A Beautiful Day









Today is a beautiful day – warm and sunny, with dappled light through the trees and a gentle breeze stirring the foliage. The sights and scents of my garden remind me that Summer is almost here. The bees hum as they move among the flowers and there is a general atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Never mind that there is still so much work to be done to tend the vegetable and fruit crops and keep the flower beds looking attractive – today is a time for enjoying the garden. The work can wait until another day.










 In late Spring and Summer, my workshop becomes increasingly difficult to access, as the roses and other shrubs spread themselves over the path and encroach on the doorway.











 These are my woad plants from last year, flowering and preparing to produce the seeds for next year. On the ground below these plants, this year’s seedlings are growing and developing the dye potential for dye vats later in the year.



These are the leafy tops of my madder plants, giving no hint of the amazing colour potential of the roots beneath. Madder cannot be described as an attractive plant but, to me, its qualities as a dye plant amply compensate for all its disadvantages as a garden plant.

More Extracts

Several weeks ago I was sent some more extracts to try out. This time they came from Debbie Bamford (www.mulberrydyer.co.uk). 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.

Blog Awards

In the last few weeks I have been nominated for three blog awards and I really appreciate the generous words of those who have nominated me. I must confess that I don’t know anything about the protocol surrounding such matters and my technical abilities do not stretch to knowing how to “accept” awards. I believe that in some cases the recipient of an award is requested to nominate other blogs for similar awards and I must apologise for my unwillingness to do this, especially if this means I’m “breaking a chain”. I read several blogs, mostly those connected with natural dyes or textiles in general, and I always follow any links I’m given to other blogs; each blog has its own special characteristics and appeal and each has different things to offer. However, I don’t feel in a position to be able to nominate one blog rather than another for an award.  I do hope this doesn’t cause offence to anyone but please forgive me if it does.

Indigo Rub-off

Recently I was looking through The Mulberry Dyer Debbie Bamford’s blog (http://colourextractor.blogspot.com/)  and read about the problem of rub-off from indigo-dyed yarns. I should add that Debbie was not experiencing the problem herself but had come across the comment in another blog. Debbie used this comment as an example of how poor dyeing techniques can harm the reputation of natural dyeing, leading to the belief that problems such as rub-off or fading are only to be expected from natural dyes. Like Debbie, I feel situations like this are a great shame, especially as natural dyes, when properly selected and applied, are as reliable as synthetic dyes, if not more so.

It can be very irritating to find one’s fingers becoming blue as one uses indigo-dyed yarn. In my experience there are two main reasons why this rub-off may happen. The first reason is that the yarns were not properly cleaned before dyeing, so the dye becomes attached to the dirt or grease, rather than to the fibres, and is then rubbed off as soon as the yarns are subjected to any friction. The other reason is that the yarns were allowed to dry before being rinsed. When indigo-dyed materials are aired, it is important to turn them round from time to time, so no sections dry out before the fibres are rinsed. This is because any loosely-attached indigo becomes more firmly attached once dried and is not removed by rinsing or washing. However, it will come off when used in any way that causes friction.

There are other precautionary measures I routinely take. Firstly, as soon as I take materials out of the indigo vat, I plunge them into a bucket of clear water and move them around under the surface for about 30 seconds to a minute. This removes some of the indigo that may be loosely attached to the fibres. As water contains oxygen, it is also possible to leave the fibres to oxidise in this clear water, although they must remain below the surface and it will take longer for the fibres to turn blue. In fact, if patchy indigo dyeing is a problem, this is one way of avoiding it. Also, after airing them, I usually put indigo-dyed materials through a washing-machine rinse cycle whenever possible. Of course, this can cause skeins to become hopelessly tangled if care is not taken, so to prevent this, I tie skeins firmly in a bag or pillow-case before rinsing them.

Whatever our preferred dyeing methods and techniques may be, I firmly believe that, as dyers, we are responsible for the reputation of natural dyes and it is up to us to make sure any naturally-dyed items offered for sale, or as gifts, meet the highest possible standards. Anyway, lecture over now!

