Chickweed as mordant?

February 10th, 2013

 

Before anyone gets too excited, I’m afraid the answer to the question posed in the title would seem to be “No, probably not.” So where did I get the idea that chickweed might be used as mordant?

 

Last year I read an interesting article in “The Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers” about natural mordants. The article was written by Krista Vajanto, who teaches textile history at the University of Helsinki, Finland and is researching Iron Age Finnish textiles. Among the details of the better-known natural mordants (rhubarb leaves, tannin, aluminium from clubmoss) was a mention of chickweed. The positioning of the comment gave the impression that chickweed might also be an aluminium accumulator and if this were the case it would, of course, be extremely useful for dyers who want to use only natural mordants from plants.

 

Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a common weed in many gardens (although, rather annoyingly, not in my garden) and apparently several Finnish dyeing books from the 20th century mention using chickweed as a “natural mordant”.  Unlike clubmoss, chickweed is not rare and could therefore be used freely for dyeing, so I decided to do some experiments to test its potential as a “natural mordant”. The article stated that chickweed should be used fresh but unfortunately it proved impossible to locate any fresh chickweed. So, as I usually extract aluminium from dried, rather than fresh, clubmoss, I thought it ought to be possible to use dried chickweed, which I bought from a supplier of dried herbs.

 

I treated the chickweed in exactly the same way as I treat dried clubmoss when I extract aluminium from it and then I used the chickweed solution as a mordant in the same way.

 

I then made a dyer’s broom dye bath and dyed skeins treated with clubmoss and chickweed and also alum-mordanted and unmordanted skeins in the same dye bath. The results were interesting. The alum-mordanted skein and the skein treated with clubmoss dyed a very similar yellow, indicating the presence of aluminium in the clubmoss. The skein treated with chickweed and the unmordanted skein dyed to almost exactly the same shade of pale yellow, which suggested that there was no aluminium present in and extracted from the chickweed. Although I wasn’t able to use fresh chickweed and I admit I might have got different results had I been able to do so, I have so far come to the conclusion that chickweed is unlikely to prove useful as a natural mordant. Indeed, I feel certain that, had it been useful as an alternative to alum, dyers would have been aware of that fact long ago. However, I will reserve my final judgement until I have managed to try the same experiments with fresh chickweed, just in case.

 

So how did this belief originate? I have come to the following conclusions. Firstly, the term “mordant” tends to be used very loosely in some literature and often seems to mean “anything that can be used as a base for other dyes or as an addition to a dye pot”. I suspect that, when applied to chickweed, the term “mordant” was being used in that rather loose sense. I believe it is possible that, in situations where it might have been difficult to obtain more expensive dyes or chemical mordants, plants such as chickweed, which grow abundantly as weeds and give a light yellow colour, might have been used as a base for more expensive or difficult to obtain yellow dyes, in order to reduce the quantity required of the more precious dyestuff. So the belief might come about that, if chickweed “helped out” with yellow dyes, it might also have a similar effect with other dyes.

 

But I’m afraid I feel it is unlikely that chickweed has ever truly been, or indeed is ever likely to become, an alternative “mordant”. Unless, of course, experiments with fresh chickweed suggest otherwise but first I must find some.

 

chickweed mordant

 

The photo above shows samples dyed with dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria)

From the top: alum mordant, clubmoss mordant, chickweed base, no mordant

Snow!

January 20th, 2013

 

Snow is a  relatively rare occurrence here in West Sussex and we have about 3 inches at the moment but I know this will not impress those of you who live in countries where there is “proper” snowfall. In a news item on the radio about the cancellation of flights at Heathrow airport yesterday, I heard a Canadian say: “I don’t know what the problem is. This is just like a lovely spring day where I live in Canada.”

 

Today we have enjoyed watching some intrepid goldfinches feeding on the seeds left on our teasel heads. Although our garden is small, I like to grow teasels to give some structure to the garden, especially in the winter. As added bonuses, the flowers attract bees and butterflies and the seed heads provide interest in the autumn and winter and food for goldfinches.

