Cochineal bugs (Dactylopius coccus) give the most amazing red colour. They are a scale insect and grow on cactus. Surprisingly, they are also an FDA-approved food colouring. Here is a brief documenting of my dyeing of Merino wool scarves in my back yard using cochineal as a dye. I used Merino wool in a knit fabric which is very soft and allows for amazing colours.
The botanical drawing on the left by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1737 – 1799). (Newberry Library: Vault Ayer MS 1031) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
The photo to the right is one of my dyed Merino wool scarves that shows this amazing colour. Very vivid, indeed.
The scarves are dyed in small batches in the stainless steel (very large) pot.
Here is the cochineal dye vat in action.
Scarves drying on the rack and clothes line. Both dark and light shades. The lighter shade is achieved with adding cream of tartar to push the pH towards a brighter red.
A sampling of the final dye project - a very fine Merino wool scarf.
Weld (Reseda luteola) is a plant that is used as a natural dye and it grows mostly in Europe. It is lightfast and colour fast and produces a rich and vibrant yellow colour as you can see below. I have chosen to dye with a knit, Merino wool that is fine and soft, and allows the beauty of natural dyes to be rich and vibrant.
Botanical print accreditation: By Johann Georg Sturm 1796 (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Right photo image of Merino wool dyed with weld, by Kerrie Oliver.
Here is a brief video of my dying the scarves with weld in my backyard.
This is a strong dye vat as the colour 'takes' quickly. That said, it is important to bring the temperature of the vat up to 180 F and it must be stirred for an hour. Lots of suds which probably means i could have rinsed the fabric more to remove the soap. But also, it may be that air bubbles occur with the first initial submission of the fabric into the dye vat. No mind though, it will be fine.
There are less suds now and it is nearing the end of the time for removal of the scarves. No suds now.
Here is a close-up of these delectable things; drying on the racks.
Project completed: Beautiful amazingly yellow scarf; soft and warm.
Photo credit: Kerrie Oliver
I just last week attended another 4-day workshop at Maiwa in Vancouver, BC. I had wanted to take this particular workshop last year when it was offered but the class was full. I was able to attend this year - so very grateful for the opportunity to do the class.
Here below, are just some of the mixed natural dyes that we used.
Here below, is a sample I painted on cotton with some of the same colours, but done on cotton.
Steaming the fabric to 'set' the colours after printing and painting.
Below is a sample of a stencilled piece of natural dyes on cotton fabric - courtesy of Maiwa.
I have always taken an interest in the simplicity of designs from early cultural clothing. Max Tilke's book - Costume Patterns & Designs was a book I found in 1987 in Vancouver, a year after I returned from living in Japan. The then-famous and independently run Duthie Books on Robson Street, was a treasure to spend time in. Wandering through the isles of Duthies one afternoon, I came across Tilke's Costume Patterns & Designs. When I first opened it I was profoundly mesmerized by the historical and traditional wear of different world cultures. Having just spent about two years in Japan (and taking the 'slow boat' - literally - to China, which had only a year earlier opened up to foreigners!), it gave me a lot of cultural context for appreciating the book even more.
The images are so beautiful! I've had this book for all these years, since 1987 and recently took it down from the bookshelf to once again ponder it's contents and renew my inspiration.
I am drawn to it again and again for the same reason I was back then - the timeless simplicity of design that world cultures drew on for both their daily and ceremonial wear. And on some - or many levels - it brings me back to the core of what I do and envision in my design work. I was so influenced by my time in Japan. The indigo! And then I realized how the thread of this amazing fabric played itself out in many other cultures.
A few other images from the book:
It was always the clothing made from indigo textiles that intrigued me, but the simplicity of the cut of all designs, which wasted as little fabric as possible, was part of the intrigue. Fabrics would been woven by hand and precious indeed.
And another image...
This is a flash back to a few years ago of a natural dyes class I took at Maiwa Handprints in Vancouver, BC. I was fortunate, not only to get into the class (competition can be fierce), but also to be able to study with Charlotte Kwon - owner, filmmaker, designer and much more, of Maiwa Handprints. Charlotte, along with her team have created a bit of an 'empire' you might say, by way of travelling the globe working with cultures to encourage and preserve their traditions of natural dye work, teaching natural dye workshops all the while maintaining - back at home (in Vancouver, BC) their supply shop of natural dye stuff as well as workshops and a clothing store on Granville Island.
It was a four-day intensive workshop and covered a lot of ground in terms of fabric preparation (mordanting) and working with all the different natural dyes. Different fabrics require different preparations. For example, cellulose fibres, such as linen, cotton and hemp require different mordants and absorb the dyes differently. Fabrics such as wool and silk - protein fibres, require their own speciality for preparation.
