Category Archives: learning to use dye plants

This is for posts that explain the process of plant dyeing

The Natures Rainbow Year – (and its only half way through!)

An article by Susan Dye and Ashley Walker
© copyright 2018

2018 is turning out to be our most successful yet.

The year began with our good friend Brian Bond joining us to deliver a two day workshop in Ipswich in late January with the International Felters Association (see above). Susan was involved in much mordanting in preparation. This was our second major plant dye workshop away from home, and dependent on friends or family to help us with transport. Hard work packing an ‘all singing all dancing’ workshop and the three of us into a single hatchback vehicle (albeit a large one, thanks Brian!). Quite stressful but very well worthwhile, as the students were terrifically motivated and created a full palette of wonderful colour on the finest merino tops.

Also in January we had confirmation that Southwark Cathedral had invited the London Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (WS&D) to demonstrate plant dyeing as part of London Craft Week in Mid-May. Susan was asked to coordinate the project, having held a successful mini natural dye demonstration there as part of the biennial London Guild exhibition last November.

Preparations for all this activity took place mostly in the winter and early spring when the weather was too cold or wet to work outside on the dye garden

In between scoping and planning the London Guild event at Southwark, Susan gave talks on plant dyeing to the Chelmsford Embroidery Guild, on the red dye from madder for the Cambridge Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and, closer to home, a talk on the horticulture of dye plants for the Wymondley Gardeners Group. Had the snow in early March not intervened there would have been another talk on the history of Norwich Dyers to region 7 of the Quilters Guild.

London Craft Week event at Southwark Cathedral with the London Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Guild

The Shard overshadows our colour splash at Southwark Cathedral

Susan spent much of April mordanting and test dyeing fabric and yarn for the London Craft Week event, which was to be held outdoors in the Churchyard in mid-May. Fortunately the weather improved and we were blessed with two sunny breezy days. With help from textiles graduate Hannah Sabberton, Susan and I carried Hitchin grown fresh woad and dry Weld, Indigo dye solution, mordanted fabric yarn and fleece, samples, display materials and goodness knows what else (kitchen sink comes to mind!) on the train and bus into Central London at rush hour. We are resourceful public transport travellers with trolleys and backpacks and all arrived safely! Mercifully all the pans and heaters had been supplied by London Guild members based not too far away (thanks to Penny and Diane). Also there were many, many lovely dyers from the Guild who shared the demonstrating. All told there were twenty two volunteers across the two days. We spoke to people from all over the world, from London and other parts of the UK. Tiring but very satisfying to see the rainbow of colours we achieved with just the three medieval ‘grant teint’ plant dyes: Madder, Weld and Woad.

Susan managed to escape a couple of times down to the British Library where she loves to do research on the history of dyeing and in particular the 19th Century “Norwich Red”. An article to be published in the Autumn issue of “The Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers” will detail her findings so far. We have also been asked to write an article on growing dye plants with a particular emphasis on small gardens and container growing. This should appear in the next issue of “British Fibre Arts” along with a profile about ourselves. The Editor Rainy Williamson made us think about what we do and why we do it. I was particularly reminded that many people do not have access to a garden or allotment and may only be able to grow dye plants in small spaces. I immediately set about making and planting up some large-ish containers with suitable dye plants to see how they responded. And then we got to thinking that apart from a couple of small demonstrations and the regular workshops for our local guild we’ve never made an effort to share our skills in plant dyeing with the local population. So Susan quickly got on the phone and asked the Hitchin Festival organisers if they still had some slots left in their programme and lo and behold, (thank you Keith)  we were found a slot in the programme.

Indigo Blue, Weld and Chamomile yellow and Greens produced by overdying yellow with blue and blue over yellow

Results from the green overdye experiment done at the Herts Guild of Spinners Weavers and Dyers Workshop

Meanwhile we had another workshop for our local Guild in North Herts to get ready for. This was based around an experiment investigating the notion that a better green is obtained if wool is dyed first with indigo and then weld (yellow) rather than the other way round as we have traditionally done it. Various accomplished plant dyers had reported this finding and we wanted to check it out. The workshop produced some fantastic greens and, somewhat to our surprise, the blue overdyed with yellow did indeed produce the best green.

While all this has been going on I’ve been working hard on the Natures Rainbow dye garden, getting it into shape to satisfy the North Herts District Council allotment inspector (Grounds Maintenance Monitoring Officer). Because we are growing a most unusual set of crops some of which look remarkably like weeds we

Rubia tinctorum

Madder is closely related to the weed Cleavers or Goosegrass. It looks and behaves much the same but is altogether larger in stalk and leaf and has berries instead of hard seeds.

Ransoms Rec Allotments, Hitchin

The Natures Rainbow allotment plot in early June.

have to make the plot look as tidy as possible. Madder for example is a close relative of the weed Cleavers and has the same sprawling habit and Weld is generally classified as a weed anyway. In addition, we leave our second year Woad plants to go to seed, so we have stock for the following year and this too raises eyebrows.

