Foraging for Seasonal Colour 2. The Alder Cone & Catkin

I can’t remember where I heard that alder cones give a dye but I have dyed with them occasionally for a brown over the years.  This year I thought I would have a little play and see what range of colours I could get. My spaniel likes to swim in a nearby river in North Wales and where he swims I can gather cones and later catkins in between throwing sticks for him.

I think that the alder is much underrated as a source of dyes.  The bark is used almost everywhere the tree is found , and it is widespread throughout most for the temperate world,  for black by mixing the alder bark with iron filings,  Native North American Indians used it for a terracotta red. According to Dominque Cardon1 two tribes, the Micmac and the Ojibwe) did so, chewing the bark to macerate it. I have fermented buckthorn bark (Frangula alnus ) for terracotta red so next time I get hold of alder bark I will try it the same way but not I might add by chewing.

According to the Woodland Trusts the leaves were used for Robin Hood green,  they should be out soon so a later foraging trip is in order. 

I dyed with the cones and the male catkins using a method for investigating the dye potential of plants developed by an American dyer, Fred Gerber, in the 1960s and since adopted by many dyers. The is an slightly abbreviated version of it as Fred Gerber used mordants I don’t use

It’s quite simple: Split the  dye bath into six., one is left untouched.  To the others in order add Copper sulphate, Copper sulphate and Ammonia, Ferrous sulphate , Ferrous sulphate and ammonia . For the little dye baths I was using this amounted to a few grains of each chemical  and a drop or two of ammonia. Just remember if following this to wear protective clothing  and read my blog on keeping yourself safe while dyeing 

The colours from the cones were rich, varying from deep gold to khaki and to a dark greeny black. IMG_3467

The male catkins which are  the long ones,  I dyed two different ways:  one in a small pot sitting a the back of my Rayburn so staying permanently warm  for a week and the other by heating.  The first dye bath gave a stronger yellow than the more traditional method of soaking heating to the simmer  etc, however when the catkins had been left for a week in the latter bath  the colour became as strong .

 I divided the dye bath in exactly the same way as for the cones . And one of the great pleasures of the natural dyer happened a surprising colour, in this case green.   Copper sulphate  with ammonia turned the fibres a true green 

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 The colours the alder produces range from yellow, gold , khaki, black, terracotta red and green . Not bad for one tree. 

1Dominique Cardon Natural Dyes Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science Archetype Publications ISBN978-1-904982-00-5

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Foraging for Seasonal Colour : The Oak Gall

This post is about finding  seasonal colours in the hedgerows  and woodlands , and is mostly based on where I live in North Wales.  I remember being quite caustic about hedgerow dyeing , infinitely preferring the colours I could get from  such strong dyes as madder , indigo, weld and cochineal  and eyeing the softer more muted  colours  from hedgerow dyeing with a degree of contempt.  But over the  twenty or so year  I have been using natural dyes this has changed, principally  because I have become more interested in eco dyeing ; such as solar dyeing and fabric bundling  and using the naturally occurring chemicals in plants  to use as mordants.

I tend to forage for dyes when either walking  on my own or when walking the dog but have to be careful here as my energetic spaniel will only tolerate so much of me gathering  before taking off on his own journey of exploration. I try to remember to stuff small plastic bags in to my pocket before I go  as these are useful to pick and gather dyes in small quantities  and to add  to day to day.

 

There are various things to be aware of  for when foraging for dyes, First of all gather  no roots,  and only gather small quantities of other plant material.  10% is a good rule of thumb  although just be aware that if more than one dyer is gathering and each gather 10% a dye plant might become very depleted.  Don’t  gather lichens even from the  ground  as they can still disperse  spores . If you are gathering on someone else’s land you might want to ask  for permission . It depends on what is being gathered and where  but it is after all just good manners.  Know what you are gathering and wear gloves if neccesary  and wash hands after gathering.  See my blog on keeping yourself safe 

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Oak Galls. The hole that looks as if the nut has been mechanically drilled is where the wasp bored its way out.

Over the last two months, that is February & March I have been gathering alder cones & Catkins, ivy berries ,  oak galls, and gorse flowers . I could have gathered bramble leaves as a source of tannin ,  but  for those secateurs are needed  to avoid the prickles and I  kept on forgetting . I mostly gather in Coed LLangwyfan where my dog Marmite likes being walked .

