The thing about natural dyeing is that it is unpredictable; you are using unstable materials. Plants yield colour according to many variables – light, water, soil, how you sow or harvest, whether it is fresh or dry, what the moon’s up to… The dyer herself might be unstable, too. Sometimes she’s careful to note weights and timings, sometimes she isn’t. Sometimes she improvises. Sometimes she’s patient and sometimes she just can’t bear to wait any longer. Anyway, I suppose I’m just saying that I’m not a very good dyer – but also that that unpredictability can produce good and interesting results as well as disappointing ones and that the dyer, too, has to yield to the variable and unpredictable outcome.
The Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft has a great project, Dyeing Now, which is encouraging dyers (good and bad) to recreate some of Ethel Mairet’s recipes from her 1916 book of Vegetable Dyes. You sign up to follow her original recipes (I chose two madder ones, using roots from the garden)
or to use plants that she writes about (I chose oak galls and used Jenny Dean’s recipe)
and which yarn you want to try – linen, silk or wool.
I assiduously followed the recipes and assiduously got rather weak colours, especially with the oak galls.
If I hadn’t been doing the recipes to order, I think I would have been quite happy with the results (it’s not as if natural dyes ever produce an ugly colour; it’s not possible) but it’s more to do with expectation – in my head I expected reds that zinged and profound browny-grey-blacks that you could melt in. What I got were gentle, subtle hues.
When I went to pack the skeins up to send to the museum I had the tedious task of finding the page and recipe number in the online book . Well, not really that difficult actually. Useful in fact because I re-read Jenny Dean’s oak gall recipe which mentioned modifying oak galls with iron. So I did and got a rich dark black that I’m excited about on the linen and a soft grey on the wool.
So not so bad after all.
Worth just reading the recipe properly…