Are you and Alchemist?


Well, never-mind; you don’t need to be. It is all quite simple once you know the basics…we MUST know the basics.

Let’s talk mordants (just for a moment). Mordants are what I call binders..sort of like an egg in baking (right?) it holds the whole wretched mess together… a cohesive whole…if you will. If care is not taken to do this correctly…precious fibers/yarn could be ruined – or your barn, studio, garage…an explosive ending is not what we are after here.

Most dyes require a mordant; the mordant allows them to chemically bond to the fiber. Without them,the dye would simply sit on top of the fiber, rinsing off with each wash. The mordant chemically prepares and opens up the fiber to bond with the dye.

If you’re going to take the time to learn the basics of natural dying; be aware – this is not a quick project. Don’t rush, take your time (dare I say, enjoy the process) Don’t skip steps, as tempting as this may be, we are after quality results here…when the basics are conquered, results become more predictable, and the final results; well worth your efforts.

This is not a process to be shared with children, (there are kool-aid dyes for that) oh, and they are fun too; just be sure to use the kool-aid packet with out sugar.(no need to attract unwanted guests to the party..insects)

madder-sage- Photo from [Fleece on the duck]
The green shade was achieved by simmering sage with red basil. The liquid in the pot was purplish-red yet produced a khaki colored fiber. When lime juice was added the fiber brightened and became a soft sage green.

Take care not to breaht in the mordants whilst adding them to your pots…and for heaven’s sake; don’t directly breathe in the steam as it is processes. A little common sense goes a long way; so, gather your gloves, and find a mask some where. Go ahead, I’ll wait here.

a llama run to CT

Toxicity vs. amount used = low ratio – for a pound of fiber, you’re going to want to dilute around only 1/2 an OUNCE of mordant (with the exception of alum, which you’re going to need around 1-2 ounces. (although, Alum isn’t toxic ) Once the mordant bath is used up or weakened, it is pretty harmless.

A list of commonly used mordants ( not exhaustive by any means):

Alum (Aluminum Potassium Sulfate): Pretty much, alum is the easiest to find and use, it is less toxic, and it gives what we will call the “base” color. It doesn’t change the base color of your fiber. You can find alum, made by McCormick, in the canning or spice section at most grocery stores.
THis is a good option if you are dyeing by solar power.
You want to dissolve your alum in lots of hot water, put it in your chosen vessel (pot,enamel is best), crock-pot, whatever, place your fiber in the pot*, simple- dimple.

Copper (Copper Sulfate): Copper will turn your fiber a light aqua-to-greenish color. That could be fun. It can be used with yellows to get soft greens, to make blues and greens more turquoise, and to make warm tones.

Iron (Ferrous Sulfate): Ehhhhh, some people class this as a “color modifier” not a true mordant. Makes stuff greyer/darker. Used with indigo or logwood, or even sometimes walnut, to get black. Known in medieval dyeing recipes as “copperas”, SO DON’T ASSUME COPPERAS MEANS COPPER. You can pre-mordant with this like you normally would, but a lot of folks just use it after dyeing to grey it up. Used alone, iron will darken your fiber. I don’t ever use it by itself as a pre-mordant. I only use it with something else, or afterwards to modify.

And some less common, but still widely used ones are:

Chrome (Potassium Dichromate): *TOXIC* I don’t use it; but some dyers love the effects it can cause…(color me chicken)

Tin (Stannous Chloride): Brightens colors. Tin does not change the base color of your fiber. Tin will give you the brightest, clearest reds/yellows/oranges, and can be used with cochineal to give hot pink. It’s my most favoritest mordant ever because I like the bright shinies, and it turns the mordant bath opalescent. Oooooohhhhh, pretty.

a shiny sheep

HOW TO MORDANT

ALWAYS! ALWAYS! – have dedicated mordanting pots. NEVER EVER USE them for cooking after! Nod, that you understand. Might I also recommend that you work outside. Most of the natural dyes, I’m not terribly concerned about allowing in my home, many of them are herbs and spices that we already have in our home. I will not allow mordant in the house.

The basic method is this:

Dissolve your mordant in a pot of warm water(think room temperature), LOTS of water, you need to let your fiber have plenty of space to move around, or the mordant can’t attach everywhere, Use a non-reactive potโ€”enamel, no chips please, or stainless steel. Keep in mind metals are mordants, so using a cast iron, copper, aluminum will alter your results…you understand the dilemma. Now, set it on the burner,( I have a burner on the side of my gas grill, but they do sell propane burners) and add (presoaked, wet)fiber. Turn the heat source to medium, and let it sit for about 1/2 hour, (if you are like me, you will find it hard to wait, I wanna see it now!) Stir occasionally; oh, so gently, with a non-metal utensil of course…don’t agitate..no felting allowed here. Let the pot cool. Ok, now you can remove the fiber and RINSE (keep rinsing til you are sick of it) rinse some more. Keep in mind, the mordant has made a chemical change,rinsing won’t hurt it. Having excess mordant will. Those pesky molecules of mordant will dance about, holding on in all the wrong places…causing havoc with your color and finished results. Rinse people. It is ready to be dyed or it may be stored wet or dry, for later dyeing – if yo can wait. If possible, let it sit over night.

onion-skins
Fleece on the Duck ~ onion skins to dye fiber.

***If you use crockpots. Allow them to preheat. Water should be good and hot BEFORE you add fiber, and then leave it on the high setting for 1/2 an hour, just like on the stove. Always, rinse out your crockpots well. You do not want to allow deposits of metal salts to build up. This can cause crockpot explosions. If a crack appears..ditch it. If mordants get into the metal base the pot may shatter. Kind of neat to explode a crockpot, but nonetheless, a bad idea.

PREPARATION OF DYE-BATH
Place dyes (what ever dye medium you have chosen) into cold water and heat slowly. the smaller the particles- the better results…so break things up as best you can.
Most dyes need to be brought to a boil before color is extracted. Dissolve powders. Heat till color is drawn out…cool.(both physically,and metaphorically).Strain twigs, bark or other matter;you probably don’t want all that in your finished project.

DYEING
Enter wet wool into a tepid bath. Heat slowly. Gradual temperature changes, and gentle stirring prevent shrinkage and felting. keep the fiber or yarn in the dye bath until you are happy with the color. Or until the dye bath is exhausted, ( and hopefully, you are not) Do remember;colors are darker on wet fiber. Decide accordingly.
Allow the dye bath to cool before removing the fiber you have just dyed beautifully. Use care to gently, , I say, gently,squeeze fiber to remove dye liquids. Let’s rinse yet again…til it runs clear. Allow the fiber or yarn to dry.
Behold your creation!

So, now you know!
Be well,
Jess

15 thoughts on “Are you and Alchemist?

  1. Fun stuff! Reminds me of learning how to make Malaysian batik prints. Kinda like tie-die. I love how plants give their own hues. Makes me love them that much more!

    Awesome post, Jess. Thank you for broadening our minds as well as our spirits.

    Like

  2. I have dabbled in dying in the past, to get a particular colour for my quilts, but only used commercially available dyes. You don’t mention salt, wihch is always used with commercial dyes. Do you not use it? The only mordant I’ve used is alum. So I was intrigued by your description of the effects of tin. I love sharp bright colour, Do you just put a tincan in the mix? ๐Ÿ™‚

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