Asperula tinctoria

Dyers Woodruff in flower

We also decided early on this year that if we are going to continue giving talks and writing articles about growing dye plants then we need to expand our experience and grow some of the more unusual dye plants so we sent off for more seeds including Chinese Woad, Wild Madder, Field Madder, Ladies Bedstraw, Blood Root and where we couldn’t get seeds we ordered plants. These include Dyers Woodruff, Black Oak, and Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra).

Quercus velutina

Our new Black or Quercitron Oak Sapling. The inner bark of this North American tree produces the dye quercitrin which for a while was a major industrial source of yellow dye. Of course it will be many years before we can harvest any bark from this specimen!).

Reseda luteola

Honey bees are particularly fond of Weld

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a beekeeper I’m also very interested in growing plants that are also good for all kinds of bees so I’ve been very gratified that many of our dye plants are also fantastic bee plants too, Weld and Japanese indigo are two of the best.

Rhus Glabra

Smooth Sumac from North America, the dried leaves of which contain 25-27% by weight of tannins.

Look out for more blogs detailing some of the events mentioned here but you might have to wait until things calm down a bit before we get time to write them!

Inula helenium

Elecampane – Inula helenium

An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2018

When we first became interested in growing and using dye plants we came across an entry in “Traditional Scottish Dyes and how to make them” by Jean Fraser. This seemed to us to be very exciting because it offered a tantalising alternative blue dye to Woad indigo.

Traditional Scottish Dyes and how to make them by Jean Fraser

Page 69 from Jean Frasers book – Traditional Scottish Dyes and how to make them.

Traditional Scottish dyes and how to make them by Jean FraserWe immediately set about obtaining some seeds which were readily available as Elecampane is a popular garden flower and ancient medicinal herb. Our first lot of seedlings were all eaten by slugs but the second batch (protected until they were larger) survived to produce two small beds.

It took a number of years for the plants to reach full size but by this time we had realised that the likelihood of obtaining blue from the roots was very unlikely and we had discovered Japanese Indigo so did not think it worth even trying. We kept the plants because every year we are rewarded with a sunny display of glorious yellow flowers which act as magnets for bees of all kinds. These tall plants with giant leaves are low maintenance and just take care of themselves.

Inula helenium

Honey bee on Elecampane flower.

The Dye garden has grown over the years and we are getting to the point that every plant species we grow has to justify its presence by being a proven source of plant dye. But still, the mystery of Jean Fraser’s entry stuck in our minds so this year I decided to give it a go before the plants started to grow.

Three of the incomplete “no details or quantities given” recipes mention whortleberries and one recipe Elder (presumably berries) as additives to improve the colour. We know by now that most black berries can give pinks, lilacs and mauves with a good alum mordant but they are not lightfast, iron mordants are best at prolonging the life of fugitive dyes and the fourth recipe mentions iron so we thought it worth obtaining some whortleberries . What are whortleberries?

Wikipedia suggests they are one of three possible members of the Vaccinium family:

Vaccinium myrtillus, bilberry, or blue whortleberry
Vaccinium vitis-idaea, lingonberry or red whortleberry
Vaccinium uliginosum, bog whortleberry/bilberry

All three plants grow commonly in Scotland but we think it is a reasonable guess that the name refers to the bilberry V. myrtillis or uliginosum as vitis-idaea is a red berry. The closest source of berries we could get hold of were supermarket blueberries (probably Vaccinium corymbosum). Not as good as our native bilberries as they only have a blue black skin and internal pale green flesh. Our native species are blue/black throughout.

Experiments

Initially we tried a number of variations:

  1. Fresh chopped and bruised roots heated with and without blueberries
  2. Fermented chopped and bruised roots with and without blueberries
  3. Samples of unmordanted, alum mordanted and iron mordanted wool were added to each of the dye pots (the root and berry material were not removed).

The roots of elecampane are white with a yellowish skin and black bark which is not attached to the root and is easily washed off. There appears to be no colour in the root at all!

Inula helenium

Elecampane root

Inula helenium

Elecampane cut root

Because of this lack of colour we had long suspected that the only possible source of colour would be from tannins in the root reacting with the iron mordant to give a grey. We suspected that in Scotland grey was often called blue and with the addition of some whortleberries a bluish grey could be obtained though it would fade to grey over time. As there are many other sources of tannin in the dye plant world we were sceptical that Elecampane root would give us anything worth having.

Results

The results were fairly conclusive in that the only significant colour change occurred with the iron mordanted wool where a silvery grey was obtained from the fresh root and a yellowish grey from the fermented root. The unmordanted wool stayed white and the alum mordanted wool turned a very pale yellow. The addition of blueberries made little difference.

Inula Helenium dyed wool

Right: iron mordanted wool in fresh root dye bath. Left: Iron mordanted wool in fermented root dye bath.

Inula helenium treated woth iron mordant

On the left cut root treated with iron mordant. On the right untreated root.

