Given that this spring has been the second coldest on record, and so far there’s no sign of the weather getting any warmer or sunnier (it’s snowing here even today), my dyeing season hasn’t really got started yet. I dye in an unheated outbuilding which has no window, so it’s not really a place where I fancy hanging around in cold and damp weather. But my dyeing fingers are definitely getting very itchy by now, so I have been using this seasonal delay in getting super organised and prepared.
Last year was my first dyeing year, and I started like every does, full of enthusiasm and no idea what I was doing, and improvising as I went along. But towards the end of the season, I had established a way of working that suits me and was naturally getting more organised about it. I also learned that natural dyeing definitely brings out the inner scientist in me, I like trying to get as many colours from a particular plant as I can, and enjoy experimenting with different mordants and modifiers. And as I am still very much a beginner, there are so many dye plants that I haven’t tried yet, so this year I am trying to grow an even longer list of plants to try, as I wrote here (well as long as my seeds just agree to co-operate and germinate in this cold weather).
This year, having learned the basics, I also want to take my dyeing experiments even further. I want to try new types of materials, such as silk and cotton, and cotton being a plant fibre of course requires learning about how to mordant it. I also want to try making my own mordants from plants such as willow and rhubarb leaves. So this season, if all goes to plan, in any given dyeing session there will be a lot of more fibre types and several different mordants to take into account.
Although systematic experimentation is a great method for learning about natural dyes, it also does require quite a bit of organisation, not least because you need to have lots of skeins and those skeins need to be labelled carefully, otherwise you lose track of them very fast. With wool, if I am trying a new dye plant I normally try to get at least 6 colours per dye and mordant combination: for example when using alum, I’d need skeins for the following combinations
- plain dye colour just using alum
- alum with iron modifier
- alum with acid modifier
- alum with alkaline modifier
- alum, acid and iron
- alum, alkaline and iron
So that’s 6 skeins per mordant, and if I want to try willow and rhubarb mordants, as well as the usual alum and copper, then for any given dye, I’d need at least 24 different skeins. As you can see the amount of skeins you need for this approach can get out of hand very quickly. The only way to make it manageable from a cost point of view would be to use either very small skeins (which take a lot of time to make), or perhaps use small squares of fabric just for sampling purposes. I may well end up using fabric rather than yarn samples as they take less time to prepare, but since I promised my dad I’d dye a nice range of colours for his needlework this year and I also would like some naturally dyed embroidery silks for myself, then I won’t be able to avoid having to make lots and lots of mini skeins.
Last year I remember reading about a dyer who would get all her mordanting done in the early summer while waiting for her dye garden to start producing materials to dye with. I remember thinking, wow, that’s so organised, but I would never be able to manage that, I’d never think of it on time. But obviously this idea has been percolating in my head as recently I have started thinking it might actually be a good idea, especially as some people believe that doing mordanting several weeks if not months ahead of the actual dyeing will improve the results.
So this year I am going to have a go at separating the mordanting process from the dyeing process, which makes sense if I will be working with at least 4 types of mordant for wool and perhaps a few more for the cotton fabrics. And since I am mainly growing my own dyes, then mordanting early in the season definitely fits well into the natural seasonal rhythm of things. It may be a bit dull first, but by the time your garden is bursting with plants, you can just concentrate on dyeing.
And being well prepared may well be the only way I can manage carrying out these grand experimental plans, especially since the dyeing process is physically quite strenuous for me (because of my ME/CFS) even if I keep it simple with using just one mordant and one type of fibre . A long day at the dying workshop just isn’t an option for me, so I need to break down the process into smaller steps and being organised is the only way I can reconcile such grand plans with a limited amount of energy.
But I’m not entirely convinced that I’ll be able to pull it off being so organised and systematic all summer, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in the end I just ended up chucking random materials into my dye pots, not bother with labelling anything and instantly forgetting what exactly I had been doing.
It’s a bit like gardening. Early in the season you have great plans, and as the season progresses you get more and more overwhelmed with all the seedlings and plants and the amount of work and watering they need. By July, each year I make a solemn vow not to make such big plans ever again. And all winter, I keep thinking “I will resist making big plans, I will resist making big plans, I will resist… “.
Yet, by the time spring comes, first I get the grand new ideas, then the delusion that this year it will be different, of course I will be able to do all those wonderful things, because this year I am going to be so much more organised than I have ever managed before. There will be no problems whatsoever…
And so, every single year I end up with plans even grander than the year before. I don’t what it is about me and making over-ambitious plans, I just feel compelled to make them even if I know I already try to do much more than I can possibly manage. Focus and prioritisation just seem way beyond me. And this year, I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch with my ME, and yet, here I am, completely unable to resist planning for some great new achievements.
And who knows, perhaps this year I will actually succeed.