Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dyeing the Natural Way!

“Natural dyes possess additional beauty because they come from living things... I sometimes feel that some of that life is still there.”
Jim Liles, natural dye artist.

I took this photo on a trip to Cappadocia, Turkey last year.
In fact for some reason, I've taken this picture each of the four times I've been there over the years. There is just something wonderfully earthy and simple about natural dyeing and the process in which these beautiful colours are produced. Much nicer than chemical dyes.

This week we learn about natural dyes. We were instructed to bring some things we could use for dyeing, so I looked up ingredients online and brought a bag a turmeric, some beets, some carnations and some dandelions I stole from a vacant lot on the way to school. I picked so many the bums hanging around wanted to know why I needed so many dandelions!

It looks like a pot of spaghetti, but it's a pot of wool from Quebec, soaking in water and Alum (Potassium Aluminum Sulphate). This is to remove any sizing or natural dyeing retardant in the wool and make it ready for dyeing. So we let that soak for half an hour.

So in the meantime, we pounded flowers between a sheet of paper and a piece of cotton cloth with a hammer. The pounding transfers the pigment only and produced some interesting results! My instructor is demonstrating with a rose petal. Off we went, finding corners of the university to practice our pounding, so we didn't drive the computer guys below us completely mad.

My equipment! beet leaf, dandelion and some petals from a geranium and a carnation.

My results! I think the beet leaf on the cotton worked the best! I'd like to paint trees like that. I wasn't crazy about the paper though. Our instructor told us the colour shouldn't fade too much if we keep it out of direct sunlight. I can imagine that for the motivated individual you could create some really beautiful wall hangings for the low low price of a hammer and some cotton.

Next up: Dyeing!

The equipment! Bunson burner and old pot, stained with the rings of dyes past.

Our lac came in a ziploc baggy and didn't look as attractive to photograph as the madder. But this is how we got some of the harder to find natural dyes. There is a great store on Granville Island called Maiwa where most of this stuff came from.

After a quick rundown of what makes what kind of colours, we were given some sort of ingredient and after a quick calculation of how much dye we neeed for out 50G skein of wool, we were ready to go! We got Lac. I poached this info off the internet for you: "Lac is a deep red colorant extracted from the crude shellac resin excreted by the lac insect, indigenous to southeast Asia. It is the coloring principle used to make lac lake or Indian Lake, a historical pigment used in manuscript and easel painting until the 19th century." Side note interesting fact: It doesn't matter what colour the flower is- once boiled and used for dye, it will always produce a shade of yellow, no matter what, except for the odd flower, like hibiscus.

After fifteen minutes of stirring our wool in the lac pot, we got this beautiful purple colour. the yellow hanging up on the drying rack is the turmeric (done by another group.)

Next, we cut up the beets, but realised we had nothing to cut the beets with! So we had to cut them up with scissors. I like this picture because you can see our reflection in the pot.

Beets and beet stems in the pot! One of the guys dying with madder root looked over and said, "Mmm. I'm hungry!" So I offered him a spoonful of our dye. "Go ahead! The pot's clean!" You could actually eat it, and our wool ended up smelling a little like beets! Interesting side note fact- we weren't the only pot of beets in the room- but the other pot of beets produced a tangerine colour. Our instructor has dyed with sunflowers over twenty times and once she achieved green. Once. So your resulting colour is really a crap shoot, which adds to the excitement!

Our beets turned a light pink. I think we had too much water and it would have been nice to grate the beets and put them in a mesh bag or something. We spent a lot of time picking beet bits out of the wool. But the way the wool is tied at both ends in a loose knot so the wool doesn't get tangled up. You have to be careful rinsing it out as well because the wool can start to felt if you are too rigorous!

Our finished products! We also did the orange on the far left by mixing the beets in with the turmeric. The wonderful thing about natural dyes is that there seems to be a depth to the colours that isn't found in chemical dyes. And all the colours go together- nothing clashes. I love these earthy tones. The only colour we didn't do here was indigo, which has a different procedure than the rest so we will wait till next term to see how indigo works.

Other than the aesthetic beauty, I loved working with the natural dye because they are just that: natural.

My friend Tom told me that when he lived in Taiwan the river next to his house would change colour weekly depending on what colours they were dying in the factory up the road. And you know that dye ends up in the fish and plants which are also eventually our food source. I certainly wouldn't think a ton of beets would do the river as much damage!

However, I have also used commercial dyes to change the colours of the scarves so I am just as guilty as everyone else. But I really could not believe how easy dying these skeins of wool were. I'll have to find something else to dye though. I mean, what would I do with all that dyed wool? Knit it? Lol. I could see myself dyeing colours to make some sort of wall hanging or duvet cover though. It's a possibility, though material is harder to dye.

So I have a skein of wool here, and I am going to try to attempt the very difficult and make green. I'm off to the grocery store to buy spinach and red onion skin. If I get any interesting results, I will post them!

If you are interested in natural dyes, check out



  1. All those skeins of coloured wool make me miss Musa and his various pots of colours down below! Loving that turmeric. Can't wait to see what you make this week!

  2. I won't be making anything for class this week other than (hopefully) green wool. So it's a good week to paint peacocks and do some writing!

  3. But it does make me miss Musa too! I'll be in good form when I return to Turkey. ; )

  4. Love the colours and look forward to finding out what goes on with indigo. Only this week I had my first experience with a turmeric stained kitchen. (Now I want to find the pictures of those great looking cookies you and your sis made some time ago.)

  5. Indigo will be next term- Apparently it needs to ferment or something and we share the classroom at the moment! Intrigued? Lol, Me too (love the turmeric dye!)