More about Symplocos leaves as a mordant

September 4th, 2017

Following on from my recent experiments with symplocos leaves as a plant source of aluminium for mordanting, I have done some further tests, mainly to try this plant mordant out on silk and cotton fibres.

After my last tests, I re-used the 50% symplocos mordant solution on a further wool skein to test whether the solution would still be viable as a mordant and I was pleased to note that, when I added a sample to madder and logwood dye baths, it produced a strong colour. This suggests that the 50% mordant solution could safely be re-used on a further batch of fibres.

This led me to wonder whether symplocos would still work if used at a lower percentage, so I decided to use 30% instead of 50%. I also decided to see whether the 30% mordant solution could be used more than once.

The main difference between mordanting animal fibres and vegetable fibres with symplocos leaves is the temperature at which the fibres are treated. Wool fibres are heated slowly to simmering point, held at this temperature for about an hour then cooled and rinsed. Vegetable fibres and silk are treated in a hot solution (60C/140F) but not simmered. The vegetable fibres must also first be treated in tannin.

I prepared two sample sets, each consisting of wool, silk and cotton fibres, and I treated the cotton fibres first in a tannin solution from oak galls. I then weighed the sample sets and worked out the weight of symplocos leaves I would need for 30% weight of fibres (WOF).

To prepare the symplocos mordant solution for all fibres, I simmered 30% symplocos leaves in water for about 45 minutes then strained the solution through a piece of very fine muslin cloth. At this point I saved the used leaves and re-simmered them, so that I could add this solution to the exhaust mordant bath after my tests and then use this on a further batch of fibres.

I divided the symplocos leaf solution into two pots – one for cotton and silk and the other for wool.

I slowly heated the mordant bath containing the wool to simmering point then held this temperature for about one hour. I then removed the pot from the heat and left the fibres to cool down.

The cotton and silk mordant bath was heated to 60C/140F and then removed from the heat. The fibres were then left to soak in the solution for about an hour.

I then dyed the fibres in madder and logwood dye baths.

The photos below show the results from the madder extract and logwood extract dye baths.


Left from top: 30% symplocos first mordant bath on cotton, silk, wool

Right from top: re-simmered leaves + exhaust mordant bath on cotton, silk, wool

Centre below : no mordant, 10% alum mordant


Left from top: 30% symplocos first mordant bath on cotton, silk, wool

Right from top: re-simmered leaves + exhaust mordant bath on cotton, silk, wool

Centre below : 10% alum, no mordant

From these tests it seems that using the symplocos leaves at 30% WOF gives good results but that re-using the 30% solution may produce paler shades on some fibres, which could be less fast. Although 30% WOF works well on the first batch of fibres, I think it might be better to use 40 – 50% WOF if one intends to re-simmer the symplocos leaves and to add the solution to the exhaust mordant bath for re-use.


Some photos of the dye garden

August 11th, 2017

Dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) in full flower


Madder (Rubia tinctorum)


Woad (Isatis tinctoria) on the left at the back, lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) in the centre with yellow flowers and the purple flower heads of saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) just visible on the right at the back


A first-year woad plant (Isatis tinctoria)


Wild madder (Rubia peregrina) rambling through the garden and beginning to form seeds


Saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) with its purple thistle-like flower heads


Yellow cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) with its pretty yellow flowers

Yellow cosmos flowers give lovely yellow and rust dyes and I usually collect the flower heads as they begin to fade and then use them in a solar dye pot. For a rich burnt orange colour, add soda ash to the jar.


Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

I set up a solar dye pot with goldenrod and after 24 hours a pretty lemon yellow is developing. I used the dead flower heads only because I just can’t bear to cut the flowering heads.

Symplocos leaves as a source of aluminium mordant

July 24th, 2017

Some plants are aluminium accumulators and can be used as an alternative source of alum for mordanting. Among them are clubmosses and I have written in an earlier post about how clubmosses were used in the past as an alternative mordant.

Another alternative source of alum comes from the leaves of  species of Symplocos. The leaves of Symplocos racemosa are used in parts of India as a source of aluminium mordant and in Indonesia Symplocos cochinchinensis is used in a similar way.

The Bebali Foundation is the organisation behind The Plant Mordant Project which aims to empower women in Indonesia by building partnerships for sustainability with rainforest communities and indigenous textile artists; the sale of dried Symplocos leaves for mordanting is part of this project.

