Before dyeing, all fabrics and fibers need to be properly scoured to best accept color. Though scouring can be completed in a few hours by heated washing, I tend to take a more passive approach, allowing fibers to soak overnight to reduce the time needed to over the heat. In an effort to support sustainable textile producers, I use organic cotton fabric, local wool yarns, and vintage fabric. If solid colors are the goal, I will apply metallic salt mordants to the fibers after scouring. Mordants have been used for millennia to assist in the binding of dyes to fibers.
Color sources abound in the wild, though the strongest and most resistant colors have been bred into cultivated species. I like to use a bit of both, growing some of the most historically significant crops that are suited to my climate (such as Japanese indigo, madder, and weld), and foraging for local species (such as sumac, goldenrod, and wild madders). The practice of growing cultivated crops is very different from foraging in the wild, and I find that both the energies and colors are complimentary.
While every year I increase my indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) growing, I still do not grow quite enough for my own use. I now source purchased indigo pigment from Stony Creek Colors, a company in Tennessee that is providing traceable, U.S.-grown natural indigo.
- A Note on the term "Natural" -
I want to acknowledge that "natural" has been adopted by many companies and marketed to mean "good", "safe", and even "better". Of course, "natural" does not mean any of these things, it does not even mean "non-toxic"! I use the term to mean "non-synthetic", and sourced directly from the Earth.
"The use of 'natural' as a synonym for 'good' is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world." -Eula Biss, On Immunity
Printing and Painting
Each of my patterned pieces is printed and/or painted using a variety of techniques. I use homemade silkscreens, hand-cut stencils, and stamps to print mordant pastes and resist pastes. Occasionally, I will also paint sections of my pieces with mordant pastes, resist pastes, or even pigments. All of these printed substances are homemade; some, in the case of the rice paste resist, require over an hour to prepare. I am experimenting with directly printing dye pastes as well. The possibilities are (nearly) endless when working with natural colors on a small scale!
After printing and painting, the fabric must dry and ideally cure for a day or two. It is then put through a process called "dunging" to fix the mordant pastes in place. While this process used to involve actual dried animal dung, I usually use chalk and wheat bran to simulate the binding nature of the dung enzymes. Once dried, cured, and dunged, the fabric is ready for the dye vat.
Though there are different processes for different plants, most of the dyes that I use besides indigo are prepared in much the same way. The raw materials are steeped at various temperatures for various lengths of time (at least an hour), then strained from the vat. The cloth is then steeped in the vat for as little as an hour, to as long as 24 hours. The vat colors are affected by temperature, length of time, oxidation, pH, and other properties of the water used.
As my practice evolves, I am leaning into layering colors in a way that involves many dye vats or sometimes multiple dye materials in the one vat. Natural dyes contain a multitude of color-giving compounds and chemical interactions that in most cases are little studied and not well understood. The results of these complex plant chemistries are colors that are rich, varied, and sometimes difficult to categorize. Natural colors also tend to evolve over time, sometimes fading lighter and sometimes shifting darker or duller. In my work I try to find a balance between using stable dyes and practices, educating folks on how to best care for their fabrics, and also shifting expectations for the lightfastness of the pieces. Natural dyes, like all living things, will fade in time and perhaps we can learn something from embracing this cycle.
Indigo pigment is found in the leaves of several plant genera, spread all over the world. While the Indigofera genus is most widely used, this tropcial/sub-tropical legume is not suited to the northeastern U.S., where I've lived for most of my life. Luckily, Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria, a relative of buckwheat) is a thriving annual here. I've been growing a few hundred plants per year, with dreams to grow more in the future.
Indigo pigment is unique among the dyes I use in that it is insoluble in water. Therefore, even once the pigment is extracted from the leaves, the vat must be prepared so that the pigment, indican, is reduced to it's soluble form, leuco-indigo. To do this, the vat must be reduced, which in this case means devoid of oxygen, in an alkaline environment (high pH). There are MANY different ways of creating an indigo vat, some of the most popular are the simple 1-2-3 vats introduced by Michel Garcia.
I have become partial to dyeing with a fermentation vat. This process uses soda ash, or hardwood ash water (lye) to raise the pH of the vat, and plant matter to feed the fermentation/reduction. The vat pH and temperature must be closely monitored and occasionally "fed", and I love this interactive process! While I'm currently using this vat with extracted indigo pigment, I am in the process of making a compost material from dried Persicaria tinctoria leaves (known as sukumo in Japan). In the future, I plan to use this indigo leaf compost directly with hardwood ash water to create a completely homegrown vat.
Once the pieces have been fully dyed with one or more of the above processes, each piece is treated to ensure optimum wash- and light-fastness. In some cases, excess dyes are washed from the background of the prints, pH is balanced, a fresh soymilk treatment may be added and the fabric may be left to cure for over a month. In all cases, the fabrics are thoroughly washed and rinsed. This process is labor and time intensive, and this is part of what makes these textiles so special. They are each a reflection of the landscape in which they were made, and the ancient human-plant relationships they embody.