Farm Aid Exhaust Baths

I have finally exhausted all the dye baths from Farm Aid! Here are some photos of the process, plus some of the ratios and measurements for each plant material. I didn’t keep close track of the times and temperatures during the demo itself because it was so busy. Each bath with the plant material heated for at least an hour, and some of them heated for longer.

As I mentioned in the first post, I used madder root, weld, orange cosmos, and marigolds. All the yarns at the demo were 4 ounces of 4-ply wool. They were pre-mordanted with aluminum sulfate at 1 tablespoon per 4 oz. fiber, and cream of tartar at 1 teaspoon per 4 oz. fiber. As I got further along with the exhaust process, I switched to alpaca yarns, pre-mordanted at the same ratios. All the exhaust baths were heated to about 140-160 degrees, kept at that temperature for an hour, then cooled overnight.

Madder: I used 10 ounces of chopped, dried madder root to make the dye bath. Some was from Aurora Silk, some was from my mom’s place in New Hampshire, and some was from my school’s dye and fiber plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst, MA. Before the demo, I soaked the roots for 24 hours in about a gallon of water, with a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a teaspoon of soda ash. The day before the demo I did the first extraction of the roots, heating them up to about 160 degree, maintaining that for about an hour, and then letting them steep overnight. The temperature accidentally got up to 200 degrees for a short time. I extracted the roots a second time at the demo in another gallon of water, then combined the two dye baths.

Weld: I used 8 ounces of weld to make the dye bath. The weld was from the dye plant garden at Bramble Hill Farm. It was dried and chopped up. I didn’t soak it ahead of time, but I did extract the plant material twice during the demo. I didn’t put in any soda ash or chalk at first, so the color didn’t bloom until after I strained out the plant material and adjusted the chemistry. After that, I kept the pH around 8.

Orange Cosmos: I used about 16 oz. frozen orange cosmos from our community garden plot at Amethyst Brook and the Bramble Hill garden. I kept the flowers frozen until right before I put them into the pot of water. After I extracted the flowers, I added soda ash to keep the bath around pH8.

Marigolds: I used 6 ounces of dried marigolds picked at our CSA, Next Barn Over, in Hadley, MA. I don’t know the variety, but they were huge and eye-poppingly bright! I didn’t adjust the pH or use other additives.

Here are four exhaust dye baths on the stove on September 24th, two days after the event. All of these skeins are the 4-ply wool mill ends from Webs that I used at the demo.

The weld dye bath got stinky within a few days, so I wrapped that one up first. Here are the weld-dyed skeins rinsing in the bathtub:

I have seldom gotten such an orangey-yellow from weld. I used cream of tartar along with the aluminum sulfate when I mordanted these skeins, and I wonder if that made the difference. Otherwise, my treatment was the same as usual, i.e., I bumped up the pH and mineral content with calcium carbonate and soda ash. Here they are hanging on the rack to dry. The skeins are hanging from left to right in the order in which they were dyed:

Here they are all dried and twisted neatly. The total weight of all four skeins was 16 oz:

For the orange cosmos baths, I kept the pH up around pH 8-9 by adding soda ash solution, which contributed to the surprising redness. It was also a really strong bath!

Here are all the orange cosmos skeins dripping and drying outside. They are really vivid because they are still wet in this picture. Fiber is always lighter when it dries.

I always do a delayed rinse on my fiber, which means that after I pull a skein out of the dye bath, I wait until it’s dry to wash and rinse it. The two on the right, above, are wool. The one on the far right went into the strongest dye bath. The one second from the right was the first exhaust bath. The thinner skeins from the middle to left hand side are alpaca fiber. In this photo, I hung the skeins slightly out of order. The larger, more orangey skein second from the left was the third in the sequence, and the teensy ones in the middle were, in fact, in the fourth bath. The pale pinkish one on the far left was last.

Orange cosmos is not the most lightfast dye plant, but it’s bright and easy to grow and looks extremely cheerful in the garden. And I love orange. Here’s how the skeins looked once they were dry, in front of an autumnal maple. This time they are hanging from left to right, strongest bath to weakest. The woolen skeins together weigh 8 oz. The alpaca skeins together weigh 12 oz:

Here are the madder skeins this afternoon under the same maple tree:

The three skeins on the left, above, are 4-ply wool, hung in the order in which they were dyed, strongest bath to weakest. The thinner skeins on the right are alpaca. The three woolen skeins together weigh 12oz., and the alpaca all together weigh 16 oz.

