Archive for the ‘General Dye Information’ Category

Recipes from a Creative Artist

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

When I wrote the post “What do I actually do?”, I was thinking about my own lack of creative, artistic output when compared with the work of creative artists who use natural dyes in their work. One who comes immediately to mind is Helen Melvin of Fiery Felts ( , who uses natural dyes to such wonderful effect in her felted landscapes, as shown below. (Photos courtesy of Helen)














In addition to her pioneering work in the creation of inks from natural dyes, Helen has also produced three booklets about natural dyeing, which give an insight into her approach and also offer useful hints for those of us who are  interested in learning about how other dyers work. Each of these booklets has a delightful and unique cover handpainted in natural dyes and contains about 20 pages of useful information. The first, “Colours of the Earth”, deals with Helen’s favourite dyes. The second booklet, “The Colour of Sea and Sky”, is devoted to indigo and the third, “Colours of the Rainbow”, covers the use of natural dye extracts in fibre and fabric painting. All of these booklets reflect Helen’s passion for natural dyeing and joy in colour.


In “Colours of the Earth”  Helen describes the methods she uses for dyeing with her favourite dyes, including madder, saffron, dyer’s broom, rhubarb and weld. She also has some useful hints for using cochineal and logwood and I’m pleased she includes dyer’s alkanet, as I love the subtle variations of tone from this dye, which is too often overlooked.

In “The Colour of Sea and Sky” Helen explains the technical aspects of indigo dyeing and analyses various methods for making and using indigo and woad vats, including her preferred methods. Her recipes also cover fermentation vats and I was pleased to find instructions for a vat using yeast and molasses, from which I got reasonable results with powdered woad. (Fermentation vats often require more patience and tender care than I’m able to muster, I’m afraid!) Like many dyers, Helen usually makes her vat using an indigo stock solution, which was my own method in the past. Nowadays I tend to make vats without first making a stock solution, because it is simpler to add all the ingredients directly to the vat. However, simpler is not necessarily better and Helen is quite correct when she points out that one possible disadvantage of my “Quick and Easy Vat” is that some indigo may remain undissolved because indigo dissolves and reduces better in a more  concentrated solution. This means that the vats I make are often better on the second day, once all the indigo has reduced. This situation can be easily avoided, however. I now make the vat in my usual way, but initially on a small scale in a large lidded jar, using only about 500mls – 1 litre water. I leave this solution to stand overnight, which gives the indigo time to dissolve and reduce, and then add it carefully to the water in the vat when I am ready to dye. The only disadvantage of this is that I need to add a reducing agent, such as sodium hydrosulphite, to the water in the vat before I add the indigo solution.

In “Colours of the Rainbow” Helen gives an overview of the various natural dye extracts available from different suppliers and gives detailed and comprehensive instructions for mixing the extracts to make solutions suitable for painting fibres and fabrics and also for stamping and stencilling designs. She also explains how to apply and fix the dyes to make them permanent. Natural dye extracts open up many possibilities for using natural dyes creatively and this booklet should prove invaluable for dyers who wish to use natural dyes to create their own individual patterned fabrics or who wish to produce multi-coloured fleece or rovings for feltmaking or spinning into variegated yarns.

Thes booklets are lovely to look at from the outside and full of useful information inside. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Some Interesting Dye Sources

Monday, July 13th, 2009

IMG_0593                                                 Sage flowering in my garden, with a welcome bee just visible on the far left.

IMG_0596                                             More sage and another bee.

Every now and then I come across a reference to a dye source from the past that I find surprising. My surprise is usually because the dye in question is often not one in common use today. One such dye source is sage, Salvia officinalis, which was used in mediaeval times. Sage is one of the dyes mentioned in the Plictho de larte de tentori, a collection of dyeing recipes published in Venice in 1548 and compiled by Gioanventura Rosetti, the Master of the Arsenal in Venice.  Although I suspect few natural dyers today would regard culinary sage as a common dye source of choice, the leaves give subtle shades of mustard yellow/ brown and an iron modifier gives attractive tones of deep mossy green. When I cut back my sage bushes, which can grow rampantly if not checked, I dry some of the prunings for culinary purposes and use the rest in the dyepot. (See the post “Anglo-Saxon Dyes part 2 ” for examples of colours from sage leaves.)