Painting an iron mordant solution onto cut plant material usually shows up the presence of tannins fairly rapidly but sometimes it takes a few hours to get a colour change. The elecampane root had to be left overnight before the change seen here on the left took place. Other additives mentioned in the recipes are salt and ash. Dipping a cut root in salt had no effect but adding a tiny amount of sodium hydroxide (an alkali in wood ash [lye]) to the cut root turned it immediately yellow and after 24 hours a yellowish dark grey. We did not use any of this alkali in our experiments as we were particularly interested in obtaining a neutral or blue grey but it looks like adding the alkali could aid in getting a darker colour.

Once we were happy we could get this neutral grey we went ahead with dyeing a large skein of hand spun yarn (about 100g) mordanted with 1g of ferrous sulphate*. This was added to a dye bath made from about half a kilo of chopped and bruised Elecampane root heated to around 90°C and left for one hour then strained to remove the solids.

Inula helenium dyed wool

100g skein of hand spun iron mordanted wool dyed with Elecampane root.

OK, so no blue, but a good neutral grey is hard to obtain as most tannin rich plants have additional dye stuffs and the greys obtained are tinted with yellows or browns. Elecampane is almost free of any of these contaminants. As any designer will verify grey has the ability of amplifying adjoining colours making them seem brighter than they really are. A dye garden without a source of grey would not be complete so the Elecampane stays!

Inula helenium

Elecampane in full flower

*The iron mordanting is done according to Liles method using the same quantity of oxalic acid as ferrous sulphate. The Oxalic acid prevents the iron from oxidising from the yellow-green ferrous sulphate to orange ferric oxide (rust).

References

“Traditional Scottish Dyes and how to Make them” by Jean Fraser. Illustrated by Florence Knowles. © 1983, 85 and 96.

“The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing – Traditional Recipes for Modern Use” by J. N. Liles. © 1990

From Seed to Stitch

best stitch smaller

I am passionate about working with cloth and yarn dyed from plants you have grown yourself.
I gave a talk yesterday to the Chelmsford Embroiderers’ Guild.
I had a lovely evening. Thanks to Angela and June for inviting me and for your hospitality.
As follow up, here are some pointers for supplies and books I promised to share online.

References

Mordants and Natural Dyes
Earth Hues for extracts
George Weil  for plant dyes and mordants; especially aluminium acetate mordant for silk and vegetable fibres
P&M Woolcraft  very friendly and good prices
Wild Colours sells woad powder, dyes and provides lots of information
Fiery Felts  I forgot to mention this supplier in the talk but Helen is very good for dyes especially dried flowers hard to obtain elsewhere. Her booklet on indigo is also excellent.

Dyed threads as well as dyes and mordants
Renaissance Dyeing – based in France
Mulberry Dyer run by Debbie Bamford, a pre-eminent historical dyer who sells at re-enactor markets and also via etsy shop.

Books and blog

Jenny Dean  Doyenne of Natural dyeing in UK. Her landmark book is Wild Colour (2010) but all her books are excellent.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1996) by Elizabeth W Barber

The Story of Colour in Textiles (2013) by Susan Kay-Williams

Exhibition
Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge Sampled Lives till 7 October 2018

 

Persicaria tinctoria

Three strains of Japanese Indigo tested and observations on indigo extraction

An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2017

This year I had planned to carry out a tightly controlled experiment to look for variation in the amount of indigo produced by three fairly distinct strains of Japanese indigo. However due to a prolonged and still undiagnosed illness, my plans were thwarted and the experiment did not work out quite as I had hoped. However, on 12th and 13th October 2017, with help from Brian Bond another keen plant dyer, I did manage to complete a test of the three plants although the results are not directly comparable due to different planting times and maturity of each variety.

The strains

Broad or Rounded leaf indigo

Persicaria tinctoria

Round or wide leaved Indigo. Directly sown bed

Grown from seed originally from the USA (from fellow natural dyer Pallas Hubler in Washington State on the west coast) who sent a few seeds over to Brian in 2013. We have been growing and saving seed from this strain ever since so it is possible that it has become adapted to growing in our soil.

  • Late flowering (October into November)
  • Pink Flowers
  • Compact short flower stems
  • Wide short or rounded leaves
  • Foliage pale to mid green
  • Easily damaged by high nitrogen levels in the soil. Grows poorly in cool overcast weather.

Long leaf indigo

Persicaria tinctoria

Long leafed Japanese Indigo in full flower.

Seed for this was obtained from the German supplier Rühlemann’s. Unfortunately this was in full flower by the time I was able to harvest it for the test and from previous experiments I know that once indigo has committed itself to flower production the amount of indigo in the leaf falls dramatically.

  • Large long pointed leaves
  • Pink flowers
  • Long delicate flower stalks
  • Early flower (September-October)
  • Dark green leaves
  • Very tolerant of high nitrogen in the soil and generally more robust.

