“A HERITAGE OF COLOUR” – my new book

 

 

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A HERITAGE OF COLOUR

Natural Dyes Past and Present

 

I have been working on a new book for the past year and I am pleased to report that the final proofs have been checked and the book is now with the printers. The title of this new book is “A Heritage of Colour – Natural Dyes Past and Present”  and it is due for publication by Search Press in February 2014.

 

“A Heritage of Colour”  differs from my other books in several respects. Firstly, it has a historical slant and one of my starting points was the report on the technical analysis of dyed textile fragments from the Iron Age site at Hallstatt in Austria. The results of this analysis inspired me to carry out a series of experiments which are described in the book.

Another feature of this new book is its focus on the use of native and easily-grown or gathered plants. Over 50 plants are featured  and the dyeing methods used in the experiments can be used for any plants, not only those featured in the book.

“A Heritage of Colour” also has sections on contact dyeing on fabric using plant materials, dyeing with frozen flowers and creating multi-coloured skeins and fabrics. In addition, there are sections on using lichen and fungi for dyeing.

The book has over 250 colour photographs, including photos of dyed samples for each plant.

 

The main sections are:

  • Introduction
  • Inspiration from the Past
  • Environmental Considerations
  • The Basics of Natural Dyeing
  • Contact Dyeing on Fabric using Plant Materials
  • Dyeing with Frozen Flowers
  • Over-Dyeing and Multi-coloured Skeins and Fabrics
  • 50 Dye Plants (with dyeing details, photos of each plant & photos of dyed samples)
  • Using Lichens for Dyeing
  • Using Fungi for Dyeing
  • A Brief Outline of Some of the Dyes used in Europe from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages

 

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The photo above shows some colours from beech leaves and is an example of the photos of dyed samples that accompany each plant. At least one page is devoted to each plant and several pages and photos are devoted to the more significant dye plants.

 

“A Heritage of Colour” has been written with the aim of adding further perspectives to the ancient craft of natural dyeing and I hope dyers familiar with my other books will find within this book much to interest them and inspire them to experiment further with plant dyes. For those new to the craft of dyeing, this book should provide a starting point from which to embark on an exploration of the colourful wonders of the natural world.

 

 

Dyeing with frozen woad leaves

 

Recently I read a post on India Flint’s blog (prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com), in which India suggested using her method for dyeing with frozen flowers as a way of extracting colour from the leaves of indigo-bearing plants. So I decided to try this method with the last few remaining woad leaves in my dye garden.

 

The leaves must be frozen as soon as they have been collected and they must be completely frozen before they are used, so they should be left in the freezer for as long as this takes. They can also be left in the freezer for a longer period, if you don’t want to use them immediately.

 

I managed to collect just about enough leaves for a small trial dye bath and as soon as I had harvested them, I put them into a sealed plastic bag and left them in the freezer for about 24 hours. I then removed the leaves from the freezer and squeezed the bag to crush them before removing them from the bag. I then immersed the leaves in a bowl of lukewarm water. Out of interest I checked the pH of the dye liquid and it was pH7 (neutral). I added some silk and wool fibres, squeezed them with the leaves for a few minutes and then left them to soak for about half an hour. After this time the fibres looked blue. I then left the samples to soak for several more hours, after which they had become a grey/blue. I removed this first set of fibres and added soda ash to the dye bath to make it alkaline (about pH9).  I added a wool skein to this alkaline liquid and left it to soak for several hours. This sample became tan/pink.

 

The results can be seen in the photos below. (Note: The actual blue colours are rather greyer in tone than they appear in the photo.) The blue/grey colours are shades that are sometimes obtained from an almost exhausted woad vat and are also similar to those I often achieve from frozen purple flowers, such as pansies, using the same freezing and dyeing method. However, I was able to harvest only a few leaves for this experiment, so I intend to try it again next year earlier in the growing season and see whether a higher percentage of younger leaves gives different results. I will also try removing the fibres as soon as they have become a reasonable blue, rather than leaving them in the dye bath for a longer period, as it seems possible that prolonged soaking caused the blue colour to become greyer in tone.

The pink/tan colour is similar to the shades obtained from woad leaves if they are simmered to make a dye bath.

