Inside-Outside Part Two

In this post I will describe more details about the dyebaths we made at the Inside-Outside Conference in Keene on October 21st. We ran four dyebaths with madder root, marigolds, weld, and orange cosmos.  As usual when I am running or leading an event, I didn’t get any photos. Hopefully the notes provided here will be useful even if they are lacking in visual information.

First of all, the fiber we were dyeing was woolen yarn. We dyed four skeins, each of which was 4 oz. I had pre-mordanted the skeins many weeks earlier with aluminum sulfate at a rate of 2 Tbsp. per 8 oz. (2 skeins could fit in a pot). The skeins had dried in the meanwhile, and had been soaked in water on the day of the workshop to “wet them out”, i.e. make sure they were thoroughly wet before dyeing.

Each dyebath heated for about 45 minutes to an hour. While they were heating, we were inside and they were outside, so we did not monitor the temperature. We strained the baths one at a time over a fifteen minute period of time. The skeins only sat in the dye baths briefly at first, long enough for participants to see some color emerging on the skeins. Then I had to pack everything up and bring it home. I transported the wet skeins in tubs and the dyebaths in empty gallon jugs. Once I got everything home, I put the skeins back into the pots with the dyebaths to soak. The next day, I heated the skeins in the dyebaths for a full hour and let them soak overnight again before pulling them out to dry and eventually wash.

Madder–The day before the conference I weighed out 4 oz. of madder roots, put them to soak in a pot of water, added about a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a Tablespoon of soda ash (which made the bath about pH 8), heated the pot to about 160 degrees, maintained the heat for an hour, and then let the whole thing cool overnight. I’m not exactly sure where I picked up this term, but when I’m heating up plant material to make a bath I often refer to it as an “extraction”. So, this was the first extraction of the madder roots. I saved the strained liquid from that extraction, plus the original roots, and we made a second extraction from that same 4 oz. roots at the workshop. We added more water to the roots, plus calcium carbonate and soda ash to get a really high pH–it was like pH 10 or 11! I figured this wouldn’t hurt the roots. Plus we were pressed for time and getting more water to dilute the bath involved running up a flight of stairs and down a hallway to a bathroom with a shallow sink. So, pH 11 was good enough for the time being. We let that heat up on the low/simmer side of the hotplate for about 45 minutes.

When we came back outside to make the dyebaths, we strained out the roots and combined the high-pH extraction with my original extraction. The lower-pH bath was a much more orange color, whereas the high pH bath was much more of a cherry-red. We could see a difference in the color of the foam at the surface when we poured the two baths together. Together they made a sensible pH for wool. We lowered the first 4-oz. skein into the dyebath so that participants could see the color “strike”. That’s what it’s called when color first starts to attach to the fiber. It happens quickly with some dyes and more slowly with others.

The next day, I re-heated the original skein in the original bath for an hour at 140 degrees or so, and let it sit overnight. Then I exhausted that bath with a second 4 oz. skein. After that, I extracted the same roots two more times with calcium carbonate and soda ash to keep the pH around pH 8-9. I combined the two extractions to make a third dyebath, and dyed a third woolen skein that had been premordanted with alum. The combined exhaust dyebath was also pH 9. The color was practically indistinguishable from the original exhaust skein. Here are the three skeins together once they were all rinsed and dried:

It is possible to obtain much richer shades of red with madder root by making a more concentrated dye bath, but then you are looking at days and days of exhausting the bath, resulting in a small amount of reddish yarn and lots and lots of pink yarn. I tried to go easy on myself this time.

Weld–This is another pH sensitive dye plant that makes a kind of blah greenish yellow at a neutral pH and eye-poppingly bright yellows at a higher pH. We used 4 oz. of dried plant material. In an ideal world this would have had time to heat, soak, then sit around a while and steep. As it was, the plant material heated up for 45 minutes to an hour, then we strained it right away to make the dyebath. We added soda ash and calcium carbonate to get a bath of pH 8, and after all was said and done I got a nice yellow. I did not exhaust that bath.

Orange Cosmos–This is also a pH sensitive dye, which becomes more red in color at a higher pH. However, we didn’t bother to modify the pH in this workshop. We used 4 oz. of frozen flowers. Like the others, this dyebath heated up for 45 minutes to an hour before straining. The next day when I was dyeing the skein at a more leisurely ace, I left the pH alone. I didn’t even check it, so I can’t tell you what it was. The color was a pleasing tangerine, but not dark enough to bother exhausting.

