Mad In Pursuit Notebook


Alchemy + botany

Thursday, 11.13.2014. I thought dyeing with indigo was alchemy because of its witch's-brew froth and magical emergence of blue from lime green. Then I thought that dyeing cloth with Procion MX dyes was alchemy because of the "secret" formulas and unpredicable results... that only came with patient waiting. But now I know that dyeing with natural botanicals is where the true mystic chemistry resides. I've been consulting India Flint's Eco-Colour: Botanical Dyes for Beautiful Textiles and Sasha Duerr's Handbook of Natural Plant Dyesas well as numerous websites. It is chemistry, yes, in that plant color bonds with fiber, usually with the help of "mordants" like iron, aluminum, copper, etc. But it seems to be chemistry for people who love the unpredictable... people who believe that the mysteries of the unpredictable are gold. I am realizing that books and articles are guides only... read them, then go with your instincts.

This week we jumped in. What I want is cloth that not only contains natural color, but also captures some vague imprint of the botanical matter. Here in upstate NY, the leaves are disappearing fast, though we have still not had a hard frost to kill the last of the flowers.

Geraniums. Sunday I collected the leaves and flowers of our remaining scarlet geraniums and put them in the freezer.

Today I found a webpage on using red geraniums and forged ahead. I soaked some vintage linen in water + a smidge of alum for about 1-1/2 hrs. Then I sprinkled the frozen petals and leaves over the cloth. Kind of romantic-looking, isn't it? I love red geraniums.

I rolled up the cloth and was pleased to see the red color already transferring to the linen. Next, I steamed the bundle for 20 minutes in my asparagus steamer (which only holds 10 minutes of water, oops). Like the lady on the webpage did, I'll let it sit around and do it again tomorrow. Time seems to be the essence of natural dyeing. I have no idea if the leaves will impart any color. My geranium bundle image below. Cont'd here>>>

Maple leaves. In another leap of faith, I plucked a bunch of red maple leaves by the creek on Monday's walk. Then, Jim and I picked up fallen leaves from a sugar maple tree (or maybe it's a Norway maple) on our way home from the gym. I had seen the results of "cold bundling" -- lovely leaf imprints. And I read that silk was best vehicle for this process, since it didn't need a mordant. But, me being me, I decided to soak 2 pieces of vintage linen in (1) baking soda and (2) alum... just to see what would happen.

We dampened the two lengths of linen, arranged our sugar maple leaves, layered on the white silk scarf, spritzed on some more water, and rolled the lovely mess into a bundle.

The bundle went into a Mason jar and will sit on our bedroom window sill for three weeks or so. I think the alchemy here involves a little, shall we say, composting.

Our second cold bundle involves a laying the red maple leaves on a single layer of white silk (photo at top). Because I've been reading about how letting silk soak in sea water does [something magical], I sprinkled some sea salt on the fabric before rolling it up.

This bundle, too, will now sit on our window sill till December.

If your first efforts turn out too pale, the advice goes, just use the fabric as a base for your next experiment. So that is what I'll do.

Stay tuned for the results.