winter color harvesting
I recently traveled the back roads to Bolinas on a misty winter day, to attend a natural dye workshop taught by Rebecca Burgess at Commonweal Garden. The purpose of this 3-part workshop series is to give students the opportunity to collect dye plants, mordant fabric, prepare dye vats, dye fabric, prepare printing inks, print a design on fabric, and then sew a set of placemats and/or napkins from the dyed and decorated fabric.
Everyone came with a yard of undyed cotton, and we started by washing the fabrics in spring water containing a bit of Dr. Bronner’s soap that was slowly heated in a big copper pot. Once that was done and the fabrics were rinsed, we refilled the pot with about 10 gallons of fresh spring water and added a small amount (5 tsp.) of alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) to begin mordanting our fabrics, the copper of the pot having a mordanting effect as well.
The mordant pot was put on the heat and our fabrics were added while we moved on to another task—breaking up oak galls to prepare a tannin mordant.
About 5 or 6 broken oak galls were placed in each of two 5-gallon pots filled with spring water, and the pots were set on the burner to heat.
Once the oak galls had simmered for about 45 minutes we removed them from the liquid and put them into a beautiful old rusted barrel filled with spring water. (I’ll describe what that is used for later.) Then we removed our fabrics from the alum mordant bath, rinsed them in spring water, and then placed them in the pots of tannin-containing oak gall liquid to simmer for about 45 minutes during our lunch break.
After a lunch break, we headed out onto the land (16 beautiful acres of coastal chaparral) to harvest native plants for our dye vats: Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), and Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).
Back from our harvesting expedition, we cut the plant materials into 3-inch pieces and put them in pots of spring water on the stove. In the photo below, the Coffeeberry is in the foreground, then the Toyon, and finally the Coyote brush and California sage, which we combined in one pot. The Toyon is in a copper pot, which will have some effect on the color.
While the dye vats were simmering, we did some experimentation with leaf printing. I forgot to take photos, but we spread out pieces of cotton muslin and placed Eucalyptus and Bay leaves on the fabric. Then we rolled the fabric tightly and bound it with rubber bands. Some of the fabric we put into a jar of “iron water,” created by soaking old iron objects in water over a long period of time. The rest of the rolled fabric we placed in the rusty barrel of oak galls and water. These we will leave soaking for a month, until our next class meeting.
Another fun experiment we did was to pour hot water into a jars of dried flowers, one containing orange cosmos and one containing tansy. The flowers quickly released their beautiful colors and we dropped small pieces of alum-mordanted fabric into the jars to capture lovely shades or yellow and orange.
Before class was over we were thrilled to hear about Rebecca’s new book on natural dyes! It’s called Harvesting Color, and I will be buying a copy from Rebecca as soon as it’s available (around May 1st), but it can also be pre-ordered online.
At the end of the day there was lots of color being released into the simmering pots of plants. Rebecca will be letting the pots sit until our next class meeting in one month, so that the colors can deepen.
It was a great class, and I am looking forward to the next one, when we will dye our mordanted fabric and print designs on it. In the meantime, I will be planning a design to carve on the linoleum block that we will use for printing. In addition to this class, Regenerative Design Institute is offering a number of “re-skilling” classes on various subjects. You can visit their website for more information.