Summer has finally smacked us upside the head! Happily it’s still cool enough at night to enable us to sleep well but the days are quite hot, at least for here in Vancouver. Obviously this is a lesson in “be careful what you wish for”, right? I’m alternating my time picking produce, watering everything in sight and working up in the Sweat Shop (aka my upstairs studio). Oh, and dyeing fabrics on the deck with dyeplants from my garden and older dyes, mordants and assists from the dye studio. It’s been an adventure!

I started by chopping off my Japanese indigo plants.

Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria aka Polygonum tinctorium)

I decided to try a new-to-me technique for dyeing with some of this bounty as explained in John Marshall’s “Singing the Blues” book (p.29), dyeing cellulose fibres with fresh indigo. I had a 2-metre length of a lightweight hemp fabric, scoured in Synthrapol and soda ash. After stripping the leaves carefully from the stems I weighed them so they were pretty much equal to the wof. I dissolved thiourea dioxide in hot water and left it to cool. In the craft blender I lightly packed leaves and covered them in ice water and blended them into slurry which went into a stainless steel pan. Repeated until all the leaves are blended and added calx and the thiox to the last blending. The results looked pretty weird, all curdled and frothy, but it properly turned green in about 10 minutes.

Fresh indigo bath

Then I added the damp fabric and carefully squooshed it around in the vat for about 10 minutes. The fabric turned blue when I pulled it out, rinsed in clear water and hung it up for awhile but I didn’t think it was very dark so I repeated the whole procedure since I had plenty of indigo leaves. I know that it gets a lot lighter after the fabric is finally finished. Also this year’s indigo isn’t very intense with the indigo precursors because it was such a cloudy/rainy spring and early summer. Less sun means less blue!

Final results, fresh Japanese indigo on hemp

The blue is quite light and blotchy (and nearly impossible to photograph accurately!) but I think the fresh process has possibilities. I had lots of leaves left over afterward so I dried them. One day I’ll combine several years’ worth of dried leaves and see what I can get from them. There should also be at least one or two more harvests before cold weather kills the plants.

There was still plenty more plants in the dye garden to play with so I chopped down the weld plant that was more than 2 metres tall and Thom buzzed it through his chipper/shredder for me. I decided to dye a second 2 metre piece of the hemp fabric and mordanted it in tannin and then alum/soda ash using instructions from “The Art and Science of Natural Dyes” by Joy Boutrup and Catharine Ellis. The weld was simmered for an hour and the plant matter sieved out before adding the fabric and a small amount of chalk (calcium carbonate) since our water is very soft. Again the fabric didn’t turn out as dark as I expected but it’s quite a pretty soft yellow. I’m beginning to think it’s the hemp which was unbleached that didn’t take a strong dye colour even though it was well scoured at a simmer.

Weld on natural speckled hemp

Of course I couldn’t quit there! I’d been saving up the marigolds that I had deadheaded off the plants for about a week but even after stealing a bunch of fresher blossoms didn’t have quite enough for a couple of yards of heavy cotton doubleknit that was next on the list. So I added some spent heads of the dyers’ chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) to make up the weight of flowers. My plants are not yellow as is the usual variety but white with yellow centres like regular chamomile. Even so they still dye quite well.

Dyer’s chamomile (var. Sauce Hollandaise)

I wasn’t picky and left in the stems and the sepals and likely a few aphids and ants as well! I simmered the lot for at least an hour. Meanwhile the cotton knit was mordanted in myrobalan and alum acetate (in separate steps) and then into the pot after the flower heads had been sieved out. Now I got a really strong colour of slightly greenish yellow even though I hadn’t heavily scoured this fabric but just ran it through a couple of laundry loads because it was a freebie from a neighbour and slightly grubby.

Marigold and dyer’s chamomile on cotton knit

Lastly instead of using dye plants from the garden I decided to use up as much of a jar of lac extract as I could. Even though this insect dye gives great colours of raspberry reds to purples, it absolutely stinks! I can’t dye it indoors at all or it gives me a sore throat. It’s that bad. It also is a PITA to wash out because it stains everything: rubber gloves, pails, washpan, sink, and even my best stainless steel dyepot is currently pink. Hopefully it will lose that eventually because I hesitate to dye anything that will pick up the colour from the pot. Anyway, I used most of it up and dyed 3 metres of a natural linen/rayon blend which was first mordanted in gallnut and alum acetate. This fabric (of which I have quite a lot left from a 50 yard bolt) dyes beautifully.

Lac dye on linen/rayon blend fabric

I left it for a day or so after dyeing before rinsing it in cold water over and over and over (8 times!) outdoors in the gravel driveway before running it through a machine wash with Synthrapol and then dried in the dryer. I’m still planning to be careful when I wash any garment I sew out of this in case it still has the power to stain anything. I don’t trust it! But isn’t it gorgeous? And no longer stinky. Yay.

I haven’t exactly decided what I’m going to make out of these fabrics yet, apart from the indigo one which will be a shirt for Thom, but they certainly coordinate nicely together.

Naturally dyed fabrics

Wait! That’s not all. I finished sewing a tester version of Closet Core Patterns Kalle Shirt that became an actual wearable garment. I used a bleached muslin from deepest stash and sewed the cropped version with cotton thread on purpose so it could be dyed. I have more to say about this pattern but I think I’ll leave it until I make the actual tunic version that I originally had in mind. But here’s the wearable muslin before I scrunched it up.

Kalle shirt before dyeing, minus buttons
Prepared for dyeing

I had saved my myrobalan mordant bath so I heated it up and used that to soak the scrunched shirt. Then I squeezed it out and put it into an iron modifier bath (2% WOF dissolved in hot tap water). It immediately turned grey but not as dark a colour as I had hoped. Perhaps there wasn’t enough myro in the pot or it didn’t stay in long enough since it was probably a lot more diluted than I needed. Or the muslin wasn’t scoured well enough? I quite like the results though.

Kalle crop front
Kalle crop back

At least it’s not white. Heh. Yes, I know it needs ironing but it still smells like rusty nails so needs another wash before I’m going to wear it. I’m a bit hesitant about this style on me and how to incorporate it into my wardrobe but we shall see. It only cost me some time and I learned a lot. It’s not a bad fit I think but I’ll be making a few fit adjustments anyway before making the tunic. More on that when I get to it.

Stay well and stay cool (or warm depending on where you live)! And WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK!!!

4 thoughts on “Dye!”

  1. Wow that lac dye color is really spectacular! Re your new blouse… looking at the picture, I am wondering if moving the fullness from a center back pleat to either side nearer your shoulders would serve to improve the back fit, if that is a thing you are considering. I know for myself, I find that two smaller side pleats work better as they put the fullness closer to where I need it for mobility.

    Stay cool, stay safe, and may we all come through these times to a better place.
    Sending creative joy to you from my solitary space habitat here in Portland


    1. The lac really is amazing, isn’t it? Too bad it’s such a pain to work with. At least cochineal doesn’t stink horribly so there is a better alternative if I want one. The Kalle shirt can’t help but have creases under the arms since it’s a cut-on (aka kimono) sleeve and that’s just the nature of the beast. Anyway besides the forward shoulder adjustment I’ve actually decided to go up a size in the upper bodice to give just a bit more room there. Maybe that will be all it needs. I understand what you are saying about the alternative pleats closer to the sides but I quite like the inverted back pleat. Do take care, my dear, and stay cool!


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