my drawers will never be empty (book review):The Art and Science of Natural Dyes

JUST when i had got all my dye stuff and tools and pots back down to the Dye Dungeon, this arrived in the mail ๐Ÿ™‚ I pre-ordered this last July, the moment i heard it was finished, and have been anxiously waiting for it. I pretty much snatched it out of the postman’s hands!

The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments and Resultsย  โ€“ Catherine Ellis and Joy Boutrup

I’ve already had 3 “AHA” moments, and i’m only half way through. It’s not a book you read once and then sporadically refer to, so fortunately, it’s also spiral bound so it stays open to the page you want. (Terrific, now i have to dig my book/magazine holder back out of the “donate” box….)

It’s not so sciencey that it can’t be understood, but it’s also not a skim it and do it manual. It covers the “classic” dyes, none of the usual beets, beans and berries nonsense, so don’t bother if you’re interested only in sauteing up some food waste, throwing in a cute baby onesie and staging artful photos for IG. If you’re serious about natural dyeing, and i don’t mean Total Scientist Mode but are a dedicated hobbyist/artist/small business owner, this is the book to explain WHY things work/don’t/happen. I still recommend Jenny Dean for basic, accurate dye recipes and processes, but this one will give you insights into the many variations that can and are encouraged to happen with skillful, knowledgeable hands.

There’s a small section on testing the dye potential of local foraged plants, minimal though helpful, but not the focus of the book. That being said, those tests could lead to work with those plants, following the advice for the classics. It’s all grist for the colour mill!

I’m not about to dissect any “recipe” in this reference manual: A.ย  buy the book, i don’t like spreading out the photos of pages i find interesting, as i’d rather you support the authors, and their research and B. the recipes are classic anyways, BUT with much new information that can be digested fully with the book in front of you ๐Ÿ™‚

There’s a LOT of excitement about this book in the natural dye groups, and rightly so: it also supports all the things i, and others, have said about what constitutes solid, legitimate dyes and the techniques used to create these wondrous rainbows. I have to laugh though in one sense, because i just know that the new catchphrase is going to be “Welllll, Boutrup Ellis says……..” This book should be MANDATORY reading for anyone who goes near a natural dye pot.

It’s not a cheap book, but then it’s not a cheap book, like so many of the Popular girls are publishing right now. I’m about to settle in with another cup of coffee and a pack of stickit thingies to mark pages, and do a little dreaming and planning.

Edit: After 1000’s of hits to this blog post, it occurred to me that there really should be a link here to the book! Beware though–already some are claiming it in their “used but good condition” racks at two and three times the price!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

EDIT: Feb 9/18WHOA! “#1 best seller” in dyes at Amazon, sold out of a lot of places, and the bloodsuckers have moved in with their jacked up prices because they bought several copies deliberately to re-sell. Good for the authors, not so much for the buyers!

working up some courage

Natural dyes and silk velvet have an affinity for each other, like a love poem whispered into a breeze, like feather soft caresses, cool water on hot naked skin, sensual and earthy, sharing the privacy of deep emotion and quiet solitude.

I’ve always had a secret love affair with velvet, coveting the “lavender panne velvet pant” described in a 1972 Vogue magazine ( i was all of 15 years old and it was certainly not either in my world of farm town, or in my 60cents an hour babysitting budget…) , but never really comfortable wearing any as i got older, feeling slightly fraudulent and as if i was demanding attention i didn’t deserve. But oh the slither of it, the voluptuous animalistic tactility, in the hand, on the back of the neck, under the legs…………

Ahem. Mystery and imagination, in deed, and in thought! Sometimes it’s sexy, too often it’s overblown and tawdry—what’s the expression? “Mutton dressed as lamb”?

Down to earth now. It’s also A BITCH to sew, by hand or by machine, so i’ve stayed far away from it, though once in awhile i pull out a chunk of rayon velvet i dyed some 25 years ago, when all i knew about was Rit. Odd bits of it have shown up in wearable art i made in the 90’s, some Hoodoo work when we first moved to Calgary and i was so enamoured of the spectacular rock formations in and near Drumheller, a few Christmas bits, but nothing really serious.

BUT, these from the last 4 days:

HOW could i not try again?

EDIT: Nov 21, i forgot to mention this is primarily using Quebracho Rojo extract (with the exception of the 2 greys/greygreens which are on osage), and are mordanted and modified with a few different processes. So all these colours from 2 dyes, and 5 mordants/modifiers!!!!!!!!