 

Although this method may not necessarily produce true indigo blues, it is certainly a useful way of using woad leaves and I am grateful to India for suggesting it. However, without experimenting further and conducting fastness tests, I cannot be sure that the colours achieved from woad leaves by this method would be as fast as those achieved by the more conventional methods.

 

 

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Learning to weave on a rigid heddle loom

 

Last year I bought a second-hand spinning wheel from a local charity shop and with it came a rather ancient rigid heddle table loom. Eventually I decided it was time to start learning how to weave. With the help of a U-tube video clip, my husband and I managed to warp up the loom and so we embarked on our first weaving project.

 

As I never want to spend time making something for which I may have no practical use, I rejected the advice to start with something small, like a table mat, and decided we would weave a scarf. Rather ambitiously, we decided to use several colours in both the warp and the weft and to aim for a checked pattern. We also started off using cotton, as we had inherited a large quantity of mercerised cotton in a variety of attractive colours.

 

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My husband is holding our first scarf as it came off the loom, with the rows of waste yarn still in place. Of course the edges are not completely straight and the colour changes not made perfectly, but I have to say we were quite pleased with our first efforts and felt inspired to continue weaving.

The photo below shows our latest efforts, this time using naturally-dyed wool, some of it handspun. The colours are from woad, madder and fungi.

 

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Buckthorn Bark

 

Buckthorn bark (Rhamnus spp.) is an extremely useful dye which can be used very successfully without a mordant and gives colours ranging from mustard yellows to true madder-type reds.  (The bark of alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) can be used in the same way as buckthorn bark and gives similar colours.)

 

For reds, buckthorn bark is best processed using the alkaline extraction method, which means soaking the bark in a solution of water and an alkali, such as washing soda or wood ash water. The exact proportions of water to alkali don’t really matter as long as the solution has a pH reading of 10 to 11. As the solution begins to ferment it will become more acidic, so more alkali may need to be added to maintain the degree of alkalinity necessary for reds and pinks. If fibres are added at different stages, a range of shades can be obtained, with colours becoming more orange and less pink in tone as the alkalinity decreases. No heat should be applied to solutions with high alkalinity and the colours develop gradually on the fibres in a cool solution.

 

The fibres can be added together with the buckthorn bark and left to soak with the dyestuff until a suitable depth of colour has been reached. Alternatively, the dye solution can be poured off once the colour has developed and the fibres can be added to this dye solution. Whichever method is selected, no heat should be applied.

 

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This photo shows some of the colours achieved from buckthorn bark using the alkaline extraction method described above. (No mordant)

 

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This photo shows some colours from the exhaust dye bath. (No mordant)

 

The alkaline extraction method is a very useful way of extracting and applying colour and can be used with a variety of dyes. It is one of the techniques I shall be featuring in my new book “A Heritage of Colour”, which is currently scheduled for publication in February 2014 and which will include details for using over 50 plants, including buckthorn. I will give more details about this new book in a later post.

The dye garden is developing

 

As my new dye garden is so small I have had to limit the number of dye plants I grow. So I have decided to grow only native dye plants, or plants like woad and madder that were introduced into Britain at an early date.

Last year the woad crop was very disappointing. No self-seeded woad plants grew and the seeds I sowed produced only a few plants. However, this year has made up for it and I have many woad plants growing well. Weld, too, has grown better this year.

 

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Weld in flower

 

The dyer’s madder is in a separate bed, as it can be very invasive, but the bedstraws are developing well in the dye garden. I have hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo, also known as Galium album), lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) and northern bedstraw (Galium boreale). I have also managed to find a supplier of plants of wild madder (Rubia peregrina) so I hope the plants I bought will thrive. (The supplier was www.wildflowers.co.uk and they will send plants overseas although that can be very expensive.)

 

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Lady’s bedstraw with woad in the background

 

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Hedge bedstraw

 

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Wild madder in a pot with woad and saw-wort in the background

 

The dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) is just coming into flower and the saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) is also starting to flower.

 

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Dyer’s broom

 

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Saw-wort

 

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Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

The yarrow is growing really well this year.

The garden in late spring

 

We have had some lovely sunny days recently and so I took the opportunity to take some photos of my little garden. I do miss my old garden but I have tried to make the most of the small space we have here. I have concentrated on dye plants and plants to attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. I have tried to grow mainly native plants, except for some summer plants, such as fuchsias and dahlias, for pots and the plants that were already here, such as wisteria, and of course roses, which I could not be without for their perfume.