Marigolds–We used 4 oz. of dried flowers to make the dyebath with no pH modification. The resulting color after heating for a full hour on Sunday was a sort of mustardy yellow or yellow-orange.

Together they make a nice range of colors. Here are all the skeins again (this is the same photos as my earlier post), minus the third madder exhaust:

From left to right: madder exhaust, first madder bath, orange cosmos, marigold, weld. I decided to use the same ratio of plant material to fiber for every dyebath, namely a one-to-one ratio. This was primarily to keep things simple for all of us. We could have made a more concentrated bath of weld, but 4 oz. of plant material filled up the pot, so that was really our limiting factor. A higher ratio of plant material would make for a stronger dyebath.

I hope some of these educators got inspired to dye with their students (or at home just for fun)!

Inside-Outside

On October 21st, 2017 I presented a workshop on growing and using dye plants with kids at the Inside-Outside Conference in Keene, NH. The conference was a collaboration of several local organizations, including Antioch University New England, the Monadnock Region Placed-Based Education Committee, the Harris Center for Conservation Education, the Caterpillar Lab, Symonds Elementary School (where the conference was held), and the Keene School District. The theme was “Promising Practices in Nature- and Place-Based Elementary Education.” You can view the full brochure here.

The audience was K-6 educators from a variety of educational settings. I don’t mention this very often on this blog, but I actually am a teacher! I co-teach in a combined first and second grade at the Common School in Amherst, MA, where I’ve been working since 2004. Most of the time, I am in the classroom doing all the usual academic things: reading, writing, word study, math, science, social studies, arts and crafts. I do fiber and dye projects with kids when I can, and the rest of the time I squeeze it in on weekends and vacations.

Back to the conference: My time-frame was 2:15-3:45 in the afternoon. This is a normal amount of time for most workshops at a day-long conference like this, even hands-on workshops. The only trouble is that all the steps in natural dyeing take a long time. If you want to make a dye bath with fresh, frozen, or dried plant material it takes at least 45 minutes to an hour, and then in an ideal world you let that sit overnight. Dyeing the skeins of yarn takes the same length of time. I always let the skeins or fiber sit overnight if I can, and I let them dry before I rinse them. Also, you have to mordant the fiber ahead of time. You cannot possibly fit it all in to an hour and a half. Nevertheless, I had committed to teach this thing. Making color with plants is so magical and so do-able that I am always happy to encourage people to try it.

So, I was excited about it, but also anxious. Basically I was counting on the fact that this would be a group of folks who are interested in process over product, and would want to see and participate in how the dye baths are made. Hopefully people felt satisfied with what we were able to do in that time:

  • make the dye baths (measure/weigh the materials, add pH amendments, test pH, set the baths to heat up)
  • talk about some considerations for setting up a dye plant garden or incorporating dye plants into an existing garden
  • look at some examples of projects I’ve done with kids
  • browse some of my favorite reference books
  • strain the dyebaths and put in the yarn

We were literally putting in the last skein of yarn at 3:45!

True to its name, we were outside for part of the workshop, and inside for part of it. When I set up in the morning, the outdoor space was shady and pleasant. A helpful custodian helped me run two long extension cords out of two windows, down to the ground on the playground below. There, I set up two portable electric burners. I set up everything we would need for dyeing outdoors, I set up books, hand-outs, and project samples in the classroom, and then headed off to enjoy the rest of the conference.

By 2:15, the sun had come around to our side of the building and it was blazingly hot. You wouldn’t have anticipated a blazingly hot day in late October, perhaps, but such it was. I think it was about 80 degrees. I had a great group of participants, about 20 folks, who obligingly tolerated the blazing heat for a few minutes while we got started. But it was really uncomfortable! I was feeling bad about it, but also feeling kind of stuck and unsure of what to do. Then, someone pointed out that it was shady just around the corner of the building. Yay! We moved things around the corner, and Ellen Doris (a former colleague at the Common School and my contact for the conference) brought an extra extension cord. We all breathed a sigh of relief in the small patch of shade behind a wall, and proceeded to set up the dye baths.

Here are the skeins drying afterwards on a rack at home:

We used four dyes for this workshop: madder, weld, orange cosmos, and marigolds. In my next post I will go into all the details of exactly how we obtained these colors!