It was after seeing the rather tragic and touching film, Seraphine, that I was inspired to try my hand at making natural dyes. The film is a true story about the self-taught French artist Seraphine Louis who lived in poverty, working as a housekeeper by day and painting by night. Her work was accidentally discovered by a German art collector, and through his support, she received some level of success as a naive painter until madness seemed to take over, with Séraphine ending her days in an asylum. She made all of her pigments using a variety of available ingredients including clay and animal blood. While she required pigments for her paintings, we’ll keep it simple, bloodless, and safe for kids by making some dyes to colour wool batting or wool roving. This will in turn be used to make some really neat felt balls in my next post.
The photo above shows the results of my dyeing adventures. From left to right: yellow rose petals, red rose petals, blueberries, and the remaining four from food colouring. As you can see, the natural dyes I chose resulted in very pale colours. I did, however, come across a great book (see below) which recommends all sorts of natural materials that will result in bright colours, if that’s your preference.
- plant material to provide colour (see below)
- wool batting or roving
- stainless steel pots
- containers for dyeing wool
- white vinegar
- food colouring (optional)
Choosing plant material depends on the colours you would like to have. There are numerous websites and books listing various options, and the type of fixative best for each one. I would suggest you take a look at the lists on the following sites, so you can choose what you prefer: http://www.pioneerthinking.com/naturaldyes.html and http://tilz.tearfund.org
I selected materials that were easy to access and safe for children to work with. Blueberries made a pale burgundy colour, red rose petals a pale rose colour, and yellow rose petals a pale yellow. I was able to buy a bag of petals at a local florist for $3, so it wasn’t a costly affair. If you’re in Toronto, there are a bunch of them on Avenue Road south of Davenport where they are available. While these colours ended up being paler than I thought, I’m guessing that when I combine them with the natural wool to make felt balls, they will have a lovely organic look to them. Pale, however, is not what excites kids. Since bright colours are definitely preferred, I decided to make some additional batches using food colouring. The process remains the same. You should fix your wool using vinegar (see instructions below), then place the wool in a bowl with hot water and the food colouring of your choice. Leave overnight, rinse in cold water, and hang to dry. You’ll now have many options to keep the kids happy when making felt balls.
1. The wool batting or roving is readily available in yarn shops like Romni Wools. Your first step is to prepare the wool for dyeing with fixatives. Fixatives/mordants allow fibres to absorb colour better. If using berries, your fixative should be 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups cold water. Stir, add your wool, and simmer for one hour. For plants, combine 4 parts cold water to one part white vinegar. Again, add your wool, and simmer for one hour. Remove the wool and rinse well in cool water. Squeeze out any excess. It’s really important not to let the water boil since this starts to felt your wool. Bring the water just under boiling point and immediately reduce to simmer. I learned the hard way and some of my wool looked a bit matted when it dried, but it was still possible to work with. You just have to pull harder when separating sections.
2. The next step is to make your dyes. Collect the plant material you will be using for your various colours. For each different colour, the chopped up plant material should be added to twice the amount of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for one hour. Strain the plant material out and set your dye aside. Once all your dyes are ready, add your wet wool and allow to sit overnight.
3. Rinse your wool in cool water until it runs clear. To avoid staining your hands, you should use gloves. You may want to strain and save what’s left of your dyes for other uses such as watercolour painting, or squirting the snow in the winter. You can now hang your wool up to dry. I used coat hangers and placed containers and towels underneath to catch any drips. Once dry, your wool will be ready to use for making fabulous felt balls, which I will cover in my next post.
I highly recommend this book for making your own dyes:
The Complete Guide to Natural Dyeing by Eva Lambert & Tracy Kendall
(also available at Romni Wools)
For more information about the history of dyes:
For more information about Séraphine Louis: