Last summer I resolved to try and make further use of the plants that I grow by employing them as natural textile dyes. When their season was through, I did a few experiments, dying various fabric scraps with the burgundy leaves and immature blooms of the large false roselle plants I had grown that year. Unfortunately, time quickly slipped through my fingers and the other plans I had in mind did not come to fruition.
This winter I have made a dramatic shift back to embroidery and my brain is consumed with thread. Recently, in preparation for the growing season, I have returned to experimentation, but this time I am dyeing threads rather than fabric.
One of the things I enjoy most about embroidery is its versatility. While, there are some rules, I see no reason why they can’t be broken. The material options available are nearly limitless. I’ve stitched into fancy linens, but I find that I prefer using scraps torn from old clothing and sheets. I’ve purchased floss new at craft and textile stores, but find that I most enjoy using vintage and second-hand threads that have been thrifted or purchased online. I’ve even used balls of cotton twine purchased at the corner store. Everything and anything will do and I am finding that I can find interesting materials in unexpected places.
Since balls of white, cotton crochet thread seems to be the easiest to find in thrift stores, I thought I would start buying those up cheaply and dyeing the thread in small batches using plant materials from my garden and food scraps that I happen to have on hand. These hand-dyed threads are not as brightly coloured as store-bought, but they have a certain charm and I like that garden and food scraps are seeing one more use before they head to the compost bin.
How To: All I did was soak the threads for an hour in water to prepare them to accept the colour. I then added 1 part used coffee grounds to 2 parts water and simmered it in a stainless steel pot along with the thread for about 30 minutes. I then turned off the heat and let them soak for a further 24 hours. The next morning I rinsed the threads thoroughly in lukewarm water and hung to dry.
Natural dyes take best when the fabric or threads have been pre-treated with a mordant. A mordant is a fixative that allows the dye to bind with the fabric or thread more readily. I haven’t been using mordants so far and haven’t been in a rush to bother. Next, I intend to experiment with all of the herbs that I dried last fall so that I can see what sort of colours they will make, giving me a better idea of what I may want to grow in larger batches this year.
I’ll write more posts later in the season as I go.
In the meantime, I recently purchased two books that can help you get started. Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess is full of useful information and technique; however, I found that the plant focus is geared more closely to natives of the West Coast and South West.
I haven’t had a chance yet to really sink into The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr, but as a general observation I’ve found that the plants covered are more suited to my region.
Do you use your garden (or foraged) plants to dye fibres for crafting and art making?
UPDATE: I’ve done a lot more experimentation since posting and have found that I don’t need to simmer on the stove. That may change depending on the plant (and the fibre), but I found that when I tried coffee again by simply brewing it in a small jar like a tea, the cotton thread dyed to the same intensity as it did when simmering. I’ve since tried a number of plant bits and scraps this way to the same end. You can see an updated photo with some new additions here.