Natural Dyeing using Dyer’s Woad

Natural Dyeing using Dyer’s Woad

It’s a weekend!! Do you know what that means? That’s right,project time! The last few weeks I’ve had something I’ve wanted to do and things keep getting in the way: bathroom remodel, guests over the weekend,cleaning out the garage, etc.  . .Actually, I have wanted to do this one for years, I think about it every summer when I see the Dyer’s Woad all dried out and going to seed,  yet somehow I’ve never gotten to it. Having delayed this one for so long,  I decided that THIS was the weekend it was going to happen: it’s time to attempt dyeing with Woad!

Woad (Isatis Tinctoria) is a weed around here, it was a commercial crop intentionally planted by the pioneers (from what I’ve heard it was one of the original dyes used to make blue jeans?), but it has since gone feral and now is considered highly invasive. Not only that, but it has long since been replaced by synthetic dyes so it doesn’t have much of a use anymore. Ironically enough, I read about how people in Europe and Eastern U.S struggle to grow this dye plant in gardens — here we’ve been trying to eradicate it for quite some time and have had no luck. They even had a bounty on it for awhile and would pay people to collect it by the trash bagful. Difficult to get rid of. Which is a boon for those of us who like to use natural dyes as it is one of the few really good blue dyes available! In fact, it was a major crop in various parts of Europe as a valuable source of Indigo for centuries.

Fortunately, if you have woad growing in your area you’ll recognize it immediately as it is quite distinctive with it’s drooping black seeds on  a dried out stem. Unfortunately, it’s a biennial and by the time you see those black seeds it’s already worthless. But hey, at least you will know it’s in your area and can keep it in mind for next year! Actually, from the information I’ve been able to find on extracting the dye, you want to use the 1st year leaves anyway so if you find the dried stems you just need to look around and see what you find nearby.  2nd year leaves don’t contain much dye. … Even if not, I can see why it isn’t used as it dries out so quickly it would be inconvenient to depend on.

Around here woad grows on drier hillsides, road cuts and fields. Here in Utah if you remember seeing a lot of wild mustard or thistles in an area it’s a good bet there’s woad growing there as well. I harvested mine on a dry hillside just off a road. As you can see from the pictures there is quite a bit of it and I collected a grocery bag full in about 20 minutes.

Originally I had great ambitions to do two batches, one of 1st year leaves and one of 2nd just to see how much of a difference it really made. As such, I collected about half a grocery bag of each. Of course, then while washing them I realized I had an elk hide out soaking in the backyard that needed to be scraped that afternoon and a few other things that needed to be done around the house. As such, that experiment got shut down and I combined them all into one batch. Maybe next time eh?

When you locate some woad and harvest what you need the first step is to wash it. Remove any other plant matter, dirt, etc that may contaminate your dye. Then tear your leaves into smaller pieces to speed extraction, I didn’t tear mine very small as I was in a hurry, I probably could have gotten more dye out if I had shredded them a little finer. Put some water on to heat while you wash; for this batch I used about a gallon of water and that seemed to work fine with the amount of leaves I had. Keep an eye on the water though as you don’t want it to boil. Aim for just below boiling prior to adding the leaves, mine got up to 190 F before I turned it off. Steep the leaves for 10 minutes just as you would a tea. Make sure everything gets stirred under and watch the color change. It shocked me how dark the water got in such a short amount of time. . . Not sure why that surprised me, what else should I expect when extracting dye? The indigo dye you extract is heat sensitive so you want to cool your dye off quickly once the ten minutes are up, I filled my kitchen sink with cold water and added ice cubes, then drained and refilled it again after that got warm. Strain the leaves out and discard. At this point you hopefully have a pot of very dark greenish/brown water.

How do we go from green brown to a lovely blue dye? Change the ph. You want to make this an alkaline solution (ph 9-10). I used washing soda because I have some I use for making laundry soap, the other one you frequently hear of people using is soda ash (a common swimming pool additive). I doubt baking soda would be strong enough, but you can try it and let me know! I dissolved 6 tsp of washing soda into one cup of water. Be careful with this as a strong alkali will burn you just like a strong acid so take necessary precautions.