Here are the marigold skeins rinsed and dried on October 20th:

Again, the skeins on the left are wool, and the skeins on the right are alpaca. The two woolen skeins together weight 8 oz. the alpaca skeins together weigh 12 oz.

Here are the madder, cosmos, and marigolds skeins hanging all together on October 20th. I liked the way the skeins echoed the color in the trees, so I didn’t include the weld skeins.

 

Farm Aid 2018

On Saturday September 22nd I did a natural dyeing demo at Farm Aid 2018 in Hartford, CT. Yes, Farm Aid, as in Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews. It turns out that Farm Aid isn’t just a concert, it’s a day-long festival celebrating family farms and local agriculture. The festival has a huge focus on education. My table was in an area called the Homegrown Village, featuring dozens of organizations with creative, informative, interactive exhibits and activities. I was in the Homegrown Skills Tent, along with cheesemakers, beekeepers, papermakers, seed savers, and herbalists: a very interesting crowd!

It was a big thrill to be part of it. And I mean “big” literally. Despite the boggling complexity of logistics involved in pulling off such a huge event, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. I owe many thanks to the electricians who hooked me up with power to run my electric stoves, and then rescued our extension cords at the end of the day, to the volunteers who helped us unload and pack up, and to the person who was coordinating our whole area, Jessica Kurn. Thanks to everyone’s hard work and positive attitudes, it was a really fun day.

To read more about Farm Aid’s mission and projects, you can check out their website. Even though I had been aware of Farm Aid since they first started in the mid 1980s, I didn’t really know that much about the details of their work. So, it was inspiring to be at the festival and learn more about what they do. Before the Homegrown Skills Tent was open to the public, I had the opportunity to attend part of the press conference. There was a wide range of folks on stage, including many of the Farm Aid musical artists. There were also lots of farmers, and the agricultural commissioner of Connecticut.

The first short video that they showed was about the struggles facing small dairy farmers. I’d seen Forgotten Farms when it screened at Amherst Cinema in 2016, so I knew a little about the financial challenges facing dairy farmers. The Farm Aid video was very moving, and highlighted some of the incredibly difficult personal experiences of dairy families, including depression and suicide of family members. I wish I could have seen more of the press conference, but even the brief glimpse that I caught helped me appreciate the significance of Farm Aid’s support for farming families across the country.

OK, so what exactly was I doing there? I’d been invited to do a dyeing demonstration! I decided to run four dye baths that day with orange cosmos, marigolds, weld, and madder. I figured many people would be familiar with marigolds and cosmos, but not too many would have heard of weld or madder.

Here’s one of my very first visitors looking at the snazzy sign that Matthew made for me:

Matthew even figured out how to make one of those square-shaped puzzle-looking things that lets you link straight to my website if you have the right kind of reader on your phone. I felt very 21st century!

I brought two baskets of yarn showing colors that can be obtained from plants you can gather along the side of the road or in the woods, including tansy, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, curly dock, purple loosestrife, nettles, black-eyed Susan, yellow wood sorrel, black walnut hulls, and umbilicate lichen. That’s the basket closest to me in the photo, with the yellows, grays and pinks, and the basket on the far side of the table with all the different shades of brown.

I brought a big basket of colors from plants you have to grow in a garden, including Japanese indigo, woad, weld, orange cosmos, marigolds, and madder. That’s the basket on the right above. I also showed a couple types of animal fibers (different breeds of wool and alpaca) and various plant fibers (linen, cotton, bamboo, and tencel) so people could see how different fibers take the dye differently. I also brought four of my favorite dye books: A Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan, Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess, The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by Jim Liles, and A Dyer’s Manual by Jill Goodwin.

Some of my samples show how you can shift the colors with a copper or iron afterbath. The skeins I’m holding here were dyed with purple loosestrife and iron:

Knitters and other fiber people always love to handle the skeins. Since the whole point of a demo is to get people excited about the possibilities of dyeing with plants, I encouraged people to feel the different textures of the fibers.

I went so far as to put alpaca into people’s hands so they could see and feel the difference compared to wool. I’ve got some small alpaca skeins in my hands in the photo below, ready to offer this visitor. The skeins I’m pointing to are linen:

Over the course of the afternoon I heated and extracted the plant material to make the dye baths. My demo was from 12-5:30, so there was enough time to extract the weld twice. I had set the madder roots to soak on Thursday, and extracted them once on Friday evening. I saved that dye bath and extracted the roots again on Saturday, then combined the two extractions to make the dye bath for the demo.

