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Friday, 21 July 2017

Dyeing with Impatiens Balsamina - probably

A couple of years ago, I was sent some seeds marked Jewel Weed, as part of a dye plant seed swop with a lady in America. Looking up the name online I was delighted to read that Jewel Weed enjoys damp shade, since much of my garden provides exactly that. The large seeds were easy to handle and the great majority germinated quickly in March indoors in a seed tray, then grew on strongly in an unheated greenhouse. Sturdy little plants with nice red stems were planted out in May in a border overshadowed by a tree, which gets little direct sun and stays damp. To my surprise, in summer, pink and purple flowers appeared from the leaf axils.
They were not the exotic orange tubular blossoms I had been expecting and there wasn't enough plant material to make a decent dye bath. Rather than spreading out and flourishing, the plants grew upright and looked meager. Later in the season, I saved seeds from the pods which had formed along the stalks and cleared most from the border, making an autumn soup dye bath of the whole plants along with some spent coreopsis plants. This dyed some fleece a gingery orange, which is pretty much what I would have expected from the coreopsis alone. The plants I left growing proved tender, dying off as soon as the cold weather set in. 
Since then, I have sown a few plants each year just to keep the stock of seeds fresh, always in damp secluded spots. Other plants have much more appeal, so this year was shit or bust. A dozen seedlings enjoyed the best of the 2017 sun in a well manured border.
Casting about for plants ready to dye with as part of my Tour de Fleece with the DIY and Dye team, I decided these mystery plants looked at their prime. Now or never. I lopped off all the tops and larger side shoots, a harvest of fleshy plant material weighing over 750g. The whole lot was simmered for an hour or so in water and left overnight to cool.
Sampling the dye bath in three jam jars, I added vinegar to acidify the one on the left, which made it paler. Dissolved soda ash alkalinised the one on the right, turning it murky and dark. Rather than meddle with pH in the first instance, I added three 25g skeins of alum mordanted Beulah wool to the unmodified dye bath, simmered for an hour and soaked overnight.
Here are the results. From the ten to one weight ratio of plant to yarn, the middle skein shows the original colour from the dye bath, the one on the left was warmed through with copper solution after dyeing and the one on the right with iron. I like the colours, though they are hard to describe, a soft peachy ginger, a deeper goldish ginger and a green tinged mid brown. One of the DIY and Dye team suggested the plant looked like a balsam and with a bit more investigation online, I think this plant must be Impatiens Balsamina. Wikipedia says it is also known as Garden Jewel Weed, which would account for the original confusion. This video says that unlike the other impatiens species, balsamina needs to be planted in sun. My plants definitely did much better in sun, though I'm not convinced they have earned prime garden space, needing such a high ratio of plants for a modest dye result.
There is a lot more to learn before deciding. Going back next day to empty out the samples of dye from their jam jars, I was startled to see that the bit of wool I left to soak in the apparently darker, alkaline jar on the right, had hardly any colour, while the scrap in the acidified jar was more vivid than the neutral jar. 


If the plants regenerate enough for a second harvest, I think acidifying a whole dye bath will be the next experiment. Just to see what colour might come from the afterbath, I filled a cotton T shirt with bits of other dye plants, rolled it round a plastic pipe and tied it up with string, before simmering the bundle in the (probable) impatiens balsamina afterbath for a couple of hours. That bundle has been slowly drying out for several days, so that this morning, I could tell the cotton had been dyed a murky greenish yellow, most unlike the peachy ginger wool. The bundle ought to be left to dry completely, but it has been pouring with rain all day today, walking the dog was a miserable trudge and no way am I going to get out in the garden to do some overdue, essential weeding. This afternoon, I gave in to curiosity, unrolled the T shirt and emptied out the flattened plants. Their prints have come out really cleanly, this will be a great gardening T shirt, totally cheered me up.



I was looking up my old posts on onion dyeing for a friend earlier this week, which reminded me that painting iron solution onto freshly plant dyed, slightly damp cotton causes a colour change which lasts when the fabric has dried, even after washing and wearing repeatedly. This T shirt was at just the right stage of dampness for a little impromptu art. I put a plastic layer inside the shirt to stop the iron painting soaking through to the front and expressed myself on the back with a paint brush.



7 comments:

  1. Lovely colours from a plant I've never heard of! And I adore your t-shirt. Did you pre-mordant it?

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    1. Thanks :) I should have said, I mordant cotton and linen by boiling for an hour in 5% of their weight in aluminium acetate. The mordant bath can be topped and reused repeatedly.

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  2. I know you can't see in exact detail from a blog photo...but the plant reminds me of Himalayan Balsalm...wonder if you could use that ?

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    1. There is plenty of that round here but I'd be too nervous of invasion to bring any home.

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    2. straight into a bag, straight into the dye pot...and not in the compost!!

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  3. Wow! I am so in love with that T-shirt. I must try that technique sometime.x

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    1. I think I am going to go to town with the iron painting - though I'll probably end up wrecking some nice prints.

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