 

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New Natural Dye Extracts in Liquid Form

January 8th, 2013

 

Just before Christmas I noticed some new dye extracts in liquid form on the D T Crafts website (see link on the right) and, as these are new to me, I ordered some. The dyes are called Botanical Colors Aquarelle and have been certified as compliant with the Global Organic Textile Standard. So my first dyeing project for 2013 has been to try them out.

The dye extracts offered in liquid form are Madder, Lac, Himalayan Rhubarb, Cutch and Saxon Blue. These dyes come with clear instructions and are simplicity itself to use, as they are just added to the dye bath water and stirred in.  They work equally well on all natural fibres, although Saxon Blue tends to produce paler shades on vegetable fibres. A little goes a long way, so I feel they are reasonably priced.

 

The photos below show some of the colours.

 

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LAC: The wool skein on the left was mordanted with alum, the central skein was unmordanted and the skein on the right was another unmordanted skein, this time over-dyed in Saxon Blue. The skeins are shown on unmordanted silk fabric dyed in the exhaust dye bath.

 

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HIMALAYAN RHUBARB ROOT: The upper two skeins were mordanted with alum and the lower two skeins were unmordanted. The skeins are shown on unmordanted silk fabric, dyed in the exhaust dye bath.

 

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SAXON BLUE: This liquid indigo is an improved formulation of Saxon Blue, which was first created in the 18th century. It is used in exactly the same way as the other liquid dyes, so there is no need to prepare a vat using stock solutions or reducing agents and the blue liquid can be added to other dye baths, so for example green can be produced by adding some Saxon Blue liquid to a yellow dye bath. All the samples shown are unmordanted and the skein on the right shows the effect of the dye on grey wool.

 

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MADDER: The two wool skeins on the left were mordanted with alum and the two skeins on the right were unmordanted. The skein on the extreme right shows the effect on grey wool. The skeins are shown on unmordanted silk fabric dyed in the exhaust dye bath.

 

As the photos indicate, the colours from these dyes are lovely and there is considerable potential from just these few dyes for creating further colours by varying the strength of the solution and by over-dyeing or colour mixing. If the Saxon Blue liquid extract lives up to expectations, it should make many compound colours so much easier to achieve.  I feel very enthusiastic about these new liquid extract dyes and look forward to experimenting further with them.

 

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR

January 7th, 2013

 

Warm good wishes for a very Happy New Year!

 

My thanks for all your support, which I really appreciate and value.  I am continuing to work on my new book but I will try to write posts more regularly in 2013.

 

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The beach near Worthing in West Sussex in winter

 

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Looking towards Findon village on a winter’s morning

 

Indigo dyeing with vinegar

December 11th, 2012

 

I have been intending for some time to try the vinegar method of dyeing with fresh leaves from indigo-bearing plants and this year I managed to collect enough Japanese Indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) leaves to make an experimental vat.

 

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These rather pathetic-looking plants did eventually  grow sufficiently well to provide some leaves for a small test vat but still only produced enough to fill about a quarter of a small bucket.

 

I must admit that I have been a little sceptical about the likelihood of being able to produce fast blues  from indigo-bearing leaves using only water and vinegar and no heat.  But obviously one should always try a recipe before offering an opinion.

For this method, the leaves must be processed as soon as they have been picked and, after washing them, it is important to cut or shred the leaves very finely. (First of all, I made the mistake of using a stainless steel demiluna chopper on a wooden chopping board and as a result I wasted some of the dye potential and now have a chopping board permanently stained blue. I considered using a liquidiser but decided in the end to cut up the leaves with scissors.) Then I poured enough cold water over the leaves to cover them and added a little clear vinegar to the water – about 15mls per litre – then vigorously kneaded the leaves in the water-vinegar solution for several minutes until the liquid became bright green. I strained off this liquid into a dye pot and then made a second water-vinegar solution and repeated the process with the same leaves. I then squeezed the leaves very well before straining off this liquid and adding it to the bright green liquid in the dye pot. Then I added the wetted-out fibres and left them to soak in the liquid for about one hour until they had become blue in colour. Then I rinsed the fibres and hung them up to dry. The photo below shows the dyed wool and silk.

