Natural Dyeing - Eighteenth Century Dyeshop
Eighteenth Century Dyeshop
The American Revolution
brought forth a new early trade, weaving. America could no longer rely on England for their imported textiles and other manufactured goods. Every person in the family would have to learn to make their own clothes. Since the colonists did not want to wear the same color of clothing day in and day out, it was necessary to dye fabric using homegrown and wild plants and vegetables. In most colonial towns, there was a person whose specific job was a wool dyer.

In Europe, the job of bleaching and dyeing depended in craft skills which required lengthy apprenticeships. The work was done by men who had to understand biology and chemistry in order to understand the properties of the materials they were working with. Indigo which was a complicated dye to use was produced through a process of controlled fermentation over a number of days. In Europe dyeing took place in specialized shops.

Natural Dyeing - Dyeing
It was impossible to transfer that process to America. Instead, dyeing was accomplished either in fulling mills, craft shops, or by the colonial men and women of the household. The natural materials available for the household in the new world was abundant. Colonists learned from the native people. One of the Salem Massachusetts settlers reported in 1630, "also here be divers roots and berries where whith the Indians dye excellent holiday colours that no raine nor washing can alter."

Up until the nineteenth century, only natural dyes were available, In 1856, W.H. Perkins while experimenting with coal tar accidentally discovered aniline dyes, He produced a new lavender dye which sent excitement throughout England. Natural dyeing survived in rural parts of America, but it didn't take long for synthetic dyes to replace them. Synthetic dyes could be produced in large quantities for commercial textile production. By 1867, dyestuffs imported for consumption in the United States was 27,000 tons. By 1900, 1.5 million tons were manufactured in the United States with 4.5 million being imported from other countries.

Natural Dyeing - W.H.Perkins at the age of 22
W.H.Perkins at the age of 22
Natural Dyeing - W.H. Perkins patent in August 1856
W.H. Perkins patent in August 1856
There are two categories in which natural dyes fall under, either substantive or adjective. Substantive or direct dyes such lichens, walnut hulls, or indigo attach to the fiber without the use of another chemical. Adjective or mordant dyes require a fixative such as alum or tin which prevents the color from washing out. The most common tradition mordants were iron salts and aluminum. This use of copper, chrome and tin in the mordanting procedure came into use later. The metal mordants were not readily available in small towns and villages. Instead the local people used plants for mordanting procedures.

Although natural dyes have survived because they are impossible to standardize and they produce unique colors that may vary widely from dye lot to dye lot. The colors yielded from natural materials are soft and pleasing to the eye. Of the primary colors, various hues of yellow seem to result from most native natural sources. However, rich browns, pinks, oranges, reds, grays, tans, blues, purples, and blacks, as well as pastels, can be achieved by combining natural dyeing materials with various chemical salts known as mordants.

Dyeing wool works best when metallic salts like tin, iron, and alum are used. Alum is commonly used with cream of tartar which helps brighten colors. During colonial times, iron pots were used which acted as the mordant in producing cooler or grayer tones. Tannic acids are used best on cotton.

Natural materials for dyeing continue to remain abundant and are all around us. The sources used in dyeing can be lichens, berries, roots, nuts and their hulls, flowers, foliage, marigolds, zinnias, carrots, asparagus plants, poplar, rhododendron, mountain laurel, privet, barks, and certain gall growths. WIld growth such as dandelions, goldenrock, black-eyed Susan, and white flowered bloodroot, bracken, and sumac can also be used. Ground coffee beans, tea leaved, onion skins, and dried saffron are a few natural dyes found in the kitchen.

Colonial Sense is providing to you basic procedures you can use to dye with natural materials along with nine natural dye projects. We recommend that you keep a field book so the process can be duplicated once the color that you like is achieved in the dyeing process. There are endless possibilities for other projects should you choose to be adventurous.

It would be best to start your project with wool since it it the easiest fabric to dye. Once you are comfortable in the process, try using cotton for your project. Linen is the most difficult fabric to work with since the dye tends to sit on the linen. It is best to used distilled water since the chemicals in the treated water affect color. Use non-metallic pots and wooden or plastic spoons to mix or measure the solution If you are working with poisonous plants or chemicals, make sure you are careful in handling the mixture and provide good ventilation.

Basic Procedures Dyeing with Natural Material

The first step in natural dyeing is to gather the plant material. Materials such as flowers and roots may be gathered and dried for prolonged storage. Some natural plant dyes are available commercially at weaving or health and nutrition stores.

Before dyeing, fabrics must be treated with a mordant to set the dye. Instructions for making and using mordants follow. Natural dyeing as practiced on the frontier was not an exact science. Some experimentation may be necessary to achieve results.

To make a dye - prepare the plant material by cleaning and chopping roots, scraping stems and crushing leaves of flowers and and nuts. Soak the prepared materials overnight. After soaking, boil until the dye has reached the desired shade (1/2 to 6 hours).

Natural dyes will not hold their color unless the fabric is first treated with a mordant. A mordant for wool or silk is made by dissolving 1 ounce of aluminum in 1 gallon of water and adding 1/4 cream of tartar. For cotton or linen, add 1/4 ounce of baking soda instead of cream of tartar.

Soak the material to be dyes in the mordant for about an hour. Rinse thoroughly before dyeing.

Dyeing - after dye has reached the proper shade, strain it into a kettle filled with 4 gallons of hot water and a little salt and vinegar. Mix thoroughly. The dye solution should be darker than the desired final color.

Immerse the fabric in the dye and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes. Turn the material with a wooden stick or spoon while dyeing.

Rinse the dyed material in cold water and hang to dry in a shady place.

Source: Research & text by Bryan Wright

Related Links:

Earthsong Fibers
The Mannings

Comments (1) 
The steps are really good enough we can apply the procedure on home without much difficulty.

wool rugs
Colonial Sense is an advocate for global consumer privacy rights, protection and security.
All material on this website © copyright 2009-23 by Colonial Sense, except where otherwise indicated.