Memories of Summer

As the colder weather sets in and Christmas approaches, I find my thoughts returning to the warm, sunny days of Summer. One of my most enjoyable activities this Summer was introducing my 3-year-old granddaughter, Milly, to the delights of using plants for colour and this proved very popular. As I wanted to avoid any confusion between “dyeing” and “dying”, I decided to call our experiments “making colours for white wool”.

We collected onion skins, dyer’s broom tops, dyer’s chamomile flowers, dahlia flowers and marigolds (Calendula) and we also used some of the frozen viola petals (as used for the ice-flower experiments described in an earlier post). We put these into glass jars, together with a skein of alum-mordanted wool and we added an iron spike to the jar with the marigold flowers. These jars were then left in the sun and Milly regularly checked the progress of the colour on the skeins each time she visited us. When she was satisfied with the colour on each skein, she pronounced the experiment finished and we then rinsed, washed and dried the skeins. She now has a small sample of each colour in her own personal scrapbook.

I am looking forward to introducing Milly to more dyeing experiments next Summer, when the weather is warm enough for working outside.

This photo shows some of the experiments in progress. From left to right: frozen viola petals, dahlia flowers and onion skins

This photo shows the results of our experiments. From left to right: dyer’s chamomile, frozen viola petals, dyer’s broom, marigolds (plus iron spike), dahlia flowers and onion skins

2012 World of Threads Festival in Canada

I have been asked by Dawne Rudman, Chair and Festival Curator of the World of Threads Festival 2012, to bring this event to your attention.

The World of Threads Festival is a leading international showcase for contemporary fibre art and calls for submissions are now being made. The four categories are:

1  Artwork and Interior Gallery Installations

2  Outside Environmental Installations

3  “Fibre Inspired” Exhibition

4  Proposals for Independent Projects

Anyone interested in being involved in this festival should look at the website ( for further information.

Making and Using an Indigo Stock Solution

Thanks to Helen Melvin’s booklet on indigo dyeing, “The Colour of Sea and Sky”, and Helen’s comments on the merits of making an indigo stock solution, I decided to experiment again with this method of making an indigo vat. This was the method I first used with indigo over 30 years ago and Helen’s book reminded me of the advantages of the stock solution method, among them the fact that indigo reduces more efficiently in a concentrated alkaline solution and there is therefore less likelihood of wasted, undissolved indigo. Also, using a stock solution means that the colour can be built up relatively easily.

So why did I stop using the stock solution method? The main reason is that the one-step-bath method I generally use now, and which appears in my books, is more practical for one-day workshops, as the vat is quick to make and this enables me to demonstrate how to make and use an indigo vat in a short space of time. However, after we have used this vat there is often some indigo remaining, which gets thrown away, (unless students can take some solution home with them). Indeed, I often tell students that this vat is even better on the second day, as the indigo has had more time to reduce completely. The other reason for abandoning the stock solution method is my desire to avoid the use of caustic soda, which can cause bad burns if not used with great care.

Helen’s stock solution recipe is quite simple and involves mixing 50gms of indigo powder with 2 tablespoons each of caustic soda (the alkali) and thiourea dioxide (the reducing agent).

For my stock solution I used sodium hydrosulphite (hydros) as the reducing agent and this also works perfectly. I first mixed the indigo powder to a smooth paste in 4 tablespoons of very hot water in a large heatproof jar. I then topped this up with hot water but no hotter than 50C, which is about as hot as a hand can tolerate. (NOTE: Don’t fill the jar too full and leave enough space for any bubbling or fizzing that may occur.) Then I very gently stirred two tablespoons of caustic soda into this solution, followed by two tablespoons of sodium hydrosulphite (or use thiourea dioxide instead of hydros). This is the stock solution. NB Remember to wear rubber gloves and bear in mind that both caustic soda and the reducing agent should be added carefully to water and never pour water directly onto them.

Keep the jar warm and after about 45 minutes the stock solution mixture will become a clear amber colour, although the surface, which is in contact with oxygen from the air, will be a dark blue colour with a lustrous sheen. The stock solution is now ready to use.

