Friday, 9 December 2016

Making Iron Prints with Leaves on Silk

"Wow, Elinor, come and look at this photo!" 
"Turn off that computer at once. I'm not being funny, Beaut, but it's only a couple of weeks and all your family will be arriving."
My companion has been channeling her pent up energy into a pre-Christmas cleansing of the kitchen. Which would be fine, if only she didn't also want to involve me.

Elinor could not be persuaded to admire the glorious works shown on a facebook eco-dyeing group I joined recently. I had to leave the virtual world for the harsh realities of grot busting, but not without protest.
"You wouldn't catch those eco-dyers with a bottle of bleach. I think we should stop struggling with it and 'give nature a home' underneath the dishwasher."
"That's not eco-friendly, Beaut, it's just lazy. Put your back into it."
"I wish I could work out how to get such incredible leaf prints onto fabric, and without alum mordant. The descriptions are short on detail - there are obviously processes too familiar to the group to bother documenting in full. I saw a mention of soaking dried leaves in iron and vinegar. What can an iron blanket be?"
"Oh, get a grip, you rusty old hippy." Her look was pure steel. "Plug the hoover in - no, forget that - you'll want to save the electricity and use a dustpan and brush."

I have been musing upon plant dyeing with iron while wiping out crusty corners. Though I've been dabbling with it for a couple of years, there is very little I fully understand. I have noticed my jam jars of iron solution don't last forever. Even though they still look brown, after a while, they have stopped making such satisfactory dye effects as they did at first.  This failing strength occurred again a few weeks ago. It was the same for a home made jar of iron acetate solution created by soaking rusty nails in water and vinegar as it was for the latest jar, made by dissolving ferrous sulphate powder in hot water.  Since I add iron to each of my bundles of silk or linen by soaking the string I use to tie the roll up in the jar of solution, the actual amount of iron I've been using is pure guesswork. The best I can say is that dissolving about 10-15g iron powder in a large jar has lasted me one summer.

Jenny Dean writes in Wild Colour that it is fine to pour an occasional dose of iron into the earth. Doing this before didn't seem to upset any of my plants, so I emptied out the old jar onto the compost heap and made up a fresh solution. I brewed up a dye bath by simmering some dried coreopsis flowers and added a teaspoon of soda ash to make the orange come out brighter. All the silk scarves I possess have already been mordanted with 10% alum, because I try to use up all the mordant by doing a long cold alum soak for one batch, then another batch of half the weight, then quarter the weight, day after day for three days (midweek, when himself can make do with a shower instead of using the bath). Unmordanted fabric experiments will have to wait til next year. 

I tried dipping some small red bramble leaves in the new jar of iron before laying them on wet silk, adding a few weld leaves from an overwintering clump, also dipped in iron, and some scraps of onion skin.

Soaking the string in the iron jar, I rolled the scarf round a plastic pipe, tied it up and simmered it in the dye bath for an hour or two, left it overnight and waited a day or so for it to dry on the radiator before unrolling. The weld leaves had printed green, the onion skins had made brown blodges and the bramble leaves had left a tracery of iron to show where they had lain.

The edges and the outermost layer of the silk on the roll had taken up coreopsis orange colour, made browner by the presence of iron and rippled with resist and iron marks left by the string.

Not brilliant, but it proved the newly made jar was definitely providing better iron effects than the old one. Next, I thought I would try NOT soaking the string - a bold departure from my usual process. There had to be quite a bit of iron left in the coreopsis after bath, so I thought I would try a variety of leaves dipped in iron and laid on two scarves. One would go in the coreopsis pot, the other would be simmered in plain water. Onto the silk went iron dipped bramble, alpine strawberry and hardy geranium leaves, which have all produced prints for me before, some bits of fern and big green lycestra leaves and finally, fallen yellow gingko leaves. I have seen pictures of successful prints with these, though not got any myself.
As a bit of insurance that there would be some colour on both scarves, dried Dyers Chamomile and yellow cosmos flowers were rehydrated in warm water and dropped in among the leaves.  When peeled off the dried silk scarf out of the coreopsis bath, the bramble leaves had made clear traceries and the chamomile flowers had left deep golden shapes. Without an iron soak, the string had left pale lines in the orange/brown background of coreopsis dye.

Rather to my surprise, the scarf that had been simmered in plain water turned out better. On the pale background, lycestra leaves showed up as green prints, the flower colours were better displayed and even the fern left pale impressions. No sign of a gingko print, I was fed up with them, no gratitude, to think I grew that ginkgo tree from a seed.

I started guiltily as my companion came into the kitchen to find me idly sitting staring at the latest silk scarf.
"Oh, nice work, Beaut." She wrapped the silk around her shoulders, gave me an arch look and swung her britch as she sashayed across the room.  "I might take this one to London with me."
"Elinor!  Did you get that part you auditioned for?"
"You are looking at this Christmas's West End Singing Sensation."
"You're going to be in a musical?"
She twirled out of the scarf and into a curtsey.
"A musical called 'Shepherdesses' Watch'. Fabulous song and dance routines."
"Shepherdesses' Watch? Is it a Nativity Play - are you to be a sheep in the flock?" As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I'd put my foot in it.
"This, my poor, dear Fran, will be no ordinary Nativity Play, but an Extravaganza." She sniffed. "And an actress of my stature is not wasted on crowd scenes around a manger. I have my own solos and special choreography for flying on a wire."
She swept off upstairs to pack her bags, leaving me to wonder how a sheep of her stature could possibly get airborne.
Once I had waved Elinor off on the train, I walked home among bare trees, dry and crumpled leaves littering the pavement.  Darkness was closing in and not even tea time yet. At least with madam gone, I wouldn't have to spend the evening cleaning.

Ginkgo leaves still lay bright yellow on the garden path. One more try. I gathered a handful and left them to soak overnight in a diluted bowl of iron solution with a slug of vinegar.  In a vase were some dessicated branches of eucalyptus which a neighbour cut from her garden for me last year. Used fresh, they had made little green circles on alum mordanted silk. The dried leaves snapped off with a brittle click, but by morning, had absorbed enough fluid to regain some pliability. At the break points, there were dark lines - must be picking up the iron.

Acidifying a dye bath seems counter intuitive when you are used to flower dyes which generally improve in colour with soda ash to alkalinise them. I couldn't quite bring myself to add any more vinegar, though I did layer the silk with overlapping leaves of green bramble and lycestra dipped in the iron jar. Tied up with plain string, the whole roll has been boiled, not the usual simmering to avoid destroying a fragile flower dye, a proper low boil, for several hours. I did leave it in the pot overnight, though I haven't let it dry before unrolling. In the videos on facebook, the eco-dyeing group seem to be unpeeling wet leaves from their cloth.

Here it is, hanging out to dry. No marks at all from the ginkgo leaves. It occurs to me that in this process, the use of iron is apparent in two different ways.  Dipping weld leaves meant they printed green instead of yellow as a contact dye shape, though they did not hold iron to leave dark marks on silk. The same plant dye colour modifying effect probably accounts for the green prints made by lycestra leaves. Soaking dried eucalyptus leaves in iron has given pinkish brown prints instead of green, plus a dark iron corona, most apparent where the upper surface pressed againt a layer of the silk. The bramble leaves hold iron in a pattern more detailed on their under surface, though they add no apparent dye colour of their own.
I'll have to keep watching that facebook group and wait til next year to try some more eco techniques.  I might skip growing soy beans to make soy milk, but there's no shortage of local cow dung. The Turner Prize awaits.