Spinning and Dyeing Book . New York: 
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 

Buchanan, R. (1995). A Dyer's Garden . Boulder, Colorado: Interweave 
Press Inc. 

Cannon, J and M. (1994). Dye Plants: and dyeing . London: Herbert Press Ltd. 

Casselman, K. (1980). Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens 

of the Northeast . Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 1993 revised edition. 

Casselman, K. (2000). Ethical and Ecological Natural Dyes: Guidelines . 
Nova Scotia Dept. Culture and Tourism, Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

Dean, J. (1996). Natural Dyes Without Chemicals . Privately published, Sheffield, UK. 

Dean, J. (1999). Wild Color . Mitchell Beazley, London. 

Edwards, L. Personal interview. 10 February 1999. 

Grace, C. Personal interview. 15 June 2000. 

Grae, I. (1974). Nature's Colors: Dyes from Plants . London: Collier 
MacMillan Publishers. 

Green, C.L. (1995). Natural Colors and Dyestuffs . Rome: Publication 

Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Grosjean, S. Personal interview. 8 February 1999. 

Kierstead, S. (1972). Natural Dyes . Boston: Branden Press Publishers. 

Kluger, M. (1991). The Joy of Spinning . New York: Henry Holt and Company. 

Lessons to Dye For. (1999). "Plant Colors Throughout History". 1 .html. 
(1999, February 2). 

Liles, J. (1990). The Art and Craft of Natural Dyes . University of 
Tennessee Press, Knoxville. 

Norwood, K. Personal interview. 14 February 1999. 

Smith, J. (1993). Medieval Dyes . Loveland, CO: Spinning Madly Publishers. 

3 5105 00073 9504