A book of dye recipes by weaver Ethel Mairet was first published in Ditchling, Sussex, in 1916. Its title is Vegetable Dyes. Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is undertaking a collaborative project to re-interpret and recreate Mairet’s recipes, with the help of contemporary dyers. There is a considerably large number to complete.
However, not all Mairet’s recipes are safe by today’s standards. Some use toxic chemicals once common in historic use, such as chrome, tin, sulphuric acid, quicklime, lead and zinc and these recipes are excluded from the project, or some individual ingredients amended. Environmental considerations have changed over the years and it is no longer recommended (or permitted) to dye with certain plant material. Lichen dyes, for instance, appear in the book but are omitted from the project because they are rare in many areas and some species are protected. Lichen recipes will be dyed, but by one specialist in Scotland. I am happy with this decision: those who have read my blog for a while know my feelings about dyeing with lichens.
The project is open to natural dyers who are confident handling their materials and they can ‘apply’ for recipes as I did, through the Museum website. The Museum sends material to be dyed; the dyer supplies dyestuff.
In Douglas Pepler’s Introduction he quotes the opening lines of the Gospel of St John (In the Beginning..) to illustrate his belief in the ‘goodness’ inherent in discoveries which mankind achieves for the first time. In tracing the subsequent destruction of quality through an urge for quantity (and one assumes, profit), he remarks that this inherent ‘goodness’ is lost. This was true, he suggests, when natural dyes were supplanted by those synthesised by chemists.
In a similar vein Ethel Mairet writes:
‘Dyeing is an art; the moment science dominates it is is an art no longer, and the craftsmen must go back to the time before science touched it, and begin all over again.’
The book is available online.Decisions
I selected two cochineal recipes to dye onto silk yarn and ‘ordered’ them online from Ditchling Museum. The original recipes were for wool, but the project organisers offered the silk option and I chose it in preference to wool. One recipe (7, above) uses iron to give a purple shade. (Note that cochineal is an insect, not a vegetable dye, but is included in Mairet’s book).
Many recipes which Mairet collected from the 17th C onwards, before science touched them, are scant on explanation and assume prior knowledge. Compare them, for example, to a contemporary book where a recipe can occupy a page of explanations and options.
So, following the two recipes wasn’t straightforward and often puzzling. I would never in normal practice add wool or silk to a boiling vat. So how should I interpret ‘Boil and enter wool while boiling, till the required colour is got.’? And should I rinse after mordanting in recipe 4, or sling the cochineal and cream of tartar straight into the mordant as is suggested by the word ‘add‘? In recipe 7, what colour is considered violet? What does a 1 oz solution of iron mean? And so on. I had to make some of it up as I went along.
Happily, I had no spectators when calculating the Mairet quantities to simple percentages.
I’m including my recipe reports under the links, below. They are not of interest to everyone but indicate some quandaries faced when using historic recipes.
Get involved in the dye project here
Download Ethel Mairet’s book here
Here My earlier blog about Mairet’s madder recipes
Here My blog on dyeing with lichens
Recipe report page 93, recipe 4: silk
PINK WITH COCHINEAL FOR WOOL
12 gram silk skein supplied
Calculations were made at
12% cream of tartar
Cochineal ground finely in pestle and mortar.
Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.
Mordanting was started cold so that the silk would not be entered at boiling point as the recipe requested (unwise for silk) but was raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes.
It would normally be my practice to allow the silk to cool in the mordant and rinse, but the recipe seemed specific about procedure as follows:
Then add 1lb. Cochineal and 5lbs cream of tartar
So I kept the silk in the very hot mordant liquid and added the cochineal and cream of tartar. The colour seemed to ‘take’ immediately and after half an hour the vat looked to be exhausted. The recipe suggests that items be left in the vat till the required colour is got . To obtain a lighter pink, this would have meant removing the yarn after a very short time in the vat which as far as I’m concerned isn’t very good practice. So, using this recipe, a lighter pink would be best obtained by reducing the percentage of dyestuff.
The colour in the sample therefore reflects the 6% of cochineal used.
Recipe report page 94, recipe 7: silk
VIOLET FOR WOOL
12 gram silk skein supplied
The following quantities used:
1.5 gr alum
.75 gr cochineal
Iron water as described below
Cochineal was ground finely in pestle and mortar. Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.
No method was given for mordanting in the recipe. Mordanting was started cold and the vat raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes, as in my sample for the p. 93 recipe 4 sample. However, for this recipe I allowed the silk to cool in the mordant for several hours and then rinsed it. This is because the recipe seemed to separate the mordant and dye processes, unlike the p. 93 recipe.
Because there was no specific mention of cream of tartar in this recipe (and there was on p. 93), I did not use it in the mordant.
A clean vat was made with cold water and the cochineal added. The silk was entered into the vat and stirred: the colour ‘took’ quickly. The recipe states that the cochineal and iron should be added at the same time but I was reluctant to do this because I do not use ferrous sulphate. Instead I keep a jar of iron water, made with rusty nails, water and vinegar. This serves my dyeing purposes well but means that for this project I could not calculate what the recipe’s 1 oz solution of iron would represent in terms of iron water. I was therefore wary of adding too much too soon.
I therefore dyed the silk yarn for a full half hour, and the vat was exhausted. I added 1 ml iron water to the vat and after ten minutes there was an appreciable change in colour so I removed the yarn.
When the yarn had dried I decided it wasn’t ‘violet’ – or at least not violet enough. So I divided the skein into three equal parts, keeping the original colour as Skein 1. Skein 2 was wetted out, reintroduced into the vat with a further 1 ml iron water, and removed after ten minutes. Skein 3 was wetted out, and reintroduced into the vat with a further 2 mls iron water.
All skeins washed and rinsed to remove iron.
NOTE: The colour of the dyed silk prior to the addition of the iron was almost identical to the sample obtained for p. 93. The two sets of samples thus offer a good progression from pink through to violet and purple.
Cochineal source The cochineal was sourced from Lanzarote.