The next in our Isolated Moments series, aiming to keep spirits buoyed and creativity alive during COVID-19 global social isolating and quarantining measures, comes from Georgina Barney, an artist and maker with a long-standing interest in farming and rural art practices. In 2017 Georgina established a community dye garden in the grounds of Primary, Nottingham. Her craft practice currently involves visible mending, and exploring local colour from plant dyes.
I’ve been thankful that lockdown in the UK began with perhaps the most joyful of all seasons, Spring. Cherishing all the natural life around me has played a crucial role in maintaining my mental heath. Fortunately it’s not just accessible in private gardens and remote rural spaces. My experience with plant-dyeing has taught me that a deep connection with nature is possible even in an urban lifestyle, and that there is plenty of dye material all around us, including in our own food waste. This workshop is an easy peasy plant-dyeing method using natural materials to dye fabrics, without having to leave the house.
This quick and simple method involves heating a pan of water, as in cooking on a stove. However in hot weather it is also possible to combine the dye stuff and fibres into a sealed glass jar and leave it in a place where it can get hot for a few days or weeks.
Ordinarily for more complicated dyeing processes I’d recommend keeping your dyeing pot separate to that which you use for cooking, but in this method using food waste, it will be fine to use a clean metal or enamel cooking pot.
Sieve or strainer (optional)
A stirrer (optional), ideally made from stainless steel but wood will do
Water and heat
If you have a choice of pots you can consider the following:
A stainless steel pot (shiny) or an enamel pot will give the most neutral dye results, in that the metal won’t affect the colour of the dye. An aluminium pot (dull silver colour), copper pot or an iron pot will each affect the colour producing different results. If you have a choice, you could experiment with different metal pots and see what shade each pot produces.
Avocado skins and stones scraped clean of flesh and stickers
Tea leaves (loose or bags are fine)
I have recommended these materials for a ‘one pot’ quick and simple dyeing because they are readily available and all contain tannin, a substance which enables the dye material to bond with fibres and produce a lasting colour.
An exploration of colour from local plants such as nettles, dandelions and marigolds requires the fibres to be treated first, usually with a non-organic metallic substance called a mordant. For further information I recommend Wild Colour by Jenny Dean for conventional mordants and a rhubarb leaf method, Rebecca Desnos’ website and Instagram for the soy milk method, and botanicalcolors.com – US suppliers of Symplocos, a plant mordant).
Natural fibres in a white or pale tone (Silk, Wool, Cotton, Linen)
Thick watercolour paper / handmade paper
Small pieces of wood / leather
Wool and silk take dye most readily, especially silk, but I recommend starting on a small scrap sample of fabric rather than something precious to you, in case you are surprised by the outcome.
You can also try cotton and linen, or fibres that are man-made but from natural materials, like rayon and viscose. It doesn’t have to be textiles – you could try thick watercolour paper or handmade paper or card; cotton string or rope; even wood.
It’s best to work with a small sample. Rip up an old t-shirt or pillow case if you have one which will allow the fibres plenty of room to move around in the pot.
- Make sure your fibres are clean.
Optional: If you are using scrap fibres it could be useful to simmer them with a drop of washing up liquid and pinch of washing soda in a boiling pot for an hour. Even brand new, white textiles are usually treated with chemicals and this ‘scouring’ process helps to strip that to produce an even colour. However I find that it is usually possible to achieve rewarding results without doing this.
- Put dye material with plenty of water in a pot. Be as generous as you can, but don’t worry if you haven’t a lot – one avocado or one pomegranate will produce plenty of dye for a small cooking pot.
- Bring to a gentle simmer. Take care with avocado skins and stones to heat the water gently, just under a simmer.
- Heat for approximately 30 minutes. Watch the colour appear.
Optional: For an even colour on your items, strain the food waste out of the dye pot
- Add your fibres. If you are using paper, it might be necessary to take the paper out after a short period to prevent it from disintegrating. You can try multiple ‘dips’ between drying periods.
- Simmer for another, say, 30 minutes until a good effect has been produced. Turn your fibres around gently in the water every so often.
Optional: Take your fibres out of the liquid to dry, or leave overnight in the cooling liquid
- Rinse the fibres. Take care not to ‘shock’ the fibres in a colder rinse nor to wring them out – wool and silk may shrink.
Optional: Try adjusting the colour. Pour a small amount of the dye into another container and add either acid (lemon juice or vinegar will do) or alkali (washing soda). Does the colour change?
Ideas to experiment further:
Experiment with pattern.
Wrap the dye stuff up inside fabric, tie it tightly then immerse in hot water for a period. Take the bundle out, leave to cool and unwrap for a deliberately uneven, uncontrolled patterned effect.
Learn about mordants and try creating dye baths from local plant material such as nettles, dandelions, daffodils, marigold, hibiscus, hollyhock, yarrow, sunflowers, onion skins, rosemary, sage.
You can also use turmeric and many types of berries (although you are likely to find that many of these produce ‘fugitive’ dyes meaning that their colour will fade).
Walnut hulls may also be used with no additional preparation – but take care as it will stain everything it comes into contact with!
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