Way back in March, I bought myself a couple of books on dyeing. One was about learning to use natural dyes and the other showed in depth, the techniques for shibori pattern making.
This month I finally got around to having a look through the books and trying out some of the ideas. I have really enjoyed it and know that I will be doing a lot more. Being able to dye my own materials adds a whole other layer of connection to my basket making.
I started off by preparing some raffia for the dye pot. ‘Wild Colour’ by Jenny Dean is a great book to get you started with natural dyeing, showing various methods for dyeing animal and plant fibres. It talks you through mordants, tannin baths and modifiers, as well as having a large section on which plants to use and what kind of colours you can expect to achieve.
Apparently plant fibres need a bit more help to soak up the dye, so I began by simmering some willow bark in water to create a tannin bath. The book recommends using oak galls or sumac, but I had neither of those. The only disadvantage mentioned about using bark was the strength of its colour, so I decided to give it a go.
After leaving the bark to simmer for an hour, I then left it to sit in the pan overnight.
The next day I removed it and simmered the raffia in it, for a further half an hour. I then left the raffia to soak in it overnight. You can tell already, that this is not a quick process, although the tannin liquid can be kept and used again,. This really speeds things up second time round.
The raffia had to dry out after that, which took the best part of another day. In the mean time I didn’t want to waste that beautiful willow bark and there wasn’t enough to make a basket, so I cut it into shapes and pressed it. These will make great craft supplies for my kids over autumn.
With the raffia now dry, I was ready to move on to stage two – the mordant.
I used alum and washing soda, diluted in water and then simmered with the raffia for half an hour before leaving, once again, overnight.
This was followed by rinsing and drying.
If you’ve never tried natural dyeing before, don’t be put off by all of the stages. The actual time that you have to spend doing this is actually very short, it’s just spread out over several days. Most of the time your fibres are just relaxing in a bath without any need for input from you.
So by this point I was very eager to get started on the dye. We had foraged for crow berries, which grow in the wild places on the island. A small dark berry, they thrive in acid soil, in colder climates. We were going to make them into syrup, but then I read that they are high in tannins and an excellent dye berry.
We only really had a few large handfuls because they take a bit of searching for, but the resulting dye was a wonderfully rich, deep purple.
I popped the raffia in, along with some cotton bags that I had stitched with some shibori patterns.
It simmered for half an hour and sat overnight. I was very excited to see the results the next morning and after carefully rinsing in washing up liquid and then just water, I could see that there was a complete transformation.
I had not expected to get such wonderful results first time and was delighted with the very deep, almost black, purple which my raffia had become. I was also pleased to find that my bags had been successful, especially as I had really only had time to have a quick flick through the book. The huge amount of step by step photos and diagrams in ‘Stitched Shibori’ by Jane Callender was really helpful for someone with limited time.
With the first batch of dyeing done and my confidence now strengthened, I spent the rest of the week trying out different plants.
Beetroot was first up. A sure winner I thought, after all it certainly dyes my hands when I’m preparing it for salads. Sadly, it was a bit of a flop, with only the very faintest tint of pink showing over the slightly tanned colour of the willow bark.
Next, I decided to try willow leaves and stems with some added fern leaves. I was aiming for a green, but got instead a much stronger tan colour.
Not what I had hoped perhaps, but it will actually be really useful for some grass baskets that I am making soon.
We had also been gathering blackberries that week, most of which went into a blackberry and apple crumble. I had a small tub left over and was curious to see the difference between these and the crow berries.
I got another lovely purple, a shade paler than the crow berry and with some pinkish streaks.
I thought that would be it for a while, because I have a lot of basketry that I want to get on with, but when I was trimming our fuchsia hedge this week, I couldn’t help gathering the fallen blooms.
I didn’t have any prepared raffia left, so I had to go through the three stages again, but at least I had saved the tannin and mordant solutions.
The dye looked really promising, although I could have done with a bit more of it. Unfortunately, I got distracted while it was simmering. I was also making paper feathers with my two year old and getting my middle three started on some work on worm farms. Sometimes multi-tasking goes wrong.
So my dye pot boiled dry and I couldn’t leave the raffia to soak overnight!
It wasn’t a complete disaster though. I did achieve pink, hurrah! It is very streaky with some being pale and other bits being quite intense, but I can definitely use it and I know that next year I will be able to make some really great dye, when the hedge is at the height of its season.
So now I really must get on with some basket making, but why don’t you give dyeing a go. I can recommend it, I had a lot of fun making potions in a pot!