When I tried to explain to a friend what I was doing last Friday with three women friends, I called it "A Summer Dye-In." She thought I meant some kind of wierd afternoon seminar about death. I said: "No, I mean dye with an "e." She smiled and said: "Is the "e" for Ellen?" I then explained to her that a "dyeing get-together in the world of spinners and weavers means an afternoon of dye-ing fibers, fabric, or fleece.....and in this case, we were using natural dye plants found in our yards, gardens, and other "normal" areas. I say "normal" to indicate that we were not foraging for dye plants in the desert or the forest although some lovely oak sticks with lichens on them did show up.
We decided to use only natural dyes from the plants we gathered and two mordants, iron and alum. (A mordant is a liquid bath with something in it that will help the cloth or fiber to absorb the dye.) In this case we were using an interesting process of laying pieces of the dye plants directly on white silk scarves so the scarves had to be soaked in the mordant at a certain temperature before we could stretch them out on the table and start laying on our dye plant pieces. (This process is described in India Flint's book Eco Color.) The berries above are elderberries. I can't tell you exactly what color they give, as it depends on the mordant but my natural dye book shows a pale lavender and a lavender-blue.
Here you see commercially prepared natural dyes (OK, we cheated a little): logwood, madder, and cochineal. Cochineal is not a plant--it is a bug that lives on a South American type of cactus. It gives a brilliant red hue, which is very rare among natural dyes. The Spanish coveted this dye but the native people kept their secret--when the Spanish soldiers saw the natives gathering the cactus at night, they rushed in and demanded the cactus. Of course, before presenting their treasure to the powers-that-be when they returned to Spain, they washed off all the little bugs! Or so the story goes among members of the fiber community. The white powder is alum (a mordant) and the plants in the plastic bag are sunflower petals and some black-eyed Susans which give a beautiful soft orange color. The most interesting thing about dyeing with natural dyes is that what you get in many cases does not bear any resemblance to the original plant!
Black-Eyed Susans give a color ranging from bright yellow to a more pale yellow when printed. Basically, our process was partly dying and partly simply printing the shape and color of the flower onto the silk. Red zinnias give a pale yellow color. Ironweed,which blooms a magenta color, and depending on the mordant, gives a soft yellow, while dried purple hollyhock blossoms give a gorgeous sage green! Japanese indigo plants will give a wide range of blues and greens which are world famous for their beauty. Pokeweed berries, which are black on the plant, will give a deep, fully saturated hue of garnet red. Of course, it will also turn your fingers that color! The bark of Log pole pines gives a soft yummy caramel color. I am new to this area of fiber fun so I can't tell you much more. Perhaps you would rather see some photos?
Red geranium petals printed on my scarf as reddish blotches.
This gal was attempting to make prints in stripes before Brother Wind took over the design process. I must say that she was very gracious about it when her dye pieces got blown all over the place. When it happened to me, I said a bad word and shocked my hostess.
Isn't this a lovely lay-out? Of course, what you see when you lay it out is not what you get when you open your bundle--it is not even an indicator of what you will get, but the Big Surprise at the end is the best part of the fun! After we layed out all the pieces of dye plants on our silk scarves we rolled them up on 13" pieces of PVC pipe and tied them on tight with string. Here is my bundle before going in to the dye bath:
This bundle was kept in the alum bath for an hour and a half, at which point it was extracted and wrapped heavily with saran wrap so that it could lie in the hot sun for three days and be frequently turned over. Tomorrow I get to see the Big Surprise! When I unwrap it, I will post a photo so you can see too.
"Now is the time to observe the leaves, so fair in color and so perfect on form. I stood over a sprig of choke-cherry, with fair and perfect glossy green obovate and serrate leaves this P.M., as if it were a rare flower. Now the various forms of oak leaves in the sprout-lands, wet-glossy, as if newly painted green and varnished, attract me. The chinquapin and black shrub oaks are such leaves as I fancy crowns are made of. And in the washing breeze the lighter undersides begin to show, and a new light is flashed upon the year, lighting up and enlivening the landscape."
--Henry David Thoreau, June 4, 1854