 

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Woad in flower in the tiny dye garden in front of my summer house

 

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Wisteria in flower

 

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General garden view with angelica in the foreground

 

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A detail of the angelica plant which the bees love

 

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The roses are just beginning to come into bloom

 

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Centaurea montana which the bees love

 

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The grass is full of daisies which are popular with insects and with my granddaughter for making daisy-chain necklaces

 

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The native red campion (Silene dioica) which is often full of bees

 

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This photo shows on the left the native Geranium pratense and on the right Pilosella aurantiaca or Orange Hawkweed, also called Fox and Cubs

 

 

 

 

Mediaeval Dyes

 

Following on from my earlier posts about Anglo-Saxon dyes, I thought I’d write a little about the dyes used in mediaeval Europe, from around the 9th century to the beginning of the 16th century.

 

As archaeological evidence and the technical analysis of textile fragments indicate, during this period dyers had access to a wider range of dyes as trade developed and increased. Indigo from woad (Isatis tinctoria) remained the main source of blue and madder ((Rubia tinctorum) was the most common source of reds, with kermes (Kermes vermilio) and sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) also being used. Weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) continued to be used for yellows and other sources of yellow included heather (Calluna vulgaris), bog myrtle (Myrica gale), Persian berries (Rhamnus spp.), Venetian sumac (Cotinus coggygria) and sometimes also saffron (Crocus sativus).

The Imperial or Tyrian Purple dye from shellfish, famed in the ancient world, was still being used, albeit on a much smaller scale, and some species of lichens were also used in many parts of Europe to produce a vivid, if less permanent, purple colour. The tannin/iron complex remained the most common method of creating black, although the preferred, but more costly, method was to use red, blue and yellow dyes in sequence.

There were also apparently regional differences in the use of colour. By the 11th century Flanders was known for green, the Rhineland for black and Britain for red. Within England itself, some towns were licensed during the mediaeval period to produce certain colours – for example, York for red and purple, Lincoln for green, scarlet and grey, Coventry for blue and Beverley for blue and red.

 

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From left: Reds and rust from madder (alum mordant), brown & tan from walnut hulls (no mordant), gold & yellow from weld (alum mordant), moss greens from weld + iron modifier and blues from woad (no mordant)

 

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Black from madder + weld + woad (alum mordant)

 

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Purples from the lichen Ochrolechia tartarea (no mordant)

 

Trade flourished in the Middle Ages and the most expensive of all dyestuffs was the insect dye, kermes (Kermes vermilio), from a shield-louse that lives on the kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, found in various parts of the Mediterranean. Sappanwood, from the heartwood of the tree Caesalpinia sappan, was imported into Europe in the later Middle Ages from India, Ceylon and Java and gave red colours. The wood and the dye were known locally as “bresil” or “brasil” and when at the end of the 15th century Portugese explorers found a related tree, Caesalpinia echinata, growing in the country now known as Brazil, they named the country “terra de brasil” after the tree and the red dye from Caesalpinia echinata was called brazilwood. Sappanwood was brought into Europe in surprisingly large quantities and 80% of the reds analysed on fabrics from around 1100 to 1450 prove to have been dyed with at least some sappanwood. It was added to madder dyebaths to enhance the colour and was also used for browns and for some compound colours. Sanderswood (Pterocarpus santalinus) from India and Ceylon was also introduced in the later Middle Ages and was used for reddish rusts and compound colours.

 

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Kermes (Kermes vermilio)

 

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Red from kermes (alum mordant)

 

Mediterranean alum became more widely available and was imported into Britain from Italy, Spain and Asia Minor. Italy dominated trade and Italian dyers had access to dyes that were not generally available in many other parts of Europe. The 14th century archives of  Francesco di Datini in Florence and Prato list lac (Kerria lacca), an insect dye from India and South-East Asia, and indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) from Baghdad among their items of trade.

