Natural Dyes

There are currently many books available about the use of natural dyes. This is not a "how to" but a "helpful hint" article with a list of books and articles of interest as ell as a list of natural dyes documented as used in the Middle Ages.

It would seem obvious that dyeing wool works best if the wool is white. Until sheep were domesticated and bread for white wool, available wool was brown or black, with white sheep being the exception. This is something to keep in mind if your persona is very early or from a remote area. Sheep would probably still be at least partially brown or black, and dyed woolen materials limited or imported.

Keep your dye pots clean. The easiest way to do this is to use white enamel pots. You can bleach them out after using to make sure all dye material has been removed. Make sure to keep your dye pots and cooking pots separate. Many dye materials and mordents are toxic.

Make sure your wool is clean before dyeing. The lanolin will prevent the dye from adhering.

Some mordant materials are toxic, especially the more modern ones. (A mordant is a mineral salt used to help the dye adhere to the material being dyed).

Keep samples of each lot of dyed material. Label them with the plant type, mordant and the strength of the solutions. Take the part of each sample and expose it to strong light for a few weeks. compare it to the original lot. You will be in for a surprise in some cases. A lot of natural dyes are not light fast. (Fast is the dyeing term used to describe how long the color will last and under what conditions. Light fast means that sunlight will not cause the color to fade quickly, or fast.)

We tent to think of crushing berries, flowers, roots and barks and using their juices, with or without mordents, for coloring textiles. However there were other ways used in the ancient world. Nuts, berries, flowers, etc. were either rubbed on or pressed onto fabric using gums or resins to adhere them. Nor mordant was used. Mineral pigments such as gypsum and clay, hematite, ochre, iron rust or carbon from charcoal are generally light fast, but require a binding medium such as blood, albumen or resin to attach them to the material. The also used the way sunshine, fire or smoke affect fabric. Sun will bleach linen and other fabrics, for example. I've been using the terms "textiles" and "fabric", but these dyes were also used on leathers, basketry fibers and the human body.

There are three categories of dyes known to have been used. They are listed below along with the primary coloring materials relevant to them and the pigments obtained. Remember that pigments will vary according to the condition of the fiber being dyed.

Substantive dyes

These are substances that are both water soluble and direct in dyeing; i.e. e., the require no mordant.

Vat dyes

Vat dyes are soluble in alkaline liquids and are fixed to the fiber by oxidation. They do not require a mordant.

Mordant Dyes

These dyes require that the material being dyed first be treated with t mineral salt mordant such as alum, sodium chloride, or urine (the most commonly used ancient mordents) or with chrome, tin, or others.

Kermes, Cochineal and Lac (red)
Henna (orange, orange-brown)
Sumac (yellow, yellow-brown)
Pomegranate (yellow)
Turnsole (blue)
Persian Berries and Walnuts (brown)
Saffron , Weld, Dyer's Broom (yellow)
Madder (purple red)
Alkanet (red)
Woad (blue)
Sunt Berry (blue)
Oak Gall (black)

Check your local library for more.

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