Here are the pots all in a row while I’m making the dye baths:

With so much going on, I had to label the pots or I was worried I’d do something dumb. I had already made a mistake with the madder when I was running around trying to pack up the van on Friday. I got distracted, and the bath almost got up to a boil, ~200 degrees. I usually try to keep my madder below 160 or so, and I was worried that I’d wrecked it. It turned out fine, thank goodness. I really love doing demos, but the only downside is that when I get talking with people, I forget to check the temperature or set the timer.

Here I’m straining out the madder roots:

At 3:00 I had a 30 minute speaking slot. I decided to put the skeins into the dye baths while the audience was watching, so they could see the color strike. For this demo, all the skeins were 4-ply wool pre-mordanted with alum at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 4 oz. of wool and cream of tartar at 1 teaspoon per 4 oz. Each skein was approximately 4 oz.

This is what my set-up looked like during my talk.

I tried to cover scouring, mordanting, and making a dye bath using a basic simmering-in-water method. I brought up some jars with the dye bath liquid in them to pass around so folks could get a closer look, small skeins to touch, and some dried weld and madder root for people to look at, since I figured those would be new to most people. I wanted to be sure to show and explain some of the chemicals I use, like aluminum sulfate, soda ash, and calcium carbonate, which I remembered to do, but I realized afterwards I forgot to show the pH strips, scale, and other important supplies. Ah well.

I had made the dye baths pretty concentrated, so the color strike happened almost instantly for the marigold skein and the cosmos skein. The madder was slower to take it up, which wasn’t a surprise. It was sort of purplish-gray at first. And the weld was light initially because I forgot to add soda ash to bring up the pH. I remedied that problem later. Here’s what the madder skein looked like from Matthew’s vantage point in the audience:

Questions from the audience included how to make blue with plants that grow in New England, and whether I had taken classes to learn what I know or had taught myself. The first was easy to answer and the second was trickier. I talked about Japanese indigo and woad as the two sources of blue for our region, if you want to grow your own plants.

In terms of my training, I have been fortunate over the years to have taken workshops with amazing teachers, beginning with Christine White (author of Uniquely Felt), and continuing with Michele Wipplinger, Kathy Hattori, Gasali Adeyemo, Jane Woodhouse, and Joan Morris. I have consulted with many other dyers and read many books and articles. But my favorite guiding principle is still this quote from Jill Goodman:  “Prove everything by your own efforts.” In the moment, I could only think to highlight Long Ridge Farm in Westmoreland, NH, where I’ve taken many classes, but I should also have mentioned Snow Farm in Williamsburg, MA.

As things wound down in the later afternoon, I decided not to put the dye baths with the skeins in them back onto the stoves to heat up. Instead, I let everything cool down so it would be easier to pack up and transport at the end of the day. So, the skeins steeped for a couple hours, then sat overnight in ziplock bags until I could heat them up for a full hour the next day.

I am still exhausting the dye baths, and will post again when all the skeins are done. Meanwhile, this image of the first weld and madder skeins drying on Saturday night will give you a sense of how things turned out. Vivid!

Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft 2018

On Memorial Day Weekend I did a dyeing demonstration at Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair in Cummington, MA. I’ve done demos there before, but this year was special. I was dyeing hand-spun yarns from a variety of sheep breeds, spun by Lisa Bertoldi of Weft Handwoven Linens, and supported by a grant from the Northeast Handspinners Association.

Here was the table with examples of my own naturally dyed handspun yarns, some of my favorite books, fliers for the Northeast Handspinners Association, and a 6-pack of marigolds:

Next to that I set up the portable electric burners and dye pots:

The jar on the left contains powdered madder roots that I weighed out and soaked in water the day before. The other dye plants I used that day were weld, marigolds, and black walnut hulls.

On a bench beside the pots I set out the tools, dried dye plants, tubs, measuring spoons, and other supplies, mordants and other additives that I would need:

I scoured and mordanted all the skeins ahead of time using aluminum sulfate. I transported them damp, and kept them in a tub of water to pull out and use as the day went along. In addition to Lisa’s skeins, which weighed about 13 ounces all together, I had prepped some mini-skeins from Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont (from their end-of-the-run stash) and some natural colored wool yarn from Bartlett Yarns in Maine (a very light gray-brown).

