Dyeing arts

Dyeing arts: Foraged inks and natural dyes

“Being a writer who still uses ink to write out, and then cross out, each early draft of a manuscript,” novelist Michael Ondaatje writes in his foreword to Jason Logan’s incredible book Make Ink, “I had to meet him.” Ondaatje had been given samples of Logan’s inks made from peach pits, clam shells, kerosene — his specialty, and the subject of his book, is creating ink from foraged materials. When they met, “it felt like being introduced to someone with the skills of some lost medieval craft.” The fact that Ondaatje still writes in ink is astonishing, but also, what kind of craft book includes a conversation with the likes of Ondaatje, and artwork by a panoply of creatives (or “visual thinkers”) from artist/illustrator Gary Taxali to painter Hiroaki Ooka* to writer Margaret Atwood? We’ve got bookstore aisles for literary fiction and creative non-fiction, but a literary craft book is a different breed of cat. And one I’m highly on board with — albeit belatedly, as this has been sitting on my desk since September, waiting for me to notice how great it is.

There are loads of craft books so pretty you might happily put them on your coffee table and never do anything more than flip through them admiringly. Others you actually crack open and make things from. As beautifully written as it is photographed and designed, this one begs to be read from cover to cover, like a good essay collection, whether or not you ever attempt to make your own inks (or for what purpose). Especially if you’re the sort who enjoys learning the obscure histories of things — like, say, Oak Gall Ink:

“… an inerasable ink called iron gall, oak gall, or, more recently, registrar’s ink. It was the ink of record for weddings, funerals, and contracts; before that it was the ink found in one of the oldest surviving Bibles, the Magna Carta, and Beowulf. It was the favored ink of da Vinci, Victor Hugo, Bach, and the US Postal Service. This is an ink with a pedigree.”

Oak Gall is black, yes, but like any good dye book, this one is full of recipes for an entire rainbow of colors, to be used in art making or writing, on paper or fabric, presumably. I’m particularly smitten with the aqua blues of Copper Oxide Ink, and although I may not ever make any, I love knowing it’s possible. And look forward to reading every page of this gorgeous book.

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Also, not a book but I recently discovered that natural dyer Kathryn Davey (who I took a class from several years ago) has a full-length tutorial on her blog for dyeing with avocados. I’ve been wanting to try this for a long time and can never find enough info to feel like I know what I need to do. It’s so simple that most dyers, when asked, go “oh it’s the easiest, just boil ’em up and add your yarn or fabric.” But … pits or skins or both? How much dye matter as a ratio to the water? Do you need to worry about mordant? Thaw the pits if you’ve frozen them? Strain it or what? I have so many questions, and Kathryn’s is the most in-depth blog post I’ve seen.

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Happy weekend, everyone! What are you working on?

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*Ooka was new to me and I love their work.

PREVIOUSLY in Books: Weaving Within Reach — Or, what to do with your yarn leftovers

17 thoughts on “Dyeing arts

  1. Thank you for the link to Kathryn Davey’s post about dyeing with avocados. I have a large bag of skins and pits in my freezer and my husband keeps asking when I will remove them…you have helped us both!!! My plan is to weave enough linen for a tunic, avocado dye the fabric, and then construct my garment. Should be great fun!!

    • I started saving pits 5 or 6 years ago and eventually tossed them without attempting it. But I’m going to start keeping them again.

  2. Most interesting post. Just home from a daytrip to Toronto via train and so fantastic to see such creativity sprouting so close to home. Not that I’m surprised–TO is bursting with energy. Also pleased for the avocado resource. My kids are allergic to avocados, but now that they’re grown, my time for fun has begun!

  3. On avocado – experiment! I have tried pits only, skin only, pits + skins, adjusting the temperature of the dyebath, adjusting the pH of dyebath, using different mordants. I’ve got mason jars that I use to test things out. There are so many colours you can pull from avocado!!

  4. I’m so happy to find another fan of this book! I’m going to try the turmeric alcohol ink recipe (yellow) this weekend. And I’ve been obsessing over the copper oxide blue. (The safety issue is the only thing holding me back on that one.)

    • I just read about the Toronto Ink Company in a kid’s magazine. I saved it to check back on later, as I’m in the middle of too many things right now. Then I came across this gem of a post!

  5. There was a recent comment in Weave Tech (I think) about that beautiful red dye that you get from avocado pits not being stable with the color fading in time. However, with most natural dyes, you need to plan on using at least a pound of dye material to a pound of fiber. I have been finding out lately that most recipes are found on the internet and most need a ‘mordant’ such as a combination of alum and cream of tartar. Good red comes from an insect found on opuntia cactus in Mexico, called cochineal, or the roots of the madder plant, which we can grow in the Northern Hemisphere. Lots of books address this subject. Good blue comes from the queen of the natural dye plants, indigo. Yellows from a large variety of plants found in your back yard.

  6. Thank you for your blog. I always look forward to what you post. I learned about vegetable dyeing at Arrowmont School of Crafts in 1971 when about the only expert was a woman named Mary Frances Davidson who had published a small book. This was back when to spin wool, you had to get a fleece and pick out the bugs and twigs, wash it and card it yourself. I did a fair amount of vegetable dyeing back then as a college student but gave it up after awhile when I became a nurse and mother. Some of the mordants are not very environmentally friendly. I will check out the tutorial you recommend. I have recently started dyeing again as the types of fibers and materials have grown so much. We didn’t have the internet back then of course. I have a big garden now with various plants I can use. I have tried avocado pits and skins and have yet to get the color I want with directions I have found online. I would like to mention a book I just came across called The Natural Colors Cookbook by Maggie Pate. I haven’t tried any of her directions yet but I find her instructions clear and thorough. She makes recommendations about the ratio of weight of the dye material to the fiber. I have not seen this commonly. Besides avocado, she groups chapters by colors which I am excited about trying and the plants seem fairly readily available. Her resource list is good. I am familiar with the Make Ink. It is beautiful.

  7. What an incredible looking book, thanks for sharing!

    In my experience with avocado pits, the best, deepest color comes from a fermented ammonia bath (I have no idea if it’s actually fermenting, but…). I fill a quart jar up with thawed, quartered avocado pits, put in roughly a 1/4 cup ammonia, top it off with water, and let it sit for 2 weeks in a dark corner somewhere. After 2 weeks I take out the pits, add enough water to let the yarn float uncrowded, and the alum mordanted, pre-soaked yarn is then gently heated until the color stops deepening (I often do it overnight). I use the exhaust baths too, using the same method. One of my favorite colors comes from the 2nd or 3rd exhaust bath, with some iron thrown in (I have a mystery iron thingy from a flea market that gets tossed in the pot) — it’s a soft grey, with just a touch of warmth from the pink.
    I’m terrible at noting ratios, but the above recipe will color a 4oz skein and yield a couple of exhaust baths besides, or possibly a good 10 oz with fewer exhaust baths.

  8. Those Ooka paintings! I just want to crawl into them and sit awhile. And that book reminds me how I’ve long desired to learn to make paper. Paper and old inks have always fascinated me, even though I don’t do any sort of paper based artwork or calligraphy or anything.

  9. Lovely post. As a lady who uses a fountain pen every day, I spend a fair amount of time looking at, thinking about, and buying inks. Iron gall ink, for the record, isn’t recommended for fountain pens because it can clog them up, although there are variations that suit fountain pens well.

  10. Can’t wait to check this book out; I happened to go see a friend Friday, and she had the book on her table. If I don’t watch out, I’ll soon be crafting my own fountain pen nibs – hah!

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