HOW TO GROW A RAIN­BOW

Your gar­den is full of op­por­tu­ni­ties for you to make and use nat­u­ral dyes.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - Words Jane Wrig­glesworth Im­ages Bir­git Mof­fatt

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.

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