 

During the Middle Ages dyeing flourished in Europe and it was the craft of the dyer that added most to the value of textile fabrics. Guilds of master dyers became established and a master dyer’s recipe book was closely guarded. The list of dyes and details of dyeing techniques found in dyers’ recipe books of the period indicate the increased complexity of some of the methods. The first known manual written for the professional dyer was the Plictho de larte de tentori, which was a collection of recipes for dyeing wool, silk, cotton and linen. It was compiled by Gioanventura Rosetti, Master of the Arsenal in Venice, and published in Venice in 1548. This manual is an important document in the history of dye chemistry and technology and clearly shows the stage of development that the dyer’s craft had reached by the middle of the 16th century.

Learning new skills

 

I’m afraid I’m just showing off but I’m so pleased to have learned two new skills from workshops at the West Sussex Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, of which I am a member. The West Sussex Guild is very small and friendly and one of its features is the willingness of members to share their skills. So, although we can’t always afford the more expensive tutors, we have opportunities for learning new techniques from one another.

The first workshop, led by Martine Woodvine, was on spinning fancy yarns and this is something I have wanted to learn for many years. In fact, I find it hard to believe that I have been a handspinner for over 30 years and have only just begun to learn how to spin fancy yarns.   The photos below show some of the yarns I have spun.

 

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The other workshop, led by Jane Rodgers, was on simple braiding techniques. I must admit that braiding is not something that has ever really attracted me, mainly because I prefer crafts that enable me to produce items for which I have a use and I couldn’t see that I would have much use for braids. However, now that I have been introduced to the delights of braiding, I realise that braids can be made into many things, including necklaces and bracelets, and I am now about to start my fourth braid. I love watching the pattern emerge as the braid begins to grow and I can see that braiding can become quite addictive! The photo below shows two of my braids made into necklaces and a third braid waiting to be finished off.

 

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I am grateful to Martine and Jane for enabling me to discover the pleasures of two new skills.   P.S. No natural dyes this time, I’m afraid

Jill Goodwin 1917 – 2013

 

This week I was saddened to learn from her daughter that Jill Goodwin, author of “A Dyer’s Manual”, died on March 23rd at the age of 95.

 

“A Dyer’s Manual” is a classic in the natural dyeing field and was a vital source of inspiration and information for me and so many dyers of my generation and also for the generation of dyers that followed. Without  this book, which is full of Jill’s knowledge and experience presented in a clear and direct manner, I would certainly not have had the information or motivation to experiment with dyes from plants.

 

I corresponded with Jill at regular intervals over many years and cherish the letters she wrote me.  One of my most prized possessions is a hat she crocheted for me from her handspun walnut-dyed wool and each time I wear it I am reminded of her generosity of spirit and warmth of personality. Jill was a spinner and weaver as well as a natural dyer and she always kept abreast of developments in the textile world generally and in the field of natural dyeing in particular. She never lost her interest in everything new and was often the first to tell me about the latest new fibre or dyeing technique. Every now and then she would telephone me and she usually started by asking “Have you heard about….?” or “Did you know that….?”

 

Whenever I visited Jill – and I wasn’t able to do so very often – she had more dyed samples and hand-made treasures to show me and she was always keen to hear about my latest experiments. She was in contact with dyers from all over the world and shared her knowledge readily and enthusiastically. The breadth of her experience was vast and her advice was always useful and to the point.

 

I will miss Jill and I feel privileged to have known her. I am grateful for all that I was able to learn from her over the decades and I am sure that “A Dyer’s Manual” will continue to inspire dyers for many years to come.

Dyeing brown and grey wool fibres

 

In my new book I am focusing to some extent on native plants and fibres, so wool plays an important part – and not only white wool but also naturally-coloured wool. Recently I have been spinning naturally-coloured light brown and grey wool fleece and I love the effects when these skeins are dyed. The colours can be very subtle. Here are some examples:

 

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From left to right: Madder, Indigo, Rhubarb Root

The first skein in each pair shows the dye colour on white wool and the second skein shows the dye colour on light grey wool.

 

All the skeins are unmordanted.

 

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The samples above are from horsetail (left) and tansy (right) and show from left to right: alum mordant on white wool, no mordant + alkaline modifier on brown wool , no mordant + alkaline modifier on grey wool

 

I find alkaline modifiers extremely useful, especially when used on fibres that have not been mordanted with alum. Even when the colour on the dyed fibres looks rather insipid initially, an alkaline modifier can often deepen and brighten it. The results of alkaline modifiers on naturally-pigmented wool are particularly pleasing, as I think the samples above show.