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Human beings are not born with a naturally beautiful dress, like some extravagant birds with their attire of exquisite feathers. Instead, we have to draw on our own ingenuity and creativity when it comes to designing our apparel. In a previous newsletter we talked about natural fibres. Flax, hemp and nettles are but a few sources from which we have learnt to spin fine yarns and weave into textiles. Alas, in their natural state, they are as plain as our skin.

The search for natural dyes to give colour to our world in art, fashion and design is as ancient as it is universal. No matter which culture we examine, each has experimented and explored every conceivable source of colour in its environment - everything from shellfish to lichen, roots, barks, leaves, berries, fungi, and even flower stamens have been explored for their potential to yield every shade of colour in the rainbow.

HennaEven in societies were traditionally very little attention is paid to clothing, 'paints' usually derived from ochre, chalk and charcoal have long been used to decorate the birthday suites, at least for special occasions such as rituals, healing ceremonies or initiations. A slightly more elaborate development of this theme can be found in the art of tattooing. However, tattoo practices usually result in a permanent design, which is not necessarily desirable. It would be nice to change designs from time to time depending on the occasion. Certain vegetable dyes have proven suitable to fulfil this need, yielding a strong colour that will last a few days, but which will eventually wash off, leaving the canvas clean for new designs. The best known vegetable dye for temporary designs is probably Henna (Lawsonia inermis), which is still widely used in the Middle East and Asia, particularly in connection with wedding ceremonies. In recent years it has also become increasingly popular in the West, at first as a hair dye and now also for temporary tattoos. In South America indigenous people use Achiote (Bixa orellana) and Huito (Genipa americana) both, for body painting and as a dye for natural fibres.

But colours convey more than just artful fancy. Practically all cultures endow particular colours with specific meanings. Colour is an essential key to the mysteries, which by association unlocks the significance of a whole symbol complex. For example, in practically all cultures each of the four directions was assigned a specific colour, which conveyed its spiritual associations - e.g. the east is the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, birth etc. and its colour is almost universally yellow or white. There is a lot of overlap between different cultures and their colour symbolism, though there are also variants. But the relevance to this topic of dyes is that due to the sacred associations of colour, the plants and materials from which the pigments were derived, became part of the symbol complex.

Colour is code. We still use colour this way now, although more often in a secular context than a sacred one. We characterize Communists as 'reds' and Nazis as 'brown', speak of 'the grey (indistinguishable) masses' or label things 'green' if they are eco-friendly. Different social groups still follow an unspoken dress code - business people prefer greys, whites, beige or dark blue, while Goths wear black. Likewise, traditional costumes often represent much more than just another colourful outfit. Instead, in many cultures each piece of clothing was created for a particular person. Woven right into the fabric - colour coded, as it were, in the symbols of the design, they tell a story - the history of the family or the social status of the wearer, for example. Other clothes, worn only at certain times, e.g. during hunting excursions or at particular rituals, were covered in colour coded protective symbols.

Some colours were exceedingly precious. Royal purple derived from molluscs, was long reserved for royalty alone. The price of such precious and rare pigments was dizzying indeed - In Roman times (400AD) a pound of cloth dyed in royal purple costs the equivalent of $20.000! At the time the mollusc from which the dye derived had already become endangered. The high demand drove up prices far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals and aristocrats reserved the right to use royal purple for themselves. Thus it became exclusive to their 'caste' and represented their priviledged status. Other pigments, such as those derived from walnut shells or onion skins were more easily accessible - but the process of dyeing was always laborious and time consuming. Copious amounts of plant materials had to be gathered; the linens and skeins of wool and yarn had to be prepared with a mordant to render them absorbent to the dye bath and at the same time help to fix the pigment.

Mordants are usually mineral substances that are variously combined and prepared to produce varying shades of colour. The body of knowledge regarding natural dyes from around the world is absolutely huge, alas, since the discovery of tar colours at the beginning of the 19th century, natural dye methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

The basic process:
wool (16K)The yarn has to be prepared by gathering it up into skeins, tying it loosely, but securely with a piece of yarn of the same material. The first step is to thoroughly wash the yarn. If you want to experiment at home, use natural wool to start with since this is the easiest material to prepare. All the natural wool fats have to be removed so use a gentle soap flakes well dissolved in hot water. Rinse the wool with several rinses of hot water to wash out all the soap.

