Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dyeing with natural materials - the first time with tea

As mentioned in my previous post I am going to dye 2 cotton snowsmocks. One of the smocks is currently a creamy offwhite and hopefully will turn out to be a medium or darker brown and the other is a pale grey one, which should turn out a shade of tan.

The dyeing methods I will be using are the ones I found, while searching the net; dye and mordant and natural dyes. For the brown colour I'll be using juniper both for mordant and for colouration and for the tan one I'll use salt as mordant and black tea as dye.
I have many junipers standing in my garden, some still green, others turning brown or allready dead (or so it seeems). I started collecting the needles as basic ingredient for the mordant, mixing green  and brown ones and using bits of every tree/shrub. At first I clipped of some of the lower branches and started to rid them of their needles by clipping them off. I very soon found out that didn't work very well and it went a lot easier and faster by stripping the branches with a gloved hand. And you do need those gloves! Good, sturdy leather gloves, because those needles are like.... well... needles!! It wasn't long befor I figured I could do that stripping directly from the trees too. taking care not to strip the branches of all their needles, i started collecting them by taking a bundles of small branches between my hands and then rubbing those, as if washing them. Many needles fell off in the waiting bag. It did take a while to collect them, but it felt good to stand there, in the snow and freezing cold and collecting some of nature's resources directly at the source and be able to use them directly too.
Only too bad I could not harvest any berries. There were but a few very small ones left on the plants.
There is a military saying that says;" No plan survives first contact with the enemy". Well, that's what happened here, too. Later this day I tried to burn the juniperneedles.... it just wouldn't work. Off course not, they're too fresh! So I'll be drying them and try again later.
I was also wrong about the mordants and such. Appearantly you don't need a mordant, when dyeing with tea.... I found that out after searching some more. And you need salt when dyeing with berries and vinegar when dying with plantmaterials... or so the mentioned links say. (Hey, I'm a man... we don't do the instructionreadingthing, right?)
This means I can dye the wintersmock first, since that doesn't need any special preparations. As I am typing this, the smock is soaking in a teabath. Several sources talk about adding some bags to a few cups of water. The smock was one hell of a job getting it thoroughly soaked and I ended up using quite a few liters of water, just to get it soaked and stopping it from floating! I used at least 10 liters of cold water for that. So I used slightly more tea, too. 130 grams of it actually, since that was the content of a tin we have had standing in the cupboard for more than a year. Allthough it was my favorite (earl grey), it just didn't taste good and was not being used anymore. While the smock was soaking I made 2 2-liter pots of tea. First I brought it to boil, added the tea and then let it simmer for about 30 minutes. The result was coffeelike! That was the strongest tea I ever made!
A small safetynote; when boiling this loose tea, it has the tendency to float, creating a thick lid of soaked plantmaterial, which tends to pop open, while boiling and that might send blobs of material of water in to the air. Stir regularly to avoid that!
Down there is the smock somewhere....
After an hour or two I checked the colouring. It did show, but was still to light for my liking. So the smock stayed submerged untill the following morning. Than I rinsed the smock and dried it, with this being the final result.
compared to this
The light smocks and sheet of paper aren't matching each other in the pictures, so keep in mind that the upper picture should actually be a bit darker. All in all I am pleased with the obtained colour. It turned out as I hoped it would; a subtle tancolour. And this one was really easy to do.
Some afterthoughts;
I will have to collect more needles and dry them. I'm supposed to mix 1 cup of ashes to 2 cups of water and then boil that. I am guessing that when burned the needles will give about 10% of the volume burned back in ashes. That means 5 cups of needles for every cup of water..... How many cups is 1 liter? And I'll need several just to soak the anorak.
If I use plantmaterial, which berries are, I have to mix that in a 1:2-ratio with water. I used at least 10 liters of water to cover the smock, so that means I'd need 5 liters of berries..... and that is a whole lot of gathering!!
Right now I am rethinking my options.... maybe I'll go for the vinegar mordant and than dye the summeranorak using dandelionroots, which should give a brown colour, too. Maybe add the berries to that and add some onionpeels for a richer colour.....  We have a field of grass right in front of our house, so there should be rich pickings in spring, when it comes to dandelions. We can combine that with picking their leaves for salad and flowerheads for jam. We'll see.


  1. Looking good so far, Ron. I like the way that one came out. Nice subdued tan color.

    I'm interested to see how the juniper one comes out.

    1. So am I, matt, but I doubt if it is doable. I need so much resources, that's why I was thinking about altering the proces and mixing ingredients.

  2. Why not try to use some of the juniper-wood for buttons?
    It is a hard and durable wood.

    1. That's a good one!
      I have one larger shrub/tree standing here, which most likely is dead already and I was planning on taking it down, so I can carve kitchenutensils from it.

    2. I've jused juniper for simple buttons on a few sheats eralier, and it works fine.

  3. Nice Ron. Very creative way to dye it and it turned out great.

  4. Very nice outcome!
    I am looking forward to seeing how the other one comes out.