 

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I decided to try this method with woad leaves (Isatis tinctoria) but unfortunately, as I had already harvested virtually all my woad leaves a few weeks before, all I managed to find for this experiment were about ten thin leaves left clinging to the plants.  So I wasn’t really expecting this test to be successful but these few leaves dyed the fibres a similar, but somewhat paler, blue. I would hope to get deeper blues from a larger quantity of woad leaves but sadly that will have to wait until next year.

Only time and several washes will prove whether this method gives blues which are light- and wash-fast, so I shall reserve my judgement until a later date. Certainly, if fast blues can be produced so easily and quickly, one wonders why dyers would bother with the more usual way of using fresh woad and Japanese Indigo leaves. And I suppose that thought is what made me sceptical about the merits of this method in the first place.

Back by Popular Demand!

December 6th, 2012

So many people have asked me to put my website back, that I have given in to popular demand and asked my website designer (right) if he could rebuild it just as it was – and here it is!

Thank you, Colin.

Sawwort (Serratula tinctoria)

August 24th, 2012

 

Sawwort is a perennial plant with purple thistle-like flowers and serrated-edged leaves. It produces colours similar to those from weld (Reseda luteola) and, as with weld, the main dye component of sawwort is luteolin. According to Dominique Cardon (Natural Dyes 2007), sawwort has been used in Europe since the Middle Ages, especially in areas where weld was not harvested, and in Tuscany during the 14th and 15th centuries it was as highly regarded as weld.

Sawwort is a dye plant I have wanted to try for a long time but had not been able to find, although it is native to Britain and grows wild here. Recently I discovered a supplier of native wild plants (www.naturescape.co.uk), from whom I bought several sawwort plants last Autumn. Sawwort should not be harvested for dyeing until the second year but as usual I was too impatient to wait until next year, when my plants would have been more mature.

I used about 100% dyestuff to weight of fibres and this produced a dyebath strong enough to enable me to use the same dyebath 3 times for successively paler yellows. The results were very pleasing and I shall probably order more sawwort plants this Autumn, especially as sawwort is a perennial plant and should prove more reliable as a garden plant than weld, which is sometimes not easy to grow. (This year I had no self-seeded weld plants and the seeds I sowed in the Spring germinated but the seedlings failed to develop because of the wet weather and are still no bigger than they were in April.)

The photo below shows, from left to right: alum mordant x 3 samples, alum mordant & iron modifier x 2 samples, alum mordant & copper modifier x 2 samples. The first 3 samples show a range of yellows from (a) the original dyebath, (b) the first exhaust dyebath & (c) the second exhaust dyebath

More from the Garden

July 18th, 2012

This has not been a good year for me health-wise and it has not been a good year in the garden, either. The weather has been wetter than I have ever known it to be here in the south of England in the Summer – weeks of rain with little sun or warmth. Problems with my hip have meant that gardening is not possible for me, so I have to rely on family and friends for help but there is little they can do against the onslought of slugs, snails, rain and wind.

Not a single self-sown seed from my woad and weld plants has germinated and only one plant resulted from the two successive sowings I made of woad seeds. The weld seeds I sowed germinated fairly well but the seedlings have failed to grow because of the wet and look as if they will never reach a size suitable for transplanting to the dye garden.

Leena Riihela (see link opposite to her website) very kindly sent me some seeds of two varieties of Japanese indigo (Persicaria (formerly Polygonum) tinctoria) and these germinated well, so I was expecting to be able to have a reasonable crop of both round-leaved and pointed-leaved plants. As you can see from the photo below, slugs and snails have attacked my poor plants. Try as I may to locate the culprits, they remain hidden until dusk, when they emerge again for a feast.

On a more positive note, for the first time, I have this year managed to grow Hedge Bedstraw, both from plants and from seed (again from Leena), although it will be several years before I can harvest any roots. The photo below shows the plants in flower.

Another plant I am growing for the first time this year is Sawwort (Serratula tinctoria). This is a native perennial yellow dye plant, thistle-like in appearance, but it was not until this year that I managed to find a source of plants. The rather poor photo below shows one of them beginning to flower. Unless the plants grow more vigorously, I will probably wait until next year before harvesting any for dyeing.

