About Natural Dyes

The Obsession with Natural Dyes

Mary: I can't explain my fascination with natural dyes, but I've been mesmerized by them since 1975. I deeply respect the many peoples of the world who, over millenia, have learned how to make lasting color from leaves, bark, roots, flowers, insects, even rocks and dirt. Time consuming, labor intensive, and frequently back-breaking: the process of natural dyeing keeps me humble and appreciative. Each dyestuff has its own history and character and demands its own particular handling to yield its color. The many slow steps in natural dyeing are orderly and meditative, and the brilliantly luminous colors that result are magic. I continually stand in awe.

Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense--the creative act. Kenneth Rexroth, American Poet

True, I am no longer that young woman who picked mustard flowers alongside the highway or harvested mullein stalks in the mountains. These days I either grow my own (like the Japanese Indigo in the photo above), or else I buy my dyestuffs and extracts from four companies--Botanical Colors, Earthues, Aurora Silk, and Maiwa--who offer environmentally sound botanical dyes at fair trade prices from small producers and communities around the world. These companies make it their missions to help sustain traditional ways of life, local resources, and rural populations. I too use only natural dyes precisely because they alone allow me to maintain continuity with indigenous peoples and their earth-bound colors. Every time I lean over a dyepot, I take great pride and comfort in being part of this time-honored continuum. And, besides, the colors that come from a leaf or a bug or a flower are just plain joyful to behold.

We know better where we are going if we understand where we have been. Jim Liles, Master Dyer

The natural dyeing process can take me a good 6 weeks from start to finish. Our photo gallery chronicles these steps, starting with weighing the fiber...then mordanting...painting, immersing, and/or dipping...then a month of curing...on to carding...and--at last!--the finished top or batt, all ready to spin.

I still haven't figured out how to separate the path of creativity from the spiritual path.

Sometimes I think they are one of the same. Ethan Nichtern, Buddhist teacher

Preparing fiber to be washed, then mordanted and dyed. I always start with ecru (natural) top or fleece which I weigh out in four-ounce units before I start.

It's necessary to mordant the fibers first so the dyes will have something to "bite" down onto. I use only potassium aluminum sulfate (or alum) and tartaric acid (the winemaker's equivalent to cream of tartar). Both are kind to the environment.

I usually paint tops in four-ounce units. Depending upon the number of colors, it can take me one to three hours to paint one pound of fiber.

Silk top that I've painted with seven different colors. It is now ready to be bundled up in plastic wrap, then steamed for about 10 minutes total.

This is a white yak/merino 50/50 blend that I've handpainted with 5 or 6 colors. I deliberately left some of the top unpainted to create a softer, lighter effect. It's almost ready to be gently steamed.

I use painter's tape to ensure the plastic wrap does not open up while the top is steaming in the microwave.

Steaming helps to set the colors. However, I only "nuke" my fibers for 10 minutes, 2-3 minutes at a time, since I am rather fearful I will burn them. (No real reason to think so; it's just my paranoia.) I then air cure them for another 30 days.

I air cure my dyed fibers for a month. It's arguably unnecessary to cure them for that long, but I do believe my colors are especially stable, given the time they have had to set.

The yak/merino blend on the left is now ready to sell as a 4-ounce top. However, I couldn't wait to see how it spun up...

The finished yarn still on my clock reel winder. It's been plied but not yet set. I love the fact that no color pattern repeats itself.

At first I wasn't sure I was going to like this colorway. The magenta seemed too harsh.

Okay, so I still wasn't sure I liked this colorway. Thus, the roving on the right, ready to be spun up as a sample.

I like it after all. It's Superwash Blue Faced Leicester, and when I look at it now I see socks.

To make a dyebath of cochineal, I pulverize the insects, then boil and decant them three times, adding tartartic acid at each step. The whole concoction steeps overnight. The next day I filter out the bugs, and--voila!--the dyebath is ready to use.

What can I say? It's stunning!

Thanks to Michel Garcia and his 1-2-3 fructose vat, making the indigo vat these days is just plain fun--and much more environmentally safe than the vats of old. (If you look closely in the reflection, you can see an oak just beginning to leaf out.)

The pure joy of indigo

This is my idea of heaven: a spring day on the back deck with pounds of blue fiber just out of the vat!

Occasionally I harvest flowers and leaves for myself. This is wild mustard on the bluffs overlooking San Onofre State Beach. While Roger is surfing, I am foraging.

I let the mustard flowers soak in water for a few weeks, or until I remember to check it. (I could also speed up the process by simmering the liquor, just not in this plastic bottle.) Once the water is a thick murky yellow, it's ready to be used.

I then lift out the flowers, and the leftover liquid is now officially a dyebath.

Yes, that's the mustard flower liquor in our refrigerator, waiting to be used. It will dye up a very soft, light yellow with green undertones. On wool I think the yellow is too light (dare I say blah?), but it's a delicious pastel on bombyx silk.

I couldn't wait to see what this tussah top would look like when it was finished, so I fanned it out while it was still air curing. Yum!

To make this bright green, I first dyed the fiber in weld, cured it for a month, washed it, then dipped it in an indigo vat. It's one of my favorite greens.

Purples can begin as pinks, often made from varying strengths of cochineal. The fibers cure for a month, then are dipped into a strong indigo vat. Dipping over several days will result in luscious dark purples.

This is one of my first attempts at handpainting with extracts. In my early days I didn't take great notes while I worked, so now I have no idea how I did this....

There's a whole world out there waiting to give you its color. Leaves, flowers, bark, roots, even insects yield gorgeous hues. Getting started is as easy as growing marigolds on your deck.

....and then there are mushrooms and lichens, known as the Third Kingdom in biology. Finally, after decades of working with botanicals, I am just now learning how to work with the mighty family of fungi, thanks to a great workshop in Moss Beach with Alissa Allen of Mycopigments.

A very fond memory.... Roger took this photo of me with Miguel Andrango, his wife Josefina and their daughter. Miquel (on the right) is a master natural dyer in Agato, Ecuador, sadly one of the last. It was one of my greatest honors to be invited into their family and watch him work.

Miguel keeps a vat of indigo next to where his family cooks. Since it's right next to the oven, he can keep it warm plus feed it occasionally with kitchen scraps.

Miguel uses a raw egg still in the shell to tell when his indigo vat is properly balanced. He knows it's sharpened when the egg floats on the surface. I won't tell you what happened when I tried this at home...

Back in Otavalo, Roger is wearing a new felt hat with his new poncho, his pride and joy. Miguel Andrango wove this poncho many years ago. He spun the wool, then dyed the yarn two shades of blue, then wove it to be reversible. It's magnificent! (Did I forget to mention the swim fins?)