transparency in natural dyeing

#Plantdyes. #Naturaldyes. #Botanicaldyes. #Vegetabledyes (????????????????????)

These hashtags drive me up the wall. Use them, sure, but QUALIFY them.

Natural dyes patchies, work in progress. You may have noticed that when I post, I hashtag  (edit:or ID) ALL of the dyes i use: when people say “plant dyes”, it doesn’t always mean it’s light or wash fast; in fact it could be fugitive. I pride myself on doing these colours and the subsequent art work made from them correctly, from the start. I make sure my efforts are going to last! The “Beets, Beans and Berries Brigade” can go suck on a turnip 😜 #naturaldyes #plantdyes #cochineal #sandalwood #indigo #logwood #osage #madder #quebrachorojo #naturaldyersofinstagram #yycartist #calgaryarts

I’ve asked people what “natural dye” they used. They don’t answer. I’ve asked to see their lightfast tests. They don’t answer. Or they do answer,  huffy because “it’s not going to be washed anyways”. I’ve asked what mordant they’ve used. “What’s a mordant?” or “Vinegar.” Sigh………… I ask precisely because i DO want to know–there are dyes out there that are not Old World, European, Asian, that we know nothing or little about at present. Maybe i could learn something new, but not with these attitudes.

Raspberries, grapes, beets, strawberries, black beans, mint, spinach, daylilies, passionfruit, cherries, rose petals, hibiscus and hollyhock blooms: when we start out, we try these. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s colourful, pretty, sweet.  BUT THEY ARE NOT DYES. I admit it, i used 2 of these things, but only because they were in a book by a dyer i trust. (That dyer has subsequently revised her opinion on them as NOT true dyes. And i threw in the compost the blooms i’d saved.)

I strongly believe that natural dyeing has become such a burgeoning industry, that anyone who has ever seen beet juice stain a tablecloth, suddenly is a natural dyer, writes a book, and sells the product to increasing numbers of gaga followers. Hell, *i* could write a book, and it would be accurate, but since there are already more than enough GOOD, WELL RESEARCHED, RESPECTED authors and books out there, i wouldn’t presume. I don’t have all the answers (yet 🙂 ), but someday i will (have all the answers, not write a book), because i DO the research: i don’t trust anyone who doesn’t address or demonstrate anything about lightfastness, i don’t trust “seasonal colours” when half of them are not real dyes, i don’t trust just because something makes a wonderful ink means it also dyes cloth or threads, i don’t trust anyone who won’t be clear about what they are doing if they are selling it, i will never trust someone who advocates the use of kitchen waste without discerning and explaining the difference between a stain and a dye. I’ve *seen* the beet juice dyed yarn on Etsy, the packages of coloured fabrics on Instagram that have no identifiers. How do i know they are “plant dyes” , not food colouring, or watered paint, or procion, ’cause i ain’t never seen THAT green or deep fuschia from plant materials???? Yeah yeah, i know about mordants and modifiers, but some of the colours i’ve seen do not occur in natural dyestuffs! I just wish more buyers too would call out the frauds, identify problems plainly, and stop the “oh but it’s pretty anyways” crap.

No one wants to bake or buy a cake that looks gorgeous, but is really just icing bewitchingly swirled onto a cardboard base……………

I think what i’m asking for is honesty here. If you take pride in your work, and you know that you know what you are doing, share that. Don’t make people guess, don’t defraud them, don’t lie, cheat, obfuscate. If you write a book, aren’t you supposed to be sharing the real true information, or are you just promoting your own agenda with the artfully staged photos, the vague instructions, the “projects” that take up half the book? Holding the information close to your chest is selfish; if you’re doing it wrong, you will be found out i guess, if you’re doing it right, well, so can someone else. And yeah people copy, of course they copy but with natural dyeing, there are so many factors, that their projects are not going to be copies of your projects no matter how hard they try. If you’re hiding that information so you can sell your books, or your fabrics, and you’ve done it wrong, you will be found out, and there goes not only your bank account, but your reputation and the reputation of natural dyers WHO DO IT RIGHT.

I have been asked for instance, “how did you get that colour from madder?” I’ve answered, “by using it correctly, as per a madder recipe”. I can’t be more specific because there are water, mordant, modifier, fibre type, age of dye stuff, original source of dye stuff, length of time, temperature and Magical Fairy Moon Breathless Goddess factors–and that last one is no artsy fartsy obfuscation, because sometimes there is such a confluence of events to create a colour, that it HAS to be magic. Even this pragmatic skeptic has to admit this.

Don’t skimp on the research yourself, personally. Don’t take at face value one blog post that has a colour you like. Don’t EVER take at face value the most popular as the final word on a subject. (Popularity has nothing to do with actual knowledge.) Compare notes with each source, find the original source. Was it all done correctly from the start? Scouring, mordanting, actual dye material, possible post mordanting and/or modifying, light fast and wash fast tests? (These last two are my biggest peeves–i RARELY see any indication these have been done.)

Ah, i could go on and on.

Maybe most people are more interested in popularity and money, than pride of place, of ethics and honesty, of quality work/art. I’d like to sell more too, because i sure as hell  get frustrated when i see those big numbers of sales on stuff that just isn’t made correctly, done poorly, weak. There’s no “sustainability, eco-consciousness, mindfulness” to any of it. I have however found natural dyers who give a damn, who share the info, who are constantly learning, who are nice or snarky (because they too are frustrated) and know their stuff, who will troubleshoot with you. Those are the ones who have the art of transparency in spades (to mix a metaphor).

As usual, i’m probably just pissing into the wind.

I wrote about this before too, in less polite terms 🙂

9 responses to “transparency in natural dyeing

  1. I could not agree more. I have been seriously naturally dyeing for about 10 years. I truly feel put off because of the commercialization that has resulted in the watering down of the process/practice. I was a bit hopeful when it became popular because I thought people would be more willing to pay for premium yarns but it seems the opposite is true.

    The flip side of people being cagey (and dishonest and/or ill informed) are the people who approach you at a market, accuse you of not using natural dyes (I managed this incredible metallic green on silk with a Saxon Blue/osage orange/moon was just right magic) and then want to know every step of your process… but are also clearly taking notes. Or inform you that you’re asking too much but how did you get that colour. Or my personal fave, I have a high end line of small batch yarns from an off the grid, reclaimed water, organic mill nearish to me. I had to pull out my phone to show a customer that this mill did, in fact, exist. And then when she saw the webpage, she accused me of making a fake website to drive up the cost of yarn. I actually had to say “lady, it would not be worth the hassle”.

    Apparently I had some ranting in there too…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. (((Arlee))) have you found a way to get a deep rich black that doesn’t fade? a lot of the black linen threads I have bought over the years from the EU
    have faded to a brown grey or grey white, Gütermann is the only black linen thread I have found that has stayed truly black with time

    Liked by 1 person

    • The deepest black i’ve got on threads (cotton) was logwood post modified with iron. Unfortunately, black is one of the colours that degrades over time, especially because *of* the iron, and because logwood is not terribly lightfast on its own.You can combine madder, indigo and logwood, tannins and iron, but again the iron is going to degrade the fibre. From my own searches on black in textiles, it seems the best way to go is a naturally coloured black wool, spun by yourself!

      Even though some colours last centuries, such as the Apocalypse Tapestry (1370’s), and the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries (c 1500), black is not one of them. Queen Victoria’s mourning dress is a brown now (PDF here–> and it’s “only” 182 years old.

      Find a black sheep 🙂


  3. Pingback: I’m going to burn in hell | albedo too

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