A friend phoned me last week to ask whether I had heard of privet, Ligustrum vulgare, being used commercially in the past in Wiltshire as a dark green dye. She had read about this in a novel but I don’t know whether the reference was to privet leaves or berries, so I wonder whether anyone else has more information about this? Privet leaves give a yellow shade, which would become a mossy shade of green if modified with iron, and perhaps they were used instead of a more traditional source of dye because  privet happened to be readily available locally in the wild at the time and was therefore a cheap alternative? As far as privet berries are concerned, according to a reference in Dominique Cardon’s “Natural Dyes”, the juice from the berries was used in the past to dye the red, violet and blue colours on playing cards. There is an illustration in her book of an 18th century cardboard playing card from Nimes, on which privet berry juice has been used as a dye. Red was achieved using Glauber’s Salts (sodium sulphate) and potassium sulphate, urine was added for violet, and lime and potassium sulphate were used for blue.

Another unexpected source of dye colour is the reported use of damsons, Prunus sp., as a dye for a variety of purposes, including dyeing hats for the Luton straw hat industry and dyeing wool for the textile industry in Westmoreland. Apparently, damson trees were planted around Market Drayton in Shropshire, and also in Worcestershire, to meet the demand for dye, and some damson bushes found today in hedgerows or in old orchards are the remains of trees grown for dyeing and not for damsons for eating. In my experience, with the exception of buckthorn berries, berries generally make poor dyes, especially on animal fibres, and the colours from berries tend to fade rapidly. So I am surprised that damsons, which are so good to eat, should have been specifically grown to be used for dyeing, when more reliable, traditional dye plants could have been grown. However, it may be that the colours given by damsons could not be achieved from dyes that could be grown or were readily available at the time. It would also appear that, in the past,  berries containing anthocyanins were frequently used by painters and dyers in those areas where they were abundant. For example: the blue in an early Swiss linen fragment has been attributed to elderberries and several early dye references from Germany, Italy and Sweden include recipes for bilberries. (Ref: Cardon p243 – 250) Of course, it is not surprising that early dyers would make use of what was growing around them. However nowadays, when we have access to so many excellent dyes from all over the world, dyers are able to select the most reliable dyes for their purposes and no longer have to make do with whatever is available locally.

The other reference I came across recently in a magazine was to the use of nettles, Urtica dioica, to dye camouflage military uniforms in the First World War. I know that nettles were used to produce fibres for cloth for military uniforms during the First and Second World Wars, but I had not heard before that they were also used as a khaki dye. Certainly, in wartime when it would have been important to find cheap, local sources of dye colour, the use of nettles sounds perfectly sensible. Nettles give various shades of yellow or brown, depending on the time of year when they are harvested, and the use of iron would give a khaki colour. I suppose it’s also possible that the same nettles could be used for both fibres and dye colour.

Does anyone else know of similar unexpected dye sources from the past?

Dyeing Alpaca Fleece

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Recently I went with members of the Bedfordshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to spend a pleasant evening admiring alpacas. These particular alpacas belong to David Titmuss, the son of one of our members, Toni Titmuss, and David and his wife had kindly invited us to visit their farm for one of our meetings. The early evening sunshine bathed everything in a warm glow and the alpacas were happy to be photographed, although they quickly lost interest if required to pose for too long.



The natural colours of the alpacas vary from white, cream and beige through various shades of rust and brown to almost black, and all these colours are lovely. The fleece can be extremely soft and a pleasure to handspin. Of course, as a dyer, I was interested in testing some dyes on white alpaca fleece, so I got my dyepots ready for a few experiments on some of my skeins of handspun alpaca.


All the skeins were mordanted in alum. The dyes used are, from left to right: 1 weld, 2 weld + iron, 3 madder, 4 madder + washing soda, 5 madder exhaust, 6 coreopsis flowers, 7 coreopsis flowers + washing soda, 8 brazilwood, 9 brazilwood + washing soda, 10 Phaeolus schweinitzii fungus, 11 Phaeolus schweinitzii + iron, 12 Exhaust of 11, 13 Cortinarius sanguineus fungus, 14 Cortinarius sanguineus fungus + washing soda, 15 Pisolithus tinctorius fungus

In general, I was pleased with the depth of colour I achieved. However, as alpaca tends to be more “hairy” than sheep’s fleece, and less “woolly”, the colours are probably less saturated than those achieved on sheep’s wool. One other thing I learned about working with alpaca is the importance of washing the fleece very well before spinning and dyeing it. When spinning sheep’s fleece, I often soak the sorted fleece overnight to get rid of any dirt, then spin “in the grease” and wash well afterwards and before mordanting or dyeing. This method proved less successful with alpaca. I found the grease was difficult to wash out after spinning and this caused patchy results from some of the dyebaths. I got much better results with alpaca fleece that had been well washed before spinning. After spinning, I washed the skeins again and then mordanted and dyed them.

Fungi galore – again

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Here are further details of the fungi I used recently and the colours I achieved from each.