Since my demo ran all day this year, I had plenty of time to make the dyebaths as well as dye the yarns. In each case, the dye plants heated in the dye pots for approximately an hour, then I let them cool off a little before straining out the plant material and putting in the yarn. Usually I like to let the fiber cool and soak overnight, but in this case I wanted to keep the process moving along fairly quickly.

Once the crowds arrived I took no pictures whatsoever! It was a busy day with lots of curious visitors, great questions and conversations, and a couple unexpected but pleasant surprises regarding color.

Some of the skeins that Lisa had spun were naturally colored browns and grays. I felt a little bad dyeing them, since they were already very lovely. But, that’s what I had to work with, so I just went for it.

Some of the visitors came back multiple times during the day to check on the progress of the dyebaths, and I was able to get suggestions from them about which skeins to try in which pots. One young visitor was especially engaged and came back several times. At the end of the day, I let that young person pick the ones they liked the best. Hence, I do not have photos of those skeins (a madder skein and a weld skein).

Here are the details for each dyebath:

Madder

The day before the demo, I weighed 3 ounces of powdered madder root from Dharma Trading and soaked it in plain tap water overnight in a tall glass jar. The day of the demo, I poured the whole jar into a pot with some additional water, heated it to 150 degrees F, and maintained that temperature for an hour.

Because the powder was very fine, it was hard to strain. The remaining dyebath was still a little sludgy. I added 1/2 a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and a glug of soda ash solution.The pH was 11, which is much higher than I was going for. So, I added more water and brought the pH down to 9. It also cooled off the bath a little.

In the first, strongest madder dyebath, I dyed a charcoal gray skein, at the suggestion of the young visitor I mentioned. The color turned out to be a very interesting shade of purple! I wish I had a photo of that one, and it’s an experiment worth repeating. The charcoal gray skein weighed about 2 ounces. That first bath heated for an hour, around 150 degrees.

Next, I put in two of the tiny Green Mountain Spinnery wind-offs (approx. 1 oz. each). The first exhaust bath heated for an hour. Alas, it got busy and I wasn’t watching the pots carefully. The first exhaust bath overheated and got up to a boil, but the color stayed pink nevertheless.

After the hour was up, I pulled those two out, and put in two more tiny Green Mountain skeins, plus a 4 oz. Bartlett skein. I heated them for 30 minutes.

At this point I added another of Lisa’s handspun skeins to the pot, a 1 oz. gray-brown skein.  All the skeins stayed in the pot together for another 30 minutes, then I turned the heat off and pulled it off the burner to cool.

Back at home the next day, I finished exhausting the madder dyebath using another 4. oz skein of Bartlett’s. Before adding the wool, I added a little more soda ash solution and a half teaspoon calcium carbonate to get the pH back up to 9. I heated the pot to 140 degrees, and maintained that for an hour.

Here are the exhaust skeins after they were all rinsed and dry (the one on the far right is walnut-dyed):

Weld

For the weld bath I used 7 ounces of dried weld (whole tops, including stalks, leaves and flowers). Normally I would soak this ahead of time, too, but for the demo I weighed out the plant material while people were watching, and only extracted it once. After the pot got up to about 150 degrees, it heated for hour. I only cooled it a little before straining. Then we added calcium carbonate and soda ash solution to get pH9, and I put in two of Lisa’s handspun skeins (total weight about 2 1/2 ounces). They heated for an hour. It was a very strong bath and we got vivid yellows!

One of Lisa’s white handspun skein weighing about 2 ounces went into the first weld exhaust bath. It was also bright but not quite so neon-electric as the first two. That skein also went home with the young person who was very excited and engaged with the whole process.

Back at home a couple days later, I exhausted the weld bath. It was pH 7, so I added half a teaspoon of calcium carbonate and some dissolved soda ash to get the bath to pH 9. Then I dyed a 6 oz. skein of my own handspun, mordanted with aluminum sulfate.

The top rack shows the weld-dyed skeins on the left hand side. The marigold skeins are on the right:

Marigold

I used 4 oz. of dried marigold flowers, all types of colors mixed together. People often ask me whether different colors of marigold give different shades of yellow or gold. I don’t actually know because I’ve never bothered to separate them. My hunch is that they all give basically the same color, but it might be worth it to test this out sometime.

The procedure for making the dyebath was the same as the weld, but I didn’t add any pH modifiers or other amendments. The first skein to go in the bath was a 6 oz. skein of Lisa’s. The skein heated about an hour, and turned a rich old gold color. In the marigold exhaust I put in two of the Green Mountain wind-offs, total weight just over 2 oz. They also yielded an old gold shade, but a little bit brighter. You can see the marigold-dyed skeins on the top right hand side of the drying rack above.