To make the vat, fill the container up with water no hotter than 50C, add a teaspoon of hydros (or alternative reducing agent) and a teaspoon of washing soda and allow to stand for a few minutes. Then gently stir in one or more tablespoons of stock solution, according to the size of the vat and the depth of blue required. The vat can then be used as usual and more indigo stock solution can be added as necessary.

Further information on making and using a stock solution and many more recipes can be found in Helen’s booklet “The Colour of Sea and Sky”, which I highly recommend. And of course, like all Helen’s books, it has a lovely hand-painted cover.

The photo below shows a range of blues from indigo

A new book from Helen Melvin

In an earlier post I wrote about some of Helen Melvin’s booklets on different aspects of natural dyeing and I was delighted to notice that she has added another title to her list. This latest one, “Colours of the World – Eco Dyeing”, deals with mordanting and dyeing using methods which include cool mordanting, solar dyeing, patterning with rust, water bath dyeing and fermentation dyeing.

As usual, Helen offers some interesting ideas for experiments and writes in a way which is sure to leave dyers keen to embark on colour discoveries. The photos of the dyed materials add to the impact of the book, which should be of interest to both new and experienced dyers. It has certainly inspired me to experiment with some of her methods.

This is Helen’s new booklet which, like all her others, has a beautiful hand-painted cover.

For more details and to purchase a copy, click on the link to Fiery Felts, under the heading “Useful Websites”.

Findon Sheep Fair

Findon, the village in West Sussex where I now live, has its own Sheep Fair, which takes place every year on the second Saturday in September. Findon Sheep Fair can be traced back to the 13th century and is run entirely by volunteers, who do an excellent job. After a few bleak years following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, when no sheep were actually allowed at the fair, Findon Sheep Fair has gone from strength to strength and is an important event in the village.

There are many sheep sections and also some other animals and birds of prey. In addition to the animal attractions, there are sideshows, food stalls, a craft marquee and a fun-fair, so there is plenty for all the family. This year I joined other members of the West Sussex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and we demonstrated spinning in the craft marquee.

One of the main attractions of the fair is The Sheep Show with its dancing sheep. (Yes, these sheep can really dance in a sheep-like fashion! If you enter “Dancing Sheep” or “The Sheep Show” into your search engine you will be able to see the dancing sheep for yourselves.) The two photos below show the sheep during their performance.

This year children from the local school were invited to show sheep. This photo shows some of the younger competitors leading their sheep around the ring.

Below some more sheep parade round the ring.

Jacob sheep in their pen

Shetland sheep

And last but not least the local Southdown sheep

Ice Flowers

Another interesting technique from India Flint's book "Eco Colour" is what she calls "ice-flowers". This involves the collection of purple and deep red flower petals (which contain anthocyanins), which are then frozen in plastic containers or sealed plastic freezer bags for at least two days. Following India's instructions, I collected the dead-heads from purple violas over a period of several weeks and froze each batch of flower heads as soon as I had collected them, adding them to the plastic bag in the freezer. When I was ready to use them, I tied a handful of frozen flower heads into a muslin bag, immersed this bag in lukewarm water and squeezed it to extract the colour. The liquid soon became a rich purple colour and I removed the bag with the flowers and then stirred a teaspoonful of alum sulphate into the solution. (I added alum because the materials I intended to dye had not been mordanted. Next time I try this method I'll make sure I have some pre-mordanted fibres ready to use.) I then put some cotton and silk fibres into the liquid and left them to steep overnight.  More colour variations are possible if other substances, such as an acid or an alkali, are added to the solution, so I still have much scope for experimentation. (I later added a wool skein to the exhaust dye bath and this became an attractive light leafy green.)

The photos below show, from the top: the frozen viola flowers ready for colour extraction, the dyed materials (silk on the left and cotton on the right)), a closer view of the dyed silk fabric, and finally a closer view of the dyed cotton fabric. The dyed skein is cotton and the dyed cotton fabric is the bag in which the flowers were tied. The attractive variegated colour effects on this bag are probably the result of the flowers being pressed against the fabric. As with the leaf prints, I must test these ice-flower dyes for light- and wash-fastness, once the colours have had time to mature.




Leaf Prints

Recently I was inspired by India Flint’s book “Eco Colour” to experiment with leaf prints. India’s book contains a wealth of ideas and is full of beautiful images of her printed fabrics. This fascinating technique has become very popular among dyers and can have really lovely results.