The website provides a wealth of further information on this project and also gives details of where to buy the powdered leaves and how to use them. This extract from their website explains the work of The Plant Mordant Project.

“The Plant Mordant Project offers natural dyers a unique opportunity to avoid mordants produced by industrial processes and make reliable colors 100% from plants. Powdered leaf from Symplocos trees can replace alum in conventional natural dye recipes and produce some exciting new colors. Natural dyers already chose plant dyes over synthetic dyes because they are aligned with their values, and the Plant Mordant Project offers an opportunity to extend the expression of these values by also using a plant-sourced mordant. 
At its source, the Plant Mordant Project builds partnerships for sustainability with rainforest communities and indigenous textile artists in Indonesia. Through its sourcing and sales of Indonesia’s traditional plant-sourced dye mordant, the Bebali Foundation ( alleviates rural poverty and empowers women, saves rainforests, and supports the traditional textile arts. The Bebali Foundation brings to this project a decade of experience in the fields of conservation, indigenous culture, and rural livelihoods, while its partnerships with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and the Indonesian Forestry Department, and its funding from the Ford Foundation bring world class scientific rigor and accountability.

I recently purchased some dried symplocos leaves from Couleur Garance in France and have begun to experiment with them. (

Symplocos leaves can be used on all fibres; so far I have only used them on wool and I am pleased with the results. One thing to bear in mind is that Symplocos leaves also yield a yellow dye, so the yellow colour of the mordanted fibres may have an effect on the colours achieved from the dye pot. However, I found the colour difference on madder-dyed wool when compared with wool dyed on a traditional chemical alum mordant was very slight.

I used the powdered leaves at the rate of 50% weight of the fibres and simmered them in rainwater for about 30 minutes until they sank to the bottom of the pot. I used rainwater because the recipe stipulated “soft water” and I live in a hard water area. I then strained off the liquid and allowed it to cool to 40C as directed.

I washed the wool thoroughly and then soaked it in a weak solution of washing soda (soda ash) as directed in the recipe. (I suspect this washing soda soak is probably more relevant for use in areas where dyers may not have easy access to other wool washing materials. The important thing is to make sure the fibres don’t have any grease or dirt adhering to them.) I then added the wool to the cooled mordant solution and slowly raised the temperature to simmering point (95C) over a period of one hour. I allowed the solution to cool then removed the fibres and rinsed them. The fibres were a medium yellow colour, although the recipe said they would be a”pale shade of yellow”.

In order to be able to compare the effectiveness of Symplocos leaves as a mordant, I added samples mordanted with two other types of alum mordant – 10% aluminium sulphate and Kaltbeize AL, a cold mordant of aluminium formate, which I have written about in previous posts. I also added three further samples – two mordanted with different sources of tannin – blackberry leaves and shoots and oak galls – and one treated with rhubarb leaf solution.


This photo shows from l to r: 10% aluminium sulphate, Kaltbeize AL cold aluminium formate mordant (see a previous blog post), blackberry leaves, oak galls, rhubarb leaves, symplocos leaves

I then dyed all the skeins shown above in a madder dye bath.
The photo below shows the madder-dyed skeins in the same order as the undyed skeins above.
The photo below shows more clearly the difference in shade between the three types of alum mordant. The symplocos-mordanted skein is the third one from the left and it is only very slightly more orange in tone than the skeins from the other two alum mordants.
The second skein may appear slightly paler than the first skein but this is because the wool used for the second skein is more loosely spun and this may have caused the slight colour difference.
 My conclusion from this first experiment using Symplocos leaves as a mordant on wool is that they provide a useful alternative source of alum for mordanting, especially for those dyers who prefer to avoid manufactured chemicals and to use only plant materials. The colour obtained from madder on wool using a Symplocos mordant is virtually the same as the colour from an aluminium sulphate mordant and the initial yellow colour of the mordanted fibres seems to have an insignificant effect on the colour obtained.
I used the remaining Symplocos solution to dye two wool skeins an attractive shade of yellow but I intend to experiment with them to see if the remaining solution also contained enough aluminium to have a mordanting effect.

Some photos of the garden

July 1st, 2017

Although my garden is small, I try to cram in as many plants as possible and to make the garden as colourful as I can. I plant mainly native plants and plants with flowers that will attract bees and other beneficial insects. The garden always seems to be humming with bees and when sniffing the scented flowers I have to make sure not to disturb the pollen gatherers!

Here are some photos of the garden in June.