An in-between white flowered strain

Persicaria tinctoria

Intermediate white flowered Japanese Indigo

Persicaria tinctoria

Intermediate strain of Japanese Indigo with white flower.

The seed was obtained from Lisa George Fukuda a fellow plant dyer in Guernsey who had it originally from Teresinha Roberts at Wild Colours

Unfortunately this was planted out late in the year (August) so as yet I know little about its habit as there has not been enough time for it to grow to full maturity.

  • Longish leaves
  • White flower
  • Easily damaged by high nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Mid green leaves
  • Quickly bushes out, highly branching.

All three strains were grown on the Natures Rainbow allotment in Hitchin in a chalk soil with a strong application of Fish, Blood and Bone plus some chicken manure pellets.

Persicaria tinctoria

Leaves from all three strains.

Persecaria tinctoria

Rounded leaf Japanese Indigo growing with the Long Leaf strain in the greenhouse. Here they look like two completely different species.

The experiment

After stripping the leaves from the freshly cut indigo stalks, 220g of leaves from each strain were slowly heated from room temperature to 80°C in stainless steel pans with 4 litres of tap water. The pans were stirred at short intervals throughout. Note: the weight of leaves was determined by the amount of the long leaved strain that I could harvest from shoots that had not yet come into full flower as I wished to minimise the effect of flowering on indigo production. The amount of water in the pans was deliberately large as I wished the final colour to be on the pale side as variations in pale colours are easier to distinguish. More water also means the pot is easier to stir before the leaves are cooked.

Heating to 80°C took about 35 minutes. The pans were then taken off the heat and allowed to cool, free standing in the air for 1 hour. (The air temperature was appoximately 20°C).

Persicaria tinctoria

Intermediate Japanese Indigo extraction bath with container of liquor to show gray colour. Photo taken just after pan was removed from the heat.

At this point no difference could be noticed between the different pans. The liquor in each pan being a pale greyish blue in each case.

After one hour the leaves were removed by straining through an old pair of tights into a large plastic bucket. Half a cup of household ammonia was then added to the liquor. Taking care not to breathe in hot fumes, this liquor was poured back and forth from bucket to pan 10 to 15 times to aerate and oxidise the indigo precursor to indigo. The colour of the liquor changed from grey to yellow green, with the round leaved plant giving the darkest colour change and the long leaved plant the least. This is a good indicator of how much indigo is present in each pan.

Once oxidised to indigo, the liquor is now in a stable form and can be left for long periods without any loss of indigo. The reduction vats (indigo dye baths) were set up the following day as follows. The pans were heated to 50°C, one level teaspoon of Spectralite (Thiourea Dioxide) was added to each pan, gently stirred in and left for 30 minutes for the indigo to reduce to its soluble form. Identical weight skeins (26g) of wool were added to the baths at 50°C and left for 20 minutes before removal and oxidation in the air. The dye baths were kept in a hay box to maintain constant temperature during the dyeing.

The results

Japanese Indigo

First results showing a surprising difference in colour obtained

The long-leaved plants (left) were disappointing only producing an ice blue colour. The white-flowered intermediate-leaved plant gave a slightly deeper shade but still pale (centre). The round-leaved plant produced a respectable light blue (right).

The poor results for the long-leaved plants was understandable because of their flowering state, however I was surprised the colour was quite so pale. The good results for the round-leaved plant was a real surprise as I had become convinced these plants would not be the best. Overall the pale colours made me worry that I had not optimized the process and I decided to repeat the experiment for the round-leaved and intermediate-leaved white-flowered plants (I had no more of the long-leaved plant so I could not replicate this one).

On the second run I made one change which was to slow the cooling of the extraction bath after reaching 80°C by placing the pans in hay boxes. For this experiment, using 4 liters of water I was aware that this small amount of liquor would cool quickly, perhaps too quickly? An experiment we conducted some years ago revealed that premature cooling of the extraction bath resulted in a dramatic loss of indigo when processing woad leaves. Two years ago we discovered that leaving the bath at a high temperature for more than one hour also results in a loss of indigo so I have become wary of putting large baths in hay boxes which are capable of maintaining a high temperature for hours.

In this second run the results from the white-flowered intermediate-leaved plant improved but the round-leaved plant still produced the better result (which itself was no better than in the first run).

Skeins of wool dyed with Japanese Indigo

Second run with intermediate white flowered indigo plant compared to rounded leaf plant.

Skeins of wool dyed with Japanese Indigo

Comparison of intermediate white flower strains. The difference between quick and slow cooling of the extraction bath.

Wool dyed with Persicaria tinctoria

No real difference between runs for the Rounded leaf strain.

Discussion

In theory all three plants should have produced broadly similar amounts of indigo. That they did not could have been due to genetic differences but as noted above all three plants were at different stages of development having been planted at different times and the round-leaved strain had possibly adapted to the local soil over the 4/5 or so years I have been growing it. The poor results from the long-leaved plant may have been entirely due to their flowering state. The intermediate-leaved white-flowered strain had only been planted out in late August and may not have had sufficient exposure to the sun to develop much indigo.

