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!

Weaving Star Work

Back in the fall of 2016, I was registered for a class on 18th and 19th century handwoven textiles with Marjie Thompson. Each of us in the workshop was going to set up a loom ahead of time with a specific pattern. We’d bring our looms to the workshop and, during the weekend, we would all go around and weave a sample on each person’s loom. By the end of the weekend we would have lots of samples of different patterns. I was very excited.

I got my draft in the mail. A draft is the plan for a weaving project that tells you how to set up your loom to weave that particular design. I wound the warp, threaded my loom, organized the tie-up, wove a sample, and then got sick. I wasn’t able to attend the actual workshop.

The pattern I was given is called Leisey Star. The weave structure is known as “Star Work.” My specific pattern came from the manuscript of Henry Leisey in the collection of the Landis Valley Farm Museum in Lancaster, PA. I was excited to get this pattern because Landis Valley was one of the first places that I bought fiber flax seed from years ago, through their heirloom seed project. Continue reading “Weaving Star Work”

Praying Mantis Egg Cases

Here’s another reflection on the fascinating intricacies of plant-insect relationships.

Way back in April, I was prepping some beds to plant woad at our Amethyst Brook community garden plot. I noticed this egg case on a hyssop plant:

I was pretty sure it was a praying mantis egg case. Several year ago, a parent in my class at school brought us a praying mantis egg case to observe. She told us to leave it in a glass jar in the garden shed all winter. In the spring when it started to warm up, we brought the jar into the classroom. Continue reading “Praying Mantis Egg Cases”

Goldenrod Ball Galls

One of the things I love about dyeing with plants is that plants are amazing and awe-inspiring in so many other ways, too. First of all, they create their own food from energy from the sun, and provide all of us oxygen-breathers and plant-consumers with life and sustenance. For that alone I am so grateful. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of amazing things about plants!

They are an integral part of complex inter-relationships that are not always obvious at my human eye level. I catch glimpses of some of these sometimes while I walk in the fields and woods, or when I garden. It makes me realize how much I don’t know about the intricate network of relationships between plants, animals, and microorganisms that are going on around me all the time. Continue reading “Goldenrod Ball Galls”

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”


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”

Japanese Indigo August 2017

Way back in August I ran a Japanese indigo vat. Here’s what the bed of Japanese indigo plants looked like on August 20th:

I have only dyed with fresh Japanese indigo leaves a few times, so I am still trying to develop skill with the process. An important part of developing skill is repetition. Another important piece is learning and testing new things, and then trying to understand why they do or don’t work. Luckily, this vat afforded me all of those opportunities!

I picked 22 oz. of plant material, which yielded exactly 1 pound (16 oz.) of leaves trimmed off of the stems. Here are the tips of the plant stalks that I harvested:

On the left are the stems, and on the right is the bag with just the leaves in it. It’s a really beautiful plant! It has sweet little hairs, wrapped-around layers, exciting color contrasts, and an interesting juxtaposition of rigid and luscious textures. Continue reading “Japanese Indigo August 2017”

Historic Eastfield Village 2017

On Saturday September 23rd, I demonstrated the flax-to-linen process at Historic Eastfield Village’s Founder’s Day celebration. It was a lovely day! We had a heat wave later that week, but under the oak trees that day it was pleasantly cool and shady.

I brought dried flax stalks with the seeds on, retted flax, and all the tools to break, scutch, and hetchel the fibers. I also had some commercial linen yarns that I dyed with madder, weld, woad, and black walnut.

Historic Eastfield Village is a very interesting place. You can read more about their history, buildings, and classes on their website. Last year, I attended Founders Day with Lisa Bertoldi, on the invitation of Niel DeMarino of the Georgian Kitchen, whom we had met at the Flax and Linen Symposium in August 2016. Continue reading “Historic Eastfield Village 2017”

Electra Update Part Two

As I mentioned in my last post, this is a “retro time” account of my flax harvest this year, not a “real time” account. Here’s the belated next installment.

I started digging up the Electra plot on July 31st. I didn’t finish until August 12th. Now it’s all pulled up, dry, and stored safely in the back of the van. Because that’s where the flax gets stored.

The yield was small but the effort was mighty! I could only work for a couple hours a day, and some days I didn’t work at all. This summer taught me a profound lesson in the privileges and assumptions I have carried with me all my life as an able-bodied, pain-free person. My motto used to be, “Do all the things!”* This summer, not so much. Continue reading “Electra Update Part Two”

Electra Progress Report Part One

I had meant to post updates about my flax crop this summer in “real time”. However, “retro time” will have to do.

Here are a few things that I observed and learned as the 2017 flax was growing and maturing.

First, the flax chewers who devastated my crop in 2016, and half of my crop in 2015, were back at it again this year. However, when you have 1500 square feet of the same variety (Electra from Biolin), rather than tiny test plots of 12 square feet or less, the effect of the damage isn’t as troubling. I found dozens of chewed up flax stalks, but it was a negligible percentage of the whole crop. I am sticking to my hypothesis that the culprits are rodents of some kind. Here’s some scat that may or may not belong to them:

Second, the chewers are not solely interested in flax. It might not even be their favorite or preferred plant to chew. The fact that flax is *my* preferred plant in that location means that it bothers me when they chew it. I don’t care about the other plants, so I’m less inclined to notice their demise. Predation of “weeds” is a boon, from a flax-grower’s point of view. But it’s possible that from the chewers’ point of view, it’s the flax that’s a nuisance. Continue reading “Electra Progress Report Part One”