Now to dig through old sketchbooks.


feeling in the pink….and purple

Now that i have a good stock of green threads from the osage and indigo work, it’s time to add some pinks and purples! Not talking about wishy washy, not talking about raspberries, beets, beans or any other silliness i see on too many blogs who haven’t the sense of a sack of potatoes ๐Ÿ™‚

I did get a wonderful hot pink from madder by accidentally boiling over a pot of madder (considered a VERY VERY BAD BAD as madder shouldn’t go above a certain temp or you just get browns), some useful colour variations from cochineal in the pink to purple range, and a very deep purple with logwood. Cochineal however kind of puts me off now because i worry about Ph shifts–and some Ph shifts WASH OUT with an ordinary tap water rinse!!!!!!!!!!!– and i fret too about the lightfastness of logwood, because unless it’s got a lot of iron in the mix (which can damage fibres…), i’ve seen a noticeable change in the depth of colour within months of dyeing. (I do wonder too about the current craze for it in ecoprinting: are these people going to have a shock somewhere in the next few months/year with dramatic colour shifting or fade??) So………………. my next experiments/tests/results are from a type of tannin in the “catechic” range, more red-browns that the clear “gallic” or yellow “elegic” types. Tannins are an important part of premordanting fibres, especially cellulose which doesn’t work well with just alum, but very well with a tannin first, then the alum. Some tannins are also used as dyes by themselves, notably in the elegic and catechic types.

This tannin/dye IS more expensive, but i now am comfortable spending the money to get the best results. There’s no point in cheaping out with some things: it’s a waste of time, effort and resources, from water to electricity to containers and materials used, something i am very conscious off, having been raised quite frugally and with much common sense ๐Ÿ™‚

When i threw the Quebracho Rojo in the pot, i first screamed (silently, as Greyman was napping). The colour was PHENOMENAL. However, that silent scream was from my excitable take it at face value 9 year old child self: my rational XX+ self reminded me that what you see in a dye pot is NOT necessarily what you get from a dye pot, asย  i swear they deliberately skull xxxk with you. Ahem.

Looks fab, ay?

Wet, ooo ooo oooo:

Above, rinsed, barely any wash out!

Dry, bearing in mind that colours can dry 20-70% lighter with ANY colourant, natural OR synthetic:

See what i mean by dye pot deception? Respectable colour, but not terribly excitingly scream worthy. Now mind you, the cottons that are paler pink were unmordanted, the darker cotton premordanted with tannin and alum. The silk habotai and silk velvet were also unmordanted, but because QR is a tannin as i mentioned, i figured “let’s try it as a tannin first”. Interesting too that most sources says it’s best on cellulose, “but performs well on silk and wool”, since obviously both silks did better……………………

The next phase of natural dye colour work is post mordant/post modify (though you can do these first, i don’t because i don’t want that active stew in the mix all in one pot.) Now this a is a nice range of colours!!!

Guess what though? I forgot to put any threads in, so now i have to go wind some skeins, scour ’em, then premordant some…………..


PS you can still click on the photos for enlargement, but you can no longer comment on them–i had to shut that off due to the number of STOOPID ASSHAT SPAMMERS.

in a nutshell

So, what do you do with something you’ve stared at for 2+ years, and then cut up?

Throw it in a dyepot. Because if it’s no longer “precious”, you might as well go the full “wtf, why not?” route.

With natural dyes, it’s predictable that if there’s already iron present on the fabric, it’s going to darken and sadden colours. However, with the unmeasurable concentrations of iron used in rusting cloth, there’s no predictability about the shade or depth. Add to the stew, the fact that these pieces were already lined with cotton flannellette, my favourite stabilizer and crunchtexture “additive”, the dyes uptake was even more capricious. And note too: i did not premordant other than using the iron already on the cloth–if i had thought a bit longer, i could have might have done an alum acetate soak to see if the colours grabbed more, but it’s not a big whoopee bad because i didn’t.

I had thrown the figure itself in an osage bath, and was not happy with the resultant boring tan she became. Admittedly, the osage bath was on its last legs, having been used multiple times, but wow, there was a lot more iron on her than i had suspected. After the fabric had been made during the residency, i immediately washed it in hot water and some synthrapol and baking soda, as i do all of my rusted fabrics, removing stray particles, but this really shows how much the rust/iron had penetrated. Invisible to the eye, but not to chemistry! There are many arguments about how to actually “neutralize” the rust, by many different camps of dyers, but this has been the one that works best for me. AND NO, SALT DOES NOT WORK: does your car STOP rusting in the winter when you get road salt on it????? I dunno where that logic came from….idjits.

