Turn the oven to gas mark 10. I don’t know if that’s needed, but if a recipe doesn’t start with instructions to turn on the stove, then it’s wasting a lot of your hard-won time. And yes this is a recipe. Natural dyeing, I have discovered, is very much like cooking. One part following the recipe, one part flair and one part weird science (Kelly LeBrock not included).
When learning to cook, sometimes it’s best to approach someone who can make toast without burning it. To this end, my recently sparked interest in natural dyeing was soon followed by a phone call to my usual fabric fountain of knowledge, my father-in-law. Stuart’s been knee deep in fabric since he was sixteen. Even though he’s a short Englishman, that’s still a lot of fabric, so he must know about this particular field, right?
Of course, he did. Turns out he pursued natural dyeing in the 70’s with the same fervour that some people pursued the perfect ABBA dance move, it’s the Bus Stop. So he dug through his old things and took snaps of the written notes from his days of dyeing his hand spun wool and weaving on a loom he built in a studio on Kloof street.
Start with choosing your Fabric or Yarn. Only use yarn if you plan on weaving your own fabric, that’s a whole different process I won’t go into here, we don’t have time, but you can find out more about our weaving here. Grab an old cotton shirt or woollen scarf you want to alter. Pick something white, that will make things a little less complicated for the moment. You can choose Cellulose or Protein-based fibre, but I’ll tell you that even in my basic attempts, I very quickly discovered that protein fibres are a lot more responsive and easier to work with for a first timer like me, or you. I dyed a bunch of linen, some cotton and some really nice lambswool and mohair scarves that Vivian and I wove on Hatty the Hattersley loom at our shop on Hout Street in Cape Town.
Stuart has recently woven a new scarf (the Kenza Scarf, coming soon!) using bamboo and a mohair and lambswool blend on his sample loom. He calls her Sally, Sally the sample loom. So with rolls of this fabric around I had to give it a try.
Next, you will need a mordant or a fixative. There are many mordants available, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and quirks and each suited to particular fibres. A mordant can be as simple as some rusty nails boiled in water (iron), as common as salted water (like making pasta, just not at the same time!) or as scientific as KAl(SO4)2·12H2O. Some mordants get applied after dyeing and some during dyeing, but most are added before dyeing. In this case, I chose to use Alum, as I was dyeing a blend of protein and cellulose fibres. Alum isn’t the most ‘natural’ mordant around, but it is food safe in small quantities. In the long run we’d like to be using completely natural mordants and dyes, the future looks bright.
And then you need your dye of choice. Natural dyes, naturally, come in every shade, from nude to navy. I’ve used beetroot, onion skins, turmeric, eucalyptus and various other things. You should have seen the looks I got while I was picking out all the onion skins at the Checkers veggie aisle! I’ve even done three different colours out of one pot of red cabbage dye by changing the pH of the mix, science! There are many ways of making your natural dyes, but most often you simply boil the collected ‘dyestuff’ in water to get the colour out. To facilitate this at larger volumes, we sewed up a massive ‘teabag’!
For these scarves, I went for a walk in the forest, a stroll in the veld & a stomp down the driveway and collected a little bit of everything that I could see. Then I spent the next few days testing small swatches of fabric in dyes that I made from the various things I collected. I sampled different fynbos varieties, tree bark, leaves and even lichen. The two colours I liked the most was a green I got from the pink flowers we call ‘heather’ from the Erica family and a yellow I got from a handful of tiny yellow flowers. The yellow flowers turned out to be a species of Helichrysum. So I spent a rainy Sunday morning collecting tiny flowers by hand with my father-in-law, how’s that for male bonding?
And then I followed this basic process.
- Create your natural dye. Experiment and there are plenty of recipes to try, did you know you can get purple from lichen?
- Prepare your fabric by applying your mordant.
- Dye your fabric.
- Wash, dry and enjoy.
We cut and naturally dyed two Kenza scarves in each of the colours, I’ve named them the Erica and the Heli – because I’m completely uncreative when it comes to naming. The four naturally dyed scarves will exclusively be available online, so if you want one of them, please find them here.