Jonathan & Denise >
… not so fast.
It was back in 2017 that we first made use of material from our Phormium plants [Phormium Tenax – New Zealand Flax] for dyeing wool. The results were impressive – as regards quantity of material available, yield of colour, usefulness of colour, ease of use, and – if tentatively, the all-important colour-fastness, too.
A dye that is described as fast is not one that acts very quickly, but one that doesn’t fade much – if at all. There are two types of ‘fastness’ : fast against sunlight (specifically, natural ultra violet light) ; and the other is fast against washing.
Initial tests – leaving one sample on a sunny window-sill, the other being put through a few wash cycles – were promising. But now three years have passed, and we can say now for certain that wool dyed with phormium is extremely fast, in relation to both light and washing.
Here’s the same sample : it’s been on the window-sill for (almost) three years, and the colour looks much the same as it does in the photos above showing skeins of wool on the washing line, from precisely the same batch as this sample. We’ve just loosened the tight knot, and can see no difference in colour between the greater part of the sample that was exposed to the light, and the parts hidden within the knot. So that’s definitely very light fast. As to wash-fastness, well that’s previously been tested, and this dye passes the test with flying … !
The other question we had, back then, was which part of the plant contained the greatest concentration of colour. We weren’t sure, because we lumped together, for our 2017 experiment, all the material that came out of the garden shredder after feeding in entire flower stems – including the seed pods (and the seeds they contained). It was the stains that this material left on our hands which had prompted our experiment in the first place.
Last summer we collected the mature flower stems and pods and dried them for storage, to dye with during the winter. We discovered, shortly after, from flower stems that we’d not harvested, that the stems lost their colour entirely as they dried and hardened ; so we discarded those – but kept the pods (with seeds inside).
A few weeks ago, we retrieved from our stores in the dye-shed the dried seed pods, and shook from them the countless thousands of tiny seeds – like shiny black ‘flakes’. What we were keen to discover was, did the seeds (which would take up very little space in storage, and would be easy and inexpensive to send to customers by post) contain a good concentration of colour, or was that solely in the pods?
We put the 25g seeds and 25g of pods into separate pans, each with 1 litre of water. We brought those to the boil, and then simmered for 30 minutes. The liquid in each pan looked to be dark brown ; but a pad of cotton wool, one half dipped in the dye liquor from seeds, the other half in the dye liquor from pods, revealed the truth. The colour is concentrated in the flower pods.
We then took 25g of our mill-spun cheviot Aran yarn – previously mordanted with rhubarb, and immersed it into the pod-liquor for an hour. This is the result :
An alum mordant would have resulted in a brighter more golden brown ; an iron mordant a more muted, sombre brown ; a copper mordant and more complex green-brown.
But compare this with the colour we got in 2017 from the seed pods (including seeds), with much the same formula.
From our experience, this is the same colour : the difference is the degree of saturation. Let’s explain that.
If we have two quite separate sessions of dyeing, one making a single dye-batch with 100g of yarn and 100g of dye material, the other with 300g of the same yarn, and 300g of dye material, both using exactly the same equipment and method, the colours obtained should be more or less the same. However, if we use 300g of dye material (which would, incidentally, also have to be in three times the water), but only add 100g batch of yarn, that yarn will be free to take up as much of the dye as it can, up to its natural capacity (which depends on the dye material and the yarn type, also the mordant). After that batch, the dye pot will contain a much weaker solution of dye, so when a second 100g batch of yarn is immersed and simmered for an hour – or however long is required, the result will be a paler colour. Likewise the third, and maybe fourth batches. Here’s an example of that with a different dye-source – indigo.
In the case of our 2020 experiment, the paler colour is perhaps explained by the fact that we had already taken out some colour with the cotton pads ; but we suspect that the biggest factor could be that, whilst in 2017 the dye material was fresh, this year it was dried – and three years old. Perhaps that’s a subject for a further, future investigation!