After you add the soda, you’ll need to introduce some oxygen to the solution in order to get the pigment to precipitate. Natural dyeing websites will tell you to use an immersion blender dedicated to nothing but dyes. . . Nice thought huh? Not having an immersion blender, let alone one dedicated to things like this, I opted to use a cheap plastic potting bucket. Fortunately I still had a few from planting the garden a few weeks ago! Just dip it into the dye pot and pull it out, letting the solution stream out of the holes in the bottom of the pot and back into the dye. Think up-sized version of a fish tank aerator. Your solution should develop a foam on top, watch it change colors from green to blue. Mine went blue after about two minutes of aerating…. and then promptly went green again and stubbornly refused to go blue again regardless of what I did. After aerating for 20 minutes I decided that it was as good as I was going to get it, at this point it was a sort of pale mint green color.

Your solution at this point will color things blue (as evidenced by the picture of my fingertips), but it will not bind and stay permanently. At this point water will still wash out the color, a highly undesirable trait if you ever intend to wash whatever you dye with it! To make it permanent you  need to remove excess oxygen from the solution. Traditionally, the dye vat was fermented for long periods to allow the oxygen to dissipate (future project, I didn’t have time this weekend). Modern dyers use chemical reducers such as spectralite to accomplish the same thing in just a couple hours. I didn’t have any of that laying around and, besides which, I have an aversion to using chemicals (doesn’t that defeat the purpose of using a “natural” dye?) so I spent some time searching for an alternative. The only suggestion I got was from the Georgeweil(insert link here) website, which suggested using yeast to accelerate fermenting the dye and reduce the oxygen content. Makes sense to me, if it ferments my bread it should work just fine for dye right? We’ll see. I added 2 tablespoons bread yeast and 3 tablespoons of ordinary sugar to my gallon pot and stirred it in. At this point georgeweil says to leave it for 48 hours, it is now roughly 2:30 pm….

….. 4 pm the next day, I got impatient. Story of my life. Amazing how that happens sometimes huh? How does the dye look? Well, I don’t think I would get very many compliments if my shirt was that color. Kind of a cross between the colors of pond scum/algae and sewage lagoons. Attractive, I know. On the positive side, there is a scum of deep blue all the way around the pot. Anyway, not having much in the way of white cloth around the house I resorted to going to the store and buying a pack of cotton tee shirts to test the dye with. I also scrounged up one of my sons’ plain white onesies, hopefully this works or I may hear words from my wife about ruining it. . . I soaked my articles in water for about an hour ahead of time to get them fully saturated and allow the dye in quickly. Thinking ahead for once I just put in one of the shirts to test the dye.

I left mine in for 20 minutes (aimed for 10 but then grabbed some dinner while waiting) before pulling it out to let it air out. Supposedly it will change from a green when you pull it out to a blue as it hits oxygen. Mine didn’t, 15 minutes later still green. Hmmm….. attempting to figure out what went wrong led to the wearingwoad (insert link here) website which told me that green is often a result of the solution being too high of a ph. I guess 6 tsp of washing soda was too much…. lesson learned. Maybe I should get ph strips next time to test it! Fortunately it also told me that giving it a light rinse with vinegar should change my shirt to blue. So I dabbed my finger with vinegar and touched the corner of the tee shirt. Success!! It is now a light blue instead of green. I want a darker color so I returned it to the pot for and repeated 10 min in 10 min out until I was satisfied with the hue. Then I rinsed them out in cold water till before letting dry completely.

Before I put the shirt back in for a second time, I got to thinking that maybe it hadn’t dyed very dark because the pigment had all sunk to the bottom. After all, I had just let it settle for 26 hours. So I stirred it lightly and put the shirt back in the dye. This time I definitely had some streaks of darker blue as nice random highlights. Also, the color was more of a blue green instead of just green, so maybe it helped. Regardless, every time I let them air out they would look greenish yellow but as soon as I put them back in the pot the would look blue again. When I rinsed them out after finishing, my rinse water went all yellow and orange, and after that my shirts looked blue. Which is logical, yellow and blue makes green. Apparently I had a lot of loose yellow in my dye that didn’t bind? I haven’t read of anyone else having this happen so maybe it’s just a product of the odd, cobbled together process I used.

Rinse you’re dye project until the water runs clear and then wash it to ensure you get any excess dye that hasn’t bound out (hopefully I don’t have to tell you to wash this by itself….). Isn’t it a lovely color? Tag/send me pics of your dye project, I’d love to see what you all made!

Helpful websites:
Dirt Stains: Experiements in dyeing with dirt

Dirt Stains: Experiements in dyeing with dirt

Earth, clay, soil, dirt. We’re always trying to remove it, clean it, wash it out. . . Not this week!

