This weekend I was in my “happy place,” attending a two day natural dye workshop conducted by Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors and held at Scattergood Friends (Quaker) School in West Branch, Iowa, a 20 minute drive from my home. Scattergood is a Quaker Boarding School in which students learn life lessons in sustainability on its a working organic farm and 27 acre prairie. Having just celebrated its 125th Anniversary, Scattergood is known locally as a place on the underground railway and as a sanctuary for victims in World War II. During summer, the students are home, the labs and classrooms are empty, and we fourteen students could accompany Kathy and Amy Weber, who’s associated with Scattergood but is a natural dyer herself, on a 45 minute walk in the prairie, gathering plants materials for our experiments. And process them in a place with outstanding history and provenance. What could be better?
Kathy introduced herself saying that her primary activities lie in working on sustainable practices for the clothing industry, a hot-button topic in that the textile clothing industry is the second biggest polluter, just behind petrochemical industry. Cotton as it is raised today, uses vast amounts of pesticide and water.
Kathy mentioned that some change is happening. Companies such as Eileen Fisher have not only cleaned up their supply chain from a sustainability standpoint but are now accepting “gently used” EF garments for resale at a third of the original cost. The higher cost of their products reflect this sustainable model. Patagonia will mend its clothing and also has a gently used clothing site. Nordstroms has a limited “take back” program. But just “giving away” used clothing doesn’t always mean it ends up in users’ hands. Most is not used in the US. Some is sent abroad to be burned.
This leads us to corporate dye practices. Last week, it was announced that General Mills would no longer use artificial colors in their ready-made products. Cochineal, an insect long used for its red dye, is now harvested sustainably in Peru, and extracts, called Carminic Acid, or Carmine, are now used in foodstuffs and cosmetics where red color is required. As Kathy says, “baby steps” are being taken, but there are no 100% solutions.
My own odyssey with natural dyeing started in the 1970s when I was a weaver learn to dye. I purchased a book, The Weavers Garden and proceeded to plant plants that could be used for dyeing. Some are still established. But I soon was discouraged by the mordants suggested in the 1970s: Chrome, Iron, Tin, Chromium, all metals that are not safe. Natural dyes with unsafe mordants? Something was wrong there. So I abandoned my interest and moved on.
Fast forward to 2015. Safer mordants are being used, and best practices are more known. This actually applies to much of the small studio dyeing practices that many of us have. Seeing the workshops taught by Michel Garcia, of France, and what my friends have accomplished and learned, has intrigued me enough to try my hand again. Plus, it joins two distinct passions of mine: plants and art.
First, our class proceed to explore the importance of mordanting process. Mordants are the catalysts that make natural dyes “take” to fabric. We added several fabric types to the mordant baths (aluminum sulfate and tara powder) to soak for a couple of hours, or longer if desired.
Then we took our prairie hike. We looked for individual plants to be used for “eco-printing” (like what I was so completely blown away by in India Flint’s work when I saw it in 2011), where one wraps leaves/sticks/botanical items in mordanted cloth, ties it with string into bundles, and steams or immersion dyes it. We also collected plants of this early season: Coreopsis flowers, sumac leaves and stems, walnut leaves, St John’s Wort flowers, Goldenrod “galls”, which are full of tannin and therefore good for dyeing, and more.
The dye pot was filled halfway with coreopsis flowers, a wonderful sight! Water was added and brought to a slow “poach.” Mordanted fabric was added, and the brew was cooked for 45 minutes. The colors were stunning! We also did a cochineal/hibiscus vat from materials she brought.
We also created indigo baths using Kathy’s “1-2-3” method of 1 part indigo, 3 parts fructose and 2 parts calcium Hydroxide, or calc. Fructose is the anti-oxidant here. She also supplied cochineal, hibiscus and a few more pre-packaged dyestuffs from her artist supply site at Botanical Colors.
As in the most successful workshops, it’s best not to worry about perfection, but rather to try new things. Kathy Hattori was really good about striking that balance between good information and not inhibiting our process of exploration. Ready for more!
Eco-printing, shown above, where one wraps found materials in fabric, binds with stitching or rubber bands, and steams or puts in an immersion bath. (Also shown, workshop host Amy Weber, with her hand painted piece using natural dyes.) I am intrigued by this process, which I first saw in the sensational work of India Flint, but I found my own results disappointing and not even good spontaneous design at this point. The pieces placed in the communal dye bath did not hold local plant color and absorbed the dye pot’s hue. In fact, of those four bundles, the steamed sumac twigs were most interesting to me.
I took three bundles home to steam. They worked better but were still not there. Could be we need leaves that are not young. I’ll keep trying. I am really most interest in the immersion dyeing and solid colors. And I want to try mordant printing.
Immersion dye pot colors: Coreopsis (orange), sumac and goldenrod burls (yellows) and cochineal plus hibiscus (pinkish-lavender.) Blue shown here is indigo on wool/hemp mix. The hemp did not dye with this technique. More information on Prairie Plants in this database from the University of Kansas, classified by use and medicinal qualities.