art, Asheville, dyeing, fiber art, Slow cloth

Natural Dyeing with Dede Styles, Part II – Dye pots

Preparing the rhododendron leaves while our fabrics and yarn skeins soaked in a mordant bath with alum. We only used the older leaves, not the new, sticky shoots and new leaves. The breeze felt great but it kept blowing out the gas stoves.

The rhododendron leaf dyepot: We simmered the leaves for about an hour in a cast iron pot, scooped them out and strained the dye through a cloth, then put the fiber in the hot dyebath (about 160 degrees) for three hours. The iron pot acts as a second mordant which darkens and dulls the color.

Here are the yarn samples Eileen and I got with the rhododendron dyepot. Top to bottom: silk, wool, and cotton.

^^^Barbara scoops out the cooked mullein leaves after about 45 minutes.

We tore up the mullein leaves the same way, but we made two dyepots with the mullein leaves. One pot was brass, which contains enough copper to be a mordant. Copper brightens and pushes a color toward blue or green. The other pot was stainless steel, which doesn’t have any effect on the dye. You can buy copper (called blue vitriol) and iron (called copperas) mordants if you don’t have the pots. Or you can throw in pieces of scrap metal. Old dye books talk about using tin and chrome for mordants, but hardly anyone uses them any more, especially chrome, which is extremely toxic and hard on the fibers. When I first tried natural dyeing, my teacher used chrome. The yarn fell apart a few years later. Not worth the vibrant colors if it is toxic. Another instance of “just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it is safe.”

More notes:
Mordanting with alum: Use 15% alum to the dry weight of the fiber, more for heavy fiber. Dede uses 4 oz. of alum for 1 lb. of coarse wool. Dissolve the alum in the water first, then cream of tartar (if used). Cream of tartar helps the alum brighten the color. Don’t use cream of tartar if dyeing in an iron pot because it will move the color to brown. Add the fibers at 160 degrees for at least 45 minutes. Avoid abrupt temperature changes and lots of agitation with wool or it will felt.

Adding vinegar to cochineal in an iron pot gives you a beautiful purple.

Grape leaves in an iron pot gives you olive green.

Boiling fibers make the yellow colors look dingy.

Don’t use an aluminum pot because it makes the colors blotchy. Unless you like blotchy colors (I do). “Use a bright pot for a bright color” and vice versa.

^^^Dede’s samples:

1. Goldenrod in alum
2. Goldenrod in iron
3. Goldenrod boiled
4. Daisy fleabane in alum
5. Daisy fleabane in iron
6. Daisy fleabane cooked longer in iron

I hope I remembered that right because Dede is not interested in looking at this blog to correct me! Although she was generous with her cell phone number and address, she is definitely not an Internet person.

More of her samples:

I wish that I had brought a few fabric swatches to try, but I got to see the others’ fabric samples, such as Sharon’s wool felt and Barbara’s silk.

Here are my samples. From top to bottom:
Wool, rhododendron, alum mordant in iron pot
Wool, rhododendron, alum mordant in iron pot, dyed longer
Wool, mullein, alum mordant in brass pot
Wool, mullein, alum mordant in brass pot, dyed longer
Wool, mullein, alum mordant in stainless steel pot
Wool, mullein, alum mordant in stainless steel pot, dyed longer
Silk, mullein, alum mordant in brass pot
Silk, mullein, alum mordant in stainless steel pot
Silk, rhododendron, alum mordant in iron pot

Dede gave me most of this dried broom sedge to bring home so I plan to give it a try this weekend. I just can’t express enough how much I enjoyed this day, learning with a master natural dyer with such a sparkling impish wit. She was a true delight, and it lifted the cloud that’s been hanging over me for months now. I feel rejuvenated.

4 thoughts on “Natural Dyeing with Dede Styles, Part II – Dye pots”

  1. do wear rubber gloves if you’re planning to do more dyeing with rhododendrons….they are extremely poisonous and you don’t want that stuff on your skin


  2. Thanks for the tip, India. I am terrible about wearing gloves, and when I do, seems like I always poke a hole in them. I know that it is important though.


  3. Hi,

    I am just getting started with natural dyeing. I have lots of mullein that I was going to weed whack, but now I think I should dye with it. I am a little confused about which samples above were from the mullein. You certainly got some great colors, you must have been thrilled.

    in the Sierra


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