When the much-needed rain has stopped I’ll take some photos of the dye garden, which is beginning to look rather overgrown.

More thoughts on the 1-2-3 lime/fructose indigo vat

June 26th, 2017

I have been looking at various recipes for the 1-2-3 lime/fructose indigo vat, which was developed by Michel Garcia, and I made one interesting observation – in most of the recipes, the fructose (which is the reducing agent) is added before the lime (calcium hydroxide), which is the alkali. This surprised me as, when making 1-2-3 vats, I always add the alkali first. I wondered whether I was alone in this, so I was pleased to find that in Helen Melvin’s recipe the alkali is also added first. Helen is a very experienced dyer, with extensive practical knowledge of various types of indigo vats, and she has also attended courses led by Michel Garcia, so I felt I was in good company.

So why should I be surprised to find so many recipes in which the reducing agent is added before the alkali? Firstly, because it goes against what is, I think, the usual practice when making indigo vats; for example, when making an indigo stock solution, the alkali, in this case caustic soda, is added before the reducing agent; and when processing fresh woad leaves to make a vat, the alkali is added to the solution before the reducing agent. Indeed, the alkali is added first when making most types of indigo vats, so why would one change this order? The other reason why changing the usual order seems to me illogical lies in the name “1-2-3” vat, which seems to me to suggest that one would first add to the water one part indigo, then secondly one would add two parts lime (calcium hydroxide), the alkali, and thirdly three parts fructose, the reducing agent, thus maintaining the neat 1-2-3 order of both the proportions of ingredients and the order of adding them. (And also adding the ingredients in the same order as with other types of indigo vat.)

So does it actually make any difference whether one adds the alkali or the reducing agent first? One way to find out would be to do some experiments, so I made two small sample vats, for one adding the ingredients in the 1-2-3 order and for the other adding the ingredients in the 1-3-2 order. Otherwise, exactly the same weights of ingredients were added to each vat.

The photos below show the results. In each of the photos, the 1-2-3 order vat is on the left and the 1-3-2 order vat is on the right. The photos show the gradual progress of each vat and the final test samples. The vats each took about 1 hour to be ready for use.

The results indicate that the order in which the ingredients are added seems to make little, if any, difference to the final results. Although the vats didn’t look exactly the same at each stage, the dyed samples show that each vat produced samples of almost identical shades of blue. So I shall continue to add the ingredients in what seems to me to be the most logical order: 1-2-3.

For further information on indigo vats, see Helen Melvin’s excellent book “Indigo; The Colour of the Sea and Sky”, available from Helen at Fiery Felts (link on the right under “Useful Links”).

Reprint of “Colours from Nature”

May 19th, 2017

My book Colours from Nature has been out of print for a while and Search Press has decided not to reprint it. So I have taken over the printing myself, in collaboration with D T Craft & Design, who will distribute the book.

The book has just been reprinted, this time with a coiled (spiral) binding, so it will lie flat when in use. It has a new cover, a few more photos and also has added acetate covers to keep the card covers clean.

Colour throughout, including colour sample swatches and some photographs.

Colours from Nature is a practical handbook for dyers, containing full details of all aspects of applying natural dyes to animal and vegetable fibres, with emphasis on safe, environmentally-friendly methods.

The introduction explains the various categories of natural dyes and gives an overview of the historically important dyes.

The first half of the book covers the preparation and mordanting of fibres, dye bath preparation and the application of dye colour, with chapters on colour modifiers, testing for colour potential and light- and wash-fastness testing.

The comprehensive recipe section, which forms the second half of the book, is arranged according to colour, with recipes for over 100 colours and numerous colour sample swatches. It gives instructions for using all the classic, traditional dyes, including madder, weld, indigo, fustic, logwood, brazilwood and the insect dyes cochineal and sticklac, and also for using more common plants, such as blackberry, rhubarb, oak and walnut. The section on blue dyes has recipes for 3 methods of preparing and using indigo and woad vats, plus useful information for solving some of the problems encountered when using indigo.

Colours from Nature also includes details for creating some compound colours and for using natural dyes in extract form. The final chapter lists other useful plant sources of dye colour. Colours from Nature is a complete guide in itself and it is also an ideal companion book to Wild Colour. It contains information not included in my other books and many more recipes for specific colours on all fibres.

