I am often asked “what is your favorite natural dye?” – besides indigo. That is hard to answer – I love them all.
One of my favorites though is Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a scale insect that produces Carminic Acid, known as Natural Red 4, or Carmine, it is used to color textiles, foods and cosmetics. It is my understanding that the insect ingests the juices of the Nopal cactus (its host) these ingested juices then mix with the insect’s stomach acid to produce carminic acid.
While living on the Nopal cactus the insect produces a white fluffy covering to protect it from predators, some people mistakenly think this is a fungus growing on the cactus. Found in Mexico, Peru, Chile and the Canary Islands, today most Cochineal is raised on farms rather than gathered in the wild.
Cochineal has been used as a dye for hundreds of years (since the Mesoamericans discovered it) and remains popular today – it is wash-fast and light-fast. There are beautiful Aztec textile fragments showing Cochineal preserved in Museums.
The female is carefully collected from the Nopal cactus. The collected insects are then spread out and dried in the sun. Collecting the insects is very labor intensive – really an art – done with much patience and care. To use, the dried bugs are ground into a fine powder. Did you know that it takes approximately 150,000 bugs to make up a kilo? That is how tiny they are!
An alum mordant will give you a bluish red – add an acid, say lemon juice, and you will get scarlet. The dye bath can be used several times, giving lighter and lighter results, ending with a soft pink.
With fall in the air and all this talk about pumpkins, I thought I would take a moment to talk about Madder – Rubia tinctorum. Why? Because madder can produce the softest peachy pinks to burnt orange and strong reds! Mixing madder with cochineal will give you a true red! Madder has been long prized as a dye – both the roots and cloth dyed with madder were traded on the Silk Road. Yes, the color is in the roots and it takes 3-5 years before the roots can be harvested. Madder is both heat and pH sensitive – get the dye pot too hot and you will end up with brown instead of orange, change the pH and go from orange to deep red. The most famous red from madder is known as Turkey Red – a color that took months to make and used many secret ingredients! Dyers’ formulations for Turkey Red were strongly protected. Here at The Yarn Tree we have madder root whole, madder root ground and madder extract available. Why don’t you give this ancient dye a try! #madder #madderroot #rubiatinctorum #orangedye #naturaldye #botanicaldye #ancientdyes #turkeyred #silkroad
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by LaChaun Moore of Gist Yarn & Fiber for their Weave Podcast, Episode 72: A Natural Dye Journey Across The Globe With Linda LaBelle. It was a lot of fun to talk with LaChaun and I hope you will take the time to listen to mine and the many other podcasts she and Sarah Resnick have done!
Here is a link to a very interesting video about Fresh Leaf Indigo Dyeing with Japanese Indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) using salt!
And here’s how I do it!
1) Scour Silk Scarves
2) Persicaria tinctoria ready for harvest
3) Harvested indigo being kept in a bucket with water
4) Fill a 5 qt stainless steel bowl with leaves
5) Kosher Salt Fine Flake
6) Add 3 tablespoons salt to your leaves
7) Knead the leaves have until they begin to shrink and produce liquid
8) Add the scarves and begin to knead the leaves and scarves together
9) Add more leaves if needed to cover scarves, Check scarves to be sure there are no white spots.
10) The longer you knead the darker the blue
11) Solid Blue – Hanging to dry after rinsing, washing and rinsing again
12) Borders dyed – Hanging to dry after rinsing, washing and rinsing again
My love affair with Indigo began many years ago. It was when working with silk dyes that I needed to find an alternative dye source as I began to have a bad reaction to the chemical dyes.
At about the same time, I moved to New Mexico where I had the opportunity to be exposed to natural dyes being used to dye yarns for the beautiful woolen rugs being produced there.
As I studied the plants of New Mexico, and learning their uses both for color and medicine, I began forming a long-term goal of working with natural dyes.
For many years I was a dabbler – experimenting, studying and reading about these fascinating dyes.