The diversity of results shows how critical it is to grow and harvest the plant at the right time. I was certainly concerned that harvesting the plants in October was a risk, as all three varieties were producing flower buds (although only the long-leaved plants were in full flower). Later I extracted a concentrated bath of indigo by making up a large pan crammed full of leaves and only enough water to barely cover the leaves when they were pressed down forcibly. The results were pleasingly strong indicating that the leaves were still fully charged with indigo.

Skein on right dyed with a strong indigo dye bath

Skein on right dyed with a strong indigo dye bath

I will certainly be making strenuous efforts to continue to save the seed from the round leaf strain whatever the reasons for the underperformance of the other two strains!

Confirmation of results

Since this post Leena Riihelä writing in her blog (see Riihivilla) has confirmed that the long or pointed leaf variety of Japanese Indigo does not produce as much indigo as the broad or rounded leaf variety. Leena who also grew three strains of Japanese indigo this year also speculates that the broad leaf (rounded) variety originated in Japan. (The long leaf variety may come from Northern Japan or China). She is also able to confirm that the long leaf variety flowers much earlier. Leena is based in Finland which has such a short growing season that the rounded leaf variety does not have time to produce seed. Leena has a wealth of experience to share about indigo and other natural dyes so please visit her blog and web site. (see below)

Thanks to:

Brian Bond
Leena Riihelä at Riihivilla
Lisa George Fukuda
Pallas Hubler

Indigo dyed wool

The range of blues obtained from the three strains of Japanese indigo.

Madder Red by Robert Chenciner

Looking into Chenciner’s Madder Red

An article by Ashley Walker
© copyright 2017

Madder Red – A history of luxury and trade (2000) by Robert Chenciner
published by Curzon Caucasus World ISBN 0 7007 1259 3

This book is devoted to all aspects of the history of madder from cultivation, through process, economics and use of dye and pigment. The author has collected together in this one reference work the result of many years research.  It is a mine of information. The book is not a light read and the first time I was able to get hold of a copy I only read the chapter on madder cultivation which I found of particular interest. Since obtaining our own copy I have discovered the book contains many additional snippets of information on cultivation and use which compliment our earlier article (see here). My interest, from the point of view of the small scale grower and crafter, covers those aspects of growing and using madder that could be employed on a domestic scale. In the remainder of this article I attempt to extract information of practical use (see comments in Red).

The Madder Plant

The book contains information collected from multiple sources from all over the world but chiefly from the Caucasus and Russia. The focus is mainly on Rubia tinctorum  but other plant sources of red dye are also noted, particularly Rubia peregrina (Wild Madder) which was used quite often when tinctorum was not available. The roots of peregrina contain purpurin and little or no alizarin. Purpurin was valued for producing superior pink and violet shades.

Plant diversity, propagation and seed fertility

In different places madder appears to be adapted to local conditions and taking seed or plant material to grow in other parts of the world often resulted in failure – though this may have been due to inexperience of the new farmers. The book also confirms my own experience that the seed of madder is difficult to germinate and can easily become infertile due to poor storage.

For the home grower this means using the seed as soon as possible (within a year of harvest).

Farmers invariably preferred to sow seeds direct but only the most experienced could do this with success. New farmers preferred to grow the seeds in nurseries and then transplant into the fields when big enough or take rooted shoots from a field being harvested. Transplanting was harder work (and so more expensive) but ensured a greater chance of success.

Crop rotation, maintenance and soil fertility

Maintenance

Six months after planting, the rows of madder plants were “earthed up” (like potatoes) to encourage the plant to put out side shoots (underground stems) and protect the plant from drought in the summer and hard frosts in the winter. This practice is also reported as improving the quality of dyestuff.

For the home grower this seems a sensible activity if you like to grow madder in rows as it would allow the roots to be more easily dug out.

The main maintenance job is reported as weeding, with the most difficult weed being couch grass. I have to agree with this as couch grass has a very similar habit to madder and also forms a mat of underground roots which are extremely difficult to untangle once they get a grip.

Crop rotation and soil fertility

Most of Chenciner’s references to soil fertility indicate that madder harvests (weight of root and quality of dyestuff) will decrease over several years if grown in the same soil continuously – even if the soil is well fertilised with manure. A figure of approximately 6 to 12 years is mentioned as the maximum length of time that madder could be grown economically in the same field. After this time the land had to be left fallow or rotated for several years (4 to 12) before any further madder crops could be grown. Typical rotational crops were rapeseed, beans, wheat, hemp, turnips, beet, potatoes and cabbage.

Several references are made to observations that madder grew best on virgin ground which is much the same as any other crop, but the failure of manure to restore fertility suggests a depletion of some micro-nutrient not present in manure. The only suggested method of restoring fertility quickly was to add “natron” and common salt. Natron is a mixture of hydrated sodium carbonate salts and other salts found in dried up lakes.

