All around, as I walk in my garden, I marvel at the glorious colours & scents of Autumn. Somehow this is the time of year when I feel the colours of the natural world seem most closely to resemble the colours produced by natural dyes. Madder reds & corals, logwood purples, the russets of onion skins, the golds & browns of buckthorn bark & rhubarb root – all these are here in my garden, inspiring me to return to my dyepots.
Yesterday I joined with fellow members of the Bedfordshire Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers to demonstrate handspinning at the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The guild, of which I was a founder member, is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. We usually demonstrate at the RSPB twice a year, in August & at their Feed the Birds Day in October. The RSPB centre at Sandy, Bedfordshire, has a flock of Manx Loghtan sheep & members of our guild spin some of the fleece from these sheep & then make items for sale in the shop in aid of RSPB funds. The photo shows our display, including naturally dyed samples, some dyed by me & some by my friend, Chris, with whom I have been sharing dyeing experiences for many years. Chris is also a plant expert from whom I have learned many useful tips & information.
Demonstrating spinning & talking to the public about dyeing are always interesting. This time I was surprised & delighted by the level of interest, especially in natural dyeing, shown by some of the children. One little girl in particular, probably about 10, asked quite detailed questions & seemed really attentive to the answers. One always wonders how much information to give, especially where mordants are concerned. I try to answer as fully as possible but without making the matter so complicated that it puts people off. At times like these I realise just how complex natural dyeing actually is.
Without wishing to appear sexist or guilty of gender stereotyping, it is also interesting to note that there is often a difference between male & female areas of interest. Men usually want to know the technicalities of spinning & spinning wheels, while women tend to enthuse more about the fleece & the spun yarns & what they might be used for. However, when with children, both men & women want the children to appreciate & understand that what we are demonstrating is closely linked to the clothing people are wearing & how it is produced. Most children don’t realise that cotton comes from a plant (indeed, why should they if they haven’t been told?) but tend to know that wool comes from sheep. Yesterday one of our members was spinning alpaca fleece from her son’s alpacas & one child actually knew that alpacas were related to llamas! Such contact with the younger generation fills one with optimism.
If anyone had told me two weeks ago that I would be writing a blog, I’d have thought they were crazy! I’m still not sure that it’s a good idea but my husband has encouraged me so I’m giving it a go. I just can’t help wondering who on earth would want to read what I have to say. I have to confess that I’ve only ever glanced briefly at about 3 blogs so I suppose I don’t know enough about them to be able to judge. However, I can see this might be a useful way of recording my activities & thoughts, for myself if for no-one else. And of course I shall be learning more computing skills at the same time – at least I hope so. I’ve now mastered the art of adding photos, so I feel pretty pleased with myself!
At this time of the year many gardens are full of the glorious, vivid, glowing colours of dahlia flowers. To me they seem the floral echo of the wonderful autumnal shades of the leaves on the trees – the last flash of colour before the onset of winter.
As a dyer, these dahlia flowers are also a source of brilliant yellows, oranges & golds. With the exception of white flowers, which don’t yield much colour, all colours of flowers give similar shades & can be mixed together in the dyepot. The leaves give interesting green-brown shades, so to get the most out of the plants use the leaves for a separate dyebath, rather than adding them to the dyepot with the flowers. You don’t need to sacrifice the best flowers from the garden or flower vase – just wait until the flowers have faded & “gone over”, then remove them from the stalks. You need about the same weight of flowers (or leaves) to fibres for the most brilliant colours. You can use them fresh or dried, preferably with an alum mordant for full shades. After dyeing, the use of an alkaline modifier or after-bath will give vivid oranges. Just dissolve 2 or 3 teaspoons of washing soda crystals in boiling water, add this to cool water in a pot & soak the dyed fibres for half to 1 hour. DON’T heat, especially if dyeing animal fibres, as the alkaline solution may damage them. An iron after-bath will give mossy-green tones. Use half to 1 teaspoon of ferrous sulphate, dissolved in hot water then added to cool water, as described for washing soda. You can either soak the fibres in this for 10 to 30 minutes, or heat gently. You can also make your own iron water by soaking rusty nails or scrap iron in a solution of 1 part water to 1 to 2 parts clear vinegar. When the liquid looks rusty in colour, usually after 2 or 3 weeks, it’s ready to use. Just add a cupful of iron water to warm water & continue as above. Dispose of the used plant materials on the compost heap & remember that acid-loving plants or broad-leaved evergreens, such as camellias, will appreciate it if you pour iron residues around them. I usually pour the remains of iron modifier solutions around my blueberry bushes.