I am delighted that Debbie and Pete Tomkies of D T Craft & Design ( have agreed to sell and distribute the book for me and they will also be dealing with wholesale orders. If you would like a copy of this book, or if you would like to purchase copies for re-sale, please contact Debbie at D T Craft & Design (



More Skeins for Ditchling Museum

May 16th, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I dyed a final set of samples for the Ethel Mairet project at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, following recipes in the 1916 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”.

Below are the details of the recipes and the results.

Samples of wool and silk were dyed following the instructions on p 103 Recipe no. 7 for MADDER Red for silk

A cold 25% alum mordant was applied and the fibres were allowed to soak in the cold alum mordant solution for 24 hours. 50% madder was placed in the dye pot, together with a handful of bran tied into a muslin bag, and water was added. The fibres were rinsed and then added to the madder dye bath. The temperature was raised gradually to just below a simmer, the heat was turned off and the fibres were then left to steep in the dye bath without further application of heat. When the dye bath was getting cool, heat was again applied until a simmer was reached. The heat was then turned off and the fibres left to steep overnight. They were then removed, rinsed and washed.

Further samples of wool and silk were mordanted with 2% copperas (iron) and dyed as above, as suggested in the above recipe for brown shades.

From the left: wool, silk, wool for brown, silk for brown

Samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions on p110 Recipe no. 1 for WELD  Yellow for Silk

Wool and silk fibres were mordanted with 25% alum sulphate and the cotton and linen fibres were mordanted with 5% alum acetate. 200% weld was simmered for 15 minutes then the dye liquid was strained off into a dye pot and left to cool. When it had cooled a little, the silk and wool fibres were added and left to steep in the dye solution. They were then removed. The weld was simmered again with the addition of 2 teaspoons of soda ash and this solution was then strained and added to the first dye solution. The dyed fibres were added to this solution and allowed to steep until they had achieved a suitable depth of colour.

From the top: wool, silk, cotton, linen

Samples of wool and silk were dyed following the instructions on p121 for DYER’S BROOM

The fibres were mordanted with 25% alum sulphate. The dyer’s broom was simmered for 45 minutes to extract the colour, then strained. The fibres were gently simmered in the strained dye solution for 45 minutes and left to cool in the dye liquid. They were then removed, rinsed and washed.

From the left: wool, silk

Samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions on p125 Recipe no. 9 for CUTCH Brown for Wool

The fibres were not mordanted. 15% cutch extract was dissolved in boiling water then gently stirred into a dye pot of water. The fibres were added and simmered in the solution for about an hour, then left to cool for a while.  2% iron (ferrous sulphate) was dissolved in boiling water then added to a pot of water. The cutch-dyed fibres were added to the iron solution and simmered for 15 minutes. They were allowed to cool, then rinsed and washed.

From the left: wool, silk, cotton, linen

Samples of wool, silk, cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions on p139 Recipe no. 8 for GREEN WITH INDIGO EXTRACT & WELD FOR WOOL.

Wool and silk fibres were mordanted with 25% alum sulphate and the cotton and linen fibres were mordanted with 5% alum acetate. They were first dyed blue using indigo extract (Saxon Blue). The fibres were simmered in this indigo solution for about 45 minutes then allowed to cool a little. The weld dye bath was prepared by simmering 100% weld to extract the colour. The solution was strained off and the indigo-dyed fibres were added to the weld dye bath and simmered for about 45 minutes. They were left to cool in the dye bath, then rinsed and washed.

NOTE: Although this recipe is specifically for wool, it was used on this occasion to dye all four fibre types. However, as noted by Ethel Mairet, indigo extract is less suitable for cotton and linen and these fibres did not take up much blue dye. The silk reacted better but the depth of blue on the silk was still less than that on the wool. This meant that the greens achieved were less blue and more yellow in tone.

From the left: wool, silk, cotton, linen

Dyeing with bracken

May 4th, 2017

It was interesting to read that one of the dyes used most frequently by Ethel Mairet was bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). In my garden I have several bracken or common fern plants which need to be cut back, so I decided to experiment with them.

I started with the old pruned leaves (see photo below) and was pleased with the results, especially from the alkali (washing soda) modifier.

Below are the results from this dye bath. From the top: no modifier, washing soda modifier, iron modifier, exhaust dye bath no modifier (All 10% alum mordant on wool)

For comparison, I decided to also make a dye bath from the new fiddle-heads (see photo below.)

Below are the results which rather surprised me, as I had been expecting the colours from the fiddle heads to be more yellow in tone.