Black Walnut Hulls

I used 3 oz. of dried black walnut hulls for this demo. I usually use them fresh, and I wasn’t quite sure how dark of a bath this would give. The answer is, not very. I also only extracted them once: I brought the hulls and water up to about 150 degrees (could have been hotter, but that takes longer), held that for an hour, then strained out the hulls. In this short amount if time they probably didn’t have enough time to really soak and release their dye.

Nevertheless, the result was interesting. I used one of Lisa’s light brown skeins, about 2 oz., with a lot of gray. I didn’t think to take a “before” picture, but what happened was that the walnut shifted the grayer, cooler tone of the original skein to a warmer more yellow tone. You can see the skein in the image above, on the far right of the bottom rack with the madder dyed yarns. The pinkish-brown skein from madder exhaust is next to it.

Because color looks so different depending on the lighting, I also though it would be interesting to show how the skeins looked on the drying rack in the shade:

The weld exhaust looks so pale in this lighting, when in actuality it’s much brighter.

FIBERuary 2018

Since it has been so many months since I last posted, I am trying to catch up in chronological order. My last series of posts was from December 2017. This one is from February 2018.

Thanks to the efforts of Carole Adams of Whispering Pines Farm, and Liz Sorenson of Sheep and Shawl, among others, we have a new local tradition here in Western MA called FIBERuary. During the month of February, Carole features local fiber farmers and fiber artists on the FIBERuary blog, and Liz hosts a speaker series at her shop in South Deerfield, MA. 

I have been a contributor to the FIBERuary blog on a couple occasions, and a speaker at their speaker series. In these hot and humid days of August, I decided to share an expanded version of the post I wrote this February. It’s about one of my favorite dye plants, weld:

Growing Weld

If you are a gardener who is interested in dyeing with plants, there are many interesting dye plants that you can grow in your garden. Weld (Reseda luteola) is one of them. It is originally a Eurasian plant, and its use dates back to antiquity. It has not naturalized here in New England, unlike so many other Eurasian plants. So, if you want to use it, you have to grow it yourself or buy it from a natural dye supply company. It is relatively expensive to buy, but it’s very easy to grow, so I encourage you to grow your own. Weld produces a very lightfast source of yellow, thanks to the luteolin that is present in all the above-ground parts of the plant.

Starting Seed

I find that it is difficult to direct-sow. The seeds are incredibly small, and need to be kept consistently moist while germinating. I usually start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they’re big enough. I am fairly certain that only the black seeds are viable, but it is hard to to separate the green, yellow, and tan seeds efficiently, so I just plant a pinch of mixed seed and thin the seedlings if necessary. The photos below show the results of a germination test I ran in 2011. You can see that none of the yellow or brown seeds germinated, but the black seeds did:

The plant has a taproot, so transplant carefully. Weld prefers alkaline soil, and you can add chalk or lime to your bed if your soil is acidic.  Wherever you put it in your garden, be sure to leave space for much larger plants in the second year.

Weld is a biennial, which means that its lifecycle takes two years. In the first year, the plant grows low to the ground in a round clump or rosette.

The leaves are long and thin with wavy edges. You can use the leaves in the first year by cutting them close to the center of the plant. The quantity of plant material that you can gather in the first year is relatively small, though, so I usually wait until the second year to harvest weld.

In its second year, weld sends up a tall woody stalk that can get as high as 5 feet.

It produces tons of tiny creamy-colored flowers that are attractive to bees and other insects.

It is easy to save your own seed, though cleaning it can be a chore. Some dyers find that letting the plants go to seed produces an unwanted abundance of volunteer weld seedlings. In my experience, I get at most one or two volunteers a year, which is manageable.

To harvest weld, cut down the entire stalk in full bloom.

If you are saving seed, wait until you can see dark colored seeds at the lowest part of the flowering stalk before harvesting. The flower stalks keep adding new flowers at the tip, while the seeds mature at the base.

You can use weld fresh, or dry it for future use. I hang it upside down from a laundry-drying rack to dry. In some years, I have noticed a strong smell as the weld dries. It is not to everyone’s liking, so be prepared to dry it with ventilation or move your drying set-up if the smell becomes objectionable.