Copper sulphate can be used as a modifier in the same way as ferrous sulphate. You can also make your own copper water by soaking lengths of copper piping in a solution of 1 part water to 2 parts vinegar until the liquid looks blue/green in colour. Proceed as described above for iron water. Remember that copper is poisonous so handle with care.
Last Saturday I visited the Oxford Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers to talk to the members about “Using Natural Dyes”. I always enjoy visiting this guild as the members are welcoming, lively, attentive & appreciative – who could ask for more? They are the speaker’s dream! And they produce excellent tea & cakes too! I was particularly delighted to find so many younger members interested in using natural dyes. Indeed, I sold 11 copies of my latest book “Colours from Nature”, which was more than I had expected to sell.
If anyone is interested in obtaining a copy of this book, or finding out more about it, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Colours from Nature” is a self-published handbook, which contains full details of my approach to natural dyeing, mordanting etc, plus over 100 recipes arranged according to colour, including the insect dyes & natural dye extracts. It has some colour photos & many colour sample swatches. To addresses in the UK it costs £13.50, including postage, more for overseas orders.
Incidentally, I am still trying to persuade my UK publishers to issue a reprint of “Wild Colour”. I’m not holding my breath for a favourable response but I’m not giving up yet either.
While at the Oxford Guild, a lady asked me about the difference between indigo and woad. This is a good question as the difference is really one of name rather than dye, as the blue dye in woad is the same as the blue dye in indigo, so woad is just another source of indigo-blue dye. Woad was, and still is, the native European source of indigo blue dye. The name “indigo” is usually used to refer to species of Indigofera, although it may also refer to one of the many other sources of indigo blue dye, such as Polygonum tinctorium from Japan, Strobilanthes flaccidifolius from China or Lonchocarpus cyanescens from Nigeria. In fact, I suppose the term “indigo” tends to refer to all sources of indigo blue dye, except for the blue dye from woad. This is confusing as the blue colouring matter in woad is the same as the blue colouring matter in “indigo”, but the dye is much less concentrated in woad leaves, which is why “indigo” eventually largely replaced woad in Europe. It would make things clearer if we referred to woad-indigo to distinguish it from indigo-blue from other sources. In England, until the 1930s a law demanded that some woad had to be used in the indigo blue dyeing of policemen’s uniforms, presumably to preserve the tradition of woad dyeing & to protect the livelihoods of woad farmers.
Today, the farming of woad on a commercial scale has been started again, largely through the efforts of one farmer in Norfolk, Ian Howard, who has made a valuable contribution towards the revival of one of our traditional dyeing techniques. For more information, click onto the link to Ian’s website.
Welcome to Jenny Dean’s website blog! This is my first venture onto the web, courtesy of my husband, Roger, who arranged this site for me as a birthday-cum-Christmas present.
The designer of this site is Colin Walton, who also designed my book “Wild Colour”, published in 1999 and now sadly out of print. As I am mainly known as the author of this book, I have chosen “Wild Colour” as the heading for my blog. It will probably be a little while before the site design is complete & the blog is up & running. But in a few weeks time I should be able to write regular reports of my activities, with general tips & hints for the natural dyer, dye recipes & suggestions for the dye garden.