From the left: alum mordant, alum + washing soda modifier, alum + iron modifier

I then decided to try a cool dye bath with the old leaves. I left the samples to steep in the dye liquid for about 12 hours and this cold soak produced the colours shown below.

Upper skein: no modifier, lower skein: washing soda modifier (Both alum mordant)

I then re-simmered the old leaves, strained off the dye liquid and added more skeins, this time unmordanted. The results are below.

From the left: no modifier, washing soda modifier, no modifier but skein simmered in the dye bath for a longer period of time.

Although the skeins are browner in tone than the photo suggests, these results were quite surprising, as I hadn’t expected to get deeper colours from the re-simmered leaves.

These experiments gave some interesting shades and I am not surprised that bracken was a dyestuff frequently used by Ethel Mairet.

Natural Dyeing Workshop at Ditchling Museum

April 10th, 2017

As part of the Ethel Mairet project at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, I recently led a workshop based around Ethel Mairet’s recipes for madder, weld, cochineal and indigo, which are the dyes she most frequently used.

I am extremely grateful to fellow-dyer Deborah Barker, without whose support and assistance with lifting and carrying I would not have been physically able to manage the workshop. The photos in this post were all taken by Deborah, for which I thank her.

We dyed wool skeins and used alum as a mordant, following the recipe below except in the case of cochineal, for which we used 20% alum, as in Ethel Mairet’s instructions in the recipe we used for cochineal.

ALUM MORDANTING RECIPE  (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Example of mordanting with alum –  ¼ lb of Alum and 1oz cream of tartar for every pound of wool. This is dissolved and when the water is warm the wool is entered. Raise to boiling point and boil for one hour. The bath is then taken off the fire and allowed to cool overnight. The wool is then wrung out (not washed) and put away in a linen bag in a cool place for 4 or 5 days, when it is ready for dyeing, after being thoroughly washed.

When we used iron as a colour modifier we followed the instructions given below:

IRON (ferrous sulphate) also called copperas  (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Copperas is mostly used for the fixing of wool colours (Fustic etc) to produce brown shades; the wool being boiled first in a decoction of the dye for about 1 hour, and then for ½ an hour with the addition of 5 to 8 per cent of copperas. If used for darkening colours, copperas is added to the dye bath, and the boiling continued for 15 to 20 minutes.

NOTE: to avoid the need for extra dye pots, sieves etc, we put the dyestuff for each recipe into a muslin bag, which could be removed once the dye colour had been extracted. In the case of madder, the bag of madder root dye pieces remained in the dye bath the whole time. A little more dyestuff was used to allow for the fact that some dye would be taken up by the muslin bag itself.

These are the details Ethel Mairet gives for madder in her recipe book:

MADDER (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Madder consists of the ground-up dried roots of a plant Rubia tinctorum, cultivated in France, Holland, and other parts of Europe, as well as in India. Madder is one of the best and fastest dyes. It is also used in combination with other dyes to produce compound colours. The gradual raising of the temperature of the dye bath is essential in order to develop the full colouring power of madder; long boiling should be avoided, as it dulls the colour. If the water is deficient in lime, brighter shades are got by adding a little ground chalk to the dye bath, 1 to 2 per cent.

Madder is difficult to dye as it easily rubs off and the following points should be noted.

  1. The baths should be quite clean. Rusty baths must not be used.
  2. Before dyeing, the wool must be thoroughly washed so as to get rid of all superfluous mordant.
  3. A handful of bran to the pound of wool, helps to brighten the colour.
  4. The wool should be entered into a tepid dye bath and raised to boiling in 1 hour and boiled for 10 minutes or less.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to look at Ethel Mairet’s own copy of her dye book “Vegetable Dyes” and discovered the following notes written in pencil by Ethel Mairet inside the front cover.

Madder must be fresh. Chalk essential for madder dye bath.   Mordant: 4oz alum ½oz cream of tartar. Wash after mordant & dye after 24 hours. Boiling water kills alizarin therefore put madder in cool water and keep under the boil.   Dye quickly. Bath 80C. Strong bath for short time (20 mins). Put in dye bath 5 ½ozs madder, a piece of chalk or lime, teaspoon sodium carbonate.

Recipe 1 Red (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Mordant with ¼ lb Alum to the pound of wool. Boil for 1 hour, let cool in mordant, wring out and put away in bag for 3 or 4 days. Wash very thoroughly. Then dye with 5 to 8ozs madder according to depth of colour required, and a handful of bran for every pound of wool. Enter in cool bath and bring slowly to the boil in an hour or more. Boil for a few minutes.