Once it’s dry, chop up the plant material to reduce the bulk, and store it in a dry location until you are ready to use it. The dried stalks can be extremely hard and woody, so I use garden clippers. I store dried weld in a paper bag to absorb any condensation when there are temperature fluctuations, and seal that inside a plastic bag. It also keeps well in a cardboard box.

Weld is known for producing extremely clear, bright yellows. It combines beautifully with indigo, Japanese indigo, or woad to make greens, and with madder to make oranges.

More Madder on Cotton

If you read my post about the tannin-iron-madder experiment, you may have noticed that I divided the original dyebath in half. I didn’t explain why at the time. My rationale was this: I  worried that the iron would affect the subsequent colors I got from the exhausted dyebath.

For the rest of the experiment, I prepared small pieces of cotton cloth with three different treatments, which I’ll describe below.

You can read my original post here for a description of how I made the madder dyebath and prepared the fiber.

Usually when I’m extracting madder roots, I use calcium carbonate and soda ash to make the water mineral-rich and alkaline. The soda ash is inspired by a comment by Rita Buchanan in A Weaver’s Garden that “the pigment alizarin dissolves better in alkaline solutions.” In Jim Liles’  recipe for “Amish Madder Purple” he directs you to use calcium or chalk in the dyebath (though he specifies calcium acetate). He doesn’t mention pH, so for that sample I didn’t mess with the pH (which was 7).

However, in the other half of the madder bath, I added a half teaspoon of calcium carbonate *plus* a teaspoon of soda ash, which brought the pH up to 9. The bath got noticeably pinker.

Here’s the first sample from this dyebath. You can see that it has a bright pink quality. It’s cheery but also earthy, and I like it a lot:

When I’m working with madder, I try to keep the temperature below 160 degrees F. I have read some recipes that call for strategically manipulating the temperature higher than that, and even boiling for a limited period of time, but I haven’t tried them. So, in this case I kept the temperature below 160, maintained it for an hour, and let the fiber cool in the bath overnight.

Then I combined the two dyebaths and added the next sample. The sample below was tannin, alum acetate, and madder exhaust. I didn’t add any soda ash to bump up the pH, nor did I test it. To my eye, it’s more orange-brown than the first sample.

Lastly, I put in a piece of cloth that was not treated with tannin. This was a thick 100% cotton plain-weave piece. It was scoured, mordanted with alum acetate (along with the other aluminum acetate pieces I’ve described in this series of posts), and then dyed.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of this series of posts, I have often found tannin to be a frustrating factor in my dye process. For many years I have used aluminum acetate by itself without tannin when I’m dyeing cellulose fibers. This is the kind of clear, bright pink that I’m used to from a madder exhaust:

Here are the last three madder samples stacked up together:

Here is the full set of samples I made that week (December 18th-21st, 2017):

After all these experiments, I am:

  1. Excited about the possibilities of tannin to extend the range of colors I can get on cellulose fibers.
  2. Excited about trying alternate recipes for mordanting cellulose that I came across while researching these topics, including Maiwa’s process for a combined aluminum acetate-aluminum sulfate process as described here. Scroll down to the section titled “How to Mordant Cotton or other Cellulose Fibers”.
  3. Less inclined to think of cotton as my dyeing nemesis, with the caveat that…
  4. For cellulose fibers, I still love linen more!

Tannin and Black Walnut on Cotton

I have often joked that using black walnut hulls on white wool is perhaps not the best use of my time. Black walnut hulls make various lovely shades of brown, but there are plenty of brown sheep.

Dyeing cotton brown, on the other hand, makes sense. There are naturally brown cottons, but they are not commonplace. Sally Fox has spent many years breeding naturally colored cottons in a range of beautiful colors, which you can see for sale here. However, most of the cotton that’s available at the moment is white.

Using the same heavy cotton twill samples that I used for the tannin-iron-madder and tannin-copper-weld experiment, I ran some samples with black walnut hulls. I should note that black walnut itself is a source of tannin, so the tannin step at the beginning was probably redundant. However, for this series of experiments, I treated the whole piece of cloth with tannin originally before I cut it up for samples.

I usually use walnut hulls when they are fresh in the fall. But since it was winter, I used dried hulls. I made the dyebath with 1.5 oz. dried hulls, which I extracted three times over three days and then combined the dyebaths. I am a fan of really giving the plant material time to soak to get the most out of it. This is especially true when the material is dried and woody.