I’ve known for years that natural earth pigments were frequently used as paints and stains in pre-modern times. But alas, knowing something was done doesn’t mean knowing how. What really needs to be done to make dirt stick permanently? I’ll admit, I had no idea what I was doing and how to get started with using earth pigments– so I plunged right in!

I would like to say this project was planned and mapped out ahead of time, no such thing. I did something which comes a little easier to me… I winged it! I was out on the mountain hunting elk a few months back and came to a spot in the road where the dirt was a bright reddish/orange color and was really fine and ‘poofy’. Actually, I didn’t actually register it as dirt initially– when I came around the corner onto an open hillside and noticed a red powder all over the vegetation near the road my first thought was that it was fire retardant from wildland firefighters. It was that bright and unnatural looking. Only thing was that there hadn’t been a fire close to there all summer so if they were dropping retardant they really missed the mark…. I kept driving though and pretty quickly came to this spot on the hillside where the red dirt was showing. Looked like any time someone drove that road it created a red dust cloud that settled on everything nearby and gave it this weird color. Naturally, of course, I popped out of the truck and collected a few handfuls in a spare grocery bag. Who knows when you might need colored dirt right??

In my defense I did have a project in mind for it, I was planning on using it as a colored slip to paint some designs on pottery…. Colorful soil like this is not common where I live and it would make a nice contrast to the local clay. Yet somehow that project never ended up happening and I’ve had a sack of dirt sitting around on my shelf for two months. Every now and then I start to wonder if I’m a hoarder– who has sacks of dirt sitting on their shelves for months?? Sadly, most of the stuff I collect isn’t even finished, mainly just materials to make something out of! I finally decided it was time to do something with it when I saw the bag sitting there couple days ago. Weekend project!

When I was younger my brother and I both had “dirt shirts” from Hawaii that were dyed (stained? Is dirt technically a dye?) with local dirt. His was a rusty shade of red (a pretty common soil color in that area) while mine was a blueish aquamarine (a color that would cause me to stop and do some serious questioning if I ever saw soil that looked like it. . .). At any rate, I decided to attempt making my own version and see what I thought of the process.

Having no experience with dyeing with dirt my game plan was pretty simple– add water and drop a t-shirt in. KISS right? Essentially, that’s as easy as it was. I did use a little vinegar to help set the color (frequently used as a pre-treatment when using natural dyes) but other than that all I did was set the shirt in a dirt slurry. That’s the abbreviated version if you want to stop reading now.

For those of you slightly more interested in details. Starting from the top: filter out the larger rocks, twigs, etc to make it easier on yourself. It’s really only the ultra fine particles that are going to be binding to the fabric anyway, might was well not make it too uncomfortable to be playing around in. Not that it matters since you won’t be collecting dirt from the same spot I did if you want to try this… but I measured all my ingredients so I can adjust things in the future if the color isn’t quite what I wanted. At any rate, I measured out 4 cups of dirt into a metal bowl and then added two cups of water and one of white vinegar. I have no idea if vinegar was necessary, I’ve used it in creating vegetable dye baths and know it is used to help a color stick to fabric so I thought I would add it just in case. Basically make a dirt shake, or maybe even a slightly thinner consistency. Now dampen the t-shirt and work it in…. mix it around until it is thoroughly saturated and completely covered or the stain my come out uneven. Which could be an interesting look too I guess. I left mine for about 2 ½ hours before I came back and rinsed it out. Not sure if longer leads to darker colors or not– sometime I’ll have to experiment with that! After you’ve given it ‘sufficient’ time (whatever that is to you) rinse it out thoroughly with the hose. Once you seem to have it clean go throw it in the washer and run a load by itself. After doing this the first time I decided it was a little light (colors fade when washed the first couple times) and put it back in the mud for another few hours to soak again and see if I could make it

darker. It had been a nice rusty brown when rinsed with the hose…. and started looking light peachy orange after going through the washing machine. The second time around it did seem to darken some, but is still a little lighter than I would have preferred. Not sure if that is simply the color that dirt creates or if I can adjust my process to extract a darker color from it. Overall though, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out!

Do you have a local spot with interesting dirt/clay? Try staining something and send me a picture, I would love to see what colors you get from your local soil! Or if you have experience dyeing or staining with dirt I would love to hear the process you use and any insight you have. Dyeing with dirt turned out to be a pretty fun and laid back process, give it a shot and let me know what you think! Maybe next summer I’ll go back and get some for pottery….