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This post is part of the UK Herbarium blog party Gems from the Herbal Library.
When I was young, like many of that age I loved dyeing clothing. There was a magic in the transformation of an old favourite or a new opshop find simply by immersing it in coloured water. As a teen I used Dylon dyes, bought in wee metal containers from the supermarket or chemist. They were easy to use, affordable and perfect for teenage experiments. I remember the excitement when we discovered Dygon, the chemical that stripped existing colour from most cloth so it could be redyed in the colour of our choice. In my early twenties I moved on to procion dyes and screen printing, both giving me a much wider range of things to experiment and play with.
Somewhere in all that I remember collecting dandelions from the lawn of one memorable flat – the lawn was completely covered in brilliant yellow blossoms and I was sure there must be a way to get that brilliance into cloth. I don’t remember the technique I used, but the results were disappointing. The reading I did at the the time and the people I consulted all seemed to be saying that wool was relatively easy to dye, but cotton wasn’t, and either still needed chemicals of varying degrees of toxicity to make the dye take. I was already finding the procion dyes and screen printing chemicals came with impacts on human health and then when it dawned on me that those dyebaths and cleanup chemicals we were pouring down the drain at the end of the day had to actually go somewhere… well it was easiest to just stop. Occasionally I would read up some more on using plants to dye with, but it still seemed that overly toxic chemicals were needed and I could never reconcile that with the idea that people have made beautiful clothing for eons before we had those chemicals.
So it’s been my utter delight to discover the work of India Flint and other natural dye artists. Flint is an Australasian* fibre artist who has been working with plant dyes for twenty years, building up an impressive body of knowledge on what works and what we can experiment and play with successfully. What makes her work so exciting is the low level of toxicity of the substances she uses (many can be found in the kitchen), and her ecological sensibility – we can have beautiful fabric and clothing without damaging the land.
*Born and living in Australia but has connections into NZ and a deep understanding of the land here.
Flint has pioneered ‘eco-printing‘ on fabrics (using plants), and has specialised in the dye properties of many of Australia’s eucalypts (animal fibres will take eucalypt dyes without the need for any mordant).
The book Eco Colour is both a showcase of natural dyeing and an instructive on how to. A large format book, it’s is beautifully presented, with copious colour photos. These include examples of Flint’s work, the plants and the processes.
Flint has a clear communication of the problems with chemical dying – from the effect of what goes down the drain, to the impact on the dyer, and the impact on the wearer of having chemicals next to our skins (I can still sometimes pick the smell of dygon-like chemicals on commercial clothing that has obviously been through a predying process, especially wool).
I also love her ecological sensibility. On the issue of colourfastness, where commercial dyes are meant to last years and so strong, very toxic chemicals are used to achieve this, she advises that if naturally dyed cloth fades, you can simply re-dye it. For those of us that love simplicity and the magic of the dying process this is perfect.
Perhaps closest to my heart is the concept of bioregionalism. I’m a bioregional herbalist (I believe that most of our medicine can come from where we live) and Flint focusses on dying with the plants that grow around her. It’s hard to describe the importance of this sometimes, but on an obvious, practical, post-peak oil level the skill to create beauty from our landbase is invaluable.
More than that though, bioregionalism takes us into such a direct relationship with the land that it becomes impossible to not see the connections between the land, ourselves and how we treat the world. Flint’s work demonstrates and reflects that relationship, for which I am profoundly grateful. It’s not just the ability to craft fabric without excessive chemical use, it’s that the craft, the art and the play are taken back to their natural source in the land, and so are we.
In more practical terms Flint outlines many techniques: how to prepare dyes, the various mordants and what they can be used on, how time affects the process, the plants themselves and the colours they yield, health and safety (natural dyes and mordants need careful handling too), how the metal of the dyepot or resist can change colour etc. This is probably not the best book for an absolute beginner – it helps to know what a mordant is for instance, and basic dyeing techniques. Flint does explain each concept and technique as she goes, but she doesn’t give actual recipes. Natural dyes can be used by beginners more easily than harsh chemical dyes, so Eco Colour would sit well alongside a basic dyeing primer for those not used to the techniques (try the internet or library).
