Bug bits, roots and leaves


A twinge in my back has become a rather large and inconvenient pain, so tonight’s planned dyeing session instead became a sort of forlorn inventory taking of my newly delivered dyestuff.

photo (6)This is alum, considered an excellent mordant for beginners and just in general. It isn’t too expensive and is generally regarded as the safest mordant to use. Medieval alum were double salts of aluminum such as potassium aluminum sulfate. This is what I have here – Potassium Alum. There’s a modern alum (plain aluminium sulfate) resulting from processing bauxite (or aluminium in its raw state) but the further purification with potassium yields an aluminum sulfate with fewer impurities, especially iron which could dull (sadden) the color on your fibre.

photo (8)

photo (7)Next is Cochineal, they use this stuff with food too to give red/pink colour.  Cochineal dye was introduced into Europe in the 16th century by Spanish explorers from South and Central America.   It is crushed up bits of a female scale insect (Dactylopius coccus) which lives off prickly pear cacti.  It’s fascinating stuff, sort of silver grey bits – if I saw them without knowing what they were I might just assume them to be a funny sort of seed in this form.   I’ll take another picture in natural light when I start to use them.

photo (9)Ferrous sulphate, a lovely green substance with the metallic tang you expect from iron when mixed with hot water.  This is used to dull or sadden colours.   It’s a choice whether or not you use it, really depends on what you want – as a general rule avoid if you want vibrant, bright colours.

This one is dried madder root (Rubia Tinctora).  Madder is used to get red, pinks and oranges, depending on water quality, time of harvest, soil type etc  .    It’s a go to dye for anyone starting with historical natural dyes because there’s proof of its being used as far back as the ancient Egyptians.   I’ve read about being used to colour nails (as a paste) and being fed to animals to colour wool/talons/hooves  but I need to do more research.  Madder, woad and weld are all known to have been used in Iron age  Ireland.

photo (10)Ah, the famous Woad, supposed to be what celts painted themselves blue with. It comes from a perennial plant,  Isatis tinctoria which is in the brassicae family and looks a bit like spinach.  The colour comes from the leaves and I opted for extract for this one.  It’s bluer in the packet and has a strong smell.  This one is going to be interesting, but I’ll keep the why so for a later post.photo (11)

This one is Weld, a biennial plant (Reseda luteola) which again has strong historical use from ancient times. It dyes a strong bright yellow but water quality matters a lot.  It appears to have been one of the more commonly used colours in Ireland.

photo (12)Last in this bunch is logwood, another South American import first seen in Medieval Europe in the 1500s. Logwood is taken from the heartwood of Haematoxylon campecianum and dyes purple/grey/black shades.

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