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This is old forestry commission land just off the Offas Dyke path in North Wales with spectacular views of the Denbigh moors towards Snowdonia, the Clwydians and the Berwyns   and is now described  as recovering broadleaf woodland.  It is full of  larch, birch, oak,  and gorse , and at this time of the year I found  young oak trees with oak galls, and  gorse flowers . The alder nuts I gather from a field  adjacent to a foot path by the river Wheeler  and  black ivy berries from the hedgerow as I walk.

Oak galls  are made by a wasp laying it eggs in the oak leaf just as it is coming  into leaf, and the oak forms a gall around it. The gall is high in gallo tannic acids which when extracted and mixed with iron ( ferrous sulphate ) makes a black.   Thickened, usually with gum arabic, this makes a black ink  which was  used  in the west from Roman times to the 19th Century. 

I used the oak galls to make black ink as part of my range of Artisan Inks. There are a lot of recipes for making black inks on the internet and  the basic recipes are quite simple.  The black is formed by iron ( ferrous sulphate ) reacting  with the gallotannates in the oak galls.   A good site to look at if you  would like to make your own is the Oak Gall Ink Site 

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The ink is nearly colourless when made, but like many ink makers I add another dye so there is some colour when it is first used, as you can see in the very bottom freshly made  squiggle.  The one above was made just  seconds before and so on onto the  top squiggle made a minute or so before the bottom.  The oxygen in the air  oxidises the ink to black and finally it turns an inky dark black with almost a blue sheen to it like a ravens wing .

At one time almost every household would have made its own ink.

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A rectangle of paper painted black with my artisan Black Ink

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Oak galls , black ink and mordanted cotton. Notice how the bottom squiggles on the page have now gone black.

I also use the oak galls as a mordant (fixative).  I have been pleasantly surprised  about the colour I have got from using oak gall mordant both on cotton and other cellulose fibres and on wool.  I  put 100g  galls ( which took me about  two hours to collect)  into a strong brown paper bag  and bashed with a rolling pin to break them up. Then  I put them into a coffee grinder which is not going to be used for cooking and ground to a fine flour.   After this  I covered with water, soaked  overnight and heated to the simmer  for an hour before allowing to cool  overnight. I entered  damp  pieces of  clean cotton , worked  them around a bit and then left  overnight again. without heating.   Oak gall solution usually leaves a soft creamy colour on the cotton but this time the cotton was quite yellow probably because the oak gall solution is quite concentrated. The bath can be used as a mordant till it gives no more colour.   The cotton has black marks on it , I must have been careless, one of the drawbacks of using oak galls is that  anything with iron will make a black mark so some contamination crept in somewhere.

On the other hand  using iron and tannin is  a lovely way to pattern cloth. Try rolling tannin mordanted  fabrics  up round rusty nails  and submerge into a dye bath .

I put the pieces of cotton  into cochineal dye bath, which I keep on the go , adding more cochineal bugs as it gets weaker so I can’t say actually how strong the bath was but this was the result after a gentle simmer overnight.

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Next  is that very much underrated tree Alder. (Alnus Glutinosa) 

 

 

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How to keep yourself safe when using Natural Dyes

How to keep yourself safe when using Natural Dyes

 Pottering along the hedgerow , picking berries , leaves and flowers , coming home creating a dye pot and producing colour is both exciting and magical. But do you know what you are picking and handling? The title “natural” in natural dyes can be misleading as it can feel as anything you pick is completely safe but this is not necessarily true. I was happily about to strip elder (Sambucus niger) leaves for a dye bath when I read that they contain potassium cyanide. Hmm! Time for the gloves! I later found that the leaves, twigs, branches, seeds, and roots of Sambucus plants can contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside (a glycoside which gives rise to cyanide as the metabolism processes it). Ingesting a sufficient quantity of cyanide-inducing glycosides can cause a toxic buildup of cyanide in the body.

Taking care when dyeing with botanical dyes is mostly common sense and can be summed up with using simple protective clothing , washing hands after picking dye material and not using anything for dyeing later wanted for cooking.

Health and Safety when Using Natural Dyes

  • Protect yourself with gloves, face masks and aprons as appropriate

  • Measure carefully

  • Label appropriately

  • Never use anything for dyeing that you will later want for cooking

  • Do not eat and drink when using dyes or mordants.

