Homework for Dyers
I sent out my August newsletter to the natural dye CSA shareholders yesterday, and it is full of good, basic information about everything else you need (besides the plants!), so I am reprinting it here.
Dear CSA Shareholders:
I know everyone is looking forward to getting a box of goodies in August and beginning their dye adventures, so it’s time to help you plan ahead and gather the items you will need to get started.
First, start thinking about how/where you might work outdoors; some of the dye plants are stinky, and you might not want to use your kitchen stove. If that is your only choice, you will want to gather some fans, open windows and doors, etc., on the days that you dye in order to have good ventilation. Alum mordanting and dyeing with the plants I will be sending is not toxic, but also not necessarily something you want to stand over and inhale deeply! I have had better luck maintaining a simmer with my propane heat sources than electric hot plates, but both can work well, and if you are setting up an outdoor area, camp stoves and hot plates (either gas or electric) can give you a lot of flexibility in making use of available space.
You will want to purchase some inexpensive supplies at a kitchen or hardware store to reserve just for dye work. I have labeled many of my pieces of dye equipment with permanent marker, and also store them in another room than the kitchen. These include a cooking thermometer that can read up to 212F, a set of measuring spoons, various jars (recycled will do nicely), a 2-cup measuring cup, nitrile gloves (I recommend that you get accustomed to wearing gloves ALL the time so that you have them on when you really need them), an apron (I like my oilcloth one for dye work so that accidental hot splashes can’t penetrate), and large handled, non-reactive stirring spoons such as stainless or the popular new silicon. I use a spoon I bought at the local brew supply, with a three foot handle. You will also want to locate some large, non-reactive dye pots. These could be stainless or enamel, though stainless will last longer. Once the enamel becomes chipped, you can no longer use it for dyeing, unless you don’t care if the exposed metal underneath affects your results. These can be scrounged up at thrift stores, yard sales, etc. I bought a set of four stainless kettles from Cabelas a couple of years ago; not sturdy enough for industrial chef work, but plenty good enough for occasional dye work. I also have a large (and heavy) cast iron dutch oven that I use for dyeing when I want the effect of iron mordanting to be intensified. That idea of pot-as-mordant will make more sense to you if you have had some previous dye experience, or after you read your new book. In the meantime, while you are prowling around yard sales, keep an eye out for an antique copper pot (not with a stainless inner liner, though) of good size; you just might get lucky. I do not choose to add chrome, tin or copper powders as mordants, since they are toxic, heavy metals. However, using a pot gives some of the same effects without the dangers.
Your first shipment will be covering mordanting. I have already pre-mordanted a four-ounce skein of DK Perendale wool from Pit River Wool Company with rhubarb, to help you get started dyeing right away. The rhubarb leaves are high in oxalic acid, so I actually left the room most of the time that the wool was simmering in the plant extract bath. This mordant is an old, traditional one, using a plant that is easy to find throughout the US, and not covered in Harvesting Color, the book I will be sending out with your first shipment; two reasons why I wanted to include it in one of the packages. It adds a pale yellow-gold coloring to the yarn, which will allow you to achieve some interesting effects. You can choose to divide it into smaller amounts, if you want to experiment with more than one dyestuff and compare to alum mordanted wool dyed with the same plant.
I will be including a packet of 4 ounces of alum with each share box. This will be enough to mordant approximately 4 pounds of wool, whether fiber, yarn, or fabric. Wool is a protein-based fiber, and so are the camelids and silk fibers. Any of these respond well to plant dyes and usually the colors are brighter and ‘fast’ (i.e., won’t fade easily). Cottons and other plant fibers need other forms of mordanting. I will provide more information about this in a later packet (probably fall or winter), as tannin from acorns and oak galls is one of the best mordants for plant fibers and I will be gathering both of these in the fall.
Another great mordant that you can begin assembling right now in preparation of your dye experiments is a rusty-object jar. This jar, which can be continually replenished, allows you to build up an iron-rich water to use for dyebaths that you want to ‘sadden’ or darken. For example, I will be sending dried fennel in the first shipment and it produces a lovely, light greenish-yellow on unmordanted wool, a light green on alum-mordanted wool, and a dark green on iron-mordanted wool.
Gather a handful or two of rusty, iron objects to place in a large glass jar. I am fortunate to live on a 160-year old homestead here in the Sierras, where metal objects turn up routinely. If you aren’t as fortunate, then try your local Re-Store (Habitat for Humanity), ask your grandpa, or otherwise seek out some objects that are already rusty and no good for anything else. I put mine in a one-gallon glass jar, along with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar for every cup of water needed to fill the jar. Have fun watching the rusty water turn darker… it doesn’t matter whether you leave your jar outside or on a dark corner of your porch, the same reaction will happen. Every time you pour off the water to use in a dyebath, replenish it with white vinegar and water, much like using sourdough starter!
I haven’t discussed the dyestuffs yet. I have been steadily drying comfrey roots, bronze fennel, ‘plain’ fennel, yarrow and three kinds of Sierra lichens. I will also be taking a few days next week in the high country, to do more gathering. I am also drying black-eyed Susan, zinnia, and marigold flowers. There are more surprises in the works. I am weighing and cataloging dyestuffs this week, to determine which to send out with the first shipment and which to hold back until a greater volume is dried and ready. I will make sure that each type of dye plant I send will dye at least four ounces of fiber for you! You may get the same plant later, if there is abundance, and the first shipment will have less dyestuff than the second, since there is less ready and I am sending you other supplies. I am making sure that each package is similar in value, though different in composition. Please feel free to send me any questions.
I will not be selling any additional full shares after this weekend, but will have half-shares available, and will also keep you posted first if there are ‘leftovers’. Thanks so much to each of you for supporting this first-ever natural dye CSA farm in its fledgling year.