For the home grower it may be possible to substitute common washing soda for natron but I would not recommend doing so without careful experiment first to find out how much to apply. Washing soda is a powerful alkali and sprinkling it on soil could do serious damage.

Adding small quantities of sea salt (35g per m2 about twice a year) may be a better solution but be careful not to overdo it. Rock dust may also do the job.

How long to grow the plant before harvest?

Throughout its history this subject has been the source of much discussion and the author comes to two conclusions:

  1. Older roots (3 to 5 years) produce the best quality dyestuff.
  2. Economically it was best to harvest after 1 to 2 years.

As you can imagine 3+ years is a long time to wait before being paid, particularly if as an “adventurer farmer” you had to pay rent on the land/accommodation and feed a family during this time. Most successful ventures appear to have been run by established land owners who had minimal overheads and additional sources of income. Some farmers did practice a form of partial harvest where a trench was dug beside the row of madder plants. Roots found in the trench were harvested without killing the main plants which continued to grow for a further year or two.

This practice makes home growing of madder considerably less of a wait though the final harvest may be reduced.

Harvest and processing of madder root

Steaming

The first procedure after digging the roots was to steam them, a practice carried out in the field by a team of specialists. All sources are clear that this process increases the amount of dyestuff in the root and after about 4 to 5 hours the roots would turn from yellow orange to a strong red. A hole was dug in the ground and a fire lit. When the surrounding soil had become baking hot, madder roots were piled on top and then the whole heap was covered in damp cloth or similar material to keep the hot air in.

Although we have never tried this I see no reason why it would not be possible to do this at home using standard vegetable steamers. The exact method will need to be worked out by experiment.

Washing

There are very few reports of root washing in the book and when it is mentioned it is not recommended for fear of loss of dyestuff. I would guess that the growers wanted to keep even the poor quality brown dyes found in the thin skins. Any soil clinging to the roots would just add to the weight of the final product, so more profit!

Drying

In the Netherlands and Britain this was done in specially built heated drying houses as the climate here was not hot enough to dry outside. Even in the Caucasus and other hot dry areas most growers preferred to dry in the shade rather than direct sun. This slow drying is reported as another essential process to further increase the amount of dyestuff in the roots. Roots were often stored for one or more years to allow them to mature before being pounded into a fine power or “krap”. The roots had to be brittle dry before pounding otherwise the root would stick into a hard cake.

For the home grower the important features of this drying process is the temperature and the length of time. The recommended temperature was between 20°C and 30+°C so drying in an airing cupboard would probably work well with storage in a warm dry place after the roots have dried out completely.

Fermentation

Fermentation was sometimes done before pounding, sometimes afterwards and involved placing the root material into a vessel with water for a short time (a few days) during which time the sugars in the root were fermented out. Removing the sugar was important as later fermentation in the dye bath interferes with the dyeing process.

From the home dyer’s point of view this is not so important unless you make your madder dye bath a day or two before using it.

Pounding

When the madder industry was in full swing the roots were pounded in large horse-powered or water-powered mills and the resulting powder or krap was sorted into a variety of grades. The main problem besetting the root processors was separating out the “tough” outer skin which contains the brown dyes that would dull the final dyed product from the inner “parenchyma” part of the root which contained most of the dyestuff. Exactly how this was done is not explained but logically krap was probably sieved into coarse and fine fractions and the first powder produced after partial pounding would have presumably contained most of the bark.

For the craft dyer pounding is not really an option. It may be possible to grind the root in coffee bean grinders but only if you are prepared to say goodbye to the grinder. The metal blades in such grinders could be a problem if they become rusty and end up adding iron to the dyestuff which would sadden the colour. Chenciner reports that some pounding mills used wooden hammers with ends strapped in metal (possibly iron) so the danger cannot be catastrophic.

There has been some confusion amongst today’s craft dyers about exactly which part of the root contains the dyestuff. Nowhere in the book does the author note the differentiation of root into ‘true roots’ and ‘underground stems’ or rhizomes, although some of the quotes from historical documents do allude to this. The root is invariably described as having a thick tough bark but this is clearly an impression formed by looking at the dried root. The skin of fresh root is very thin and can be easily scrubbed away on an individual root but this is probably not possible on a large scale without losing a lot of the underlying dyestuff. The position of the dyestuff in the root is usually described as being just above the woody cortex, but again this is probably a description of a dried root where the soft fleshy outer material has shrunk to a thin layer of concentrated dye bearing material just covering the woody cortex.

Rubia tinctorumIn the shrinking process, the outer skin wrinkles up and appears to become quite thick.

In theory it would be possible to hand wash fresh roots then pound the roots in a strong pan until the woody cores could be removed and the remainder left to dry. This would be very labour intensive however and the inner pith from root stems (which also contains dyestuff) would remain in the removed woody material.