NOTE: as the water at Ditchling is “hard” we didn’t add chalk to the dye bath but we did add bran, which we tied into a muslin bag. We noted the comments made by Ethel Mairet in her own copy of her dye book and raised the dye bath temperature slowly to just below a simmer, making sure not to boil it.

Yarns developing colour in the madder dye bath

Madder for Brown (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

(1lb wool) Mordant with 1oz copperas and 1oz cream of tartar. Dye with 6ozs madder

Or: “If used for darkening colours, copperas (iron) is added to the dye bath, and the boiling continued for 15 to 20 minutes.”

COCHINEAL (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

The dried red bodies of an insect (Coccus Cacti) found in Mexico are named cochineal.

Recipe 4 Crimson (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Mordant with 20% alum or with 15% alum and 5% tartar. Dye in separate bath, after well washing, with 8% to 15% cochineal. Boil 1 hour. A slight addition of ammonia to the dye bath renders the shade bluer.

Samples dyed with cochineal

Recipe 7 Violet for Wool (1916 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Mordant with 2oz alum for 1lb wool. Dye with 1oz cochineal and 1oz of solution of iron in which the wool is kept till the shade is reached.

Adding the iron to the cochineal dye bath

WELD (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Weld, Reseda luteola is an annual plant growing in waste places. The whole plant is used for dyeing except the root. It is the best and fastest of the yellow natural dyes. The plant is gathered in June and July, it is then carefully dried in the shade and tied up in bundles. When needed for dyeing it is broken into pieces or chopped finely, the roots being discarded, and a decoction is made by boiling it up in water for about ¾ hour. It gives a bright yellow with alum and tartar as mordant ………… 8 percent of alum is often used for mordant for weld. A little chalk added to the dye bath makes the colour more intense; common salt makes the colour richer and deeper.

Recipe 2 Yellow (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Mordant with alum, and dye with 1 lb of weld for every pound of wool. Common salt deepens the colour. If alum is added to the dye bath, the colour becomes paler and more lively. Sulphate of iron inclines it to brown.

Samples dyed with weld


NOTE: In the 1916 edition of “Vegetable Dyes” there are recipes for indigo extract, for the ferrous sulphate vat and for various fermentation-style vats. However, there are no recipes for the hydrosulphite vat, which is the most common method of using indigo today. The 1924 edition of the book gives recipes for the hydrosulphite vat but I decided to use indigo extract, or Saxon Blue, in the workshop .

INDIGO (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Indigo is the blue matter extracted from a plant Indigofera tinctoria and other species growing in Asia, South America and Egypt. It reaches the market in a fine powder, which is insoluble in water. There are two ways of dyeing with Indigo. It may be dissolved in sulphuric acid or oil of vitriol, thereby making an indigo extract. This process was discovered in 1740. It gives good blue colours but is not very permanent, darker colours are more so than the paler. It does not dye cotton or linen. The other method is by the indigo vat process which produces fast colours but is complicated and difficult. In order to colour with indigo it has to be deprived of its oxygen. The deoxidized indigo is yellow and in this state penetrates the woollen fibre; the more perfectly the indigo in a vat is deoxidized, the brighter and faster will be the colour. For wool dyeing the vats are heated to a temperature of 50C. Cotton and linen are generally dyed cold.

 Indigo extract (4 to 6lbs wool) (1924 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”)

Mordant 25% alum. Stir 2 to 3ozs Indigo extract into the water of dye bath. The amount is determined by the depth of shade required. When warm, enter the wool and bring slowly to boiling point (about ½ an hour) and continue boiling for another ½ hour. By keeping it below boiling point while dyeing, better colours are got, but it is apt to be uneven. Boiling levels the colour but makes the shade greener. This is corrected by adding to the dye bath a little logwood, 10 to 20 per cent which should be boiled up separately, strained and put in bath before the wool is entered; too much logwood dims the colour. Instead of logwood a little madder is sometimes used; also Cudbear or Barwood.

Note: Extract of indigo, also called Saxon Blue, is a mixture of oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), precipitated chalk and finely ground indigo. It can be purchased ready made from Fiery Felts or DTCrafts. (See list of “Useful Websites” opposite.)