As you can probably read on the label, the sample above was made with the sequence tannin, copper, weld, black walnut. You can read all the steps in the tannin-copper-weld process in my last post. I cut that piece of cloth in half and then in half again for these walnut experiments. This one was dyed in the original full-strength walnut dyebath, along with the sample below. With all of these walnut samples, I brought the bath up to 180 degrees, kept it there for an hour, and cooled the fiber in the bath overnight.

Above you see tannin, iron, black walnut. It was dyed in the same full-strength bath as the sample above it. For the iron process, see my earlier post about “Amish Purple”. I really like this warm chocolate brown. I was expecting a darker gray-brown because of the tannin-iron combination, but I think that would require a more concentrated black walnut bath.

The sample above was tannin, copper, weld, black walnut exhaust. “Exhausting” means using the same dyebath again to get a lighter color. After I pulled the first two pieces out, I put in this sample and the one described below. The stray pink thread is from the madder exhaust (which I will write about later).

The sample above is tannin, alum acetate, black walnut exhaust. Alum acetate is the mordant that I usually use with cellulose fibers. Many dyers recommend it for cellulose, rather than aluminum sulfate (which is what I use on wool). After the tannin treatment, I mordanted some of the cloth with alum acetate at a rate of 5% of the weight of the fiber. Use caution with alum acetate, as the powder is very fine and light, and goes airborne easily!  Once it was dissolved in the dyepot, I added the fiber and maintained the temperature at 100 degrees. That’s basically the temperature that hot water comes out of my tap, so it doesn’t really need to be heated at all. Maintain that temperature for an hour, stirring regularly. As with other dyeing steps, I usually let things cool overnight.

Here they are all next to each other:

From left to right, they are: tannin-copper-weld-black walnut; tannin-copper-weld-black walnut exhaust; tannin-alum acetate-black walnut exhaust; and tannin-iron, black walnut. A nice range of browns!

Tannin, Copper, and Weld on Cotton

As I mentioned in my last post, tannin is an important component when dyeing cotton. The same week that I ran my tannin-iron-madder experiment, I also made this lovely color with a tannin-copper-weld sequence:

 

Here’s how I did it. For the scouring and tannin details, you can read my last post. For the copper mordant, I used the ratio of half an ounce of copper sulfate per pound of fiber. For the quantity of the cloth I was mordanting, that was about a tenth of an ounce of copper. I dissolved the copper crystals in a stainless steel pot, then I intended to follow Jim Liles’ instructions and heat the mordant bath to 150 degrees.

It got a bit too hot, up to 200 degrees, while I was busy with other dyepots, so I added some cold water and took the pot off the heat. Then I waited for it to get back down to 150 degrees before adding the wetted-out cloth. Once I added the cloth, I kept the temperature as close to 150 degrees as I could for an hour, then let the cloth sit and cool in the mordant bath overnight.

For the weld bath, I used a 1:1 ratio of plant material to fiber, and extracted the dried weld tops three times over two days. For the first extraction, I added water to the chopped up stalks, leaves, and flowers, brought the temperature up to about 150-160 degrees F, and maintained that temperature for an hour. Then I shut off the heat and let the plant material cool and steep overnight. The next day I strained off the dye liquid and repeated the process first thing in the morning, but I only let the plant material steep until the evening. I strained off the second bath, and extracted the plant materials a third time that night.

The next day I combined all three extractions, and added half a teaspoon of calcium carbonate to the dyebath. The pH was only between 7-8. When I first added the cloth, I was not very pleased with the color. It takes time for color to develop with natural dyes, but you can often get a sense of what might be happening with the first color “strike”, or how the fiber first takes in the color. I felt it was drab and uninspiring.

Here’s what it looked like at first:

Fortunately, I know that weld is pH sensitive, like many dye plants, so I pulled out the cloth and stirred in half a teaspoon of dissolved soda ash. This brought the pH up to 9. When I re-introduced the cloth, it was much brighter. Yay.

At this point I stopped writing down notes or taking photos. I was running several different dye experiments that week, in an overly-ambitious whirlwind of winter vacation before heading off to celebrate Christmas festivities with my family. Oh, and buying a car.

Typically I would heat a weld dyebath to not higher than 180 degrees, maintain that for an hour, then let the fiber cool in the dyebath overnight. Then I pull out the fiber to dry completely before washing and rinsing. Let’s assume that’s what I did!