During a Turkey Red workshop run by Debbie Bamford (The Mulberry Dyer) at the 2013 Spinners Weavers and Dyers Guild summer school an experiment was done to try and separate the outer part of the root from the inner cortex and test the resulting material for dye strength and colour. Most of the commercially obtained dried root was actually root stem with the characteristic central dot of red pith. The outer layer of bark and inner dye-rich material was shaved off with potato peelers, down to the pale woody cortex. It was not possible to remove all the dark material. Equal weights of shavings and inner cortex were then used in identical dye baths. The shavings gave the darkest red with little if any dulling due to the presence of outer bark.
root-experiment

For the home dyer wanting the brightest reds the easiest way to remove the brown dyestuffs from the bark is to set up the dye bath using your preferred recipes and after a first heating of root pour off the liquor and replace with fresh water. (See Jenny Dean)

Refining the powdered madder root

When the Madder industry expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries it was not long before competitive manufacturers began to invent new mechanised ways of refining the krap to increase its quality. The first breakthrough using a complex chemical treatment resulted in “garancine” which was later purified even further into “flowers of madder” which was almost pure “alizarin” (the main dye chemical in madder root). These refined products enabled the dyer to dye product quickly, easily and reliably.  Krap became an inferior grade product and perhaps contributed to its entry into the dictionary as the word “crap” meaning rubbish.

For the home dyer, refined madder root products are still produced and sold as madder extracts but these are expensive and I think less exciting than growing your own or making do with chopped root or krap. Home refining is possible (see Michel Garcia) but you do need some specialist laboratory equipment.

Economics

Chenciner is particularly interested in the economics of madder growing, processing and use. As a very high value product, madder growing attracted “adventurer farmers”. It is hard today to imagine farmers being put into the same class as gold prospectors but the potential returns on investment were such that many amateurs were drawn in. Of course many of these inexperienced adventurers were doomed to failure. What seemed like a shortcut to riches and fortune soon turned into a nightmare as old seeds sold by unscrupulous traders failed to germinate or the crop simply failed to grow well or any number of other disasters befell the hapless farmer.

Recipes from History

Contained in the text are numerous recipes for the processing of madder and dyeing of various fibres and textiles. These recipes are often quoted without interpretation into modern terminology so often remain obscure. However, they do offer a fascinating window into historical techniques and a platform for modern attempts to duplicate them.

Historical texts referred to:

The Leyden and Stockholm papyri (a Greek/Egyptian document written around 300AD which contains many recipes for the dyeing of fibre some of which use madder), e.g. :-

  1. Dyeing in Rose Colour  Rose colour is dyed in the following way. Smear the rolls of wool with ashes, untie them, and wash the wool in the liquid from potter’s clay. Rinse it out and mordant it as previously described. Rinse it out in salt water after mordanting and use rain water (which is so) warm that you cannot put your hand in it. Then take for each mina of wool a quarter of a mina of roasted and finely pulverized madder and a quarter of a choenix of bean meat. Mix these together by the addition of white oil, pour it into the kettle and stir up. Put the wool in the kettle and again stir incessantly so that it becomes uniform. When it appears to you to have absorbed the dye liquor, however, brighten it by means of alum, rinse it out again in salt water, and dry it in the shade with protection from smoke.

The Plictho of Gionaventura Rosetti: Instructions in the Art of the Dyers Which Teaches the Dyeing of Woolen Cloths, Linens, Cottons, And Silk by the Great Art As Well as by the Common (1548)

RED Madder wool-spinning-small

Inspiring teachers

India Flint dyed silk at From the Earth, Mardleybury Gallery  June 2016

India Flint dyed silk at From the Earth, Mardleybury Gallery June 2016

In June I attended a ground breaking exhibition ‘From the Earth’.

The curators Caroline Bell and Jenny Leslie wanted to enable the subtle tones of plant dyed textile art to be appreciated in a sympathetic setting. The main exhibition site was Mardelybury Gallery near Datchworth, not far from where I live in Hertfordshire. The art and craft supplier Art van Go hosted a series of linked workshops at their shop/studio workshop in Knebworth, accompanied by an exhibition of work by the tutors.

The exhibition at Mardelybury ranged from pieces by India Flint to water colours using plant pigments. But the highlight for me was attending two of the workshops: Jenny Leslie’s ‘Organic Indigo Vat’ and ‘Screen Printing with Natural Dyes’ run by Alison Hulme and Caroline Bell.  Here’s a bit about the first of these two workshops.

First we learned about creating crackle on cloth with a simple batter of flour and water. Spread with a palette knife, optionally scratch designs into the semi-dry resist, leave to dry  completely and then pull the fabric from different angles to create cracks.
Paint iron/tannin dye ontop for a wonderful visual texture. Variations include use of porridge or other sticky starchy grains. Use mordanted cloth and overdye after removing the pastes.
These are not strong enough resists to withstand a dyebath, so the iron/tannin ink is used to capture the pattern instead.

