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Your garden is full of opportunities for you to make and use natural dyes.
Madder, woad and weld
aren’t commonly grown in our backyards these days, but for thousands of years these unassuming plants were the go-to for creating natural dyes.
Intense reds, blues and yellows were obtained from their roots or leaves, providing the primary colours from which almost any hue can be derived.
The linen used to wrap Tutankhamen was dyed with madder, as were the coats of the British Army Redcoats from the 17th to 19th centuries. The woolen yarns of the famous 70-metre long, 1000-yearold Bayeux tapestry were dyed with the natural pigments of madder, woad and weld.
Other natural materials were used for dyeing too, notably leaves, flowers, roots, berries, bark, the shells from nuts, marine mollusks, invertebrates (like the dried, ground-up cochineal insect), ochre and other earth pigments, and lichens.
Today, many hobbyists and textile artists are finding joy in reviving this ancient practice. Fibre-artist Birgit Moffatt completed a Bachelor of Applied Arts at Whitireia Polytechnic and became hooked after being introduced to natural dyeing in her first year of studies.
“Every now and then I used synthetic dyes because of the quick process and exact outcomes of hues when measured accurately,” she says. “But every time I was disappointed with the ‘solidness’ of colour. It also concerned me pouring waste water down the sink.”
Conversely, Birgit was impressed with the results of natural dyes.
“The vivid, harmonious and always unique results convinced me to explore this field further,” she says.
Birgit, who lives close to the bush, says it also suits her lifestyle.
“I feel more connected with the land and for me this is a more mindful and sustainable approach to my arts practice.
“I prefer using dye stuff I can easily source where I live: on a walk in the bush, in the garden, from neighbours’ orchards. This allows me to go through the whole process, from the harvest to the actual dyeing.”
Birgit also enjoys dyeing with the seasons.
“It challenges me to look for new sources of dye material available in a certain time of the year. This summer I enjoyed dyeing with wild fennel, fig leaves, peach leaves and loquat leaves.”
But she doesn’t use berries and other fruits too much as they have the reputation of being fugitive (the colour fades quickly).
“And I rather enjoy them on the plate,” she laughs.
For her projects that use eco-printing, a technique that results in leaves being ‘printed’ onto cloth, Birgit is exploring the print properties of native leaves such as kowhai, bracken fern and kapuka.
“This includes identifying and researching plant properties of the native flora, and teaches me to appreciate what nature has to offer.”
She’s also experimented with the rich colour palette of cochineal, and she enjoys using eucalyptus, both bark and leaves.
“Eucalyptus is abundant where I live, yields beautiful colours and has the advantage to be wash and light-fast without the use of mordants (fixing the dye to the fabric), so it is very safe to use.”
For most other materials, mordants are needed as most natural dyes, with the exception of woad and indigo, do not adhere very well to the fibres. One of the most commonly-used mordants is alum powder, often with an addition of cream of tartar to help evenness and brightness. Others include iron, tin, chrome, and tannic acid which is particularly good for cotton and linen (vegetable fibres).
But you will need to research the various mordants and quantities to use before experimenting with dyes, as different colours can be achieved from a given dye molecule by using different mordants.
Birgit typically uses alum, sometimes in combination with cream of tartar.
“It is an easy process and reasonably safe to handle. I also use iron to modify a colour. Sometimes I dye fabric in my copper pot, so I don’t need to add any mordant (the vessel is the mordant). I am not using metal mordant such as tin or chrome as they are toxic.”
Instead, Birgit is hoping to explore alternative mordants such as soy, ash and tannins in the future.
Experiment is the name of the game, as any number of organic materials can be used to create a natural dye.
“I love experimenting with the endless combinations of natural dyes, mostly on wool and silk,” says Birgit. “The colours always seem to match and enhance each other.”
Eucalyptus yields beautiful colours and has the advantage to be wash and light-fast without the use of mordants.
Ecoprint detail on silk. Peach leaves and wild fennel (below) in a dyepot.
A small section of the Bayeaux tapestry, thought to have been created in the year 1070, still holding its vivid colours.
Ecoprint on nuno felt.
The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry (made around 1500) used dyes of weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue).
Loquat eucalyptus on silk.