Note: A = no mordant, B = 10% alum mordant, 1 = no modifier, 2 = washing soda modifier, 3 =  iron modifier. The order of samples for each fungus is: 1A 1B, 2A 2B, 3A 3B

The extra, usually larger, skeins are from the exhaust dyebaths and are alum-mordanted.


These colours come from a dyebath of a mixture of Cortinarius croceus and other orange- and yellow-gilled species of Cortinarius.


This shows, on the left,  colours from Hydnellum aurantiacum  and on the right, colours from Tapinella atrotomentosa.


These colours are from Phaeolus schweinitzii. The green shades from the exhaust dyebath were modified using iron.


These colours are from Cortinarius sanguineus


These colours are from Pisolithus tinctorius

Fungi Galore!

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Recently I managed to acquire a selection of fungi, mainly purchased through Leena in Finland, who either had some for sale herself or gave me the details of a supplier. Since then I have been once again exploring the wonderful world of colours from mushrooms. The photo below shows the range of shades I’ve achieved so far.


I tested each fungus using alum-mordanted and unmordanted wool and used washing soda (alkaline) and iron modifiers. I limited my tests to these two modifiers only, partly in order to reduce the number of samples and partly because, in my experience, these are the most useful modifiers. Also, as copper is toxic I try to avoid it where possible.

In my next post I’ll give details of the various fungi I used and the colours I obtained from each.

More Extracts

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Several weeks ago I was sent some more extracts to try out. This time they came from Debbie Bamford ( They were extracts of Brazilwood and Chestnut and also one labelled “Green”. I have tried extracts of brazilwood and chestnut  in the past, and also one from another supplier labelled “Green”, but it’s always useful to be able to try others. Brazilwood extract was in fact on the market about 20 years ago, both as a powder and as a type of resin,  and I used it then. However, when I supplied natural dyes by mail-order, it was interesting to notice how reluctant dyers were to buy the extracts instead of the dyes in their plant form, even when I pointed out that the extracts would actually work out cheaper because they go such a long way. Now, of course, dyes in extract form have become very popular, although some dyers still prefer to process their own dyes from plant to dyepot.

Brazilwood gives lovely reds and a brilliant purple when used with a washing soda modifier and I was very pleased with the results from this extract. I was interested to see that the acidic modifier produced very little change in shade, especially as, when used with brazilwood in its plant form, it usually gives a bright orange. Brazilwood is not as lightfast as the other red dyes, madder and cochineal, but I sometimes use brazilwood over madder-dyed fibres to increase the brilliance of the colours. A little brazilwood extract added to a madder extract dyebath should give good results, although I haven’t tried it yet.


Brazilwood samples (alum mordant)         From top to bottom: no modifier, acidic modifier, alkaline modifier, iron modifier

 Note: all samples on wool yarn



 Chestnut gives soft brown shades and deep grey when used with an iron modifier. As it is rich in tannin, it can also be a useful plant mordant for vegetable fibres and silk. “Green” gave an interesting range of shades and I was particularly intrigued by what happened with a washing soda modifier. (See photo below). The only thing I find slightly irritating is that when an extract is simply labelled “Green”, or given a name such as “Moody Blues”, I have no idea which plants have been used in its production. Of course, I understand that manufacturers don’t want to give away trade secrets, so I’m prepared to cope with my irritation and use the extract anyway. I do keep telling myself that I should stop asking so many questions and just enjoy using the products but still……………………..

                                                                                                                                                  img_2056This shows the “Green” wool samples on the left & the Chestnut wool samples on the right.  The order of samples with each dye is: A & B with no modifier, A & B + alkali, A & B+ iron

NOTE: A = no mordant & B = alum mordant.

More Rhubarb Samples

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

For several years a collection of my naturally-dyed samples has been held at The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage ( in Brussels, Belgium. This centre covers all aspects of Belgium’s artistic heritage and its laboratories carry out work on conservation techniques and materials, including the analysis of dyes on textiles from all periods and from all over the world. My samples are sometimes used in this analysis work, mainly for purposes of comparison.

Every now and then I receive a request for further samples and a few weeks ago I was asked for some more rhubarb samples, in addition to the ones they already have. The samples requested were to show the pinks and greys available from rhubarb root when the colour is extracted in an alkaline solution, using either washing soda or household ammonia.

As I couldn’t readily locate any suitable samples, I decided to produce some. I first soaked the chopped rhubarb root overnight in a solution of water and washing soda. By this time the liquid was deep red in colour and I added two alum-mordanted samples and two unmordanted samples. I left the samples to soak for about 24 hours, then I removed them. I dried one pair of samples away from the light and the other pair of samples was dried outdoors in direct sunlight. The samples exposed to the light dried to a greyish shade through a process known as photo-oxidisation.

