Natural dye day

I spent yesterday learning natural dyeing with friend and fellow OCA student Claire (her blog). Claire has done a lot with natural dyes in the past. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid them.

Briefly, I’ve felt my synthetic dyes give great results and a lot of control and reliability – in colour mixing and fastness (wash fast, rub fast, light fast…). “Natural” dyes are a gamble every time. I don’t accept all of the hype of “natural” – what mordants are used, how is the waste disposed of, how long did that lichen used take to grow on the rock…? I live in a city – is my impact on our environment significantly less if I change the dyes I occasionally use? Still, even if “natural” isn’t better in the misty-eyed holier-than-thou way espoused by some, it can certainly give some beautiful results.

It was a great day.

natural_dye_01We start with a pile of fresh plant material. Banksias and gum trees around our homes received a minor pruning, less than a moderate breeze would bring down. A few weeds were pulled out by the roots. In one pot we put bruised eucalpytus leaves, in the other banksia. Steep in water for a while, bring to the boil, add selected mordant. Claire put iron sulphate (darkens) with the gum leaves and copper sulphate (brightens) with the banksia.

We used a mix of fabrics and papers, preparing them with ties, clamps and leaf inserts. Fabrics were in the pot for around two hours, paper we aimed at one (but got a bit distracted). We unwrapped and rinsed the fabrics straight away, the paper we unfolded and laid them flat as best we could. I put my fabrics through a gentle machine wash, hung to dry overnight, then ironed some.

1. Silk habotai, around 8 mm. Wrapped around pvc pipe (no overlapping), tied with string and pushed down. No plant matter included. In eucalyptus and iron pot.


The colouring has a very attractive smokey effect. I like the simplicity – monochromatic, variations on a line. I haven’t ironed it (yet?) – just enjoying the texture at the moment. I was thinking of the surface distortion projects while preparing it – especially accordion pleats and linear crumpling (yet to be posted).
A good reminder that less is (can be!) more.

2. Silk chiffon- folded in half, plant material on, sides folded in, accordion fold, tied between perspex squares. In eucalyptus and iron pot.


Virtually all the patterning is from the clamping and tying. In the detail there is a shadow of green – possibly it will discolour or fade over time. The tie lines are particularly effective, but best of all is when the fabric is moving and drifting – smoke and clouds.

3. Tussah silk. Banksia leaves were placed in a zig-zag down the centre half of the fabric. The sides were folded in, creating two layers of fabric overall. I wanted to fold in half again to create four folds, which proved extremely difficult. The leaves kept shifting. The end placement wasn’t as formal as I intended. Then accordion fold, between perspex, and clamped. In eucalyptus and iron pot.


The dark lines of framing are clearer on one side, the imprint of the leaves on the other. I really like the range of colour and texture in the leaf imprints. The tussah silk has a rougher texture but still some shine, which works well with this natural look. This is lovely to hold and fold. A lot of variety and interest.

natural_dye_164. Testing swatch – banksia leaves and copper sulphate pot. I was quite slow preparing my earlier pieces of fabric, and only did some quick knotting of a random swatch of silk for the second pot.
It’s pictured here with sample 1. A much softer colour. I think much less colour was leached out of the harder leaves, and of course the mordant is different.

5. Paper. I used 200 gsm canson watercolour paper, torn in half, then folded in half, and interleaved with baking paper, with plant material between every layer. We painted egg on the leaves, with the idea that this would enhance the colour transfer (this is sometimes done for cotton or cellulose fabrics, not protein-based like wool and silk). Claire and I helped each other clamp the lumpy, unwieldy piles.


A few lessons learned.
* Perspex is a bad choice in boiling pots. There was some distortion in the fabric parcels, but on the paper, being so uneven in level, was extreme.
* Generally Claire leaves paper in the pot around one hour, as it gets too soft. We got distracted, talking and looking at things in her studio, and left it much longer.
* Egg protein may help dyeing cloth, but it acts like glue on paper.

Unfolding the paper and removing the leaves was a challenge, but the results were often lovely. A great range of marks and a surprising range of colours. At the moment I’m thinking of binding the watercolour pages into a little book and using the baking pages in collage. I know Claire has done some more dyeing today, and I’m looking forward to seeing her finished results and what she does next.

13 Responses to “Natural dye day”


  1. 1 epocktextiles (Jane B) April 5, 2015 at 10:09 am

    you definitely need to be prepared for serendipitous results – I also feel that we must keep the use of mordants in mind when disposing, so prefer to talk about leaf printing (when I remember). Some nice results here Judy – and certainly good for fabric manipulation

    • 2 fibresofbeing April 5, 2015 at 11:45 am

      Letting go of control is tricky – but it was so exciting when we were undoing our bundles and discovering our treasures inside. A real thrill.

  2. 3 kath April 5, 2015 at 10:10 am

    looks like a fun day! beautiful work. nice to see how the banksia’s come out. do the grasses/lomandra imprint lines

    • 4 fibresofbeing April 5, 2015 at 11:47 am

      Paper seemed the best substrate for capturing the softer materials. Watch Claire’s blog – I know she’s been doing more and getting great results.

  3. 5 Claire B April 5, 2015 at 10:44 am

    Great post, Judy, and great results. I’ve done a second dye lot and am doing a final few today, then will post my results. The second lot were done ‘eggless’ and have given better results.
    For those concerned about the mordants we used they were bought from the gardening section of the hardware store and are made to adjust soil ph to improve plant growth, so they don’t damage the environment and they do break down in the ground. I have a specific waste area where I tip the pot remains so I don’t accidentally feed the wrong food to the wrong plants.

    • 6 fibresofbeing April 5, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Yes, careful selection and disposal of chemicals, so no problems at all with our day. I’ve just had some run-ins with zealots who didn’t seem to notice that they were actually using chemicals and seemed the feel to convert or condemn others.

  4. 7 Nola April 5, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Gorgeous results, looks like a good day was had! You’re welcome to come over and raid my garden – the ironbark leaves yield orange and the bark a dark brown-black, which makes a nice contrast. Plus I have a few that do nice yellows (doesn’t everyone?).

    I dispose of my chemicals next to my oleander bush. It’s toxic anyway…


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