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Using Dyes & Dye Aides

Madder Root Red on Cotton and Wool

The historic "Turkey Red" recipe is definitely the best natural, rich, lasting red dye for cotton. Turkey Red's main ingredient is Madder Root. It is, however, quite the challenge even for experienced dyers, as it has so many steps.

Gösta Sandberg in his book, "The Red Dyes, Cochineal, Madder, and Murex Purple, a World Tour of Textile Techniques", summarizes the process into 10 major operations, each one broken into many steps of precision. Paraphrased, the Turkey Red recipe steps include: thorough scouring of the cotton, soaking in a "dung bath" of sheep dung and olive oil three times, wringing out and drying between each dung dip, mordanting in a "white bath" of potash in a wooden vessel three times, drying in between each mordant bath, rinsing in river water, then "gallering" (treating with tannin and sumac), then mordanting with alum and potash for 12 hours, thoroughly drying for several days, then "maddering" (dyeing with madder and chalk in copper kettle) until the color is "beautiful and lively", then set in a tin bath, then washed in a soap solution containing olive, peanut, and palm core oil whipped into a lather, then rinsed and dried in the shade. Whew!

Jim Liles, in his book "Art and Craft of the Natural Dyer", explains the steps well, and has reduced the historic time for producing it (approximately 3 months) to "just" 3 weeks, and he uses some modern day substitutes for some of the ingredients (no dung). But there are still many steps.

As an alternative, you can get a fairly good Madder Root Red on cotton, wool or other protein or cellulose fibers. You may dye your natural fibers in any form: fabric, yarns, loose fibers, basket reed, et cetera. Thoroughly wash your wool, or scour your cotton or other material. (We carry a cotton "scour" liquid from Michelle Wipplinger). Then mordant the cotton or other cellulose fibers with Alum Acetate or use the Potasium alum plus Soda ash recipe following. For wool, mordant with Potasium alum without the Soda ash. (For this recipe, do not add cream of tartar with the alum, as is commonly done for wool.)

Meanwhile, the madder root contains both red and yellow dyes, and the yellow is more readily soluble in water, so it comes off first. The Alizarin chemical in madder which yields the red is not readily soluble, so it takes a little longer to retrieve.

I recommend putting the ground roots in a muslin bag and letting them soak overnight. Then bring the bath to simmer (don't boil madder, or reds will turn brown), and steep for an hour. Pour off this liquid. It will be orange. Cover the bag of madder root again with cold water and simmer again for one hour. Pour off liquid. You can save these initial pourings for orange colors. By the third or fourth bath you'll be pulling more reds.

I leave the bag of ground roots in the bath with the fibers, but you do need to stir more frequently if you do this, or you may have splotches on the fabric. (On locks of wool, this is okay, as it will all be carded together anyway.) Bring the bath up to simmer with the fibers in and hold it around 160 degrees F for an hour and a half. Then gradually increase the temp up to 190 degrees F for 30 minutes. Let the fibers cool in the bath or over night.

Remove the fibers from the dye bath. I like to let the dyed fibers air out or dry first. This seems to set the colors better. Then madder root-dyed fibers love an alkaline washing to brighten and deepen the reds. Use an alkaline soap or a little lye in the wash water. Then rinse well and dry.

Have fun!

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Mordanting processes for cotton and other cellulose fibers

Mordanting cotton or linen with potasium alum requires a 4 to 1 ratio of fiber to alum, plus a 4 to 1 ratio of alum to soda ash. In other words, for one pound of cellulose fiber, thoroughly scoured, use 4 ounces alum & 1 ounce soda ash. Simmer fiber in the mordant bath, with both ingredients, for one hour, stirring occasionally. Let cool in the bath over night. Thoroughly rinse in the morning, then dry and store until ready to dye, or dye immediately.

For the Alum/Tannin/Alum mordanting process (some dyes work better with this three-step process for cotton -- it chemically opens up more bonding sites for the dye to attach to): Do the above alum recipe the first day. The second day simmer one ounce of tannic acid (dissolved first in hot water) with cotton for one hour, stirring frequently, as the tannin can streak, then let cool over night. Third day thoroughly rinse out fibers, then repeat fist day's recipe with a fresh bath of alum and soda ash. Fourth day thoroughly rinse, then you are ready to dye.

This sounds like a long process, but it really doesn't take much time each day, and it does hold onto the color much better for dyes on cotton.