The photo below shows the colours.









The upper two samples are alum-mordanted and the lower two are unmordanted. The pink samples were dried away from direct light and the greyish ones were dried outdoors in sunlight.

P.S. to the Kaltbeize AL mordant

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I received a reply today from Karin Tegeler, the supplier of this mordant, and it would seem that I had understood perfectly the information supplied with it. (As all the information was in German, I wanted to be sure that my knowledge of German had been adequate.) The main advantage of this form of alum mordant would seem to be that it can be applied cold whereas, according to the comparative information supplied with this Kaltbeize, the more common alum mordants, such as alum sulphate and potash alum, cannot. (However, my experiments and the experiences of other dyers would suggest that alum sulphate can in fact be successfully applied without heat.) The information sheet suggests that each solution can be used at least 6 times before it is exhausted and that 100gms mordant powder should mordant about 1.5 kilos of fibres. I’m afraid I still don’t know why the ratio between the amount of water added and the quantity of mordant powder used seems to be the crucial factor when measuring quantities. Nor do I know whether its chemical name is aluminium formate, although further searches online for “aluminium formate mordant” seem to suggest that it must be.  But Frau Tegeler confirmed that a Kaltbeize mordant solution can continue to be used until there is insufficient liquid left to cover the fibres. However, I still think that 100gms/5 litres would probably be exhausted after 1.5 to 2 kilos of fibres had been mordanted in it, even if the level of the liquid was still fairly high. Frau Tegeler also told me that one customer had left her wool in the cold mordant bath for a year before getting round to dyeing it, but when she did dye it the results were excellent. Anyway, I think I should now stop asking questions and just enjoy using this mordant.

A new alum mordant?

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Recently I was given a link to a website in Germany, which was offering something called “Kaltbeize AL” or “cold alum mordant”. Naturally, my curiosity was aroused, especially as I had never come across a reference to this anywhere else. So I decided to find out more about this alum mordant, which would appear to be something new.

According to the information on the website (,  this form of alum mordant is suitable for wool and silk and is applied cold. Once made, the same mordant solution can apparently be used many times. The instructions seem to imply that the mordant is only exhausted when the liquid level has dropped too low to enable the fibres to be immersed in the solution.

I ordered some of this alum mordant from the website and decided to do some tests to compare it with my usual alum mordant.  I planned to follow the method given on the instructions accompanying the cold alum mordant and also to try out the same method with the aluminium sulphate I usually use to mordant wool.

As far as I was able to ascertain, this mordant would appear to be aluminium formate – something I’ve never come across before. It is apparently made using formic acid, rather than sulphuric acid or acetic acid – hence the name. But that is all I know about its chemical composition so, if anyone knows any more, I’d be grateful for further details.

Unlike with other alum mordants, where the amount of alum used is based on the weight of fibres to be mordanted, with this cold mordant it is the ratio of mordant powder to quantity of water added that would seem to be crucial. So once the solution has been made, no more than 20% more water should be added at any stage. The recommended proportions are 20gms mordant powder per litre of water, so to start with I made 5 litres of solution, using 100gms of Kaltbeize AL.  The alum powder is first dissolved in hand-hot water, then added to the pot, which is filled up with cool water to the appropriate level. According to the information given, 5 litres should be sufficient to mordant at least 1 kilo to 1.25 kilos of fibres in total, which is virtually the same as 10% alum – the percentage of alum sulphate I generally use. The fibres can be added in several batches. When the fibres are removed from the mordant, the advice is to squeeze any excess liquid back into the solution, so that as little liquid as possible is lost. (Actually, I found that, after mordanting about 1 kilo of fibres in three batches without adding any more water, the level of the liquid had dropped only slightly. So I would question whether the level of the liquid is really a reliable indicator of the continued viability of the mordant. I would be inclined to assume that after mordanting about 1 to 1.5 kilos per 5 litres of solution, the mordant is probably exhausted. But I may be wrong.)

The first batch of fibres should remain in the solution for at least 4 hours and subsequent batches should remain in the liquid for longer periods. I entered three batches, each weighing about 350gms, and the first batch steeped for 8 hours, the second batch for 12 hours and the third batch for 24 hours. However, the instructions are not specific as to timings and only give general guidelines. There is no limit to the length of time fibres can be left to soak, so they can be left in the mordant bath for several days or even weeks.

I followed exactly the same procedure with an aluminium sulphate solution, dissolving 100gms alum sulphate in hot water then topping it up to 5 litres. I mordanted three identical batches of fibres in this cold solution, so I could compare the results with those from the Kaltbeize AL mordant.