Flour paste resist for texture

Flour paste resist for texture

Removing the resist

Removing the resist

Jenny also set up a fructose indigo vat for shibori resist. Seeing this ‘in the flesh’ gave me the confidence to work an indigo vat without synthetic reducing agents. Up to then part of me simply didn’t believe it could work.

Inspired by the course, I collected together all of the tail ends of indigo vats we had kept from previous years (see below) plus some recent additions from William. Will is a friend we taught to grow and use japanese indigo. He has amazing green fingers and produced some terrific plant dyed yarns but now he’s living on a canal boat he has other priorities. I hope to pay him back for his dye pigment in plant dyed yardage.

Once there was a bike or two kept here!

Once there was a bike or two kept here!

I love these sludges! When you grow your own indigo rather than buying it, every last speck of blue is precious. This was the dye shed much earlier in the season.

Once the indigo has been extracted from the woad or japanese indigo leaves (with alkali, heat and oxygen) the solution can be left indefinitely. The indigo particles settle over time. Carefully decant the excess water and harvest the sludge.

The combined volume of the best of these sludges filled my largest steel pan. I commandeered a corner of the cold frame outside the kitchen door, added the lime and fructose (fruit sugar) and away it went.

Organic Indigo Vat

My first fructose indigo vat

I am still learning how to condition the vat and probably added far too much sugar at one point. But it’s been giving a good colour for weeks and remains actively reducing.

Here’s the most recent piece I have dyed with the vat: a bomaki shibori based on a method Vivien Prideaux gives in her book on Indigo Dyeing. I used a natural calico from Art van Go which has been recommended by quilt artist Bobby Britnell for its ability to drink up dye. The cloth was crispy with sugar frosting by the time it had dried out for the last time.

Plastic pipe bokami

Plastic pipe wrapped with cotton bomaki style.

Unwrapping the Cotton

Unwrapping the Cotton

The fabric was probably rather thick for the number of layers of cloth involved, so the colour didn’t penetrate fully. I should have scoured the cloth beforehand, but usually it doesn’t seem to need any preparation. I’ll do another resist on the top later.

Some of the inner folded sections barely took any indigo.

Some of the inner folded sections barely took any indigo.

Unfolded and on the line

Unfolded and on the line

Even if you read about a new technique, see it on u-tube, watch on dvd,  there’s still no substitute for learning alongside a tutor in a workshop. Thank you Jenny Leslie!  http://www.regenerationtextiles.co.uk/

 

Growing Step by Step

Ashley is the horticulturalist. He lavishes the allotments with attention.
This year the weather has been kind and the dyeplants have responded brilliantly.
Here are annotated pictures of the main dye garden in recent months.

 

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden, Hitchin, May 2016

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden, Hitchin, May 2016

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden Hitchin, Early July 2016

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden Hitchin, Early July 2016

Dye garden

The Natures Rainbow Dye Garden, Hitchin, Late July 2016

 

Colour in Winter

overview of colours larger

What could be better on a cold winter’s day than plant dyeing with ten creative and enthusiastic felt makers?

Today I ran a small group workshop for Region 5 of the International Feltmakers Association

After a demonstration of the basic principles, people were left to work the dyebaths to achieve the wide and bright colour palette available from the ‘Grand Teint’ dyeplants which can easily be grown here in the South East of England.

In the space of a few hours, we dyed nearly a kilogram of merino wool tops (pre-mordanted with alum), a little silk (pre-mordanted with aluminium acetate) and some unmordanted banana yarn.

group sharing fibre 3

This is a workshop I have facilitated many times before for my local Spinners Dyers and Weavers Guild In the past we have always held these events outdoors on a long summer’s day which works really well for rinsing and drying. So it was very different working indoors and to a tighter time schedule.

I will be running a plant dyeing day for the North Herts Guild of Spinners Dyers and Weavers Guild on Saturday 23rd April 2016.

Contact me if you are interested in hosting plant dyeing workshops. I am open to designing workshops to suit specialist audiences.

Breathe Yellow

TG breathe yellow medium

I have experimented with something called ‘Colour Play’ developed by Vanessa Volpe from Northampton. This is a healing therapy akin to psychodrama, but using colours rather than words to communicate. Vanessa understands how colours resonate with different aspects of our personalities. When facing fear of the unknown it’s a good idea to imagine breathing yellow into your lungs and body to infuse you with confidence. Anish Kapoor has said that when your visual field is full of pure yellow something very special happens. He dislikes spelling out experiences for the viewer, but he is on record saying that yellow is the ‘passionate’ part of red, whereas blue is the ‘godly’ part.   Goethe, on the other hand, described yellow as serene, gay, softly exciting and gladdening. I was certainly gladdened the other day when I obtained these beautiful yellows on silk, linen and cotton. I had been feeling rather overwhelmed by all the preparation work I still needed to do for my display in the student gallery at the Festival of Quilts. A morning out with the dyepots ‘breathing yellow’ lifted my spirits.