I collected some leaves from my garden, mainly from a eucalyptus tree and a Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), and used cotton and silk fabrics mordanted with alum. (I decided to pre-mordant the fabrics to improve the fastness of the colours.) I placed the leaves on the wetted cotton fabric, added a few rusty nails, put the silk fabric on top of the cotton fabric and then carefully folded the fabrics into a bundle, which I tied with string. I decided to put this bundle into the compost bin my husband uses for grass clippings, as it can get quite hot in there and this therefore seemed a useful way of setting the dyes.  After four days, I removed the bundle to reveal the results below. Now I need to do some light- and wash-fastness tests to see how fast the colours achieved from this method will be.

The first photo shows a section of the cotton fabric and the second photo shows a section of the silk fabric.



Images from the garden

Our new garden is beginning to take shape and to look and feel more like “ours”. The beds I dug out of the grass earlier in the year are now full of colour and visited regularly by butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects.

The first two photos show general views of the back garden. The following photos show some of the plants in my dye garden: madder, weld, dyer’s broom, lady’s bedstraw. woad in seed with dyer’s broom on the right and dyer’s chamomile with my small purging buckthorn bush in the background.


















Anglo-Saxon dyes – woad

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) was the Anglo-Saxon source of indigo blue. Although woad is not a true native plant (i.e. it was not present here before the formation of the English Channel), it is thought that it was introduced in the neolithic age when farming began. Some of the earliest textile fragments show evidence of having been dyed with woad and it was probably one of the first dyes to be used. As extracting blue from the indigo-bearing plants is somewhat more complicated than the method of extracting colour from most other plants, it may seem strange that blue was among the first dye colours. However, the indigo-bearing plants, including woad, were generally considered to have healing properties and it may be that their use as dyes developed from their use medicinally. For example, if woad leaves were applied to damaged skin as a poultice, perhaps together with urine, which was regarded as an antiseptic, the conditions necessary for extracting blue from the leaves might have developed. These conditions would be heat (from the skin) an alkaline medium (from the urine as it became stale) and bacteria from the urine. So one can imagine that, if the poultice was removed to reveal blue skin beneath it, people would have been able to work out how to use the leaves to dye textile fibres. Another possible scenario might occur if woollen fleece was being cleaned in a tub of urine and someone dropped woad leaves into the tub by mistake. The woad leaves might remain in the tub long enough for the urine to act on them and could, in effect, create a woad vat in the tub. When removed, the fleece would become blue on contact with the air. Once people noticed the presence of the woad leaves in the tub, they would probably have been able to work out why the fleece had become blue. All this is purely speculation, of course. Woad vats would have been organic in the Anglo-Saxon period and might have been made using stale urine, which provides both the source of alkali and the bacteria needed to make the vat active.  Woad leaves may have been harvested and used fresh or they may have been allowed to ferment and processed into woad balls and stored for later use. Another method of dyeing with woad may have been the fermentation vat, made using wood-ash water as the source of alkali and madder and bran to induce fermentation and remove the oxygen from the vat. The recipes for these vats can be found in "Colours from Nature". The first photo below shows pale blue shades from woad. In the second photo the first three skeins show a range of shades from a woad fermentation vat. (The other skeins show lichen purple and black achieved by dyeing.


Anglo-Saxon colours from oak leaves and acorns

Although walnut hulls are often the dye of choice for browns, I decided to use oak leaves and acorns in my tests, because the walnut tree is not native to Britain and walnuts may not have been widely available during the early Anglo-Saxon period. I harvested the acorns and oak leaves in early Autumn and dried the leaves before use. As oak leaves and acorns are rich in tannin, no mordant is needed.

The first photo below shows colours from oak leaves. An alum or clubmoss mordant produced slightly more yellowish colours and a tannin mordant made the colours deeper. An alkaline modifier increased the depth of these colours. Mid-grey was achieved on unmordanted fibres modified in iron and a very dark grey was achieved on tannin-mordanted fibres modified in iron.

The second photo below shows colours from acorns. The comments on mordants and modifiers, made above for oak leaves, also apply to acorns. The  dark grey was achieved on tannin-mordanted fibres modified in iron.