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A glossary of dyeing and spinning terminology can be found here.
How Do You Natural Dye?
Natural dyeing is a two or three step process. The first process is mordanting. Mordanting involves soaking the yarn or fiber and then bringing it up to a simmer in a mordant bath. The second step is dyeing either in a vat or by painting the dye onto the yarn or fiber. The third step is indigo dyeing.
What Are Natural Dyes?
Natural Dyes are the dyes that were used before the invention of synthetic dyes. Most natural dyes are made from plants. Barks often contain a lot of tannin and yield browns or earthy colors. Leaves almost always give yellows, golds, or tans. Heartwood can give yellow (osage orange), purply-red (brazilwood), or purple (logwood). Lichens and mushrooms can create a wide range of colors from pink to purple to green to tans. The most famous root, madder, can make a vivid red, orange, or peach. Flowers, or even whole plants such as weld (electric yellow) or goldenrod (golden yellow) can also be dye stuffs.
The other category of natural dyes is scale insects. Cochineal is a scale insect from Central and South America. It makes a range of pinks, from pale candy pink to a vivid hot pink, to reds with a pink cast. With a bit of iron it will create beautiful purples. Lac is a scale insect from Asia. It secretes a resinous pigment. The pigment is where the lac dye stuff comes from. Lac yields purplish pink to red colors. Lac is the same insect that makes shellac.
Why Do Natural Dyes Require Mordants?
Mordants provide the bond between the fiber or yarn and the dye. All dyes require a mordant. Synthetic dyes contain mordant within the dye. Sometimes these integral mordants in synthetic dyes are heavy metals. Natural dyes can be much safer than synthetic dyes.
Are Mordants Safe?
At Tactile we only use Aluminum Sulfate, commonly called alum. Alum is a safe and common ingredient in everyday items. It is a primary ingredient in baking powder, styptic pencils, and is a ph reducer used in garden soil. Alum also has industrial uses. It is regularly used in municipal water purification, concrete, and as a foaming agent in fire fighting foam. We use a technical grade, which is one small step below food grade Alum. We also use cream of tartar and small amounts of iron as color modifiers.
Some mordants are not safe. Traditionally copper, chrome, and tin where all used as mordants. These mordants must be used very carefully and disposed of as hazardous waste. We feel that we can achieve a broad range of colors with just Alum and dont see a need to use any other mordants.
What Is Indigo Dyeing?
Indigo is different from other natural dyes. The vat needs to be reduced, meaning the oxygen must be removed from the vat. Once the vat is reduced, it turns yellow or greenish yellow (called indigo white). The vat is now ready for dyeing. The yarn or fiber is dipped into the reduced indigo vat and removed fairly quickly. As it comes out, the indigo oxides and turns from a yellow or greenish yellow to blue. After 10-20 minutes the yarn or fiber will be fully oxidized and can be redipped. Sometimes the item will be dipped dozens of times to obtain a very deep color.
Indigo over a yellow dye like weld, osage orange, or pomegranate will yield a green color. Indigo over a pink such as cochineal will give a purple color. Indigo over a dark brown like cutch or walnut will create a black or near black.
Crocking or Why Are My Hands Blue?
Crocking is when indigo comes off of the yarn or fiber as you spin or knit. It cannot stain your skin or clothing and will wash off easily with soap and water. In order for indigo to be fast it must first be reduced (have the oxygen removed from the dyeing vat). Indigo is light and wash fast, but is subject to wearing off due to abrasion. Think of how your blue jeans will fade over time, especially in areas of wear. This is fading due to abrasion.
I strive to make sure your indigo dyed product will not crock. However, it may occur on occasion. Some fibers, such as Tencel are more prone to crocking. The only way to avoid all crocking is extensive rinsing. I try to find a balance between judicious water use and sufficient rinsing to ensure a quality and stable product.
My Yarn is Bleeding, What Should I do?
Some natural dyes are harder to rinse clear than others. This is more so for saturated colors. We work very hard to ensure this does not happen. If a naturally dyed yarn or fiber is bleeding color while you are working with it, please contact us a info AT tactilefiberarts.com. Do not recook it with vinegar. This only works for acid dyes. It will not help naturally dyed yarn or fiber. Vinegar is low in ph and can have the unintended consequence of shifting the color of naturally dyed products.