The washed wool is thus prepared for the mordant bath. Numerous plants yield all kinds of colouration, depending on the mordant used. Mordants are derived from metallic compounds and thus can be toxic. Some natural dyers thus prefer to do without, but materials thus dyed will run very easily in the next wash and will not keep their colour well. To make the colour stronger or more intense one can over-dye the skeins, i.e. submit the skeins to several treatments in the dye bath. Only do this with yarn, not with finished pieces of textiles or knitted jumpers since they will shrink in the hot colour bath.

The most commonly used mordant is Alum, which is another way of saying 'potassium aluminium sulphate'. Sometimes the wool is subsequently subjected to other mordants such as Iron, Chrome or Tin or the alum is mixed with cream of tartar (similar but not quite the same as that used for baking). You don't need much equipment, but what you do need, is a large pot and a stick or large spoon. Make these dedicated dye utensils that will not be used for anything else, most especially not for cooking purposes. The metallic compounds are toxic and should be disposed of safely. Also, make sure your workspace is well ventilated. In the summer you can work outside. In the winter it is best to use the utility room with windows open.

To mordant the wool follow this procedure:

Place the aluminium sulphate and the cream of tartar in large pot full of cold water. Stir well to dissolve the powders. Once the powders are dissolved place the wool into pot and slowly bring the pot to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour. If the wool is very fine and soft less mordant and boiling time is required. After an hour take off the heat, drain and gently squeeze out the liquid. (Wear gloves!) The wool can be used for dying right away, or may be dried and stored for later dying.

For the dye bath it is usually best to use fresh plant materials, but make sure you either pick them from your own garden or a place where there is more than plentiful supply. Use about 1lb of plant material per 1lb of skeins. Place the plant materials in a muslin bag and tie securely.

Place the dye pot on the stove, ¾ full of water. Add the muslin bag of dye plants and submerge it well. Place the skeins of wool into the pot and slowly bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for about one hour. Stir occasionally. After an hour turn off the heat, but leave the skeins in the water until the water is cold or when you deem the colour to be just right. Lift out the skeins (a pair of tongues will help), and rinse in water of the same temperature. When no more colour runs out you can hang the skeins up on a rod to dry. Fix a light weight to the bottom to prevent crinkling.

CAUTION:Mordants are mineral based substances that can be quite toxic. Such substances must be handled with due care. Wastes must be discarded properly. Wear protective clothing (especially gloves) and don't inhale the fumes. Dying should preferably take place outside or in well ventilated areas only. The information given here is for educational purposes only.

Some common dye plants:

Madder (Rubia tinctorum): Roots deep red with alum.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria): Leaves blue,
Somewhat complicated process involving a real chemical cocktail.
Woad (Indigo) dyes by oxidation, the trick is to get the dye bath right.
Indigo is a fast dye that fades very little in sunlight or in washing.
Weld (Reseda luteola): Whole plant lemon yellow with alum.
Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus): Fruits shades of purple and blue with alum.
Elder (Sambucus nigra): Berries
purple and violets with alum,
green with alum.
Blackberries (Rubus fructicosus): Shoots
black /greys with iron,
blue, grey with alum
Bracken (Pteris aquiline): Young shoots
yellow/greens with alum;
orange/yellow with alum
Heather (Calluna vulgaris): Shoots: olive/yellow with alum
Fig (Ficus carica): Leaves: lemon yellows with alum
Birch (Betula alba): Leaves: yellow with alum
Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium): Leaves: yellow with alum
Ragwort (Senicio jacobaea): Whole plant yellow with alum
Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare): Flowers yellows with alum
Canadian Golden Rod (Solidago Canadensis): Flowers golden yellow with chrome
Pine (Pinus ssp.) Cones: orange/yellow with alum;
browns with iron
Onion (Allium cepa) Skins: golden browns with alum
Walnut (Juglans regia) Shells pinkish browns (no mordant)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Root: yellow (no mordant)

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Many other plant materials can be used depending on local availability. Here are some further resources:

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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.


Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.