A Grass from Japan















The seeds for this grass (Arthraxon hispidus) were sent to me by a Japanese dyer, who explained that this grass is used traditionally by dyers in Japan, where it is common on meadows and roadsides. It is also grown as a dye crop on the island of Hachijo.

The seeds germinated readily when sown in the Spring several years ago and now the plants self-seed, so each year a fresh crop of plants appears.

Arthraxon hispidus contains luteolin, which is the main colour pigment in weld and dyer’s broom. Although the yellows from this Japanese grass are not remarkable, I enjoy growing and using traditional dye plants from other countries, especially when the seeds have been sent to me by a fellow dyer.

The photo below doesn’t really do justice to the colours, which are actually brighter than they appear here. As with weld, the yellows from Arthraxon hispidus can often have a greenish tinge.


Colours from Arthraxon hispidus 

Left to right: No mordant, alum mordant, alum mordant + iron modifier

P.S. to my Recent Woad Experiment

As a final experiment based on Leena’s method of making a vat with fresh woad leaves, I thought I would make two more vats, using unchopped woad leaves for one and chopped leaves for the other. I felt this should give an indication as to whether chopping the leaves increases the blue potential and, as usual, I set out with my own pig-headed opinion as to which would give the better results – chopped leaves, of course. After all, I always chop other fresh dyestuff into the smallest possible pieces, in the belief that the more surface areas there are, the more dye colour will leach out. Of course, the chemistry of indigo dyeing is quite different from that of dyeing with other plant materials, so it may well be that the advantages of chopping the dyestuff do not apply to woad leaves when dyeing blue.

To make sure the experiment had some validity, I used the same preparation and dyeing methods for each vat and I also used the same weight of leaves and skeins. I first simmered the leaves, chopped and unchopped, for a few minutes before steeping them for 15 minutes. I then added cold water to bring the temperature down to 50C and continued as described in my last post.









This shows the two vats, after whisking to precipitate the indigo particles. The vat on the left was made using unchopped leaves and the one on the right was made using chopped leaves. There was very little difference between the two vats at this stage.








This shows, on the left, the 4 skeins dyed in the vat made from unchopped leaves and, on the right, the 4 skeins dyed in the vat made from chopped leaves.

 The skeins were dipped in each vat for about 5 minutes each time and in the order in which they appear in the photo. So each vat was used four times and for one skein each time. The skeins dyed in the vat made from chopped leaves are very slightly deeper in colour but the difference in depth of blue is so tiny as to be barely noticeable.

So, contrary to my expectations, it would seem that chopping the leaves makes very little difference, if any, to the depth of blue achieved. That is certainly good news for those of us who like things to be as simple as possible. Now I suppose I should try my usual method, rather than Leena’s, using both chopped and unchopped leaves, to see whether similar conclusions can be drawn when using a slightly different method. But perhaps I’ll leave that test for next year.

A Woad Experiment

I have been following Leena’s posts (www.riihivilla.com) about her experiences with using her home-grown woad leaves and I was particularly interested to learn about the method which gave her the best results. Although this method is very similar to the one I have been using for over 30 years, one element of it was new to me. I usually start by pouring boiling water over the chopped woad leaves and leaving them to steep for about 30 minutes.  I then strain off the liquid and squeeze the last drops of juice from the leaves before discarding them. I then allow the liquid to cool to 50C before adding the washing soda and whisking to introduce oxygen and precipitate the indigo dye particles.  However, Leena’s preferred method requires the whole unchopped leaves to be simmered in boiling water for about 3 minutes, after which the leaves are left to steep in the hot water for 15 minutes. The water is then strained off, the leaves removed and cold water added as necessary to reduce the temperature to 50C.

Leena’s recipe then proceeds much as the recipe I always follow. In both our methods, washing soda is added until the solution is around pH10 and then the liquid is whisked until blue froth forms. This whisking continues until the froth that is forming ceases to be blue and changes to white. Both methods then continue in exactly the same way, by adding the reducing agent and then using the vat once the liquid has changed in colour to greeny-yellow.