Tannin, Iron and Madder on Cotton

Way back in December, around the time of the winter solstice, I ran some dyeing experiments with heavy cotton twill cloth. I have had some frustrations with cotton over the years, some of which I’ve documented here on this blog. On cotton yarns and cloth, I often get colors that are much lighter than I want, or a different shade than I was expecting.

Nevertheless, there are some colors and techniques that have always intrigued me. So in December I tried a recipe for “Amish Madder Purple” from Jim Liles’ book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing.

Cotton, like other plant-derived fibers, is primarily composed of cellulose. Cellulose is harder to dye with natural dyes than protein fibers. Protein fibers come from animals, for example: wool from sheep, mohair from Angora goats, alpaca from alpacas, llama from llamas, and angora from rabbits. Plant fibers can come from a wide range of sources, such as cotton, linen (from flax), hemp, and ramie (from a type of nettle).

Most plant-based dyes require a mordant, whether you’re dyeing plant fibers or animal fibers. A mordant is a metallic salt which bonds to the fiber and creates sites for the dye molecules to attach to. It’s like a bridge between the dye and the fiber. Protein fibers are able to bond with plant-based dyes much more easily than cellulose, due to their chemical composition.

When you are dyeing cellulose fibers, you need to add some extra steps to the process. One step that improves the depth and fastness of color on cotton is to use tannin in conjunction with your mordant.

The only downside of using tannin is that it can darken the color and make it more brown. There are lots of sources of tannin, some of which produce a light yellow or beige, others a pale pink, and still others dark yellows and browns. This page from Maiwa has some useful information about tannins. But I had found in the past that even with the lightest tannin I had tried (gallotannin from oak galls), I didn’t like the way colors shifted to a muddier tone.

However, for this recipe, the color was supposed to be dark and rich. So, tannin was my friend this time around.

Tannin combined with iron does something amazing! Check it out:

In the tub on the left are the samples of cloth that have been scoured in a liquid cationic scour from Earthues (via Nancy Zeller at Long Ridge Farm) along with soda ash. I used scour at a rate of 5.5% of the weight of the goods (the weight of the dry cloth), and soda ash at 2% of the weight of the goods. Following Earthues’ general directions, I dissolved both the scour and the soda ash in a pot of hot water, added the fiber, brought it up to 180 degrees F., then maintained it at that temperature for 30 minutes. I pulled out the cloth while it was still pretty hot and rinsed it well. I should say, too, that the cloth had already been washed in a washing machine with my usual laundry detergent. Well-scoured cotton is key.

Then the cloth was soaked in a tannin solution overnight (roughly 12 hours). For twelve ounces of fiber I used a little less than 4 oz. of gallotannin from Earthues. After that I let the cloth dry, then cut it into smaller pieces for my experiments. Each little sample was about 1.5 oz.

On the right hand side of the photo above, you can see the dramatic shift in color when the tannin-treated fiber was submerged in a solution of ferrous sulfate (iron) for 30 minutes. For the small samples I was doing, I used a quarter of a teaspoon of iron dissolved in a stainless steel pot with 2 gallons of hot water. Iron can make blotches, so I “worked” the fiber, meaning I picked it up and moved it around under the water. Wear gloves! This is an important safety rule when working with mordants. The color shifted noticeably after only ten minutes! I have to say, it was really exciting!

The last step in this “Amish Purple” recipe is the madder dyebath. A while ago I bought powdered madder root on sale from Dharma Trading. It is a little tricky to work with because it is very fine and hard to strain, but the price was right. I used about a 1:1 ratio of plant material to fiber, extracted the madder twice over two days, then combined the two dyebaths. I kept the temperature on the madder bath around 130 degrees F while it was heating.

Once the madder bath was strained, I divided the dyebath in half. In one half, I put one of the little samples into the dyebath overnight just to soak. In the morning I pulled it out, stirred in a quarter of a teaspoon of dissolved calcium carbonate, returned the cloth to the pot, and heated it. The pH was 7. While dyeing the cloth, I let the bath get up to 160 degrees and maintained that temperature for an hour.

Here are some photos of the madder bath on the stove:

On the far right above you can see the sample while it was still wet. Here’s what it looks like all washed and dried:

Here you can see the madder purple next to some pieces of tannin-iron cloth without any additional dye:

I really like the rich eggplant-purple in the madder sample. I expected the tannin-iron samples to be more of a charcoal gray, but they have a purplish tint as you can see here. Clearly, tannin on cotton is way more exciting than I previously gave it credit for!

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. Continue reading “Inside-Outside Part Two”

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. Continue reading “Inside-Outside”