Thursday, March 11, 2010

Day 8 Artist in residence - natural dyes continued

Eucalptus dyes
Someone once told me that silver dollar gum tree leaves gave a good orange dye. When I tried it years ago I just got yellow. Now I have discovered why. I added alum as a mordant but I Eucalyptus does not need a mordant at all.

Here is what  we did to get this extraordinary terracotta red colour.
These were leaves from a gum tree which is near Tawa Station. It is one of those gum trees which have blue grey leaves which are short and rounded. This tree doesn't have the really round leaves of the silver dollar gum but slightly pointy leaves. Using a stainless steel pot, fill it about half way with eucalyptus leaves and then cover with water and bring to the boil. Add wool or silk and simmer for 2-3 hours. In this case the pot was taken off the boil at the end of the day and the fabric was left in the pot. It became an even stronger colour over night. I just think it is amazing!

The Eucalyptus leaves give up their colour when they are heated. Some of the other people got amazing pink prints from this tree by wrapping the leaves up in wool or silk and boiling or steaming them. The prints are quite a lolly pink - amazing from a greenish leaf.

We also tried boiling up kowhai pods. We added iron sulphate as a mordant and it dyed bits of old woolen blanket a really dark army green. You can buy iron sulphate from the garden centre. I think it is used for killing moss on lawns.

Comfrey dyed the wool bright yellow with alum as the mordant. Next time we will try using copper as (hopefully) this should give us a lighter green.

Most plants give brown or yellow so it is nice to find some that give greens and reds.
About 10 years ago Prue Townsend gave me a bag of lichen which had been in the collection of Oriel Hoskin until she died. I tried using a bit of the lichen at the time and didn't get much of a result but decided to have another go. It looks like a native New Zealand lichen called Sticta Coronata but it doesn't turn pink when acetone is dropped on it, which is a sign of Sticta C. Apparently what you do with Sticta is you boil it up and keep changing the water. You dye fabric in each change of water and as you keep going you keep getting different colours. At the moment I am still at the brown stage. See below.

 The first boiling gave me the tan colour, then I changed water, the second lot of water gave the pale beige at the top of the photo. The third change of water gave the dark brown - as the Americans say 'go figure'!
If you are trying this at home, don't use pots that you are going to cook food in, and preferably cook outside the house as the smell of eucalyptus or other plants cooking, can be quite nauseating.


  1. why would you add a substance that is used to kill things to a dyepot?

  2. You need a mordant such as iron or alum to make the dye stick to the fabric. For procion dyes you use soda ash (sodium carbonate). For plant dyes the safest ones to use are iron or alum or copper. The easiest ones to find are alum (from the chemist), iron sulphate and copper sulphate (from the garden centre). If you don't want to use iron sulphate (which kills moss) you can just throw in a few rusty old nails or a chunk of iron but you have less control of the quantity of the mordant that way. Its safer though.