Introduction to Herbal Dye making
No chemical dye can achieve quite the depth and luster of many plant dyes. Flowers, leaves and roots give subtle variations of tone and color that mellow and soften with time but never lose their natural harmony. This is an ancient skill steeped in tradition. As early as 3000 BC in China there is evidence of this art. By 2500 BC Madder and Indigo were well known in India and plant dyeing was a popular new art. Egyptians discovered and perfected mordants and were dyeing red and yellow from Safflowers and using Indigo and Woad to achieve variations of blue. In the first century A.D. Greek physicians and herbalists were using Woad, Weld and Madder as their principal dyeing plants.
During the Middle Ages, large tracts of farming land in England and Europe were turned over to the cultivation of plants used in dyeing. They were already aware of blue, yellow and red dyes but through experimentation with mordants they discovered great variations in the shades of color they could create. In 1856, Lavender dye was first developed from a component of Coal Tar and soon followed a wide range of new colors and shades produced from Chemicals. Many of these ancient techniques are still in use in Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia, where other methods of dye making have never caught on. Herbal dye making is just so cheap and easy and the basic ingredients so readily available that many other dye makers have since followed suit.
In actuality, all plants will yield some color as a dye but it will be with different degrees of brightness and fastness. Greenish-yellow, yellow-brown and brownish gray are the most common colors. Rusty reds, burnt orange and tawny gold are the next most common.
Blues are rare and are mostly achieved by using Indigo or Woad, the most commonly used herbs in this process. In choosing the herbs or plants you wish to use for herbal dye making does not mean you must travel countrysides seeking out unusual or hard to find plants. Many dyes can be made from garden herbs, flowers and weeds. Common garden Dandelions, often considered a weed, is an excellent source of grayish dyes. Other strong dyes can be obtained from Dock, Stinging Nettle and Horsetail, all of which are also considered garden weeds.
Prolific common herbs include Agrimony, Meadowsweet, Gorse and Elder. Also good are cultivated herbs like Fennel, Rue, Iris, Chamomile, Goldenrod, Broom, Hops and Lily of the Valley. Herbs or flowers that cannot be grown in your garden, for whatever reason, can be located and purchased at Herb shops, natural foods markets and some nurseries and supermarkets. The best results are achieved with fresh plants so make every effort to grow the weeds or herbs yourself so that you can harvest whenever you like and the product is guaranteed fresh. Use gathered flowers and tender young leaves right away, do not allow to shrivel and dry. Berries are best when they are fresh and overripe, although you may also use frozen, dried or canned Berries as well. Berries are rich in color and you do not need to use a lot at a time. Roots or Onion skins that are used may be used dried or fresh.
Wool is the most popular material used in herbal dyeing. You can also dye silks, cottons and blends but you must be careful about timing and heat to assure even distribution of color. Polyester or rayon materials must be soaked for very long periods and possibly re-dyed in the future. They tend to collect color unevenly and then to lose it swiftly in the wash. Other than wool, the materials that hold color longest and most evenly are cottons, linens, silks and nylons. You must soak cottons and linens for very long periods because they tend to resist the color. However, once they take, they do not lose the color quickly. Synthetic fibers, as a rule, do not work well.
A mordant is necessary to fix the dye and to be sure that it is colorfast and thoroughly absorbed by the fibers. The principal chemical mordants are listed later in the ebook although many unusual mordants have been used in a pinch, such as wood ashes, salt vinegar, soda, urine and yogurt, to name a few.
Basic Procedures for Dyeing
No two batches of herbal dyes will be identical. Variations in the color produced depend upon the plant variety used, how much sunlight that plant received while growing, the chemicals in waters used when watering, the type of pans or pots used in heating the mixtures, the chemicals in the waters used in the dye making process, the mordant or fixative used in the process and the length of time the materials are immersed in the dye. It is this unpredictability that has kept large scale commercial dye houses from utilizing or developing herbal dyes. However, it is this same unpredictability that adds interest and creative experimentation to the homemade dye making process.
As a rule, there is an optimum time for picking each herb, leaf or flower. This is usually just before a plant blooms or flowers. Roots are best dug up in the fall. For wool dyeing, always use the same weight of the herb as the actual weight of the wool. For silk, use twice as much dye as the actual weight of the silk.
Dyeing with herbs is time consuming but fascinating, creative and fun. Always, the fabrics must be prepared to receive the dyes, which involves the processes of scouring and mordanting and the dyes have to be extracted from the herbs by making and using a dye bath. All of these processes are discussed in detail later in this book.
Always avoid exposing wool or silk to sudden extremes in temperature. For instance, when lifting these materials from a hot dye bath, do not set them on a cold surface, rinse them with cold water or place them near an air conditioning vent. Always handle wool very gently. To dry wool at any stage in the process (for temporary storage between processes, for example), first you should tumble dry the wool in a muslin bag on the no-heat dryer setting. Never use direct heat or high temperatures to dry wool or silk. If you dry the wool after scouring, you have to wet it again in 6 quarts of water at 120-125 degrees Fahrenheit with a tiny drop of dish soap for a full hour before beginning the mordanting process.
Equipment used for dyeing should include:
Stainless steel pots or pans (second choice should be enamel or galvanized iron). If you use copper or aluminum, these metals will alter the outcome of the color of the dye. In most cases, they will make it darker. If you do not have these kinds of pots and pans, a clean bathtub or sink will work as well!
Plastic buckets for rinsing.
Large strainers or colanders.
Scales (weighing lbs not just ozs)
Containers for the mordants and powders
A glass rod made for stirring the hot mixtures (If you cannot locate this glass rod, you may use a wooden dowel instead, cut to the right length)
A sharp knife
Mortal and pestle for chopping and crushing Herbs
A jam thermometer (not a meat thermometer) is good to have but not necessary
Softened water for washing the wool and dyeing the fabrics (you can use distilled or purified water purchased in bottles, rainwater collected in a clean bucket or tap water softened with Vinegar)
Pillowcases or Muslin bags
Rubber Gloves (protect your hands from dyeing!)
Now that concludes my introduction to the basics of dye making. I don’t want to load you up with too much info on the first shot. But if you desire to continue with making Herbal Dyes, then you should go about acquiring the equipment from the above list. Gather it all up and make sure you have everything. Then, stay tuned to my blog for future posts on this great craft. The next edition will be on mordanting and will include some great recipes for making Herbal Dyes with mordants.