Samples developing colour in the Saxon Blue dye pot

GREEN (1924 edition of Vegetable Dyes)

Green results from the mixing of blue and yellow in varying proportions according to the shade of colour required. Every dyer has his particular yellow weed with which he greens his blue dyed stuff. But the best greens are undoubtedly got from weld and fustic.                 The wool is first dyed in the blue vat; then washed and dried; then after mordanting, dyed in the yellow bath. This method is not arbitrary as some dyers consider a better green is got by first dyeing it yellow before the blue. But the first method produces the fastest and brightest greens as the aluming after the blue vat clears the wool of the loose particles of indigo and seems to fix the colour. The wool can be dyed blue for green in three different ways;- 1st in the Indigo vat, 2nd with Indigo Extract with Alum mordant, 3rd with logwood with Chrome mordant. For a good bright green, dye the wool a rather light blue, then wash and dry; Mordant with alum, green it with a good yellow dye, such as weld or fustic, varying the proportion of each according to the shade of green required. Heather tips, dyer’s broom, dock roots, poplar leaves, saw wort are also good yellows for dyeing green. If Indigo Extract is used for the blue, fustic is the best yellow for greening, its colour is less affected by the sulphuric acid than other yellows.

Recipe 2 Indigo extract and weld for wool (1924 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”)

Mordant 1lb wool with 4ozs alum and 1/2oz cream of tartar. Dye blue with sufficiency of indigo extract, wash and dry. Prepare a dye bath with weld which has been previously chopped up and boiled. Enter wool and boil for half an hour or more.

Recipe 3 Green for wool (1924 edition of “Vegetable Dyes”)

Mordant with alum and cream of tartar, add to the mordanting bath a little weld or fustic. Dye with 6ozs fustic (or weld). Dye in a separate bath with indigo extract, a rather bluer green than is wanted. Then put into a yellow bath till the right shade of green is got.

Each student went home with 10 dyed skeins, eight dyed as in the recipes above and two dyed in dye bath exhausts chosen by each student.

The eight colours from the recipes given above. From left to right: cochineal crimson, cochineal violet, madder brown, madder, weld, weld + Saxon blue, weld + iron, Saxon blue

Some sample skeins labelled ready for the students to take home

Ethel Mairet Recipes

March 9th, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I dyed some more samples for the Ethel Mairet project at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft, following recipes from the 1916 edition of Ethel Mairet’s book “Vegetable Dyes”. The recipes and fibre samples were selected for me by the project co-ordinator, who decided that where possible each recipe should be used on wool, silk, cotton and linen fibres, even where the recipe was for specific fibres and not for all fibres. Most of Ethel Mairet’s recipes assume that the dyer has some experience, so the instructions are often brief and some tend to be little more than a list of ingredients. Also, as the recipes are often for large quantities of fibres, working out how to adapt some of the recipes for dyeing 10g skeins can be quite a challenge. (However, for dyers wishing to participate in the Ditchling Museum Ethel Mairet dyeing project, there is plenty of information on the Ditchling Museum website about mordanting and dyeing methods, plus some guidelines for adapting Ethel Mairet’s recipes for small quantities.)

My first samples were dyed in Fustic (Chlorophora (or Morus) tinctoria) which comes from the heartwood of a tree grown in South and Central America. It was one of the dyes introduced into Europe in the early 16th century, following the discovery of the sea route to the Americas at the end of the 15th century.

1. Samples of wool, cotton & linen were dyed following the instructions for dark yellow given in Recipe 2 on p114 (YELLOW FOR SILK). However, as the museum already had a sample of silk dyed following this recipe, I had only wool, cotton and linen skeins to dye.

“Work the silk for 1/4 to 1/2 hour at 50C to 60C in a bath containing 16% alum and a decoction of 8% to 16% of old Fustic. For dark yellow the silk is mordanted with alum, washed and dyed for about an hour at 50C, with 50% to 100% of Fustic. The colour can be made faster and brighter by working the silk in a cold solution of nitro-muriate of Tin for an hour.”  (From “Vegetable Dyes” 1916)

This recipe was relatively simple to follow because the measurements are given as percentages. I decided to follow the instructions for dark yellow and to omit the final step using solution of tin.

The samples were first mordanted in alum. The wool sample was mordanted using 25% aluminium sulphate and the cotton and linen samples were mordanted using 5% aluminium acetate. The samples were rinsed well then dyed using 100% dried fustic woodchips.