The weld plants in the photo below represent my entire crop for this year. I have only four plants, two bought as seedlings and two grown from plants overwintered from last year.

However, it is not all a tale of woe. My dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria), dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) and madder (Rubia tinctorum) are all flourishing, as the photos below show. The dyer’s chamomile was grown from seed sown last year and the madder plants were brought two years ago from my old garden. The dyer’s broom was one of the first shrubs I bought for this new garden and it is a plant I love – decorative, an excellent dye source and perennial too!

Images of the garden

July 1st, 2012

I’m afraid my dyeing activities have been curtailed during recent weeks because I have dislocated my hip for the second time since Easter and this means that sadly I am now even more limited in what I can manage physically.  However, I hope to be able to embark on some more dyeing experiments soon, with the help of two kind friends who have generously offered to help with lifting and carrying etc.

In the meantime, here are some photos of my garden as it looks at present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo below was taken a few weeks ago and shows woad in flower, with a dyer’s broom bush in the foreground.

Dyes of the Celts

May 2nd, 2012

The word “Celt” is apparently derived from the Greek word “keltoi”, meaning “barbarian”, and is used to describe tribal societies in Iron-Age and Roman-era Europe, who spoke Celtic languages and were loosely tied by similar language, religion and cultural expression.

In preparation for a workshop on Celtic Dyes that I led recently at Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester, I have been doing some research into the dyes that may have been used by the Celts in Iron -Age Britain (c.600BC – 50AD).

The proto-Celtic culture in Europe was the Hallstatt culture (c.800BC – 450BC), named after the site of rich grave finds at Hallstatt in Austria. This culture then spread over much of Europe, into Britain, France, central Europe, the Iberian Peninsular and Northern Italy. The conditions in the Hallstatt salt mines, where the graves were discovered, meant that the textiles found there were relatively well preserved and analysis carried out on some of them gives an indication of the dyes and techniques used by the Hallstatt Celts.

Woad and weld were identified on textile fragments and also tannin, although it is not possible to identify the precise source of this tannin. Other unidentified yellow dyes were also found (perhaps sawwort or chamomile) and there is a possibility that lichen purple may also have been used. The red dyes analysed are interesting – there was no trace of any of the madder-type sources of red but some indication of unidentified insect dyes, possibly Polish or Armenian cochineal, and also of kermes. Both white and naturally pigmented wool was dyed and there is evidence of over-dyeing to create further shades. The issue of mordants is problematic; iron and copper were identified on several fragments and aluminium was identified on one or two fragments. However, it is possible that these minerals were present because of contamination within the salt mine, rather than because they were intentionally used in dyeing.

For my experiments I used white and naturally-coloured brown and grey wool. As I think it is unlikely that Iron-Age dyers in Britain would have had easy access to mineral alum. I decided not to use an alum mordant. Some samples were pre-treated in tannin from oak bark and others were unmordanted. The dyes I used were: weld (Reseda luteola), hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo), lichen purple (Ochrolechia tartarea), oak bark (Quercus spp.) and woad (Isatis tinctoria). Although there was no trace of Galium spp. dyes on the Hallstatt textiles, I felt it would be historically correct to use native bedstraws in my experiments, as there is evidence from elsewhere that these plants were used for dyeing in the Iron-Age. Some samples were then over-dyed in woad and some samples were also treated in an iron-water solution after dyeing.

 

Some of the results of Celtic dye experiments.

The top row shows the colours from lichen purple with vinegar added to the dye-bath (except for a couple of woad samples on the extreme right). The second row shows lichen purple colours, without vinegar added to the dye-bath. The third row shows the colours from hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo). The fourth row shows the colours from weld (Reseda luteola) and the bottom row shows the colours from oak bark. On each row some of the samples have been over-dyed in woad.

The Romans commented on the brightness of the clothing of the native Britons and the results of my experiments indicate that, even without alum as a mordant, it was certainly possible to produce bright colours in the Iron Age. The Celts also produced fabrics patterned with checks, stripes and plaids and this must have added to the impression of brightness.