I’ve also been revisiting eco-dyeing. I first tried this process back here in Nov 2011, with variable results. I recently over-dyed the two remaining scarves from that batch, first with waste water from breakdown printing, which gave them some deeper colour.
This one was bundled and tied…
Another bath of Ironbark bark and ferrous sulphate yielded this wool scarf, which was concertina’d lengthwise, then in from the ends and tied with blocks and string.
So how do you go about dyeing with natural materials? We begin by filling a pot almost to the brim with the natural materials. Often, we’re dyeing with leaves and bark that we’ve gathered as we go about our lives and stored in a dry place, so they are usually quite dry by the time we get around to dyeing with them. We half fill the pot with hot water from the tap and top it up with boiling water from the kettle, just to get things happening faster. We boil this material for about an hour, checking the colour frequently. Over-boiling can lead to very ordinary results, as the base colour of everything seems to be what the older dye books call “fawn” and Billy Connolly calls “boring beige”. Once we have a good colour, we add our chosen mordant and boil for a while longer, usually at least 20 minutes.
Then we decide whether to strain the bath or not. Leaving the natural materials in the pot often results in interesting patterns, when the fabric rests against them. However, it does make rinsing out more challenging, and is definitely not desirable when dyeing yarn, as fine bits of wet vegetation can become curiously attached to the fibre. You also need to decide at this stage whether to keep the material and boil it some more later, if it seems as if it will yield more colour. This is especially true of eucalyptus bark.
Wetting the fabric before you add it to the pot will result in different outcomes than putting it into the pot dry. If you’re tying or blocking or using other Shibori methods, dry is generally better. We boil the pot with the fabric for another half hour at least and then allow it to cool down slowly. We try to leave it in the cooling pot overnight, if possible, although we’ve also had good results from washing out later the same day, with very strong dye materials like eucalypts.
Our best results have come from using Shibori techniques on our cloth before putting it into the pot. Our next best results have come from using Grevillea leaves inside the folds. Onion skins, especially red onion skins, also gave us great results, though they tend to be blotchy.
I generally rinse out my cloth or yarn under warm running water until it runs clear. Then I undo any Shibori and immerse it in warm water and a small amount of a mild detergent, such as a wool wash, to ensure all the mordant is washed out of the fibre. Often, some more colour comes out at this stage, and any little twigs and leaves. I rinse in warm water, spin dry in the washing machine and hang to dry. It’s a good idea to find the ties on the yarn skeins first, and then use this as the holding point when rinsing. This ensures the skein doesn’t loop through itself during washing.
I hang the yarn over an extremely complicated mechanism – a wire coat hanger, cut and inserted into each end of a PET soft drink bottle for the top and another washed PET soft drink bottle, with some water in it, inside the lower loop, to add a little tension to the yarn. It works a treat!
Finding out what plant matter you can dye with, in your local area, is always a challenge. I’m slowly creating a list for myself. There are good books available, but often they tell you what plants will yield dye, rather than reflecting what you can actually get. Many are written in the UK or USA, using plants native to those countries. These are still worth a look by Australian dyers, as some of the plants are garden favourites, such as Barberry, Hollyhock, Dahlia, Yarrow, Queen Anne’s Lace and French Marigold. But many refer to hedgerow plants that we simply don’t have.
India Flint’s book, Eco-colour, is a useful resource, although she doesn’t distinguish between the many kinds of eucalypts, which can yield very different results to one another. However, her book does contain a very detailed list of dyeing plants likely to be available to Australians, as well as different methods of dyeing than the one we use and many luscious photos. Dyemaking with Australian Flora, from the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria, is a good resource, although published in 1974 and sadly out of print. However, you can still get it second-hand. Jean Carman’s Dyemaking with Eucalypts (1978) is also a good resource. Some public libraries still hold these titles.
Just keep in mind that eco-dyeing is unlikely to yield the kind of colours you get with commercial dyes. There’s a good economic reason why the kings and emperors of the past wore purple and scarlet and the ordinary person made do with brown and green and grey!