I decided to test each of these methods using the same quantity (400gms) of leaves for each, picked on the same day and grown under the same conditions. I left the leaves for Leena’s method unchopped but chopped the leaves for my method, as that is what I usually do. I then tested the two dye vats using the same weight of the same type of wool for each dip in each vat and leaving the wool in each vat for the same length of time. This ensured that each vat was used in the same way, so the experiment had some validity.


This photo shows:

On the left: the blue froth formed following my method 

On the right: the blue froth formed following Leena’s method.



As the froth on the surface on the left seemed a much deeper blue, I was expecting to achieve deeper blues on the yarns dyed in this vat. So at this stage I was beginning to feel that my method might, after all, prove to be the better one. But “pride goes before a fall”!


The three skeins on the left were dyed in the vat made following my method (“my vat”)and the three skeins on the right were dyed in the vat made following Leena’s method (“Leena’s vat”).


 So although “my vat” seemed to form froth a much deeper blue in colour than the froth on “Leena’s vat”, to my surprise this did not appear to influence the results when the skeins were dyed. In fact, the skeins dyed in “Leena’s vat” seemed a slightly deeper blue than those dyed in “my vat”. So my earlier expectations were proved wrong.

The question now is: which method will I follow in future? For workshop or demonstration purposes, I think my method is simpler because it doesn’t require a heat source and it gives perfectly good results. However, for my own purposes, I shall probably try out Leena’s method again, as it may enable me to get slightly deeper shades of blue. So my thanks to Leena for introducing me to a new and useful method.

Dyeing with Damsons

Aylesb prunes 010This now disused orchard near Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire has many old damson trees of a variety known as Aylesbury Prunes.




This area was known for growing damsons, apparently used to dye hats for the Luton straw hat industry. It has also been suggested that damsons may have been used to dye British Royal Air Force uniforms a blue-grey colour during World War II and damsons were reportedly used in the past as a source of dye colour in the wool industry in the North of England.         

                                                                                                                                                                  Aylesb prunes6

This photo shows the damsons ready to be picked.






I am fortunate that my friend Maggie Stearn, handweaver and dyer, lives in Eaton Bray and she suggested harvesting some damsons for a dyeing experiment, to see just how effective they might be as a source of dye colour. Maggie kindly picked about 20 kilos of damsons, so we had ample for dyeing –  and for freezing and jam-making, too!

For our tests we used the damson skins only, as they seemed the most likely source of dye colour and are rich in tannin which would help fix the dye. However, we did test the fruit pulp as well, just to be sure we weren’t missing an important source of colour, but this only resulted in an unpleasant pale beige colour and sticky pulp that was difficult to remove from the fibres. We used equal weights of skins and fibres and we tested the dye extracted from the skins across a range of fibres (wool, silk, cotton and linen), all mordanted with alum, and used four modifers.

The results of our experiments are below. I have to say that they confirm my feeling that damsons, like most red and purple fruits or berries, do not make particularly useful dyes. In general the colours are disappointing, particularly on wool, although with an iron or copper modifier the colours on the other fibres tested, especially the silk, are more attractive. The greens from the washing soda modifier are interesting and I have achieved similar, but deeper, shades from elderberries with an alkaline modifier. In general, I find it surprising that there should apparently be so many references to damsons as a source of useful dye colour. I can understand that the pale lavender shades achieved on some vegetable fibres, including raffia, might be popular with Victorian ladies for their straw hats, but I find it harder to believe that the colours achieved on wool could really be useful at an industrial level, especially bearing in mind the general unreliability of red and purple berry and fruit dyes. However, I do wonder how many of these references are actually based on solid research, backed up by conclusive evidence, rather than merely on hearsay. I can certainly understand that any abundant local source of dye colour would be valued at times when imported dyes were unavailable or too costly, but I remain unconvinced that the use of damsons for dyeing would be worth the effort nowadays, especially when dyers have access to more reliable sources of purple and lavender shades.


This shows the unmodified samples. From top to bottom: cotton, linen, silk, wool







This shows the modified samples on all four fibres.

Clockwise from top right: acid modifier, alkaline modifier, copper modifier, iron modifier




NOTE: Thanks to Maggie Stearn for all the above photos