I first began dyeing fabric when I was a teenager — I dyed T-shirts with Rit, which I cooked up on the stove, then poured into my parents’ washing machine. As an adult I would’ve liked to dye clothes more often but Spouse and I have mostly lived in apartments, with tiny washers and dryers, and I just couldn’t figure out how to make the logistics work. I did hope that someday things would change, making fabric dyeing possible again. In the meantime, I occasionally took classes in fabric dyeing or fabric painting. I bought fabric paints, fabric markers, and dyes. I bought a huge stainless steel pot, of the sort people use for indigo.
I’ve occasionally bought books on dyeing and painting fabric. Gradually I started moving toward an interest in natural dyes, so I also have several books on ethnobotany, as it pertains to dyeing*, including Native American/First Nations** ethnobotany.
Autumn 2010, I read (Australian fiber artist) India Flint’s Eco Colour. She wrote about how toxic the entire process of creating synthetic dyes is, and how wearing things made from those processes, next to our skin, is probably at least somewhat unhealthy, if not dangerous. So I started wondering if I could use natural dyes on my own garments.
A few weeks ago, looking ahead to doing more fiber arts projects, I started checking out from our local library books on natural dyeing. I found at least one that is worth buying***.
I started thinking about how I would do things, and how I wouldn’t. Safety needs to come first. And I know all too well how absent-minded and/or careless I can be. So a lot of things that the authors take for granted that of course you will do are things I won’t be doing. But there are also things that the authors assume that you can do (have available to you) that I either cannot, or I will not.
- I do not have a yard or garage that I can use as a dedicated dyeing space.
- I do occasionally put fabrics out on the balcony to drip dry, but I certainly cannot have a fire up there, to heat dye pots.
- If I owned all the gear that they insist you need, I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it — our apartment is tiny.
- I really prefer my (enjoyable) activities to be as open-ended/loosey-goosey/ improvisational as possible. I am never going to buy a scale and cooking thermometer so I can measure every last gram or ounce of this or that ingredient, at this or that specific temperature, never mind carefully watching the pot for hours if necessary. If I wanted to do that, I would work in a lab. Or maybe hang out with engineers.
- There are hardly any mordants that are readily available and not a total pain to use. I’m willing to experiment with rusty nails and pieces of tinfoil; I’m not willing to deal with buying special chemicals that require very careful handling.
But the really big deal-breaker is this: water. Fabric dyeing is an activity that uses amazing amounts of water (in a bad way). I guess they assume you have a garden hose or some other source of water near all your gear. And that you also have some place to safely dispose of what’s left over, without hurting your water table.
I could use copious amounts of water from our kitchen tap, but I’m not going to. I’ve been actively lessening my water consumption for years because I know water shortages everywhere are just a matter of time. Even if water shortages don’t occur in my lifetime where I’m living, it still seems like an excellent idea to rethink how much I use and for what purposes. So I’m not going to add a new activity to my life that requires lots of water usage.
Which means that all the books I’ve read about natural dyeing can only be very general references, since I won’t be following any of their methods.
I did use my very large stainless steel pot in the first of my experiments with natural dyes this week. I quickly discovered that while it allows a lot of room for the fabric to move around, for that to be meaningful, you have to use a lot of water.
In the second round, I inadvertently washed away the lovely purples and blues I got in the first round, probably because I didn’t use any mordants. So for one of the pieces of fabric in the third round, I did use a rusty nail in the dye jar.
Instead of using a huge pot to steep my fruit peels, I’ve mostly used small glass jars (that originally held jam or honey). They are large enough that my fabric pieces will either fit inside the jar, after being rolled, folded, or scrunched, then secured with a metal twisty tie; or one corner of the fabric stuck in the jar, creating a wicking effect.
Since I’m not trying for uniform or consistent color, pretty much any results I get are good.
That’s another place where I part company with the authors of these natural dyeing books. The photos all show skeins of yarn with fairly even and uniform color. And they show a lot of skeins, or pieces of fabric, or garments.
A meaningful interest in sustainability will require completely rethinking a lot of the things we take for granted. If you’re buying just as many new clothes (new skeins of yarn, new fabrics, etc.) as you ever have, and the only difference is that now they are dyed with plant materials instead of synthetic chemicals, I’m not sure that’s much of a net positive.
Which brings me to … the plants involved. Using natural dyes to get deep rich colors requires huge amounts of plant materials (or in some cases, insect materials). For the plants, at least, in many cases you can ‘harvest’ what you need, carefully, without killing the entire organism. Rebecca Burgess, in her book, Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, wrote that Rose Dedman [Navajo fiber artist] and “other Native American teachers [taught her] to use what is abundant and to treat the plant with the utmost respect.” That respect includes asking the plant for permission to trim, prune, make cuttings, etc., and then thanking it afterwards.
I talk to plants (and rocks) a lot. I think of them as my friends, and I’m careful to be as respectful of them as I can be. But I rarely feel any confidence in understanding what they might be trying to say back to me. I do not assume, with plants or rocks, or really, with anyone, that they are telling me what I want to hear. Human beings rarely tell me what I want to hear. Why would non-humans be more likely to tell me what I want to hear? That makes no sense to me.
Say I go out into the woods nearby, looking for plants who I can use in my dyeing. If I ask a plant, “do you mind if I pick some of your leaves?” Or, “do you mind if I dig you up, and cut off part of your roots — I promise I won’t take ‘too much’?” I have to assume that the plant has the option of saying No. Otherwise, why ask? But if they did say no, how could I tell? For that matter, if they said yes, how could I tell?
So I walk up to some plant, mutter some gibberish at it, cut pieces off, and then I thank it for ‘allowing’ me to do so. How can that possibly be respectful? And I have to do the same thing to a bunch of plants every single time I want to dye something.
That is not happening.
So far my idea is to use plant materials that we bought for food, and/or plant materials that are dead or dying (like leaves or fruits on the ground). I won’t use big quantities of anybody, because everything I dye is going to be both unique and nonrepeatable. I want to dye fabrics that I can use in my own fiber arts projects, some of which will be modular, so they can be repurposed or recycled. And at the end of their lifecycle, they should be safely biodegradable.
*Dyes from American Native Plants: A Practical Guide, by Lynne Richards & Ronald J. Tyrl
**Navajo and Hopi Dyes, by Bill Rieske/Historic Indian Publishers, ISBN 1-883736-08-0; Tanaina Plantlore: An Ethnobotany of the Dena’ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska, by Priscilla Russel Kari
***Wild Color, Revised and Updated Edition, by Jennie Dean
*Note: The earliest version of this post appeared on my other WP blog, 2.2.2012.