Author Archives: susan dye

About susan dye

Plant dyer and textile artist based in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, UK

Blue luminescence on cold woad extract

Natural Dyeing and Befriending Chemistry

A blog post by Susan

This post is for people highly curious about what’s going on in the dyeing process but who may think they can’t get along with chemistry.

Skip to the end if you’re already a dye chemistry fan for details of a new book and an online course to unlock deeper understanding.

Measuring cylinder, glass bottle of alum solution and other equipment for mordanting

Measuring cylinder, glass bottle of alum solution and other equipment for mordanting

What I love about natural dyeing is how it bridges arts and sciences.

Increasingly obtaining colour from plants and other found or foraged materials is being used in artistic or journalling processes. Colours and marks captured from unique moments in time or space. But for certain, what governs the ways colour from dyes in natural materials gets into textiles (or from pigments onto paper) and stays there (or not) is all about chemistry.

I can’t do science, art, sport, music

Our schooldays often leave us with beliefs that hold us back. As time goes on we can start afresh if we are motivated and open-minded.

If you’d asked me at secondary school I would have said I hated sport, music and art and that I would never be any good at them. Looking back I can see it was more a case of being terrified in class because I didn’t connect with how the subjects were taught and I was always at or near the bottom of the class.

However, my brain works well with words and my imagination is happy with abstract ideas. So I loved and did well in sciences, history and ancient languages. I am certain that I did well in languages not because I am a good linguist but because I was thrilled by the idea of reading the words of people who lived thousands of years ago. I had an excellent physics teacher so that’s what I went off to do at University.

But … I don’t have a very good brain for 3D manipulations. I find it hard to read maps or rotate shapes in my head. Maybe this is why I found organic chemistry boring at school. I now know that organic chemistry is the ultimate 3D puzzle. Sadly the rather deadening way my teachers taught A level left me delighted to escape from the subject.

Later I completely changed how I saw these things ‘boring’ and ‘frightening’ subjects.

First off I had a serious health challenge in my 20s and managed to get through the treatment by discovering an inspired and gifted martial arts teacher. Suddenly exercise was something I wanted to do and found joy in practice and improvement. I stopped when my teacher moved back to the United States but I’ve lately found an inspiring teacher of internal martial arts and am studying with the Three Treasures school online and in person.

Next  I learned that I am left-eyed despite being right-handed and I have fairly hypermobile joints, so that I was always likely to be poor (rubbish actually) at any sports which needed hand eye coordination and strength (eg tennis). Much later I discovered I could play badminton fairly well and only last month played table tennis for the first time and hey presto, playing left handed works a treat.

In 2012 I was cured of my fear of drawing by the brilliant City and Guilds textile teacher Barbara Weeks.  A determination to sketch the ripples in satellite photos of on sand dunes of Mars led me to draw what I could actually see rather than what my mind thought it could see. And the motivation for sticking with it until ‘something clicked’ came from a love of the Red Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

And now natural dyeing brings me back to chemistry with a completely different mindset

Over the last ten or more years I have been trying to revive my understanding of molecular bonding from A level chemistry to get a better grip on what’s happening in my dye pots. Amongst other things, I want to know why different acids behave differently with ferrous sulphate. And how to accurately explain oxidation and reduction to students who come on our indigo courses using fresh woad and  Japanese indigo.  And which books are right and which are wrong, and which are partly right, when they try and explain how indigo bonds with textiles. How come indigo can fade? I’ve seen it happen and it’s not abrasion!

And then there’s madder and the many dye molecules it contains. What are the factors which favour some dyes in the madder pot over others. How can I get the full range, bright reds on cotton and silk and elusive purplish tones?

The questions are endless and I am fairly certain the answers are all chemistry (plus some biochemistry in the plants as well).

This is all to encourage any of you with a passion to understand and explain natural dyeing, to consider two topical chemistry related opportunities.

Man on foreground and woman in background concentrating on dyeing skeins of yarn in weld dyebaths under controlled conditions

Weld dyeing experiment to explore mordanting recipes 2009. Brian Bond of Badgercrafts in the foreground and Susan in the background. We wanted to know how to get the bright tones reliably so designed a factorial experiment to investigate.

New resources

Inside Indigo a handbook for dyers by Julia Tabakhova in collaboration with Skye Macalester.
This is a new book for visual learners. Published by Editions Terracol (49 euros).
The blurb says  “Learn how to extract indigo pigment or build a vat in light of the inner workings of the molecule. Follow step-by-step instructions with a running “science behind” column to guide you through. Revisit your experience or discover for the very first time. This handbook is also for beginners, with nutshell explanations.” … including ” Practical recipes, Molecular visualizations, Hands-on experiments, Chemical elucidations”

Pre-orders are being taken now for shipping in June.

MAIWA 12 week online course on Natural Dyes: Alchemy, Chemistry, Craft
Course starts 13 May 2024. CAN$ 500

This is the course I have long been hoping someone would offer.  Read about it online here.

MAIWA makes it clear that this is a course about ideas and concepts, not a practical course with textiles, so you have to be motivated and curious about understanding dyes and dyeing.

I’ve signed up because people I respect have recommended it but mostly because I have been yearning to fill in gaps in my understanding of dyeing chemistry for a long time. I have the motivation and the passion. I know I don’t have the 3D brain which would make me a great chemist, but that’s fine!

It’s an order of magnitude more expensive than the Inside Indigo book, so I am aware that I am promoting something which is outside many people’s financial reach. But if you are curious and excited about the course, able to afford it but don’t think you’re enough of a scientist, try to set aside any self-limiting beliefs from school days.

Also once enrolled you have the online materials for 3 years and you can download all of the materials for your own study thereafter.

Dyer and author Catharine Ellis writes about the course in her latest blog post here which was what alerted me to the course and persuaded me to sign up.