Natural dyeing is a multi-step process. First, a visit with nature.
Even in these chilly grey days, we find color everywhere on Cape. Marsh and beach grasses are golden fire. Junipers are deep green, their bright berries like tiny punctuation marks in the lush foliage. Scrub oak and pitch pine leaves litter the woods, a russet-colored blanket for winter. The sleeping garden holds color value as well: non-native privet and forsythia offer one last hurrah with their purple berries, their purple leaves. Flower beds, drab from afar, are full of possibilities; they are the story of summer, of seed to stem to seed again.
Ecoprinting is an opportunity to work with these plants in their last hurrah, to walk the woods or your garden and see things differently. Pick up a few leaves from the ground, arrange them on fabric, roll into a bundle, steam. The heat transfers the pigments and images onto the fabric, creating an ethereal design, an explosion of color and pattern. No need to go out and purchase new linens for the holidays - this can be done on napkins or tablecloths you already own, and it’s perfect for camouflaging linens with spots or stains. Maybe it’s a project that becomes a tradition, imbuing your linens with the landscape, weaving the years like a tapestry.
Coaxing color from plants can be tricky. A few pointers to help with your experimentations: natural colors work best with natural fibers. Cotton or linen are perfect for this project. Also keep in mind size: larger pieces like tablecloths can be folded, but overall, your bundled fabric will need to fit inside a stainless steel pot with a lid.
Dyeing with natural color consists of three steps: scouring, mordanting, dyeing. Scouring is essentially a super cleanse for your fibers, allowing them to absorb both the mordant and plant color properly. Mordanting, the French term for ‘to bite’, ensures the color binds with the fabric. Without a mordant, dyes will simply wash out or fade. For the purposes of this project, the mordant to use with cellulose fibers is aluminum acetate (use aluminum sulfate for silk or protein fibers). Use caution with these ingredients, as they are very powdery and dusty. Also keep in mind, tools used in natural dyeing shouldn’t be used in the kitchen - you’ll want to make a swap shack or thrift shop trip for this project.
-First, weigh your clean, dry fabric.
-Place fabric in a large pot with enough water to cover, soak for at least an hour (overnight is best). Make sure fibers can move freely.
-Add a tablespoon of a pH-neutral, eco-friendly dish soap per 8oz. of fabric to the pot.
-Place over heat, cover, and bring to about 150 - 180 degrees for a half hour, stirring fibers often.
-Allow to cool, then rinse until the water runs clear. Now you’re ready to mordant the fibers.
-Fill a bucket with enough water to cover fabric.
-Add aluminum acetate (5% to weight of fiber) to a cup.
-Slowly add one cup of boiling water to the aluminum acetate and stir until fully dissolved.
-Pour the solution into the bucket and stir thoroughly.
-Add fabric and stir.
-Soak for 45 minutes, stirring often. Remove and rinse. (Reuse your mordant bath multiple times; cover with an airtight lid and store. Or, water your acid-loving plants with it.)
-Squeeze excess liquid from fabric. Lay out on a clean surface.
-Gather plant materials and arrange plants on the fabric, keeping in mind what you start with isn’t always what you end up with. The colors shift through the fibers, coalescing into new values; bright here, dark there. Neither end up where you thought they’d be.
-Once you’re happy with the layout, place a small stick on one edge of the fabric and begin rolling the piece, tucking and smoothing things out as you go. (Reminder - this needs to fit in the pot. Fold larger pieces of fabric in halves or quarters before rolling.)
-Tie a piece of twine around one end of your bundle(s) and begin wrapping the fabric tightly, tying off at the opposite end.
-Place bundles in a large pot in a vegetable steamer. Water level should be low enough so as not to soak the bundles.
-Steam with the lid on for an hour, rotating after 30 minutes. Carefully remove from heat and allow to cool.
-Untie twine and unroll to reveal a landscape of color and pattern. Remove plant material, rinse and wash in cool water.
-Hang to dry, and admire the view. It is the trail through the woods where you walk, a snapshot of what you grew through the year. It is the landscape of summer, of this place far out at sea.