Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Native Black Dye

CA Native Plant Society,
San Gabriel Mountains Chapter
Recently one of the other volunteers suggested that he might donate some skunk bush for dyeing, and asked if I knew anything about it.  I responded that I did have a recipe, and would love to try it out.  He's planning on gathering skunk bush leaves, and I'm having second thoughts.  Not about doing it, but about how I'm going to go about getting the rest of the recipe, which is considerably more difficult than I'd remembered when I read about it the first time in Navajo Native Dyes - Their Preparation and Use. 

Here's the short version of the recipe for the bluish black color known as "Native Black":

Dye Recipe: Navajo Native Black (Blue/Black)

2 lbs sumac withes with leaves (or dried leaves)
3 cups piƱon pitch
3 cups yellow ocher
1 lb yarn.

1- Boil the sumac with 6 gallons of water from 1 to 3 hours (longer preferred) 
2- toast the ocher to cocoa brown in a frying pan. Drop in the pitch a little at a time and stir well as long as it smokes. It will turn a shiny gunpowder black/blue.  Cool before using. (caution: FLAMMABLE) 
3- strain the sumac from the dye pot, add the ocher and pitch. Stir and boil for 15 minutes.  
4- add wet yarn.  boil 2-3 hours (yes, the recipe says “boil”) 
5- leave yarn in dye water overnight. 
6- rinse and dry. 

The Trouble with Cochineal:

The very same thing which makes cochineal such an amazing dye to work with, also makes it a real pain.

Every year I make a beautiful hot red dye.

Every year I rinse my yarn and add some fabric softener to deter moths.

Every year I take a raspberry color yarn out of the rinse instead of a fire engine red.

No more!

A brief review of cochineal:

Cochineal gets it's color from the prickly pear cactus that the cochineal bug (a parasite) eats.  It's the digestive juice of the bug itself that makes cochineal a permanent dye.  Prickly pear dye disappears rather quickly (it's what we call a fugitive or rouge dye).  It's naturally a purplish red, the color of the prickly pear tunas. 

photo: texasjellymaking.wordpress.com
The color, of the dye, however, can be changed by altering the pH of the dye bath.  At El Rancho de las Golondrinas, we use lime juice to drive it acid, making it more red to orange,  and washing soda to increase the blues and drive it purple.

One of the most important features of cochineal is that the introduction of the lime juice can give you that "true red", scarlet, crimson... that range of color which had previously been only attainable in Europe with madder root treated with arsenic.  Definitely a more dangerous cloth to make... and wear.  The ease (and safety) of getting the highly desirable red with the cochineal bug made the dye an important trade item, one that shaped politics as well as trade policy.  There are whole books written just about cochineal and it's impact.  If you're interested, I recommend A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire.

So why does my red yarn turn raspberry or purple, and what can I do about it?

At the top, you'll see a photo of two wet pieces of wool.  On the right is the color I had as I rinsed using my normal procedure.  I cut a piece off before changing my rinse water.  The camera, unfortunately, doesn't do the greatest job of capturing what the eye can see, but you might notice that the right piece (which I put on top of and at the side of the later piece) is is more of a raspberry than a true red.  It's a little bluer than the other piece.  

For a long time, I thought that perhaps it was the difference in the prickly pear cactus and it's growing conditions that made the yarns tend to go back to a more "natural" cactus color rather than the bright red that had been drying on the dye shed fence.  

Then it struck me:  I KNEW that I had hard water... I'd had problems with filters and my electric tea pot... and isn't it possible that the rinse water itself was alkaline?  Perhaps. Or perhaps it was the fabric softener.  In either case, there was only one thing I could do: add back some acidity.

A small bottle of lime juice (99¢ at Sprouts) and my sink full of purplish reds were red again.