Natural Dyeing Workshop at Ditchling Museum

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

INDIGO

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

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