Silk-rayon velvet sample swatches dyed with natural dyes.
More silk-rayon velvet samples of natural dyes.
Cotton and linen samples - dyed with natural dyes.
An impressive array of beautiful colours - all with natural dyes, on silk, linen, cotton, hemp and wool samples; a joint effort with my 'sister' class members.
As I wandered home to my lodgings on the final day of the workshop, this is what appeared as I turned the corner. How delightful and how appropriate - the Colours of Nature were right in front of me.
It was a fun night last night at the 'Black Gold' event hosted by the University of Saskatchewan's African Students Association. The organizers asked if I would like to have some of my designs in the event - of course I said "Yes!". Here are a few photos from the evening.
Silk taffeta is one of those exotic fabrics - sturdy and elegant at the same time, usually reserved for wedding and ball gowns. I have often admired it and being 'old school' still love the 'crisp' and 'royal-ness' of it. One of the things I love about taffeta is that it has sound. It has swish when you walk and provides another dimension to make this fabric so exotic. After admiring several pieces one day at my studio, I said to myself "No one wears fabric like this anymore", how can I make it more accessible to those who love beautiful fabrics? , how does one incorporate this she-she fabric into the easy-care "soft" fabrics of our day and fit into the lifestyle of convenience that so many fashions fit into now?
What I decided to do was to put it in the washer and take the starch out of it. Initially I was a bit disappointed because all the sizing (starch) had been removed, which produced a somewhat, if not very different fabric, but then I saw how much more wearable and accessible garments would be with this approach. It was already shrunk and it could be worn over and over - even with the wrinkles, which I think add their own certain charm.
Here is a detail of the indigo fabric that I used for the appliquéd circles on the front and back of the tunic. They were cut out of the left over fabric and green silk organza backing was added. This backing gives the circles added definition and 'dimension'.
Here I am with the large vat; soaking the taffeta fabric before dying.
One of the pieces of silk taffeta before I dyed it. There were different pieces I dyed. Some were striped and others were checked.
Immersing the fabric in the indigo.
Taffeta fabric hanging to dry on the beautiful wooden racks. After drying I gathered the different pieces onto the grass to see how they all looked together.
Light shining through the dyed taffeta to produce a 'cathedral window' image.
In the mid-80's I lived in Osaka, Japan for about two years. During my time there, I would often take the train on weekends to Kyoto. There was a family - Mr. and Mrs. Takeda, whom I got to know, and they kindly took me 'under their wing'. Mrs. Takeda knew that I had a passion for indigo fabric and so, one day she took me to a shop in Kyoto that specialized in collectable fabrics. Indigo fabric was and still is a big part of Japanese culture. Traditionally and historically there was much indigo dying in Japan. There has also been a world-wide revival of indigo dying.
Here we are in Kyoto at the collector's shop. In the background you can see several woven cotton pieces that are dyed with indigo. Mrs. Takeda (in the floral dress) explaining to me some of the intricacies of the fabric.
The shop owner showing us a prized piece of indigo fabric.
A close-up of a small section of the fabric that has been repaired. There is a name for this in Japanese called boro, which means to patch a worn piece of fabric using another piece of fabric. Boro came about out of necessity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as cotton fabric was hard to find in Japan. Rural workers would use pieces of fabric to patch their kimono and pants worn in the rice fields.
A larger piece of this very special fabric. I don't know what the reddish dye is, but it may be madder root. This piece is woven with cotton, and I assume is dyed with natural dyes, but am not certain. Nonetheless, it is a collector's piece.
A close-up of another specialty piece in a more delicate weave. Delicate colours, from natural dyes.
A close-up of a cushion cover. Delicate colours in natural dyes with alternating indigo.
Well, I am not in Athens right now, but it is Christmas eve and I have always loved this card. I recently found it in a box of precious papers collected from my travels over the years.
I arrived in Athens, somewhat bedraggled from a 3-day bus ride from England in the mid-80's, and it was here that I spent my first Christmas away from home. I decided to stay in Athens for a time and lived right very close to the famous Acropolis where this image was painted. I would walk through the Plaka every day on my way to the shops and the market, and I remember the special baking and pastries being made in preparation for the Christmas season. I bought this card in a small shop there, as it seemed to aptly capture the mood of the season. For me that time was magic; being in a remote and foreign land far away from home; sharing time on that special Christmas day so many years ago with my friend that I shared a flat with, and other expats visiting Athens. The quiet of this ancient city and this watercolour captured for me the spirit of that time.
May this Holiday Season be filled with precious memories, peace and good wishes to all.