In 2001, I began experimenting with natural dyes after using synthetic dyes for 20 years to dye yarn for my weaving projects. With the help and encouragement of Michelle Wiplinger and Kathy Hattori at Earthues and the help of friends from the Portland Handweaver’s Guild, I was able to completely switch to the use of natural dyes. At the beginning while getting over my initial bias against natural dyes and lack of technical knowledge of the art, I really had no idea how satisfying natural dyeing could be. When you hear about the initial steps that must be taken, and the time factor, let alone the myth that natural dyes are not colorfast, and that they are just as poisonous as synthetic dyes, it can be a daunting task to launch into giving natural dyes a chance. But being the avid textile knowledge hound that I am, the investigation got the best of me. Within weeks of successful dyeing, I became aware that my visual color palette was changing and that synthetic dyes simply offended my eyes…the colors were so glaring and incongruous with other colors. In the meantime, I had a special Japanese friend, Yoko, whom I met at the Portland Handweaver’s Guild, who just happened to have a traditional Japanese education in natural dyes. She grew up in a family of kimono makers and had the textile-sense blood in her veins. She gave me indigo seeds and taught me how to make a fresh leave indigo vat that gives instant color, if you can work fast enough to beat the natural oxidation process that “cures” the indigo into a blue color on cloth or in the vat. I am also most grateful to her for teaching me the basics of shibori, and the above picture was the result of her encouragement. While doing shibori, I really began to experience the deep, rich colors of the different natural dyes, and I was able to see the different hues that one natural dye extract could produce by the sheer process of resist. The sheer elegance of shibori and natural dyes combined captured my imagination, and there was no turning back.
Listed below are some facts about the different natural dyes that I use for my artwork which I offer for sale through my own business, fijnKNIT. With the help of Kathy Hattori, proprietor of Botanical Colors, I use and offer a line of natural dyes that I am confident meet ethical, ecological and sustainable standards. Kathy has spent many years sourcing these dyes and traveling to far destinations all over the world to determine and to verify their quality first hand. We collaborate to insure not only their quality in terms of beauty, colorfastness, ecological sustainability and safety standards, but to provide you with the best technical support that we can so that you can learn how to use these dyes with great results and pleasure.
Botanical Colors, the source of my line of natural dyes, translates into Dutch as Botanische Kleuren. Since I live in Dutch-speaking Flanders, it seem natural to use this name as I learn to use the native language here, Nederlands. I look forward to the day when I can translate my blog into Nederlands all by myself!
Cochineal is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived. A primarily parasite native to tropical and subtropical South American and Mexico, this insect lives on cacti feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. The carmine dye was used in Central America in the 15th century for coloring fabrics and became an important export good during the colonial period. The demand for cochineal fell sharply with the appearance on the market of a synthetic dye, alizarin crimson and many other artificial dyes discovered in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. The delicate manual labour required for the breeding of the insect could not compete with the modern methods of the new industry, and even less so with the lowering of production costs. To produce dye from cochineals, the insects are collected when they are approximately ninety days old. Harvesting the insects is labour-intensive, as they must be individually knocked, brushed, or picked from the cacti and placed into bags. The insects are gathered by small groups of collectors who sell them to local processors or exporters.
Cochineal is one of the most concentrated dyes – a very small percentage is needed to dye deep shades of fuchsia to raspberry. Cochineal is pH sensitive, and it is possible to shift its color to scarlet with the addition of acid such as Cream of Tartar in the dyebath. It will give you reds with a tint of blue. If you live in an area with hard water, Cochineal will dye its brightest and deepest shades if you mordant and dye with rain water. It is best to pour a little warm water over the extract to make a thin paste, then add boiling water until dissolved.