So i threw her in a pot of madder and sandalwood (using up two old dyebaths). I’ll have to work around the stocking appearance of her from the thigh down though! The other chunks were also cooked in the madder/sandalwood: the largest piece had been randomly and quickly dipped into indigo first, with the hope i’d get some purples. The wings apparently had the most iron on them, but i really like the effect it had on the madder, strong. NOW she’s singing!

Here’s the comparison, before and after:

Fortuitously, the indigo features centred and right above her head, a serendipitous effect.

While these are not the best examples of these dyes, and certainly not the best way to do things (no premordants other than the residual iron), i’m actually quite pleased with the results. She looks muddier, dirty, earthy, but given that Fall is all those things, and that her name is “Samara”, implying dried seeds, leaves changing and falling, the end of Summer and the return to the earth, that is more important, and actually there are some “pretty” areas.

Sometimes “wtf, why not?” is worth the effort.

When i see my thread choices (also naturally dyed) with her, i think the results will be perfect.

Now………..i have to figure out how to use those threads appropriately for this. As beautiful as the dimunitive leaves and flowers have been on the recent moons, those tiny motifs are not going to cut it for this. I need stronger, scaled up structures/objects/designs. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the FrankenStitch approach.

foraging, part 2

Mysterious chemistry ๐Ÿ™‚ These are the oak leaf results.

Quite chocolate coloured on its own!!! I’m sure the first extraction, the first thread in the photo below, proves that more WOF is needed, as i’d love to get that ON fabric or threads! Even though the pot was positively solid with the leaves, i’ll do extraction by soaking/simmering for two days, then remove and add new/more leaves and repeat the process.

Oddly the UNmordanted silk took the colour better, whereas the uptake on previously mordanted cotton was expected.

I have also discovered that my thread skeins from this batch were looped too tightly to either be scoured properly, or mordanted thoroughly, hence the “variegation”–even though i loop quite loosely, it still had an effect. (lesson learned there: DON’T loop)

The colours are softly pretty but not terribly exciting, however they are good base colours for overdyeing, and are obviously *all* mordanted now, as that’s what oak does ๐Ÿ™‚ I still have to do post mods to see what colour changes i can get (nothing earth shattering expected), but it *is* good to see what colours one can forage locally.

I’ll still collect more of the oak leaves as they are plentiful and falling anyways. And no one else uses them, just bags them up and sends them to the city compost facility! Also on the list is Cottonwood (a poplar species), very prevalent in my neighbourhood.

gimme the ticket, i’m guilty as hell

This morning’s madder mess was easily cleaned up with a bit of a bleachy scrub, something that was still out, as earlier in the week i also had an exploding indigo stock solution on the kitchen counter……… Yes, my kitchen could have been red and blue, naturally ๐Ÿ™‚

I quickly scurried the pot out to the patio, and with temps being in the high 20C’s and set on concrete, it stayed hot all day. I hucked some cloth in there, just to see what was left, and am glad i did.

Top, tansy dyed first, then a rusted piece that had been treated with titanium oxalate, an undyed piece, and an indigo over tansy and madder, all previously mordanted with tannin and alum, all cottons:

Below, left to right, the TO/rust, the tansy, the undyed:

I’d loosely scrunched the undyed–LOVE it.

Waste not, want not!




dyeing with poms

I’ve wanted to try pomegranate for a long time, as it’s both mordant and dye material. I had been saving the peels given to me, until i figured i had enough to make it worthwhile. This isn’t an experiment by the way: it works, and is historically used in India as both a tannin rich mordant, and a greenish-yellow dye. Note: it is the peels that give colour, *not* the arils (the part you eat), not the juice either, just the peels/skin.

I don’t eat pomegranates, as they are expensive, and to my mind a waste of time as an edible ๐Ÿ™‚ You can buy an extract from Maiwa, if you don’t have someone saving the skins for you, and can’t be bothered picking out all those seeds for consumption. The price is a bit spendy, BUT at the same time, the WOF because it’s an extract, not just powdered peels, is low, so a little jar goes a long way.

Since the season here for pomegranates in the grocery stores is Autumn, i simply picked off the labels, put in an OPEN plastic bag and set them near a heat vent to dry out, and saved them as i got them, over the month and a half they are available. No mold or ick resulted, just crunchy red bits, that i then stomped to break up more. The weight came to 625 grams, so i just filled my biggest pot with filtered water (not sure what our hard tap water would do), threw the skins in, brought it to a low just starting to boil temp, then immediately turned it off, and let it sit overnight. I threw in 2 skeins of cotton threads on a whim, leaving them overnight also.

Yup, a few errant eucalyptus leaves, nothing to worry about.

Good colour as soon as the heat hit.

The threads seem a *wee* but stiff, maybe due to the high tannin level, but i can live with that, especially as the cotton embroidery floss is an almost metallic gold! (SO hard to photograph!)ย  (OOPS, just remembered both threads had been previously tannined in gallnut, but never made it to alum.) I post modified the left cotton thread.


Below on the left skein, colour changes are left copper, middle iron and right ammonia. Biggest surprise was the iron, as i assumed i would get green!

In the morning, i strained out as much of the skins as i could, because leaving them in can result in spotting fabrics, due to contact. The pot is a huge canner, so i tossed in 3 kinds of unmordanted silk (habotai, dupioni and a light charmeuse), several unmordanted cottons, one cotton with a previous tannin/alum mordantย  pale madder dyed and one premordanted with tannin/alum no dye, and 2 skeins of wool (a superwash and a lace weight both premordanted with alum), total weight about the same as the peels. Technically, i should have had 2 pots, one for cellulose, one for proteins, as uptake is different, but since i’m more concerned with it as a mordant than a colour, i’m not too fussed about this. The previously mordanted and dyed cotton almost immediately changed colour, a warm goldy yellow. The beauty too of pomegranate is that it’s not fussy with temperature regulation and doesn’t take more than an hour after it’s being used, to get results.

DogFaced Girl and i went for our morning walk, so the whole stew was left a little longer than an hour, probably closer to two and a half ๐Ÿ™‚

Above, hard to photograph, the cottons are closer to a creamy yellow, with a noticeable difference between the previously unmordanted and the tannin/alum premodanted. The silks are almost metallic as well!

The two skeins of wool are a pale cream, no surprise or big surprise, can’t decide ๐Ÿ™‚

I’ll keep sections of the silks and the two darker cottons as they are right now, and play with their other bits in different dyes (and ecoprints) now. The cottons showing little colour will be used for other dyes/ecoprints and more tests.

And i’m pretty sure, i can add the saved used peels back to the pot and get more colour,ย  after i’ve exhausted this “extraction”. I don’t know either if the use of hard water would have greened the dye more, but i suspect it would have, as we have iron and minerals, especially calcium, in our tap water. Adding an alkali or an acid would change that as well, but doing a few little tests first in smaller decantings.

If the results with dyes and second extractions are deemed worthy, i may buy some of the extract from Maiwa in the future!

addendum to avocado “failure”

Since these are from a second extraction of the avocado peels, i didn’t expect much, but thought i’d give it a shot anyways. Well, lo and behold, a shorter time in the pot (because after the first batch/reveal i thought “Cut yer losses, Girlie” and pulled them out after 5 hours….) and more colour. Still not terribly exciting and admittedly they were dyed (badly) in the first extraction, so essentially now over dyed, but but but. I think the ammonia worked its magic in the second extraction, while the soda ash from/in the first didn’t. I just about cried though when i poured the bath down the drain, as it looked a rich blood red………..

What i don’t understand is that the cottons had better uptake than the silks, as usually it’s stunningly opposite. The rhubarb leaf mordant did a better job than the usual tannin/alum also.

I still intend on collecting both peels and pits as they are consumed on a regular basis here, but the next experiment with the still soaking pits is perhaps going to prove that conceivably both should be used, as a WOF enhancement (2:1) and for the colour. And when i do it PROPERLY with correct WOF, i ain’t pouring out anything until it’s as exhausted as the DogFaced Girl and i after a loooonnng walk ๐Ÿ™‚ The pits will continue soaking for another week or two, unless they start getting jiggy with bacteria.

(Interestingly enough–or stupidly—-my fingers were stained by the avocado bath, as i didn’t put my gloves on to pull things out.)

