Submitted by: Maureen Schimnowsky, Gallery Assistant
The idea of naturally dyeing fibers has always been a source of mystery to me, invoking whimsical images of gypsies and witches mixing herbs and plants in a steaming pot to create jewel-toned dyes and tinctures. So when I finally decided to do my research instead of just romanticizing the skill, I was delighted by the plethora of instruction guides and hands-on experiences archived by DIY bloggers across Google. Even more exciting was finding a natural dye technique that could put our hot Prairie summers to excellent use while saving energy in the process. Solar Dyeing is a method of fabric dying that uses the heat of the sun over a prolonged period of time (a matter of days to months depending on how strong you would like the colour) to dye the fibre material instead of using gas or electricity to heat it on the stove.
The process of solar dyeing material with natural ingredients is often a series of experiments since there is no way to control the environment or ingredients used. While you may have a very good idea of the colour your fabric will become, part of the excitement of natural and solar dying is never being completely sure of the final outcome.
When choosing natural ingredients to dye with, it’s important to remember that not all plant material will produce a dye similar in colour to the plant. For example, avocado skins and pits actually create shades of pink and red. Matt and Betsy Jabs have a good starter list on their website, DIY Natural, which outlines which plants to use depending on what colour you would like to create. The website Pioneer Thinking also has an extremely comprehensive list of plant materials broken up by colour. When gathering material, it’s important to gather as much as necessary to fill the container you are dying in (without damaging the environment). The more plant material gathered, the stronger the dye will come out.
After the dye material has been gathered, the fabric must be prepared to be dyed, that is, simmered in a mordant solution. The mordant prepares the fibre to absorb the dye, and helps to fix the colour so that it will not wash out. The two most common mordant solutions are a mixture of Alum and Cream of Tartar, or a mixture of Vinegar and Salt. While there appears to be some dispute over the exact measurements and recipe for these ingredients, here is a general rule of thumb for each process:
Alum and Cream of Tartar Mordant – use 10% of the fabric weight for Alum, and 5% of the fabric weight for Cream of Tartar. Eg: A 4 oz skein of yarn would require 0.4 oz Alum, and 0.2 oz Cream of Tartar. Place the fabric, alum and cream of tartar in a pot with just enough water to cover the fabric. Simmer for 45 minutes.
Vinegar and Salt – Use 2 cups Vinegar and ½ cup salt for 1 gallon of water. This can be scaled down to match however much water is necessary to cover the fabric in a pot. Place all ingredients, including the fabric, in a pot and simmer for an hour.
Once the fabric has been prepared with a mordant, it’s important to keep the fabric wet so that the dye bath penetrates the fabric evenly.
The next step is to place the wet fabric, plant material, and enough water to cover everything in a glass jar (plastic containers do not let enough light through). If you would like an even dye of the fabric, make sure there is enough water so that the fabric can move freely, and make sure to swirl or stir
the ingredients every so often throughout the dyeing process. If, however, you would like to try a mottled pattern, let the fabric scrunch and try not to let it move while it’s dyeing. There are also a number of techniques to create different patterns in the dyed fabric, including loosely tying the fabric into bundles, or shibori folding.
Once everything is in the jar, screw on the lid and place the jar in a spot outside where it will have as much sunlight as possible. The contents of the jar will create a greenhouse like effect, and are capable of reaching very high temperatures, so be careful not to burn yourself on the glass. How long you leave the jar in the sun is up to you (anywhere from a week to several months!). The length of time depends on how dark you would like your fabric to become.
Once you’ve decided the fabric is a dark enough shade, remove the fabric and plant material from the jar. If you have a garden, it’s recommended to use the remaining dye bath to water your plants, and the plant material can be composted. Gently rinse the fabric and hang it to dry in a shaded area so that the sun doesn’t lighten the dye job. Once the fabric is dry, pat yourself on the back!
Dyeing fabric in this way is an age-old technique that not only harnesses the power of the sun, but perhaps it could also invoke the rather gypsy spirit of enhancing the traditional knowledge of local plant lore. Maybe the notion is a bit romantic, but I love the idea of borrowing from the Earth and using what our Prairie summer offers to us in abundance; sunny days and little pieces of nature to make our lives a little more vibrant.