Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Contact Dyeing with Plants on Silk and Wool

Last week, I was singing of summer in full-throated ease, yarrow flowers leaping out of 
the grass.  This week, as the season of mists approaches, even the sunshine feels subdued. I am melancholy, irascible, not at all a mellow fruit.  Skip Keats' Ode to Autumn, let's have the Ode to a Nightingale.  
Here, where women sit and hear each other groan, where but to think is to be full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs.  I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, but, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet.

'Embalmed darkness' brought to mind those fabric and plant bundles for contact dyeing. I've seen some astonishing images of 'prints' of leaves and petals and rust on cloth, others that just look mouldy.  Darkling I listen.  Guess each sweet I must, as I haven't come upon clear guidance for the method. OK, sure, specific results depend on the season, the plant, the place.  Experimenting is the way forward, but how to begin?  A site that describes the processes would be a real find.  It must be out there, probably one page further into a search than I have troubled to read.  I'll have to make do with guessing from blog pictures.

Privately, I reckon quite a few people used dyes that looked purple when they took the photo, but had faded to gray by teatime.  How can I be so rude? Because I have enough skeins of cream/beige/tea brown to make a Dulux colour chart. Berries make irresistible red and purple baths, but are just fugitive stains.   

There are more things I can't fathom - if you roll up a variety of plants in cloth and tie them up with string, why wouldn't the colour from the ones in the middle soak through all the roll?  Especially if simmered in a pot of water, and even if you did just steam or leave them in the sun.  Is there enough sun on offer in Wales to extract any dye?  Some splash on vinegar and call that a mordant.  Hang on, I need to pause for breath before getting too bitchy.  I do realise I've blogged a fair bit of misinformed codswallop myself, but this flies in the face of reason.  Vinegar alters pH which changes plant dye colours, but it doesn't make them stick.  Even a potentially fast plant dye is just going to wash off. Why not premordant with alum?  'I don't want to bring toxic chemicals into my home, ecodyeing is soooo natural.'  Well, I take my hat off to anyone who manages life without washing powder.  Except then you'd see I never use shampoo, as it is sooo toxic too.  
OOO bite that lemon.
If transience is part of the deal, I wish the proponents of contact dyeing would be more up front about it.  I can enjoy a skyscape or a cream cake without being half in love with easeful Death when they are gone.  Enough Rushworth, cease your ratty maundering and go with the flow. Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee!  tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne.  

I shall attempt to make a rainbow silk scarf, another all leafy patterned and while I am at it, I shall eco solar contact dye a rainbow of fleece to spin.  The inspiration for this last is from a cracking good blog called Dyeing to Spin.  I'm not in Goldilox's league, but - if you are going to flash - flash hard.  There follows my best guess, fully detailed methods, but they may turn out to be 'what not to do'.  Results won't be out til next week.

First, the preparation.  Two cheap silk scarves weighing 10g each, one white and one I dyed in a meadowsweet dyebath last year.  Mordant, because without this, what little colour the fibre picks up soon fades.  Half a teaspoon of alum and a pinch of cream of tartar dissolved in a jar of boiling water.  I added enough warm water to make it 60 degrees centigrade, put the scarves in and left them all day Saturday.
The wool is about 100g of leftover coarser locks I sorted out of a raw Jacob fleece.  They got put in a laundry bag, had a brief hot soak with washing up liquid to lift the dirt and lanolin out, three hot rinses and then into the mordant from which I had just taken the scarves, with another half a teaspoon of Alum. Slowly heated up in a saucepan to 90 degrees and left to cool.
Sunday morning, I plundered the garden. Not to freeze or dry and store away, all for the here and now pleasure of it.  From the left, red geraniums, coreopsis, last of the dyers chamomile and a few Double Magenta hollyhocks.  The white silk scarf had had a good rinse to stop any loose mordant grabbing the dye instead of the cloth.  It was still wet, to provide a starter of water to extract the dye.  If this process goes the same way as a dye bath does, then the hollyhocks should give blue.  I haven't tried the chamomile yet, but the books say the leaves give green and the flowers yellow.  As should a head of tansy, which I haven't used for dye before, because I don't like its smell in the garden.  In dye baths, the coreopsis gives orange and the geranium - well, it looks like it might give me red.  A rainbow!  To try to keep the colours separate, I rolled the scarf longways.  Actually, I had to get both the offspring out to help.  

The plasticised garden wire down the middle was purely to suspend it in my steam bath.  One kettle full of boiling water and a teaspoon of soda ash to make the steam alkaline.  In dye baths, I've found that brings up the hollyhock blue toward purple and makes yellow and orange flower and leaf dyes more vivid.  Given how much simmering it usually takes to extract dye and then get it into wool, I am not madly confident this is going to work, so I kept the pot steaming on a low heat all afternoon.  
Next, the fleece.  Rinsed of loose mordant and layered in a big jar with the same sequence of plant materials, topped up with water and stood in the greenhouse. Again, I am full of doubts.  Surely, even if the sun shines enough to extract dye, the colours will all mix in the water and the wool will end up brown.

Last of all - dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! No more the fever and the fret.  I blithely snipped some melodious plot of beechen green and shadows numberless.  A spray of fennel, a willow shoot, two ferns, a tendril of hops and a few hazel leaves, sprinkled with the last geraniums and coreopsis.  A vision, or a waking dream.

I rolled the whole thing round a stick and lashed it together with wool that had been soaking in a pot of vinegar and rusty nails.  Put it in an old washing up bowl with some stones to keep it above the level of some water with a splash more vinegar.  
Clingfilm cover to keep the moisture working and off to sit in the greenhouse, with the wool jar and the steamed scarf, which is now hanging up inside a plastic bag.  Before I am soured again by a mouldy result, I shall post this blog. Contact dyeing was good, it felt more like art than craft.  More like poetry than prose.


  1. Oh Fran, I do like reading your blog - you always make me laugh! Not in my league?? I think you might just have left me standing. I haven't tried contact dyeing yet so you're one step ahead! Good luck with it and I'm looking forward to seeing your results.

  2. Hmmm, you forget I don't even know what n-plying is, never mind actually making lovely round yarn. Glad you like reading my stuff. Must admit I am well curious how this will turn out, though I will give it a full week before disembowelling the bundles.