I did do some post mordanting/modifying with the previous samples though, as that adds to the “library”, at least as research, if not usable samples. No striking differences, except for the iron! These will now be tested for lightfastness, though they may not be entirely indicative because of the low uptake.

Soooooooooooo, i’m just being done with this batch and turning it purple ๐Ÿ™‚

Time to return to the Summer Madder Project!

EDIT APRIL 30/19: subsequent discussions in a natural textile dye group, and my own lightfast tests, have concluded that avocado’s lovely pinks will gradually oxidize to browns, because they are more a tannin, than a dye.

deception/disappointment/disavowal in the avocado pot

Though i was intending to leave much of the test fabrics and threads in the dyepot longer, i couldn’t resist cutting a few pieces from them, and pulling them out. You’d think with the appearance of that pot above, that the colours would be a HELL of a lot deeper. I could have totally conveniently “forgotten” to post all this, lessening the chance of public embarrassment, but hey, it doesn’t work all the time, and usually because we don’t follow the instructions, so live, learn, laugh and take the lumps ๐Ÿ™‚

CRAP, these are undeniably CRAP. Definitely not enough plant material in comparison to the fabics (WOF in other words)!ย  Admittedly, i had maybe a scant 50 grams of the peels………. I’ve been told the best ratio here is 2:1, so i was waaaaaaaaaay off base with that, duh duh duh. Strangely, the cottons seem to have better uptake than the silk and the wool this time.ย  The blotches are because they floated up during the night, and were exposed to air, the tannin then oxidizing. I think too, my pot is a bit too alkaline though, and that’s why i have browner tones. HOWEVER, there IS colour uptake, but undoubtedly, irrevocably, clearly, not enough peels.

The remaining stewing peels had a glug of ammonia added yesterday, and holy crap, there’s more colour left! I shook the bottle to show the colour splash ๐Ÿ™‚

I’m assuming these then are Hass avocados, reputedly the best for colouring. So, i’ll combine the two extractions, and the first dyed pieces, trusting that the strange chemical mix will give me something ๐Ÿ™‚ย  (If i don’t blow up the house.) I’m calling this experiment not quite a failure, but a learning experience: DON’T CHEAP OUT ON THE DYE MATERIALS. If it’s worth doing, do it right, otherwise all i can chalk this up to is a waste of water, time and effort.

The pits that are soaking are more weightwise, but need to stew longer.

Note: buy more avocados for lunch.

EDIT APRIL 30/19: subsequent discussions in a natural textile dye group, and my own lightfast tests, have concluded that avocado’s lovely pinks will gradually oxidize to browns, because they are more a tannin, than a dye.

As a side note about the importance of scouring, i thought i had done enough on a new thread, but when i put them in tannin, this happened:

GREEN?????? I contacted Maiwa, my trusted supplier, and asked if perhaps it had been the soda ash in the initial scouring that had reacted (maybe not rinsed enough), as gallnut is a clear tannin, and stays to the “browner” tones after being used and stored. Nope.

Hi Arlee,

This is rare but it does happen, but it is not from the soda ash. Fabrics are often pretreated and contain substances which can leach out or react with the mordant. When used on itโ€™s own Maiwaโ€™s gallnut extract is usually a clear/colourless tannin. I would suggest trying other cotton fibres from different sources and comparing the results.


So, obviously, i did NOT scour as well as i should have, and am thinking this could also be the problem with some fabrics i’ve had problems with, particularly new ones (not second hand, recycled, etc). I don’t generally use new fabrics, but maybe some of the stuff i’ve purchased second hand were new enough that these chemicals were still in them. Something to think about! I had noticed there was more “colour”/precipitate in the wash pot after, but thought all had been removed from the threads. I’ll be doing all the scouring from now on with fabrics/threads that appear in better condition then (ie “newer”) for 2-4 hours, as per J. Liles recommendation. (I scour PFD fabrics as well, as i don’t trust that everything has been removed!)

The green didn’t rinse out of the threads either!

EDIT: i decided NOT to mix the two extractions of the avocado peels. I’ve dumped the first “batch”, rinsed the fabric and threads, and put together in cleaned pot with the second extraction.


embroidery finished on pocket!

I just have to add some beading, and a bit of vintage lace (also madder dyed ๐Ÿ™‚ ), a top band and then can move on to other parts of the garment.

I think it’s wonderful that all shades on this, except for the greens, are from various mordants and modifiers with madder on cotton (background), and wool, silk and cotton threads.

I *like* getting madder!