Dyes for baskets

Chumash Basket Hat (materials and pattern from Santa Barbara Chumash)
Style: Coiled basket with juncus three-rod foundation
Colors: Plain juncus (yellow), dyed juncus (black), split sumac (white)
Black dye technique: Split yellow juncus is submerged in  old cast iron pot with crushed up oak galls and rusty nails. Leave outside for 2-3 weeks. When you remove dyed juncus, let mixture in pot dry up, then re-use just like a soup stock the next time you dye.

This photo & the description come from Timara Lotah Link, of the Santa Barbara Chumash Indians in California. Tima contacted me to ask my advice about preventing the Juncus textilis reeds used in their basket weaving from becoming brittle as a result of the iron/tannin dyeing process.

The tannin/iron complex, used to achieve black through the combination of tannin from a plant source & iron, often from iron-rich earth or mud, is one of the most ancient & most widespread dyeing techniques. It is used traditionally all over the world, from Aboriginal tribes in Australia to Native American Indians in North & South America, & also throughout Africa, mainly to dye reeds & grasses & sometimes to paint designs on cotton fabric. Its only drawback is that iron tends to have a damaging effect over a period of time, most noticeably on animal fibres & less so on vegetable fibres. However, this damage may take many decades to become apparent & may not be noticeable during the lifetime of the artefact, especially if it is a well-used basket.

In her email, Tima described how “In the old days, the women would dig a hole (we think it was in ground that stayed wet), fill it with black mud, (maybe?? ashes), juncus, and come back in 3 weeks and ‘presto!’. Jet black juncus.”

I saw something similar when working on a dyeing project in Zambia in 1988. There, the basketmakers “sandwiched” the reeds they used for weaving their baskets between layers of the tannin-rich leaves of a local tree, Terminalia sericea. These “sandwiches” were then buried in the iron-rich mud at the edge of the local river & left for a few weeks to become black. I think what Tima describes is basically the same. The black mud would be rich in iron & if the Juncus itself contains enough tannin, that would be sufficient to achieve the tannin/iron complex needed to dye the reeds black. Otherwise, extra tannin from another plant source would need to be added. I think the action of the iron-rich mud would be gentler & less corrosive than that of a mixture containing rusty nails. The ideal method might be to imitate the dyeing techniques of the earlier Chumash by adding some iron water to local mud, perhaps with the addition of tannin-rich leaves or oak galls, & experimenting with that. 
I hope I have been able to offer Tima some helpful comments & that she will contact me again with any other queries she may have. The basket hat is such a beautiful piece of traditional weaving & it would be a real privilege if I have been able to contribute anything useful.
2 replies
  1. Tricia Cook
    Tricia Cook says:

    Hi Jenny,
    Just catching up with everyone’s posts and have just read the last 4 which I have found, as usual amazingly informative. Wonderful stuff, I can’t wait for Christmas to be over and the better weather to come so that I can get back to the dyeing myself. Have a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year. BW Tricia x

  2. Helen Melvin
    Helen Melvin says:

    Hi I like the idea of adding some iron water to mud to replicate the effect. As part of my garden is turning into mud it might be worth a try! Do you htink one should dig up a bucket of mud and pour some iron water in? Thanks for the lovely post . Helen

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