Fast forward to August 2001 when I opened The Yarn Tree, a retail store selling yarn, fiber and dyes and studio in Brooklyn, NY. I suddenly had space where I could begin dyeing on a larger scale. I began dyeing yarns to sell in my shop and eventually teaching workshops in natural dyeing. I can still remember my excitement (and nervousness) at working with my first indigo vat – this amazing and magical color that I had studied for so long. My first vats were chemical vats – using natural indigo with a combination of lye and thioureadioxide. These chemical vats gave great color and were not difficult to make but gave off a wretched odor.
Once again fate intervened – I had been living in a tiny rent controlled studio apartment for many years when a large apartment with an outdoor space came available near my store. That spring I set up my first natural ferment indigo vat. I believe it was 15 or 20 gallons in size. This was when I first began to think about the possibility of growing my own indigo but it would be years before I could do so. By the next spring I had taken on a second studio space that was to be my dye studio. Here I set up a 55 gallon natural ferment indigo vat that I kept alive for 5 years.
Unfortunately in 2011 I closed the business and left NYC as I could not recover from the 2008 recession.
I moved to the South, first to Asheville, North Carolina and eventually to Greenville, South Carolina and continued to work with, teach and sell indigo and indigo dyed products.
There is a history of indigo growing in South Carolina. It was first grown on a plantation run by a young woman, Eliza Pinckney, in 1740. She grew Indigofera tinctoria and it took three years before she had a successful crop. Indigo then became an important cash crop for the South until the American Revolutionary War!
Knowing that the climate here successfully hosted indigo growing I decided to finally pursue my long held dream of growing and using my own indigo.
I purchased Japanese Indigo seeds (Polygonum tinctorium aka Persicaria tinctoria) from Rowland Ricketts and got ready to plant.
My first planting was very small – an almost heart shaped spot on my front lawn where once had been a large tree since removed. I had a successful crop and used the fresh indigo leaves to dye silk scarves.
For year two I decided to expand and purchased the materials to make four raised beds each 42inches X 42inches. I set these up on my front lawn. Again I had a very good crop. The first harvest was used to do fresh leaf indigo dyeing and the second was grown for the seeds.
My next goal is to expand my growing area and I am hoping to get my hands on some Indigofera tinctoria seeds. I want to grow Indigofera tinctoria and make my own indigo cakes!
I have had the opportunity to teach indigo dyeing (and natural dyeing) in many parts of the world including two workshops at IndigoSutra in Kolkata this past November.
For me it was a natural progression to go from experimenter to dyer to grower.
But why this fascination with indigo?
I like to say that Indigo is as old as time, we know it has been in use for several thousand years. It is grown all over the world – just different species – Indigofera tinctoria, Indigofera suffruticosa, Indigofera guatemalensis, Persicaria tinctoria to name a few.
Each culture has their own method of going from green plant to dyestuff whether it be fresh leaf, balls, cakes, paste or sukumo. Each culture has its own way of making an indigo vat with their very own special and sometimes secret ingredients. Yet we all produce the same color – Indigo Blue. Each culture has great respect for indigo and most honor the Indigo god with offerings, altars and sacrifices. And indigo has many names Anil or Nil – thought to be after the Nile River, Indigo coming from the word India and in Japan it is known as Ai or Aizome.
Indigo is surrounded with both myth and superstition. In some cultures only women are the dyers and others only the men. It is a color worn by both peasants and royalty.
And it has medicinal properties. Here are several – an indigo dyed cloth wrapped around your forehead will alleviate a headache, wearing indigo clothing can be calming, it is a natural bug repellent and it can be used to reduce fevers.
Indigo commands respect. By this I mean that one cannot be in a bad mood or rushing when working with indigo – you will not have good results. You must be patient. Having a natural indigo vat is like caring for a child or a pet – it cannot get too cold or hot and must be fed. Well-maintained indigo vats will survive for years and years. It is said that there are 100 year-old indigo vats in Japan.
For me indigo is more than just the color blue, it is a way of life.