  • Dispose of used dye baths responsibly. That is dispose of down the foul drain with plenty of water, or into a soak away away from food plants

  • Keep dyes and mordants away from children and pets

As far as you can, inform yourself so you know what you are picking and handling especially if picking a variety of plant material to experiment with. Most if not all dye books explain the hazards of any of natural dye materials used. The book, for example, about potassium cyanide in elder came from Judy Hardman’s book1. Common plants used for dyeing that may be a problem are Rhubarb leaves which contain oxalic acid which is both a mordant and poisonous. Bracken sometimes used by dyers for yellow has spores that are thought to be carcinogenic but Ragwort Jacobaea vulgaris, another common plant sometimes used by dyers, is only considered theoretically poisonous to humans as it is not used as a food source being very bitter. However it produces a yellow of which there are plenty of sources so why use it when it could -just-be risky. Especially as it can cause an allergic reaction.  (Please note however that this is not an complete list of hedgerow or garden dye plants that could be a source of harm)

 

Swapping a moment from hedgerow dyeing to using the great dyes of the world such as indigo, madder and cochineal can be misleading too. Not necessarily so much in the dyes but in the mordants, the chemicals used to fix the dye to the fabric. Modern dye books , mostly environmentally conscious use the safer mordants. These are in order Alum ( Potassium Aluminium sulphate) Iron (Ferrous Sulphate) and possible Copper ( Copper Sulphate) although this is poisonous. Some, fortunately few, use Potassium Dichromate (Chrome) .This is a chemical I would not use, and do not recommend even when safety precautions are carefully followed.

The safest mordant to use is Alum followed by iron, which I use in the form of rusty nails, added to a dye bath to gently change a colour from yellows to soft greens, from reds and purples of cochineal to purply greys. I also modify the colour with ammonia which brightens yellows, changes the purple of logwood to dark blue for example and in the case of one of the dyes I adore, Tickweed (Coreopis tinctoria) ammonia changes the yellow to burnt orange. Follow the instructions on the bottle of household ammonia, use sparingly and in a well ventilated space.

I hope that reading this blog does not put anyone off from using natural dyes but instead enables people to keep happily dyeing safely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Judy Hardman: Natural Dyes

ISBN-13: 9781847971005

Publisher: The Crowood Press

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Dyers Chamomile ( Anthemis tinctoria)

Dyers Chamomile Anthemis tinctoria

I have love affairs with dye plants and this is one of them . It makes an attractive garden plant, as you can see from the photo  and likes warm dry sheltered sunny spots.

 

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Over the summer the flower heads can be gathered and dried and this means in the winter when it is

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cold and grey summer is bought to mind when you dye with it.

Use 100% WOF that is the same weight of dye as fibre. Cover the dried flower heads with cold water and leave to soak overnight if possible.   This particular dye bath was left for about a week before I applied heat and this almost certainly helped improved the colour so the longer you can leave it the better. Heat gently to just under the simmer and leave for about an hour before allowing to cool. When cool enter the previously mordanted wool and silk  ( I used 12% Alum, 10% cream of tartar to mordant with ) into the bath with the flower heads still in the dye bath. Again bring to just under the simmer, simmer for an hour but do not boil as the colour may dull. At the end  of the dyeing period add a splash of household Ammonia to brighten the colour.

Leave to cool before rinsing gently till water runs clear. Either spin excess water out or hang to dry

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If you would like to buy some Dyers Chamomile  grown and dried in North Wales you can find some here

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Welcome to my new Blog

Welcome to my new Blog and my new look website.
I shall be writing about my work  as a textile artist and  my use of natural dyes and my inks.

Just to wet your appetite my first post in a week’s time will be on using the leaves of Japanese Indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) which have soaking in kilner jars since November. I am interested to see how much blue I shall get from them and  I hope you will too

I will be looking at what natural dyes are available for eco friendly harvesting at this time of the year and using such dyes as ivy berries and alder nuts to dye with and talking along the way about mordanting in an eco friendly way too. Follow me on twitter and I can alert you to when these things are coming up or follow me on pinterest and see what I am using as inspiration for my next series of picture.  Crows settling onto a bare tree against a winter sunset are one and water flowing over stones another.

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