More Rhubarb Samples

For several years a collection of my naturally-dyed samples has been held at The Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (www.kikirpa.be) 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

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?

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 (www.textiles-werken.de),  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



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.

Anglo-Saxon Dye Experiments – Part 2




This shows some of the range of shades from madder (Rubia tinctorum) on the left, and weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) on the right.





The shades on the left are from bramble leaves and sage leaves. On the right are some of the shades from wild madder (Rubia peregrina) & lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)

  Most of the dyes were tested as follows:

The mordants used were clubmoss mordant, tannin mordant (oak gall or bramble leaf solution) and no mordant.  The modifiers used were clear vinegar (acid), wood ash water (alkali) and iron water. For the deepest black shades from tannin-rich materials, such as alder bark and oak galls, I used an iron water mordant followed by an iron water modifier. Too much iron does, of course, weaken fibres but iron water is slightly less harmful in this respect than the chemical ferrous sulphate. For a brownish purple shade from madder I used an iron water mordant followed by a wood ash water (alkaline) modifier. Where appropriate for comparison purposes, I also dyed some samples using wool mordanted with 10% alum.

For a further test with madder, I added chopped crab apples to the dyebath. I remembered reading about this some time ago, although I’m afraid I can’t recall where, and thought it worth trying out. I was pleased with the results, as this dyebath gave brighter, clearer shades than those from madder used alone and worked particularly well on unmordanted wool.

I was interested to note that yellows almost as bright and deep as those from a traditional alum mordant could be achieved from weld and dyer’s broom used on unmordanted wool and followed by an alkaline wood ash water modifier. Pretty olive green shades were achieved using an iron water modifier with weld, dyer’s broom, bramble leaves and sage leaves.In general, wood ash water proved useful to deepen and brighten shades. (Stale urine could also be used as an alkaline modifier, as it contains ammonia, but the aroma is perhaps less acceptable.)

To make wood ash water, remove the wood ash from a wood-burning stove, put it in a bucket or large lidded container and fill up with water. The leave the mixture to soak for several weeks. By this time the liquid will have become yellow in colour & feel “slick” or slimy to the touch. To use it as an alkaline modifier, remove the liquid without disturbing the ash sediment and soak the materials in it, adding more water as necessary. It’s better not to apply heat, as this may harm woollen fibres.

Unfortunately the photos don’t show the colours to their best advantage but I was pleased with the results of these tests, which indicated that the early Anglo-Saxon dyers would have been able to achieve a wide range of good, strong colours using only readily available materials and without using mineral alum as a mordant.

As far as light- and wash-fastness are concerned, I imagine these would have been of less importance to the Anglo-Saxons than they are to us today. Clothing was probably not washed as frequently and, if colours faded, clothing could be re-dyed relatively easily, especially as most of the dyes I used in my tests can be applied using little or no heat. As most garments were loose-fitting, a small degree of shrinkage might not have mattered too much. However, the classic dyes, madder, weld and woad, and the tannin-based dyes, such as walnut, oak leaves, oak galls, alder and bramble, all have reasonably good fastness properties, even when used without a mordant, so fading would not have been too much of a problem.

Anglo-Saxon Dye Experiments – Part 1


  These are the classic dyes: madder, weld and woad.






 I have always been interested in researching the dyeing methods of the past. The Anglo-Saxon period (cAD450 – AD1066) is one that particularly interests me, especially the early Anglo-Saxon period (AD450 – AD700).  There is much evidence that, even at this relatively early stage in our history, craftspeople were highly skilled and capable of remarkable levels of craftsmanship, including textiles woven using a variety of sophisticated and complex weaving techniques. The Anglo-Saxons had a variety of naturally-coloured sheep breeds, ranging from beige and brown to grey and black, so some colour patterns could be achieved without the use of dyes. However, dyes were necessary to achieve truly bright shades and to extend the colour palette.

