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by John Marshall


Nearly every plant will yield some sort of color, whether we use the leaves, the bark, the wood, the roots, or the fruit. Nearly all require, or are enhanced by, some sort of mordant. The trick, then, is to determine which plants, or which part of which plants, give not only beautiful tones, but colorfast shades as well. Here are a few token examples of dyes tried and true.


Many dyers have been frustrated after hours of work producing a beautiful shade of color on a piece of yardage only to find that in washing or with limited exposure to sunlight the color fades and all but disappears. This is where the tried and true sources of the past come to our aid. People have been experimenting with producing colors since ancient times. Rely upon this body of information for your initial palette. However, do keep in mind, there is always room for experimentation.


There are a great many excellent sources both in your local library and online for traditional information on natural dyes, so I am not going to repeat it here. These references will be especially useful in researching which plants yield which colors, and which mordants to use to achieve the broadest range of variations.


Most of the recipes will come from traditions in dyeing yarns. The plants used and the manner in which the dye is extracted is the same–whether dyes for yarns or painting yardage. However, once the color is extracted the similarity ends. Follow the general outline below for dyes to be used in katazome.


▶︎Bulk dye plants may be grown or purchased. The commercially available types are normally sold dry. For most of our purposes, large quantities of dye will not be required as in yarn dyeing. The goal is to make only slightly more than you think will be necessary when two to three coats are applied to the yardage.


▶︎Making dye is not very different from making coffee or tea – first grind or chop the material into fine pieces or powder using a kitchen knife, a mortar and pestle, a blender, or a coffee grinder.


▶︎It is often a good idea to soak the dry vegetable matter for a bit before proceeding. Woodier types of dye sources will need to be soaked longer, sometimes for a whole day or more. A good rule of thumb is to put the dye stuff on to soak the night before you plan to cook it.


▶︎Place the vegetable matter and the soakwater (the water it has been soaking in) in a glass bowl for the microwave, or a stainless steel bowl for over the stove. Slowly bring to a simmer and steep for as long as it takes to extract the color. Some sources begin to release color the minute they hit the water while others require more patience.


▶︎Pour the stew mixture through a moistened cloth into a mixing bowl. With some dye sources you may add more water to the steeped vegetable matter and get a second, third, and even fourth batch of dye by simmering a bit longer. The color is slightly different each time, usually becoming less concentrated, so you may want to keep each batch separate, or mix them into one big pot for a blended shade.


▶︎Allow the dye to come to room temperature before proceeding.


▶︎Never boil the dye stuff, this kills the color. I generally cook my dyes at a fairly low temperature to reduce the liquid, leaving me with a concentrated extract.


Unless you collect dye sources the way a birder collects a list of sightings, you won’t need many sources. Find a small palette of reliable colors and stick with them. All of the colors used as described in these pages will mix well. You may also purchase commercially available extracts.

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