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Non-fading Pokeberry Recipe

Recently there was a thread on one of the fiber lists on using pokeberries as a dye, and on whether or not pokeberry colors fade. My response was basically that it depends on how acetic the dye bath was. Following that, I received personal requests for more clarification and actual recipes. Feeling this may be of general interest, we've added the recipe here.

There are so many surprizes with pokeberry. I've been experimenting with it for 18 years. I even prepared an interesting University research project as part of my masters program, taking berries from three different soils, and using three different water sources, and premordanting in various mineral salts, to try to determine various effects on the color. (Why would copper turn the color to buff yellow? Why do the mineral salts seem to "cause" the color to fade?) Still many unanswered questions.

Pokeberry colors range from bright fushia to magenta to raspberry, and will last for several years by following the below recipe. Three factors seem to greatly effect the color and color retention: the concentration of dyestuff to fiber, and the degree of acidity of the mordant and dye baths, and the length of time fibers remain in each step of the process.

I don't take accurate measurements when dyeing with native plants, but I'll estimate for you. The proportion of dyestuff to fiber is critical. I find the higher the ratio of pokeberries to fibers, the more color-fast. I never weigh pokeberries, so don't know what a bucket of pokeberries weighs, but would estimate one-to-two gallons of berries (off the stems and crushed) to 8 ounces of fiber would be good. Try 4 oz. of 56% acetic acid to enough water to comfortably float the fibers (about 1.5 to 2 gallons). Thoroughly wash and rinse the fibers, while damp enter fibers into acid water, bring to a high simmer (180-190 degrees F) for two hours and leave over night to cool in bath. Meanwhile add acid water to the crushed pokeberries, steep for 30 minutes (don't get temp too high or you may loose the brilliant red), then let cool overnight. Next day strain the seeds from the dyebath. Remove the fibers from acid ath. Combine the dyebath and the left over acid bath and put the fibers back in. Then cook at a medium high temp (160-180 degree F) for two hours. Leave fibers in bath for several hours or over night. Remove fibers, squeeze and lay out on screens in shade for couple hours to oxydize. Then thoroughly rinse off excess dye (do not use soap or anything alkaline) and dry.

Over-dyeing skeins and raw silk fabric in indigo, once the pokeberry is set, will give purples (surprise, as indigo is alkaline!) Once I dyed a skeing of wool first in pokeberries, then in indigo, for one of the most beautiful purples I'd ever seen. Then, being very tired, and very much a pokeberry-dyeing novice, left the skein in a bowl of warm water and Dawn dishwashing liquid overnight! The next morning the skein had turned sage green!! Another time I dyed locks of wool first in pokeberries (with weaker vinegar) then in indigo, and after rinsing, had the most unusual colors on each lock. The alkaline of the indigo seemed to effect only part of the pokeberry dye. There was red, blue, green and purple, all on the same locks of wool! I'm sure the way the cut end and tip ends of locks takes dyes differently, had a lot to do with the variations! While doing two-day historic dye demonstrations, I always noted that the pokeberry colors, even WITH postmordant mineral salts, hich were left in the dye baths overnight were always darker and more color-fast than colors allowed in the bath for only the usual hour or so.

However, the best color, and color retention, was discovered toward the end of a dye workshop with author and dye master Jim Lyles at the Campbell Folk School in 1995. A fellow student, Jeri Forkner, and I couldn't resist picking buckets of pokeberries after dark on the evening before the last day of class. We set up the dye baths late at night, and, having run out of vinegar, dumped in some 56% acetic acid and left the dye bath, and fibers in the mordant bath, overnight. The bright magenta colors on the wool skeins and raw silk fabric samples were impressive, even to Dr. Lyles. And to this day, years later, there's no sign of fading, whereas a similar skein, mordanted in vinegar only, is showing signs of yellowing.

Pokeberry is my favorite dye plant. My favorite color. A graceful shrub. And we EAT the tender poke leaves/stalk when it first comes up in the spring. Tastes JUST like asparagus!! It took a couple years to convince my husband not to remove every pokeberry volunteer sprouting up in our back yard. But now, we encourage every one-- even in our vegetable garden. They always surround our compost pile (where the seeds are dumped following workshops.) It is such an honored plant, we use it as part of our company logo. Hope you learn to enjoy it as much as I.

spacer.gif (45 bytes)Back to Basics, Naturally, Carol Leigh

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