Many of the substances used in natural dyeing can be found at home or in the supermarket – soda, vinegar, milk – and Flint explains how these can be disposed of at the end of the dye-ing process. She also introduces the basic chemistries involved.
Although she has done extensive work with the native eucalypts, most of the plants in the book are common in many parts of the world. Further, the techniques are imminently transferable to any plant. I’m already eye-ing up plants in my neighbourhood wondering what dye would result.
There is an abundance of techniques to try out, ranging from the simple and known ordinary dye baths to the intriguing (ice dyeing) and the even more intriguing (compost dyeing). Flint intersperses the book with historical accounts, both from her own life and family traditions, her natural dyeing antecedents, and general plant dyeing background.
There are many things here to delight the herbalist. Flint talks about how plants high in alkaloids can be used as mordants and notes that many medicinal herbs will be useful in dyeing because of this. Tannin rich plants is the other obvious one.
I should point out that I’m not an artist. I have some craft skills but my experiments with plant dyes are mostly for practical purposes – how to transform the colour and look of fibre and cloth in ecologically sensitive ways, so that I can use them in my own life. While Flint is an artist and the book is for the artist’s eye, the techniques in the book are adaptable for more mundane projects too.
India Flint has a blog, and there are links there to other natural dyers the world over. Eco Colour is available from many online booksellers, and in NZ it’s also available in libraries (by interloan if your local doesn’t have it). Amazon in the UK has a Look Inside! preview that doesn’t do justice to the visual splendour of the book but does show the contents, index and introduction. Flint also travels extensively giving workshops.
I picked this up from the US herbalists. Sumac is a small tree that’s often planted in NZ gardens for ornamental value. It has distinctive red flower/fruit heads that last on the tree well after all the leaves have dropped. The trunk and branches are elegant, lending to the sculptural look.
This sumac is also known as staghorn sumac, Rhus thyphina, which helps differentiate it from related poisonous species*. The best way to ID sumac is by the ‘berries’. It took me a while to be sure that I had the right plant because sumac berries aren’t very berry like. Instead they are a horn-shaped cluster of small, red, furry bits:
I still haven’t found out if those are flowers, fruit or seeds, but the Americans call them berries.
The leaves are quite distinctive too, being obviously symmetrical:
Additional ID keys are the furry stems, and when you break them they ooze a white substance.
*If you read US sources of information about this plant there are cautions about not confusing it with poisonous sumac (a related plant). I don’t think this is an issue in NZ because (a) the poisonous sumac is rare (not sure if it even exists in NZ), and (b) it doesn’t look like staghorn sumac – poison sumac has drooping white berry clusters, not upright red ones. The leaves also look different.
Once you are sure you have the right plant, pick a few heads. It’s best to not pick straight after a rain, as rain washes off some of the tasty bits.
Pull the seeds off and put into a container.
Cover with cold water (yes, cold. Hot water makes the brew too strong) and squash the seeds a bit into the water.
I left mine overnight which made a very strong brew too, which I watered down. Subsequent batches I’ve made with 1 seed head to 2 cups of cold water, steeped up to an hour. Play around and see what works for you. When ready, strain the brew well to remove the fine hairs and bits of seed.
The taste of sumac is refreshingly sour and astringent. You can add honey or sugar if you like, but I’ve been happy drinking it as is. Drink a small amount the first few times to see how your body reacts – sumac is also medicinal and can make you pee more. I didn’t notice anything obvious and have been enjoying a glassful at a time.
You can dry sumac heads for later use (infusion or spice).
Things I want to try:
~ a longer infusion for maximum vitamin C extraction
~ a sumac berry vinegar (‘cos I have to try most things in a vinegar)
~ sumac as a dry spice (sumac is a traditional middle Eastern spice. A local forager told me to mix ground sumac, thyme and salt).
~ sumac honey
~ sumac and berries or other seasonal fruit (there’s a local company making sumac and plum relish).
Matt Wood discusses on video different species of sumac, its use as a spice, and as medicine.
Susun Weed video on Euell Gibbons’ washing machine method for large batches of sumac lemonade!