2. Samples of cotton, linen & silk were dyed following the instructions given in Recipe 8 on p115 (YELLOW FOR SILK)

“(5 lbs) Work the silk through an alum solution of 1lb to a gallon of water. Wash in warm water. Boil 2lbs Fustic for 1/2 hour in water and in this work the silk for 1/2 hour. Lift and add one pint of the alum solution. Work 10 minutes longer, then wash and dry.” (From “Vegetable Dyes” 1916)

This recipe required some calculations in order to adapt it for 10gm skeins. The samples were first worked in a solution of aluminium acetate then rinsed well. A dye solution of 40% dried fustic woodchips (Chlorophora  tinctoria) was prepared by simmering the wood chips in water for 45 minutes. The dye solution was strained and the samples were dyed in this then removed. Some of the remaining aluminium acetate solution was added to the fustic dye liquid and the samples were returned & dyed in this for a further 10 minutes.

The photo above shows from left to right: Recipe 2 p114 wool, cotton linen and Recipe 8 p115 silk, cotton, linen

3. Samples of wool & silk were dyed following the instructions given in Recipe 10 on p115 (BUFF COLOUR ON WOOL) This recipe uses a combination of fustic and madder root.

“(45 lbs) Boil 4 1/2 lbs Fustic and 1 1/2 lbs madder. Add 7 lbs alum and boil up together. Allow to cool a little, enter wool and boil for 1/2 hour.” (From “Vegetable Dyes” 1916)

This recipe required some calculations in order to adapt it for 10gm skeins. 10% dried fustic wood chips (Chlorophora  tinctoria) and 4% dried madder root (Rubia tinctorum) were simmered in water for 45 minutes and then the dye solution was strained off. Approximately 20% aluminium potassium sulphate was added to the dye bath, which was simmered for 10 minutes then allowed to cool. The samples were added and simmered for 30 minutes.

4. Samples of cotton and linen were dyed following the instructions given in Recipe 10 on p126 (CATECHU STONE DRAB) 

Catechu is another word for cutch, which comes from the heartwood of Acacia catechu, a small thorny tree cultivated mainly in India, the East Indies and Southeast Asia. The dye is supplied as a powdered extract which dissolves in water. It should be mixed and stirred well to avoid lumps. Cutch does not require a pre-mordant. Logwood is also used in this recipe and this comes from the heartwood of Haematoxylon campechianum, a tree grown in Central America. Logwood was one of the most significant dyes introduced into Europe in the early 16th century, following the discovery of the sea route to the Americas at the end of the 15th century. The alum used in the recipe is for the logwood, which does require a mordant.

” (10lbs cotton) Work the cotton for 1.4 hour with 2 pints catechu (1lb catechu to 7 or 8 gallons water; boil and add 2 oz copper sulphate) in hot water, lift and add 2 oz copperas in solution. Work for 1/4 hour and wash. Add 2 oz logwood to a bath of warm water & work cotton in this for 10 minutes. Lift and add 1/2 oz alum. Work 10 minutes; wring out and dry.”  (From “Vegetable Dyes” 1916)

This recipe required some calculations in order to adapt it for two 10gm skeins and some of it had to be guesswork, based on experience. 2 teaspoons of powdered cutch (Acacia catechu) were mixed to a smooth paste with boiling water then added to hot water, to which 1 teaspoon of copper sulphate was also added. The cutch mixture was simmered briefly then unmordanted samples of cotton and linen were added and worked in the solution for 15 minutes. The samples were removed and then 1 teaspoon of ferrous sulphate was added to the cutch dye solution and stirred in well. The samples were simmered in this for 15 minutes then removed and rinsed. 1 teaspoon of logwood chips (Haematoxylon campechianum) was simmered in hot water & then the samples were simmered in the strained-off logwood solution for 10 minutes. They were then removed and half a teaspoon of aluminium sulphate was added to the logwood solution. The samples were simmered in this solution for 10 minutes then removed and rinsed well.

A wool sample was dyed following the instructions on p128 for MADDER for BROWN

(For 2 1/2 lbs wool) Mordant with 2 oz copperas and 2 oz cream of tartar. Dye with madder (From “Vegetable Dyes” 1916)

This recipe required some calculations in order to adapt it for one 10gm skein. The wool sample was first mordanted with iron (copperas), using a solution made by mixing half a teaspoon each of ferrous sulphate and cream of tartar in boiling water.  50% madder root (Rubia tinctorum) was simmered for 30 minutes then strained to make a dye solution, in which the wool was gently simmered for 30 minutes.

This photo shows from left to right: madder for brown on wool, buff on wool & silk, catechu stone drab on cotton & linen