One thing that is still not clear is whether the dyers of the early Anglo-Saxon period would have had access to alum mordants.  Alum shale was not discovered in England until the 17th century and before then alum had to be imported, mainly from the Mediterranean. Most experts seem to doubt that mineral alum would have been available widely, if at all, in England during the early Anglo-Saxon period, although it is certainly possible that the necessary trade routes may have been established. Nevertheless, it is perhaps unlikely that a product like alum, that had to be imported, would be readily available to everyone, and most probably more humble dyers would have had to manage without it.  So what colour range could they have achieved without using an alum mordant?  And what alternative mordants or fixatives might they have used?  These considerations formed the basis for my experiments.

The purpose of my tests was to investigate some of the range of shades available to dyers of the period, using only materials to which they would have had easy access.  So as my main mordants I used aluminium extracted from clubmoss (see below for more details) and tannin from oak galls, with iron water, vinegar and wood ash water as colour modifiers. As wool would have been the main fibre used by most people, I limited my tests to wool only. Linen and hemp were also used in the period but they appear to have usually been left undyed.

To prepare the tannin mordant, I simmered 50gms of oak galls for about 30 minutes, strained off the liquid and then simmered the fibres in this solution for 30 minutes. This oak gall solution can be stored and re-used several times. As a result of this mordanting  process the fibres become light brown in colour and this sometimes has an effect on the colours dyed on a tannin mordant, making them darker or duller.

Although mineral alum may not have been available, excavations at the later Viking Age (Anglo-Scandinavian) site in York (9th – 11th centuries)indicate that dyers there probably used a mordant prepared from clubmoss, which has the ability to accumulate aluminium from the ground in which it grows. However, as the particular clubmoss species found (Diphasium complanatum) is not native to Britain, it is thought likely that it was brought by the Vikings themselves, who were probably familiar with its use as a mordant. Diphasium complanatum is not the only clubmoss capable of absorbing aluminium and it is possible that the Anglo-Saxons may have also used a native species of clubmoss as a source of aluminium for mordanting. Based on this possibility, I decided to try this as part of my experiments. Extracting aluminium from clubmoss is not easy and I would recommend it only for research purposes.  I used fir clubmoss, imported from Europe as I did not have access to any locally, but the extraction process takes several days, during which time the liquid has to be kept fairly hot, and application to the fibres takes a similar length of time. I used a recipe from Scandinavia that I happened to come across in a dyeing book from Germany, “Farben aus der Natur” by Gretel Fieler. (Recipe details below) Using alum-mordanted wool and unmordanted wool as controls, my tests with madder indicated that I did indeed manage to mordant my wool samples with aluminium from clubmoss. The resulting shades were very close to those achieved on an alum mordant and certainly redder in tone than the shades produced on unmordanted wool. But more about that later.

Recipe for clubmoss mordant (Lycopodium selago) : Use 100% clubmoss, chop it into small pieces, then pour water over it and heat the mixture to 40C. Keep at this temperature for 3 days, then boil up the mixture once briefly, strain off the liquid and leave to cool. Then add the wool and heat slowly to 40C. Repeat this heating process daily for 3 days. Allow to cool, then remove the wool and rinse.

As far as dyestuffs were concerned, for blues I used woad (Isatis tinctoria) and for purples I used the lichen Ochrolechia tartarea. Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) and wild madder (Rubia peregrina) were used for orange and coral shades, and weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) for yellows. Madder (Rubia tinctorum), the source of red dye, is a little more problematic. Although madder was available and used during the Roman period, it seems to have disappeared for a while with the departure of the Romans from Britain, suggesting that the dyestuff, rather than the plant, had been brought by the Romans. There is evidence, however, that cultivated madder was in use by the 7th century, so I included it in my tests. Various tannin-rich materials, such as alder, bramble, oak and walnut, were used for browns and black. Walnut, although not native to Britain, was probably introduced by the Romans and there is some evidence that walnut would have been available during the period.

The test results were interesting and provided a wide range of strong colours.


This image shows a selection of colours from my tests.






 In Part 2, I will start to describe the experiments in more detail.