Well, it wasn’t on the list, but hijackers aren’t known for rule-following, and I’ve always wanted to dye fabric with natural materials, so this week, that’s what I did.
I just really like changing the color of things. Walls, icing, pages in my journal… Yet, I’m very aware of how toxic most paints and dyes are. We’ve all heard about the (precarious) link between red food coloring and ADHD, but it appears to go beyond that. The Canadian government is currently investigating a bunch of tinting agents to decide if they should even be allowed in the country. This is good, but it worries me. I want to be able to change the color of things! Often! So, I say, time to learn to do it with celery.
I’ll skip to the end and tell you that it was not a raging success. But, I learned a lot, I think I know what I did wrong, and I loved spending this windy afternoon drifting in and out of the kitchen, saucepans of green and pink t-shirts bubbling on the stove.
Here is everything you need to know.
1. Your dye “stuff”. This is the fun part. There are simply zillions of things you can extract color from in nature (here is a list from the good people at Pioneer Thinking), but here’s the catch: they work best when they are in their prime. Flowers should be in full bloom, fruit should be strait off the plant, and uber-ripe. I really wanted to gather my dye-stuff myself, but I was seriously limited by the fact that it’s late October and Toronto.
At another time of year, from right around my house, I could have scavenged:
~ Spent day lily heads for purplish red
~ Blackberries for purplish blue
~ Black-eyed Susan & coneflower heads for green
But but but. No no no. I tried to stay at least slightly in-season, and to use materials I could process in other ways, so there was little waste. I settled for:
Green dye: Grass and celery leaves
Pink Dye: Beets, carrots and onion skins
2. A big, huge saucepan or two (having the key to your neighbor’s house can help with this.)
3. A whole bunch of white vinegar or salt.
4. A strainer
5. Clothes or other textiles to dye. Natural materials work best, as do NEW materials. As you will see…
That’s it! Really, this is a pretty easy project.
So here we go…
2. “Fix” the material…. I have no idea of the science here, but you’re supposed to boil your material in water and salt or vinegar for an hour first to “fix” it, so that the dye will adhere. So, fill a saucepan with water, add 1 part salt or vinegar for four parts water, and simmer those clothes up!
3. Gather “dye stuff”. For me this meant a trip to the grocery store, with a stop in the park on my way home to cut grass. Grass happens to suck at this time of year, and I suspect this may be part of the reason behind the epic failure of my green dye. But not to get ahead of myself…
4. Create dye. Fun! Just chop your “stuff” up small, and simmer for at least an hour. In the case of my green dye, I went for 2-3 hours, because the water was veeery slow to take on the color. The red dye was way quicker. (Side note: For whatever reason, the grass/celery dye smelled delicious. If I could, I’d breath that steam in every morning.)
5. Strain out the chunks and return it to the heat. This is important. Chunks will attach to the material, and create darker spots.
5. When your material is nicely “fixed”, rinse it out well and slip it into the dye.
Now. The results?
Totally, absolutely mixed. One of the pinks looks OK, one looks borderline and the green is, well, I never say this, but it’s pretty much unwearable.
Problem #1: Non-fresh materials
I chose big, organic Ontario beets with the tops attached. This may be part of the semi-success of the pink. The grass and celery, on the other hand, are out of their prime. I knew that they wouldn’t create a deep, rich color, but I was hoping for something a little less hostile. It’s like… 4-parts-milk, 1-part-urine.
Problem #2: Insufficient straining and stirring
The color on all the shirts is uneven, which I attribute to two things. In the case of the green, I didn’t strain the dye-stuff out very well, so there are noticeable splotches where bits of grass or celery stuck to the shirt. Also, I didn’t stir any of them as much as I could have, which meant that the parts that lingered at the bottom of the pot got much darker than the top. Tie-dye is fun and all, but it wasn’t really what I was going for.
It’s actually pretty tricky to get an even dye surface, because the cloathing naturally floats. The solution I found was to sink a big stainless-steal strainer over the top, but I didn’t figure this out until the damage was done.
Problem #3: SWEAT STAINS!
I did NOT see this one coming! I mentioned that two of these shirts were second hand. Bad idea. It would appear that the dye “fixes” to sweat stains 1000% better than it does to non-sweat-stains. So, what was yesterday an almost-invisible yellow hue is now, well, you can see the photos.
I’m really glad I tried this out on clothes that I wasn’t attached to. I’m looking forward to refining my skills and experimenting with other color hues and other textiles. It will be a while before I try it on anything precious.
However, as I said, I also had fun. I enjoyed myself. I liked drifting back and forth from my study to the kitchen, chopping and stirring and checking. I liked hearing the oven bubbling all day, while the windows filled with steam. It’s midnight now, and I’m finishing up this post. I like the way my home smells, like soup and cotton and beet-sugar. The trip to the park to gather grass feels like a long time back. The t-shirts are drying in the sunroom and the leftover food has all been made into new things – five jars of beet romesco, a huge pot of celery soup, celery-carrot-apple juice for the morning. And, I’m keeping some of the red dye for next week’s secret project. I’ll see you there.