I dyed skeins from each batch from each of the two mordant solutions and the results were interesting. There was hardly any difference in depth of colour achieved from brazilwood when the two mordanting methods were compared. The colour from the Kaltbeize AL mordant bath was very slightly deeper on the fibres from the first batch, but after that the colours from each of the two mordant solutions were virtually identical. These experiments were very useful, as they illustrate clearly that alum sulphate can be used cold, providing the fibres are left in the solution long enough. I think in future I would probably leave the first batch of fibres in an alum sulphate solution for at least 12 hours to start with.

The question then was what to do with the remaining mordant solutions. Might there be some mordant potential left in them? As I’m the type of person who finds it difficult to throw anything away, especially if it might still be useful, I decided to add a further 500gms fibres to each solution. I left these fibres to soak for 36 hours. I then tested a sample of each in several different dyebaths and was surprised to find that they dyed well. This indicated that there had been enough alum remaining in both mordant solutions to mordant the added fibres perfectly satisfactorily. Now I have to decide whether to continue adding even more fibres or whether to assume that the alum is exhausted.

There are still some aspects of this cold mordant I’m not sure about. For example, would there be any difference in the results between 1 kilo of fibres mordanted for 4 hours in a fresh solution and 250gms of fibres mordanted for 4 hours in a fresh solution? Is it possible that the 250gms batch would have absorbed more mordant because the alum had to be divided between fewer fibres? Would my results have been different if I had added all my 1kg of fibres at the beginning, rather than dividing them into three batches?  The instructions suggest that each solution is sufficient for about six batches of fibres, but the weight of the batches doesn’t seem to matter. So does this mean that a 5-litre solution would mordant six batches weighing 1 kilo each? How does this mordant work if there seems to be no relation between the weight of the fibres added to the solution and the weight of the alum dissolved into the liquid? Why is the ratio of alum powder to water so important? Surely the mordant must be exhausted before most of the water has evaporated away? If anyone has answers to these queries, I’d love to read them.

If I lived in Germany and had easier access to this new Kaltbeize AL mordant, and if I knew exactly what it is and how it works, I would certainly consider it as an alternative to alum sulphate. However, the high cost of postage to the UK, added to the cost of the mordant, makes it rather expensive. And if I can get similarly good results from alum sulphate used cold in the same way, there would seem little point in incurring the extra cost. But I’d still like to know more about aluminium formate.

Anglo-Saxon Dye Experiments – Part 3

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009



On the left of this picture (unfortunately rather dark) are two shades of blue from a woad fermentation vat, green from dyer’s broom yellow overdyed in the woad vat and purple from the lichen Ochrolechea tartarea. On the right are some browns from walnut leaves and hulls and alder bark and twigs. The black shades are from walnut, oak and alder plus iron water modifier.

Black can be achieved either by dyeing red, yellow and blue in succession over one another, and repeating the overdyeing until a suitable depth of black is reached, or by using the tannin/iron complex.

To use the tannin/iron complex, wool is mordanted with tannin, or dyed in a tannin-rich dye such as oak galls, oak or bramble leaves or alder bark, (or indeed a combination of several tannin-rich dyes), then modified in an iron solution. The depth of colour is best built up by repeatedly simmering the fibres in the iron solution, then airing them for about half an hour to allow the colour to develop. This process can be repeated until a rich black is achieved. Unfortunately, this method tends to weaken wool fibres over a period of time, so the dyed materials will gradually deteriorate. However, if you are not dyeing for posterity it is the simplest way to achieve black.



 This picture shows some skeins dyed purple using the lichen Ochrolechea tartarea. They are lying on a piece of old woollen blanket, also dyed lichen purple. The shades are actually more purple in tone and deeper in colour than this photo suggests


 The lichen is steeped for several weeks in stale 4-week-old urine (or a solution of 1 part ammonia to 2 parts water), until the liquid becomes deep purple or almost black in colour. The solution should be stirred or shaken vigorously two or three times daily to incorporate oxygen. The liquid is then poured off and water added to make the dyebath. The fibres are then gently simmered in the dyebath for about 45 minutes, then left to cool in the dye liquid. This simmering  and cooling process can be repeated several times to increase the depth of colour.

In addition to the colours illustrated by my test samples, many more shades could be achieved by dyeing one colour over another. I think the experiments described in these three posts show that the early Anglo-Saxons would have been able to produce a wide range of colours without using mineral alum or other chemicals dyers tend to rely on today. One of my aims as a dyer is to achieve reliable colours using a minimum of manufactured chemicals and the results of these tests indicate that there is further scope for experimentation in this area.