By Samantha Verrone
The report released in March 2023 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change renewed in me a sense of urgency about how and what we consume. When I think about using what’s here rather than buying something new, bundle dyeing comes to mind as a gateway to a climate-conscious lifestyle. It connects us to the land and it’s easy to do.
A sense of adventure is essential when dyeing with plants. It’s different from dyeing with synthetic colorants. The intensity is different. The color is not necessarily permanent. Over time the patina will change, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Natural dyes are sensitive to physical conditions. Soil, age of plant, time of harvest, geography, season, changes in environment, temperature, and humidity all affect outcome and durability of color. Water is different everywhere; the same plant in one region will make a different color in another. Using a mordant before or after dyeing with plants can be helpful for fixing color to the textile. Mordants (from the Latin “to bite”) are metal salts like iron and alum as well as tannin. Tannin (plant polyphenol) naturally occurs in plants in varying amounts, so often there is an adequate mordant built into the plant dyestuff. Mordants often do double duty as color shifters as well. Experiment. Keep an open mind and a sense of wonder. You can always over-dye again and again to create layers of color and texture.
The eco-print made famous by India Flint is the endgame of the bundle dye process. In her Australian home, Flint achieves dramatic results with eucalyptus, golden yellow to orange to black with the introduction of iron, which acts as both a color shifter and mordant. Wherever you are, local plants can be used to make color on cloth.
What you’ll need:
- A large pot with a cover.
- Steamer basket.
- Cotton or hemp string.
- Plant materials.
- Heat source.
Dedicate tools to your dyeing practice. Garage sales and thrift shops are good places to find dye pots and other utensils. Try using aluminum or cast iron or copper pots as the metals of the pots have mordanting and color-shifting properties and deepen color. Cellulose fibers (cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo) will make a more subtle imprint with plants. Protein fibers (wool or silk) will yield more intense color results. Both types are beautiful.
Soak fabric in weak black tea or 1:4 vinegar to water solution for at least a half hour, or add rusty objects (like nails or washers) to your bundle to see how rust interacts with the plants to create new colors and rust imprints. Wrap fabric around a metal pole or tree branch. These color shifters will change and deepen the imprint of the plants.
Forage for local plants. Use an app like PictureThis, iNaturalist or Pl@ntNet (there are many) to learn more about the plants you find. Harvest with care: only take what you’ll use. Don’t harvest endangered plants. I like to gather windfall, particularly in early autumn as rugosa rose petals begin to fall, and by late October there is a fine assortment of maple, oak, ash and birch leaves available. Seaweed is plentiful along the coast, but, again, harvest mindfully. Use wilting cut flowers gifted to you. Food waste, like onion skins, avocado and pomegranate peels, and tea bags, and herbs from the garden can be bundled into your cloth. The acid in citrus wedges or rinds will shift colors, too. Try creating a cauldron of rusty objects, tea bags, pine cones, tree bark and water to immerse bundles in. The tannin in these plant materials will act as a mordant to secure color as well as a color shifter.
A stained silk top or pants, wool scarf, cotton T-shirt or antique linen napkins that have seen better days are all items to be bundled and reinvigorated. Light-colored textiles will give the best results. Visit the thrift shop if you don’t have anything handy.
Arrange plant materials on cloth and roll up tightly. It’s the imprint you’re after, so the cloth and plants must make a strong connection. Wrap well with string. Place the bundle in the simmering pot on top of the steamer basket or submerge in the water (could be plain water or a cauldron of rusty bits). With more delicate fabrics, especially light woolens, steaming rather than submerging might be better to avoid damage or felting. Leave for at least an hour. I tend to keep the heat on for a couple of hours, leaving bundles in the pot overnight to cool and only unwrapping days later after they have dried out a bit. You may be too excited to wait, seeing the imprints emerge through the tightly wrapped bundles. Understandable! Carefully unroll to see your results. Hand wash with a pH-neutral, plant-based soap in cold water.
Compost plant materials with care: Once you’ve identified the plant, research the best place to compost. Juglone in black walnut, for example, is not good for most plants in your garden, and you’ll want to dispose of invasive plants like knotweed or bittersweet with extreme care so as not to spread them.
Take your time. Take in the aroma of the plants as they cook. Unwrap your bundles slowly. Enjoy your (re)new(ed) garments and table or bed linens with a sense of being part of the solution to what ails our planet.
Samantha Verrone is an artist who recently moved from the Bronx to Maine. She works with botanical and mineral dyes and is especially interested in how rust interacts with plant dyestuffs. Join her for a Fiber College Summer Shorts workshop, “Printing with Rust, Plants & Seawater,”June 23-25 at Searsport Shores Ocean Campground. Register at makersguildmaine.org.
This article was published in the summer 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, MOFGA’s quarterly publication.