I’ve gone off on another creative tangent recently, a bit of a habit of mine, work on one thing for a while, then on to some other, return to the first, backwards and forwards, round and round. One day I’ll see something new and think, I could do that! And so like a bee on a nectar trail I’ll follow it here, follow it there, one thing leading to another and a new passion is born.
Natural dyeing / printing on paper and textiles with plants, generally termed Eco dyeing, though I admit I cringe at the term. Dyeing with plants can be eco-friendly, it can also pose deadly hazards for both the person doing the dyeing and the environment. As in plant medicine, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it is safe. Some of the materials commonly used in dyeing are highly toxic and if you are going to do it, you should have a completely seperate set of equipment that you don’t use for cooking. That said, if you take your time and read, read, read (there is a wealth of information available on the internet and in book form) before you start, there are ways of doing it that are completely benign and that is the path I’m on.
As I cannot easily get books (have to wait until I visit England for them) nor can I afford online courses, I have used my knowledge of art materials and some chemical reactions, the one book I own which is actually about dyeing* and dyeing information gleaned from my library of plant books. Information gained literally at my mother’s knee (she would dye fabrics with onion skins, tea, coffee, turmeric and such like) and the internet. Probably the most useful thing has been a Facebook group I joined, called “Eco-dyeing Creating Learning”, the members of which are incredibly knowledgable and wonderfully generous in the sharing of that knowledge, a truly inspirational group and I am very grateful to them all.
It is beyond the scope of this blog post to go into detail about eco dying, though I will probably be posting more of my adventures in this wonderland where things often do not turn out the way you might expect and the only thing is to expect the unexpected.
So this post is about my escapade in dyeing with avocado pits. There are those of you who will remember the fashion for avocado green that swept the UK in the 1970’s, can you picture it?
In case you were in a cupboard for the whole of the 1970’s or are too young to remember, here is a photo of my avocado green, leather clad Trim phone, which I can’t bring myself to get rid of even though it sadly doesn’t work and we don’t have a telephone line.
Well that’s Avocado green but it’s not the colour you get from them at all, not even close. Actually you can get a range of colours but green isn’t one of them. I was going for dusty pink. Pink! I hear you say. Yes indeed pink and here is how I got it.
I saved a load of pits and skins, keeping them in the freezer until I had what I guessed was enough, about 8 or 9 pits. For this experiment I used only the pits, though the skins will give colour too, some people say use one or the other and some people use both in the same dye pot.
I smashed up the pits by putting them in a strong plastic bag and letting rip with a hammer, I have read some people saying don’t smash-up the pits but that seems counter intuitive to me. I added the pits to boiling water and boiled for an hour or so, then put the lidded pan out in the sun. The following day I had a dark pinky purple liquor.
So here is me being a bit organised and trying out different modifiers. Isn’t that range of colours amazing, just by adding simple things you might have in the kitchen cupboard.
As you can see the plain pit dye bath didn’t seem to actually leave much colour on the paper test strips. The dye with bicarbonate of soda gave a good strong colour but not one I was wanting for this project.
At this point I turned to the Eco-dying Facebook page and found a lady called Hilary happened to be doing the same experiment as me (though she was far more systematic than I and had carefully measured her dye and modifiers, good girl).
In conversation with Hilary, she asked if I had tried ammonia, which I knew about but hadn’t tried because I don’t know where to get it here nor can I stand the smell, it seems to take all the air out of my lungs and sends me into a coughing fit. However the other thing Hilary suggested was urine and that’s easy to come by.
So as the dye bath wasn’t the colour I was wanting, being game for pretty much anything and impatient to boot, that evening before bed I went out into the dark of the garden and by the light of the moon, peed in my dye pot. Don’t dwell on that image too long.
The following morning I couldn’t really see much of a difference so I peed in it again, by which time the pot was warming up in the sun and beginning to whiff a bit. I decided I was going to have to use the dye bath that day. I once cured a sheep skin in urine, the smell gets pretty overpowering very quickly, especially in this heat.
Hilary reported that she had also tried urine but being methodical she had measured out a set amount and put it with her other samples, she also noted that it didn’t seem to have made much difference.
I took out the pits and left them in the sun to oxidize, this can push the colour to a darker shade. After a couple of hours I re-boiled the pits in some fresh water. Neu came in the kitchen for a drink of water while I was stirring the pan, which was giving of a bit of a pungent aroma as the pits had been in the dye bath plus urine overnight. Neu said somewhat sarcastically “Uhm Claire is making some lovely soup!” to which I replied “You really don’t want to be trying this, I’ve peed in it”. He nearly choked on his drink. Thankfully Neu is both used to and accepting of the things I get up to in the name of art.
