The dyes which I use are the central part of my work.
Since the beginning I have collected dye plants: flowers, nuts, leaves, fallen bark, fruit and cochineal insects! Living here in the South of Spain on the Tropical Coast I have a wealth of materials on my doorstep.
Over the years I have also begun to grow many of my dyes. Now that we live on our piece of land, 10km inland up in the hills, my aim is to one day be completely sustainable and produce all of the colours which I use.
Dye stuffs once they have been used are composted. My principal energy source is the sun for heating, a resource in abundance. Water, on the other hand, is a scarce resource. Washing and rinsing water is used many times by starting with light colours and working up to darker ones. Just as dye baths are used to get many different shades. All the water is then used on the garden.
Here then is a look at some of my favourite dyes.
Well, given my business' name I have to start with pomegranates. Pomegranate is a classic dye, historically used in the Middle East and India. I love it because it's the symbol of Granada where I live ( 'una granada' is the Spanish word for a pomegranate); I love the shape of the fruit and the colour of the inside; it's good to eat and great to dye with.
I usually collect the fruit from abandoned trees dotted around the countryside. The outside skin/rind is what is used in dyeing. As well as producing yellows, mustards and through to browns it is also rich in tannin which is an important element in natural dyeing, especially for cellulose fibres like cotton.
DYERS' CHAMOMILE Anthemis tinctoria
Every spring I love collecting these flowers. They grow abundantly on waste ground. I sustainably collect all wild dyestuffs, only collecting material which is plentiful and only taking what I need. In April and May I use the fresh flowers to print directly onto silk to make patterned ribbons. The rest of the flowers I dry. Once dried they look like a crunchy, honey cereal. I use them throughout the year. They give a very classic yellow, in lighter shades primrose yellow and I use them as a base for other colours too.
Dahlias have to be amongst my favourites. I use the flowers once they have finished blooming. So first of all I enjoy them as cut flowers and then I dry the flowerheads. All the colours seem to produce the same dye colour so I mix them all together. I'm beginning to build up my own stock of plants by growing them from seed. All of last years plants came back this year which I was thrilled about. They flower throughout the summer. However, the bulk of my flowers are grown and harvested by my mum in West Cork, Ireland. She has a huge plant which pumps out yellow flowers all summer long. Dahlias give strong yellows and by a savvy use of alkaline modifiers also give apricots and oranges.
I am extremely lucky to be able to collect hibiscus flowers from hedging around an apartment block down next to the sea. Hibiscus flowers last a day and so I collect them once they have withered. I've had a few funny looks as I walk along the hedge picking away, including fallen ones on the pavements, but I've only once been asked what I was doing.
Hibiscus flowers are a strange dye and I'm never quite sure what exactly I will get. The strongest tones are definitely from flowers in the summer when there's lots of sun. The silk will often look purple straight out of the dye bath but watch out! As it's washed and rinsed the colour changes to olive greens and greys. Sometimes when using the flowers directly printed onto the silk I've been amazed by deep blues and the most stunning greens. This is the magic of dyeing with plants which you grow or collect, there are always climate and growing conditions which subtly affect and alter the results.
I only use eucalptus bark in my work which I collect from the ground around some large trees in a public park. Many eco-print dyers make lots of use of the leaves.
The bark is left to soak for weeks before I start to use it. Then I top up the bucket and it continues to give me colours for many months. This is quintessential slow dyeing, allowing nature to do the work.
Eucalyptus gives all kinds of shades of brown, from the golden brown chiffon in the shop to the tones of the very popular blush.
MADDER Rubia tinctoria
Madder is historically one of the most important dyes, along with weld (yellows) and woad (blues). It gives a wide range of reds ranging from terracotta to bright scarlets depending on methods used.
The colour comes from the roots. It takes many years to grow them to a suitable thickness, at least three. My madder was growing in a large tub up on my roof and when we moved it was the perfect time to take it all apart. The plants had been growing for probably 4 to 5 years. I was rewarded with a bountiful harvest and lots of shoots to start the process all over again.
Madder is a dye which you could, and probably do, spend your life learning about and experimenting with to understand all of its secrets and nuances. I'm just beginning.
Wild madder Rubia peregrina grows everywhere here and we have lots on our land. The roots don't give as much colour so I think it is best to leave it alone to grow.
The important part of the walnut for dyers is the green outer husk which most people never see. It falls off when the nut is ripe and I collect them off the ground as well as directly from the nuts. I usually take an annual trip up to a village in the Sierra Nevada to collect the husks but this year a friend has told me that his mother has trees in the valley below us so even more local.
Walnut gives beautiful browns and taupes, sometimes the silk comes out with swirly patterns like bark on it, sometimes! This is another slow dye. I let the husks steep for a long time. Some of my harvest I allow to dry to use later in the year. Different shades come out at different times. The gunge in the bottom of the bucket usually dries out in the hot summer sun and the resulting crumbly matter I use to print directly onto silk to create patterned ribbons. Once again accepting what nature gives me for free.
WOAD Isatis tinctoria
Woad is a very important European dye which was for many centuries the main source of blue. Great fortunes were made with it in the Middle Ages. Later on indigo from India took over. However, it is making a come back with lots of interesting projects taking place.
It is more of a Northern Europe plant and when I lived down next to the sea, every July my plants would just give up overnight when the heat and humidity of the Tropical Coast got too much for them. But now that we live a little inland although hotter it's not particularly humid and my plants are surviving. Woad is a biennial. The colour comes from the leaves in the first year which you can harvest several times over the season. The plants flower and set seed in the second year. I'm slowly building up my stock so there will only be a small amount of blue woad ribbons this year. I'm also experimenting dyeing with the seeds which is fun.
This is one of the plants which is central to my long term sustainability goal.
The most famous pink and food colourant E120 comes from cochineal insects.
Locally, and throughout Andalucia, the insects have become a plague on their host plants, prickly pears. Last year I didn't manage to find the plump fat insects and had to make do with the small ones covered in sticky, white fluffy stuff. Experimenting, as I didn't know if this would work, I was pleasantly surprised that once I scraped everything off the diseased and dying cactus leaves the resulting sticky substance gave me lots of colour.
Cochineal gives beautiful pinks from bubblegum to pale baby pink. Like madder it is another dye which you can experiment with to get many different colours and shades.
These are the main dye sources which I use from my local environment.
Below are some others which I use to a lesser extent.
Avocados are grown here in the valley where I live. For much of the year we just pick them up off the roadside after they fall off the trees. We eat the inside and I keep the stones and skin for dyeing. They give a lovely range of corals.
Again one of the local crops. I don't use these for colour but they are an important source of fructose for my indigo vats. For this I use overripe fruit.
QUEEN ANNE'S LACE
This is an abundant wild flower and I also have plenty of plants growing on my land which I'm going to be careful not to weed out!
It gives an amazing yellow which is almost fluorescent!
Another wild shrub in abundance. I have a few on our land which we've left. In late spring they are stunning, the flowers cascading like golden rain.
Once again a yellow dye. So many plants produce yellow and each one has its own shade.
A plant which loves growing here. We have it dotted throughout the tomatoes and all of the plants are producing endless flowers.
It's a new one for me to use and so I'm just beginning to experiment.
So that's it for now! Well done if you read to the end, or just skimmed the photos! As you can probably see, I will be experimenting and learning forever, growing and collecting, and hopefully managing to become more sustainable.
Luckily I love my job.
If you would ever like to know more about the dyeing, please get in touch by email: email@example.com or use the contact form.