I was so excited to be assigned this topic, because I’ve been immersing myself (not literally, obviously, haha) in natural dyeing over the past year, and it’s been so much fun that I’m dying to tell you all about it (see what I did there? I’ll stop with the silly jokes now).
Firstly, what is natural dyeing? This is the term used when fabric or wool is dyed using natural materials, such as dried or fresh flowers, lichens, berries, bark, and so on. As I described in an earlier blog post, you’d be amazed at all the easily available natural materials that yield all kinds of beautiful colours.
I was attracted to the idea of trying natural dyeing due to concern over what impact my quilting hobby, in particular the production of fabric, was having on the environment. Plus, I like to use organic and fair trade cotton in my quilts, and there isn’t a huge amount of choice available yet.
You might wonder, why bother, when you can just go to a lovely quilting shop and buy fabric? Well, here are some reasons that motivated me:
- It’s a challenge to achieve a decent range of colours – and empowering when it works!
- You can use locally available, ‘waste’ materials.
- It’s a financially and environmentally sustainable hobby.
- You can use whatever fibre you want.
- It’s science!
- … but it’s also … magic.
- You start to understand how many resources are required for conventional fabric dyeing.
- It’s what humans have done for thousands of years, so it puts you in touch with human history.
- You can almost literally grow your own colour.
- It’s just really really good fun.
On the first point, I have found that yes, it is possible to create lovely colours. However, you do need to be prepared that the colours are going to be, how shall I put it, a little bit ‘natural’. So you probably won’t be able to create shocking pink (at least not a colour that will last), although you’d be surprised what’s possible. I’ve limited myself a bit, because I want to restrict the use of harmful metals such as copper in my dyeing; a wider range of colours is possible with the use of mordants and modifiers.
I have always loved bright colours, so getting used to natural shades has been a learning curve for me. Some of my results appeared a little drab initially. However, as with many things, including shop-bought fabric ranges, when you put them together they really do work well. I now see it as an enrichment of my colour palette to have these lovely gentle shades.
Cotton is easy to use, but you are free to use wool, silk, ramie, linen – whatever you like! The results will vary, but that adds to the excitement – you can even get completely different colours on different fibres.
I’m lucky enough to have an allotment, which I can use to grow flowers and plants for dyeing, such as coreopsis, safflower and woad. That means I get to enjoy flowers first and then the dyed fabric. Bees and other insects seem to love my dye flowers, so I’m doing my bit for biodiversity as well. You don’t need a garden, though; you could grow flowers in a pot, or pick nettles, berries and ‘weeds’ in the wild – as long as you leave plenty for the other creatures. There are also loads of materials you can use in your kitchen almost completely free of charge, such as dried onion skins and used tea and coffee.
Now, on the point of it being science, it genuinely is. I wish I had been taught chemistry in the context of natural dyeing, I would have been so much more interested. One of my favourite Christmas presents this year is ‘The Art and Science of Natural Dyes’ by Joy Boutrup and Catharine Ellis– book so full of chemical formulae that my younger self would be absolutely astonished at what had become of me. But an understanding of science is no more required than it is for say, baking – you can make some beautiful colours just by steeping things in warm water.
Oh, and it really is magic to pull a hot steaming bundle of fabric out of the pan and see the new colour you’ve created. I’m honestly at my happiest stirring a pot and tending to my little fire outdoors. There is so much to learn, so much to try – why not make it a 2020 challenge?