The re-boiled pits produced a colour far darker than the first boiling, I added this to the old dye bath, then left the pits to oxidize again before re-boiling once more. By the late afternoon I had enough dark pinky purple liquid to cover the cotton shawl I wanted to dye.
The shawl is one of my hand knits made from Eco cotton (there’s that term again) by which the manufacturer means the cotton is produced from re-claimed cotton fibers that would otherwise be lost in the manufacturing process. So it is a step forward in that it is using something that would otherwise be a polluting waste but cotton production is often a dreadfully polluting operation from start to finish. How I wish I could buy Hemp yarn here but that’s impossible to come by, as it seems is even wool. Most of the yarn here, other than cotton, is acrylic which I don’t like knitting with and is generally useless for natural dyeing.
It is a good idea to dye the yarn before knitting to get a more even coverage but I had wanted to do a graduated colour effect so knitted the shawl first, then changed my mind about the way I wanted it to look. Now I was going for a plain over all colour. The shawl was scoured in hot water with soda ash to remove any residues which would inhibit the take up of dye. It’s amazing how dirty the water gets in this step and it required a couple of changes of water until the fibres were properly cleaned but once that was done, I put the rinsed shawl, still wet, into the dye bath.
Normally you have to use a mordant before dyeing, especially with cellulose fibres (cotton, linen, paper etc) which don’t take up the dye as readily as protein fibres (wool and silk) but avocado pits are high in tannin which acts as a mordant so I would be dyeing and mordanting at the same time.
Looking at the samples of dye bath and modifiers I had made earlier, I was surprised to see that the original non modified dye and the one with vinegar had now oxidized and produced the sort of colour I was aiming for, I think next time I will try it without pee but just oxidizing and re boiling the pits.
I left the shawl in the dye bath over night and was delighted the next day to pull out a slightly pongy but very prettily coloured dusky pink shawl, I knew it would lighten after washing and drying but it was the colour I was going for.
One of the wonderful things about natural, as opposed to synthetic dyes is the way that the fibres change colour dependant on the light, it is an effect that is hard to describe but the colours seem somehow more alive.
After washing and drying there was no trace of a bad smell, thankfully, that would certainly not make the shawl a pleasant gift to receive.
There are so many variables when dyeing, what works for one person might not work for someone else with say different water, a leaf that prints on silk may not leave a mark on cotton. I have read that there is a variation in the colour given by different varieties of avocado for instance and leaves from the same plant will give more or less colour dependant on the time of year, the mordant used or from dye modifiers as in the earlier photo.
There is so much to learn, some of it old knowledge that has been used for generations, some of it new. A never-ending trail of discovery, which local trees, plants, mushrooms, fungi give what colour or print and under what circumstances. While it may be a simpler process to use a synthetic dye, there is something deeply satisfying about collecting the plants, planning the process and design, saying a little prayer and being gifted (or not) by the plants giving up their sometimes hidden colours.
As I said earlier there is a wealth of information available on the internet, just put “Eco Dyeing”, or “Dyeing with plants” into the search engine and away you go.
Kathy Hays is an administrator on the facebook page I mentioned above. For anyone interested, Kathy produces instructional videos in various dyeing techniques as well as teaching workshops, apparently all over North America and beyond. This is a link to her own facebook page where you can see some wonderful examples of her work. https://www.facebook.com/kathy.hays.35?fref=nf and this is her web site http://www.ecoprintworkshops.com/
There are more books than you can shake a stick at on Eco printing and dyeing, as I said I only own one, Dye Plants and Dyeing by john & Margaret Cannon. It would be more useful to someone in Europe or North America perhaps, because of the plants it covers and to someone willing to use some of the more toxic mordants as it gives information about those, but it was a gift to me so I’m grateful for that.
India Flint is generally lorded as being the go to person for experimental eco dyeing.
Eco Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles. 21 Apr 2008 by India Flint
Jenny Dean is also often reccommended.
Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. 16 Nov 2010 by Jenny Dean
A Garden to Dye for: How to Use Plants from the Garden to Create Natural Colors for Fabrics and Fibers. 1 May 2014 by Chris McLaughlin
Shawl designed by Gail Tanquary for Crystal Palace Yarns. Click here for the free pattern Panda Silk DK Fan Shawl