Friday, 21 November 2014

Contact Dyeing with Oak Leaves on Paper, Silk and Cotton Jersey

Hardly had the heating on this autumn, it's been so mild, so far.  I've noticed a few trees changing, but Wales seems to have missed out on the classic blaze this year. Checking a favourite sycamore, the remaining leaves were just drab tatters about its branches.

Freshly fallen leaves are supposed to be best for contact dyeing.  Last year, I had a go at steaming some in between wet sheets of watercolour paper, pressed under a big stone. Naturally, I picked up the most colourful varieties, expecting they would give the best results. Wrong. 
Nothing from the ivy, speckledy brown from those bright red oval ones, touch of green from the red maple. Most sheets were an obscure mess.

I know leaves only look green when full of chlorophyll and I'd now say chlorophyll does not dye a contact print.  Deciduous trees shut down using chlorophyll to photosynthesise energy when the days grow short.  All that is left in old autumn leaves is their structural elements and some waste product, so most look dull.  Reading around, it seems that the brief but magnificent reds and purples are largely due to the breakdown of residual glucose stores. Such leaves look as if they would give fabulous dye colours, but the ones I tried last year really didn't.  Finding out the colours are sugar based might explain this.

Oak leaves are particularly rich in tannin, which may account for why they made the strongest marks with the sharpest detail, but I don't understand why they dyed paper so much better from their undersides, compared to their topsides.  The ginkgo leaves did much the same one sided dyeing.
Having an afterbath leftover from a run of Chamomile dyeing, I thought I would try contact printing silk with oak leaves, same method as with geranium leaves.

The silk was mordanted with alum and soaked before laying on the leaves and rolling it round section of plastic downpipe. 

The string was dunked for a minute in a jar of vinegar with rusty nails at the bottom.
The oak leaves made an orangey brown print, with the iron producing darker details.  Along the edges, the yellow chamomile dye bath had shifted to green with iron seeping out of the string and working as a modifier. The bigger leaves made a pale speckled print.  Still wondering, are the oak leaves printing better because of tannin fixing their dye, or are there particular dye molecules at work?

Clearing the borders, I found remnants of dye plants with a bit of life left in them.  Rather than the compost heap, they went into the remaining dye bath for a simmer. Ages ago, I bought 10m of tubular silk jersey, thinking it an online bargain, only to find it had a fishy smell I couldn't stand.  Apparently, unprocessed silk contains a silk worm gum called sericin which causes this.  
My silk noil went through the washing machine twice and had a day on the washing line and still was whiffy when damp, even after I sprayed it with febreeze and mordanted some of it with alum.  I cut a 30cm strip and put it though the oak leaf contact dye process in the rebooted dye bath.  It had an hour or so simmering, a day soaking and another day drying out.

After a final wash the smell had gone!  The silk jersey isn't very stretchy any more, but at least I know I can live with it.

The tubular scarf looks rather good on, though the prints are fuzzier on this fabric. While freshly fallen oak leaves are still thick on the ground, I had a go at contact printing them on cotton jersey, mordanted with alum acetate.  The dye bath was beefed up by simmering a heap of Japanese Indigo plants I had been steeping to eke out the last of the late season indigotin.  I've read that this gives pinkish dyes, but who knows what contribution the elderly plants made to 
the cocktail of oddments in that bath.  

Whatever, there was enough going on in there to provide a soft grey background to my last oak leaf contact dye trial. Putting a double layer of leaves in the roll, half facing up and half facing down, printed both sides of the cloth. Cotton jersey doesn't fray and is warm enough for a scarf.

Three seasonal scarves.


  1. The upper side of most leaves has a thicker waxy protective layer and fewer openings (stomata) that are there to allow gas exchange during photosynthesis than the lower layer. Both these points may contribute to the fact you got better dye from the underside - and if I had to lean on one reason more than the other, I would bet it is the thinner layer of wax. Helen

    1. Thank you. This would also help explain why leaves that don't dye, don't get soaked through either, despite a long simmer and soak. Wax resist on one side, dye on the other. Much appreciated.