Since I started teaching natural dyes at West Dean College, I have had a problem. How could I save, transport and use litres of expensive dye not fully exhausted on the course? I travel with two large beer-making flagons containing indigo, but transporting additional containers of weld, madder and cochineal isn’t feasible – and I hate waste.
For some years I have been working with my friend and colleague Yuli Sømme, who commissions me to dye different shades of wool felt for her company Bellacouche, in Moretonhampstead (see link below). If I have pieces of mordanted and wetted-out felt ready, I can dunk it into the vats on the final night at the College, and by the next morning much of the used dye is exhausted and the felts dyed. I can rinse out the felts and take them home in empty buckets. The exhausted dye can be discarded.
But if students need the vats on the final day, or I am travelling home the day I finish teaching, I don’t have the option of using Yuli’s felt and the leftover dyes.
The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: by Catharine Ellis and Joy Boutrop
A newly-published book by Catharine Ellis and Joy Boutrop has encouraged me to experiment with making lake pigments from the leftover dyes at West Dean. Their suggested process greatly reduces the volume to be transported and involves binding the leftover dye to the alum mordant, thus turning it into a concentrated lake pigment. The pigment is precipitated using alum and soda ash and sinks to the bottom of the vessel, leaving the water on the surface, which can be poured off.
The resulting substance is strained through cloth and when this process is complete, a gooey, paste-y mixture like thick custard remains.
By reversing the chemical process at home, again using the instructions in the book, I can dye pieces of wetted-out felted wool – which do not require a mordant.
It is typical of this book, which in its entirety covers a very wide range of natural dye processes, that methods are well-explained, options or alternatives outlined, and reasons given for certain instructions. Recipes are clear and easy to follow and I would have greatly valued the book in my library when I started natural dyeing because of its comprehensive treatment of the subject and a thoroughly researched, straightforward approach. I will write more in future posts because I am still learning so much from the work of these two authors.
Since my West Dean course last month I have made pigments from madder and weld lakes, and tried mixing them with indigo and earth pigments.
At time of writing, this book isn’t readily available in the UK. Check this link on the Blackwell’s site to see if it is in stock.
Yuli Sømme’s company in Moretonhampstead, Devon
My next natural dye course at West Dean is March 27 – 29th 2020.