The natural world seems an endless source of inspiration–flora, fauna, and stunning landscapes can all contribute to creating a beautiful project, or, in the case of many yarn producers, result in a beautiful yarn. Some hand-dyers take this step further, actually using elements of the natural world to create unique colorways. Sincere Sheep’s Brooke Sinnes took a moment to chat with me about the magic of natural dyeing.
What got you started with using natural dyes?
Initially it was because my spinning teacher was a natural dyer, so a part of taking classes included learning how to dye your yarn and fibers. As time went on, I stuck with natural dyes even though they’re a bit more labor-intensive, because of a few different reasons. One, I just love the palette. Natural dyes result in a beautiful, wearable palette—the colors work well on most people, and combining color is easy since it all comes from the natural world.
I also really love the history behind natural dyeing—it’s this connection to our past, and speaks a lot to the tradition of adornment in various cultures. Creating color isn’t something that is taught a lot in school, but it’s a huge part of history! Many expeditions were based on the allocation of dyes and spices. Cochineal, one of the biggest exports for the Americas was second to silver and had this huge impact on fashion in Europe. Logwood, which creates these stunning grays and blacks, was used to dye the black suits shown in paintings from the 17th century — it’s from Belize. These dyes are important to the history of countries’ development, and you can find similar stories for countries all over the world.
As a modern-day dyer, I also like knowing that my business doesn’t just benefit me or a big chemical company, it benefits agriculture—farmers and dye suppliers based in other countries. I am very careful to work with companies that are conscientious in the trade process, too, so that I know that the harvesting and production is actually helping instead of hurting the environment and agricultural communities.
Speaking of environmental impact, there’s a common misconception that natural dyes can actually be harder on the environment than synthetics, since they use metals in the dyeing process. How accurate is this?
Most of the concern does surround the mordants, yes, but it’s more about individual health concerns that environmental ones. Mordant is a metal-salt, there are various options to choose from (chrome, copper, tin, iron). Different metals can result in different colors, sometimes too. The most commonly used mordant is alum, which is aluminum sulfate. You can buy it at the grocery store—people use it for pickling, and I also use food-grade alum for my dyeing. It’s not completely benign, but it isn’t a scary product, either—it’s moderately safe. Some people are using more harsh metals, but I mostly use alum, sometimes iron as a modifier (since it gets different colors). Copper, tin and chrome especially can be hard on the body, with lots of negative side effects, so it’s important for natural dyers to be judicious and careful. I wear a respirator, gloves, and re-use dye and mordant baths as much as possible to limit water usage (a big deal here in California). It’s also important to note that many synthetic dyes also contain metals and are a byproduct of oil.
In addition to alum, what materials do you use to create color on your yarns?
I predominantly use plant-based dyes, although I do have two insect-based dyes—cochineal and lac. These insects are scale insects, parasites that feed off of plants. Cochineal feeds on the Nopal cactus, and will kill the plant if not culled and harvested. Lac is from India and southeast Asia. Both produce beautiful shades of reds and purples. There aren’t many reds available to us as natural dyers, so these are very valuable.
I use madder root and osage for orange-red tones, and weld, a plant easily grown in a home garden, for this bright highlighter yellow. A lot of colors come from trees—Logwood, for dark purples and grays, Sustic, for yellows, and Quebracho, for a pink color. Indigo comes in several varieties and I use it for blues, greens, teals—you can get so many color combinations.
I’ve heard of people using beets and onion skins — do you use any food based dyes?
Not really—because they aren’t as light-fast as some of the other dyes available to us. Onion skins will give you a really pretty golden color, and it’s great if you want to experiment at home. Berries are popular but they’re stains, not dyes, and will fade or even turn brown after they’ve been on the fabric awhile. I try to use natural dyes that won’t fade, since customers have this thought that natural dyes don’t have good ‘staying’ power—but it’s simply not true. There are old tapestries, a good example is the Unicorn Tapestry made in 1500. Some of the yellows have faded but for the most part it’s still really beautiful, and it was dyed completely with natural dyes. They’re just as durable as synthetics as long as you take care of them!
Do you feel that working with natural dyes limits your options or guides colorways for you?
One thing that can be hard about natural dyeing is that you’re not working with pure pigments, so you aren’t just mixing red and blue and getting purple—a little more chemistry has to go into it. You can’t fight the chemistry aspect, especially with finicky dyes like indigo. Each plant has multiple colors in it already. People tend to think there’s a magic involved, and there kind of is—it’s not 100% science all the time though. A lot of it is patience and knowledge you build about the process over time. Year to year, even the most reliable colors can change due to growing season, drought, or even what’s in the water the plants consume. You definitely learn to be flexible.
What kind of setup do you have?
All my dyeing is done outside and my winding and prep station is in the side yard and garage. I have a lot of friends who are dyers and we are always amused at what we do with such small spaces—very few dyers are working out of anything bigger than the average garage. Occasionally someone has the most perfect space, and we all get jealous!