Crimson: Cochineal 6%; Pink: Cream of Tartar 6%, Cochineal 1.75%;
Madder (Rubia tinctoria or rubia cordifulia) are genuses of the madder family Rubiaceae, which contains about 60 species of perennial scrambling or climbing herbs and sub-shrubs native to the Old World, Africa, temperate Asia and America. It has been used since ancient times as a vegetable red dye for leather, wool, cotton and silk. For dye production, the roots are harvested in the first year. Madder is a distinctive red with a yellow based tint. It requires a long steep to completely dissolve in the dye bath. Never raise the temperature while dying with Madder above 80 C. Higher temperatures will brown out the color. Madder extract and roots develop to their deepest red color in hard water. The addition of 1-3% of calcium carbonate on the weight of the fiber will harden soft water to achieve red shade. Pour a little warm water over the extract to make a thin paste then add hot water until it is dissolved. There will always be some sediment in a madder extract. Do not throw it out, just reconstitute it as needed. If you add an acid to your dyebath, such as Cream of Tartar, you will create a soft orange with madder.
Deep Red: Madder 6%, Calcium Carbonate 3% Salmon: Madder 1%
Lac (Laccifer lacca) is the scarlet resinous secretion of a number of species of insects, of which the most commonly cultivated species is Kerria lacca. Thousands of these tiny insects colonize branches of suitable host trees and secrete the resinous pigment. After the female lac insect invades the stems and twigs of host trees, the insects are enveloped by their own secretions. This hard resinous coating originates from the plant sap metabolized by the lac insect. The coated branches of the host trees are cut and harvested as sticklac. The harvested sticklac is crushed and sieved to remove impurities. The sieved material is then repeatedly washed to remove insect parts and other soluble material. The resulting product is known as seedlac. The prefix seed refers to its pellet shape. It is used in violin and other varnish and is processed into shellac by heat treatment or solvent extraction. Lac’s active color ingredient, laccaic acid responds well to alum mordants yielding rich shades of crimson to pink and purple to burgundy. You will need a small amount of citric acid to use lac. Although the color of lac is close to her sister, cochineal, lac has a more ruby tint, casting a warmer glow, especially to silk fabric.
Wine: Lac 6% Burgundy: Cream of Tartar 6%, Lac 6%
Quebecho Red (Schinopsis quebracho-colorado) is a common name in Spanish to describe very hard wood tree species. This particular species grows only in the jungles of the Gran Chaco, an area along the banks of the Paraguay River. The entire tree, bark to heartwood, has a distinctive red coloration, and the wood is quite heavy and extremely hard. It is quite slow growing, and therefore is harvested selectively from tree farms that participate in reforestation efforts, and our supplier has raised over half a million seedlings for replanting. The tanning properties of quebracho extracts were discovered in 1867 by a French tanner, Emilio Poisier, who lived in Argentina. By 1895, the quebracho extracts were exported to Europe and became the first vegetal tannin source in the world. Originally from a dry forest area, the abundance of quebracho attracted timber industries of British capital during the 19th century, leading to extensive deforestation. This devastated the ecosystem in a relatively short time. Quebracho Red, heavy in tannin, can be used a base dye for overdyeing, or by itself. It has a lovely rose tint on a light brown, soft and compatible with many other natural dye colors.
Quebracho Rose: 8-10% Quebracho Red Mauve Rose: 3% Quebracho Red, left over dyebath of cochineal dyebath, or .5-1% cochineal extract (depending on the depth of mauve that you want)
Purple & Grey
Logwood Purple – Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) is a species of flowering in the legume family that is native to southern Mexico and northern Central America. Logwood was known as the “spiny tree” by the Aztecs because of its thorny, contorted trunk, which they used as a weapon. In Europe, lthough logwood was poorly received at first, producing a blue inferior to that of woad and indigo, it was discovered to produce a fast black in combination with a ferrous (copperas) mordant. Despite changing fashions in color, logwood was the most widely used dye by the 19th century, providing the sober blacks of formal and mourning clothes. Logwood’s lightfastness increases when you add iron. Pure logwood extract produces a true purple to deep black purple. Depending on the amount of iron that you use, you can create a logwood grey that can go all the way to a deep purple black.
Medium Purple: .5% Logwood Purple Dark Purple: .65% Logwood Purple
Medium Grey: .45% Logwood Purple, 1-2% Iron postbath Dark Grey: .62% Logwood Purple, 1-2% Iron postbath
Fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria) Fustic is a tall tropical hardwood that grwos wild throughout Central America, Mexico, the West Indies and Brazil. The best dye comes from the inner wood of the trunk which is sulfur yellow in color. Fustic is high in tannic acid which makes it a perfect cotton dye. It colors silk and wool to luscious shades of burnt gold. Keep the dye bath at no more than 75 C for silk and 85 C for wool and cotton or it will become dull and brownish.
Light: 1% Medium: 2,5% Very dark: 4%
Weld (Reseda tinctoria) is a very light-fast yellow and gives a strong, pure yellow. This yellow remains clear and lemony if the dye bath is not allowed above 70°C, this produces the perfect yellow to use as a base for greens and turquoises. When the dye bath simmers, as with the samples in the photo the yellow goes more towards red, thus giving a good base for oranges with Madder
Light: 0.5% Medium: 1.75% Very dark: 2.25%
Pomegranate (Punica granatum) is extracted from the rinds of pomegranates, this dye yields yellows to greens yellows and requires 15-20% wof for a medium depth of shade.
Light: 1% Medium: 5% Dark: 7%
Brem (Genista tinctoria) The Dyer’s Broom is a small shrubby plant with narrow, pointed leaves and yellow flowers, growing in meadows, pastures and heaths and on the borders of fields, not uncommon in England but rare in Scotland. It is wild throughout Europe and established on barren hills and on roadsides in the eastern states of North America. All parts of the plant, but especially the flowering tops, yield a good yellow dye, and from the earliest times have been used by dyers for producing this colour, especially for wool; combined with woad, an excellent green is yielded, the colour being fixed with alum, cream of tartar and sulphate of lime. In some parts of England, the plant used to be collected in large quantities by the poor and sold to the dyers.
You must experiment with the amount of plant material to use. My experience is that it is quite strong and yields a beutiful yellow like Weld. It is very colorfast.
Myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) is known by many names: Chebulic Myrobalan, Haritaki, Harad, and many more. This deciduous tree gives nut-like, hard, green fruit and grows to be approx 30 m tall. It is purported to cure blindness and curb the growth of tumors. Myrobalan produces a wonderful butter yellow and can also produce greys. This dye is extracted from the fruit of the tree. It can be used as a mordant for cellulose fibers such as cotton or linen.
Light: 2% Medium: 5% Dark: 10%
Cutch (Acacia catechu) also commonly called mimosa catechu, is a deciduous, thorny tree which grows up to 15 m (50 ft) in height. Common names for it include Catechu, Cachou and Black Cutch. The plant is called khair in Hindi, and kachu in Malay, hence Latin “Catechu” for this type species from which the extracts cutch and catechu are derived. It is found in Asia, China and India and in the Indian Ocean area. The extract is a brown crystalline resin distilled from acacia tree heartwood found worldwide. It is an important historical brown dye, used 900 BC in Africa, c.1500 AD in Europe. It is light-fast and wash-fast, high in tannin, best on cellulose fibers (cotton, linen), wool and silk. Use as an over-dye for richer colors, especially with indigo for interesting dark grayed greens or mixed with logwood for a beautiful black on silk. The color becomes deeper after a 2 hour simmer. Mordant with alum and cream of tartar.
Light: 4% Medium: 6% Very dark: 12%
Black Walnut (Juggles nigra) from powdered hulls or hulls soaked in water for several months. This extremely potent concoction is the a raw plant material dye that is not an extract. However, it is strong and yields a deep, rich brown on wool, and lighter shades on silk and cotton. After soaking the hulls in water, strain out the brown solution from the hulls and add to the dye bath.
Light: 25% Medium: 50% Dark: 75-100%
All dye recipes per weight of fabric, on wool and silk, and mordant, Aluminum Sulfate 15%. For cotton and linen, use alum acetate 5%: