Archive for January, 2011

Dyeing Cotton and other Cellulose Fibres

Monday, January 31st, 2011

As I have recently been working on an article for “The Journal for Weavers, Spinners & Dyers” on using natural dyes on vegetable fibres, I thought I’d write a few words on the subject here.

 There seems to be a fairly common belief that dyeing cotton and other cellulose fibres with natural dyes is often less successful than dyeing animal fibres, such as wool. This may be because some dyers use the same mordanting methods for all fibres, rather than selecting methods appropriate to each fibre type, and this can lead to disappointing results. However, using natural dyes on cellulose fibres has become simpler and less labour-intensive since aluminium acetate is now more widely available in the UK. Before the arrival of alum acetate, the alum-mordanting method generally used for best results when dyeing cotton or linen has probably been the 3-step tannin/alum/alum (or alum/tannin/alum) method, which takes several days to complete. This involves treating the fibres in sequence with both tannin and alum sulphate, the latter plus washing soda. Some dyers favour completing the tannin process first, followed by two treatments with alum and washing soda, while others prefer to carry out the tannin process between the two alum treatments. I don’t think it really matters which sequence one chooses.  Some dyers may opt to use only the alum sulphate plus washing soda step and to omit the tannin process completely, although in my experience this tends to give less satisfactory results, unless the cellulose fibres being treated have a natural tannin content, as may be the case with raffia. (See my earlier post: “A Natural Dyeing Project in Uganda”)

Detailed recipes for mordanting vegetable fibres are given in my books, so I won’t repeat them here. However, I would suggest that dyers who haven’t yet tried alum acetate as a mordant for cellulose fibres might find it worth while experimenting with the following mordanting recipe:

Use 5% alum acetate (or 2.5 tsps per 100gms/4ozs dry weight of fibres). Dissolve the alum acetate in boiling water and add this to cool water in the pot, stirring well. Then add the wetted fibres, plus more water if necessary to allow them to move freely in the solution, heat to simmering point and hold at this temperature for one hour. Then turn off the heat, leave the fibres to cool, preferably overnight, and then remove them and rinse them well. (Note: alum acetate is available from some of the suppliers listed on my blog under “Useful Websites”)

I have found this mordanting  method gives good results on cotton and other vegetable fibres. It is also suitable for silk, but not for other animal fibres, and is widely used in Japan as a mordant for silk. I used it to mordant fine silk fibres when dyeing silk for handweaver Maggie Stearn and found it most successful. (See my earlier post: “Maggie Stearn – Handweaver”)

Naturally-dyed cotton mordanted with alum acetate. Clockwise from left to right: indigo, brazilwood, weld, weld + indigo, fustic, madder, logwood, cochineal

Naturally-dyed cotton mordanted with alum acetate. Clockwise from left to right: indigo, brazilwood, weld, weld + indigo, fustic, madder, logwood, cochineal

Some of the naturally-dyed raffia fibres, dyed by the basketweavers of Rubona, Uganda.

Some of the naturally-dyed raffia fibres dyed by the basketweavers of Rubona, Uganda.

2011 – What Next?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

At the start of the new year and as I gradually feel more settled here in our new home, I have begun to ask myself what I plan to do with any free time I may have and which new craft projects I’d like to embark on. I have to admit that there are times when I find it difficult to motivate myself to start dyeing again. I don’t produce items for sale and, with the exception of yarns dyed for my own personal projects, most of my dyeing is done as experiments for whatever article or book I am working on currently. As I still have so many naturally-dyed yarns waiting to be used, I feel reluctant to add even more to my stock, especially when I recall how much I gave away when we moved.

My main interest has for some time been the textile traditions of the past and I am working on some more Anglo-Saxon style dyeing experiments. I realise this is a very loose description, as what I have been doing is considering the colour range that might have been available to ordinary people living during the Anglo-Saxon period, particularly those who may not have had access to alum mordants. So I shall be writing more about this at a later date.

I have also decided that it is about time I learned some new skills, as well as trying to improve some old ones. As I am so interested in the textile skills of the past, I plan to teach myself card (or tablet) weaving and with that in mind I’ve purchased a book to guide me through the processes involved. I also hope to improve my spindle-spinning and my naalbinding techniques. As an added encouragement, for Christmas my friend Chris Dobson, who shares my interest in ancient textile techniques, sent me some lovely wooden weaving tablets, together with a shuttle and a beater, and also a bone naalbinding needle.  So, having committed my intentions to print in this post, and with the equipment I need ready at hand, perhaps this will give me the incentive I need to get started. Indeed, as the photos below show, I have actually managed to thread my tablets ready for weaving, using blue and tan yarns dyed with woad. Now I must follow the next pages of instruction and actually do some weaving! (Thank you, Chris, for getting me started!)

Of course, when the weather improves we shall begin to make some changes here in the garden, probably starting with two new beds for herbs and dye plants and we also plan to plant some roses. I do miss my old garden, especially when I think of all the hellebores and bulbs that will soon be flowering there. But I have already noticed some bulbs beginning to emerge from the ground here and we have created some spaces for hellebores too, so eventually this new garden should hopefully bring as much pleasure into our lives as did our garden in Shefford.

On a personal note, our daughter is expecting her second child in early March, so I am also knitting one or two items for the baby. As these will use up only a tiny part of my yarn stock, I suspect I may also need to embark on other knitting projects – perhaps more cushions? – as the year progresses.

Tablet weaving set up on our old Italian fruitwood chest

Tablet weaving set up on our old Italian fruitwood chest









A closer view of the tablets threaded ready for weaving

A closer view of the tablets threaded ready for weaving