What is natural dyeing?
Some people will (rightly) argue that everything is composed of chemicals, including natural dyes. Generally speaking natural dyeing refers to dying with plants, either the bark, the flowers the roots, the leaves or a combination of these. Minerals are also used as are animals....cochineal being one example of that.
Why use natural dyes?
There are a lot of different reasons for using these dyes. As this is not meant to be an all inclusive dissertation I will mention just a few:
Crafts people can enjoy the process as much as the outcome (I'm guilty of that myself): being involved from gathering the plant stuff, to processing it and then ultimately seeing the result on yarn or material is an exhilirating adventure even if the results are sometimes less than fabulous.
In terms of small scale dyeing, it is a much safer way of being creative if all commonsense 'rules' are followed. Many crafts people involved with chemical dyeing over a long period of time develop some health problems due to inhaling and handling the chemical substances.
The colour range obtainable with natural dyes is, shall we say, more natural, more subtle and always seems to coordinate effortlessly. (Having said that I love bright colours and am working hard to achieve natural brights as well as the softer colours.)
There are many debates going on at the moment regarding the use of natural dyes for industry. This is not the place to discuss all aspects but I believe that using and wearing textiles that are dyed without chemicals (I'll mention mordants later) must be healthier for us. Our skin absorbs all sorts of nasties and a lot of those are hiding in the colours of our clothing, bedding, teatowels etc etc. One train of thought says that if we allocate land to grow dye plants we will increase hunger in the world as that land won't be available to agriculture. Another group debates hotly that there is enough food in the world, it is the unequal distribution, the difference between rich and poor that is the problem.
The production of chemical dyes quickly overtook the traditional dyes because of their ease of use and availability. It is hard to imagine a world turning back the clock completely and discarding the advances and knowledge of industry to go back to the old ways of doing things. Some of us hope this will happen to at least some extend, chemicals are polluting our waterways and everything basically depends on water, right? We all know someone with cancer, probably in our own family. It is impossible to avoid all nasties (chemical and others....) but perhaps we can try to eliminate some of them in our personal lives.
Dyeing with natural dyes is not only a fun way of creating colour on yarn or cloth, it also in a small way helps us to be healthier, both due to the creative process we are involved in and the end result.
As a company we are working on using more and more naturals in our production processes, for our toys, our clothing, homewares etc.
Oh, yes, mordants...
It is true that most natural dyes use a chemical mordant to create colour fastness.
A couple of things I want to mention about this:
We use a lot of natural mordants such as pomegranate and myrobalan as well as alum.
Alum is generally the most used mordant because it is easy to get, fairly safe to use and although a chemical, not as toxic as some others. In much lesser quantities ferrous sulphate, copper, tin and chrome are also used to increase the colour range (and fastness in some cases). These are more toxic than alum but the quantity used is usually very small. With good practice (for instance using exhaust baths) the damage to the environment can be controlled. It remains a personal choice of each dyer what to use in their own practice.
And lastly; some dyes don't need mordants to be fast and it is in this area that I am continuing the research that has already been done by some well known Australian dyers from the last century.
I hope to make available a range of Australian natural dyes that can be used without mordants. The trick is to achieve a colour range that will appeal to a variety of tastes. I am working with forest scientists to create dyes from by products (waste products) from the logging industry, a truly eco friendly dye.