Natural Color! What a weaver sees on the side of the road

It’s that time of the year when the sides of the road are abundantly colorful with weeds. Weeds to some. Free sources of amazing color to others.

what a weaver sees qa

This is a picture of my front yard. The white flowers are the tops of a plant know as Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot. This humble weed produces an array of greens in the dyer’s kettle.  So as the summer progresses, I have to resist stopping every few feet to collect these precious and humble weeds for my dyepot. It’s getting near the end of the season, so I need to start feeding in to the urge. Hmmm, today is a good day for that.

So why would I want to do this? Look at these colors from my Queen Anne’s Lace dye experiment:

queen anne's lace project

Except for the orangey yarn in the lower left, the other colors are all from Queen Anne’s Lace. In fact, they were all dyed at the same time in the same dyepot. The variation in color comes from the type of fiber being dyed, the mordant and the modifier. In natural dying with local plants, an additional variable is the plant material itself. There can be differences in the result of the final color based on when in the season a plant is harvested to use, if it is fresh or dried, and the conditions the plant grew under such as amount of rain and temperature. These variations are often subtle, but a reason for the weaver/dyer to dye all that is needed for a particular project at one time

I mentioned 3 variables that determine the final color and will expand on those.

The type of fiber determines how the dye is absorbed. Dyers will dye almost anything to see how it comes out, and many weavers will use almost any fiber or item creatively in their weaving. A fiber is the material that the yarn is spun from. In this experiment, I used commercially spun yarns, but handspun yarn and even unspun fiber can be dyed in the same dyepot with wonderful and varied results. Natural fibers are those that occur naturally on animals and in plants; synthetics in the labs, such as rayon or acrylic. Some synthetics will take dye, many will not. Rayon, for example, will take dye, as it is the process that creates rayon from a natural source: cellulose.

Some natural fibers are protein based: wool from sheep; the coats of alpaca and llama and their cousins; bison; musk ox and other four footed animals. Silk is also a protein based natural fiber.

Plant based natural fibers are well, plants. Familiar ones are cotton, linen and  ramie, but there are many more, and grist for another article.

A second variant in the final color is the mordant. Most natural dyestuffs create what is called a fugitive color, meaning that the color will fade or wash out without a fixative. The mordant, which in French means “to bite”, is the fixative to make the color permanent, or more permanent. Unlike synthetic dyes, which create permanent, unchanging, brilliant and reproducible color, natural dyes do fade over time, especially when exposed to sunlight. I used alum to mordant in this experiment for protein-based yarns. Alum is also used in preparing  plant based fibers, and then tannin to help the create richer colors.

A third variant in color is the modifer, that is a chemical that is used after the dyeing to alter the color. Here I used copper and iron. Tin, ammonia (alkali) vinegar (acid) and a variety of other modifiers can also be used to shift colors.

This is just a small taste of natural dyeing, stay tuned for more!

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