Natural dyeing. Gum leaves. Non-toxic mordants. Silk. When exactly did the obsession begin? After talking to a woman who was selling beautiful gum-leaf-dyed silk scarves at the arts centre craft market one Sunday? After some conversation or other in our monthly sewing get-togethers? The mania this time was shared: Barb of the sewing group and I came to the same point at the same time. Texts began flying between our neighbouring suburbs. By mid-November we were planning a session on her veranda, swapping book titles, web pages and the whereabouts of cheap saucepans and silk, and not long after we fixed a date: Friday 1 December. So it was two weeks from beginning the discussion to the proposed two-woman one-day workshop.
Unfortunately Friday 1 December was the beginning of the Big Wet and Barb’s veranda was flooded by breakfast time. This was a blow: we were both ready to get started. By that afternoon we had both decided to have a go at a bit of cold dyeing separately: wrapping silk and leaves together to see what happens, with a ceremonial unrolling the following Friday.
There’s a flowering gum at the bottom of our back yard which produces gumnuts like large bullets and brilliant chemically red flowers at around Xmas time. If I could make leaf prints on silk from this tree, I thought, I’d be happy – in fact, I’d go into overproduction and everybody would get a silk scarf for Xmas 2018.
I read everything I could get my hands on. Craft dyers around the world have produced beautiful books showcasing their amazing work, but sometimes the details – what works with what, how to prepare a particular fabric for cold-dyeing with gum leaves, for example – is vague. There are systematic craft dyers, who show the range of colours that can be produced from a particular plant, and there are freewheeling creatives, who emphasise the unpredictability of the process, and the need to embrace whatever unexpected results you get. There are people whose leaves are ranged in neat rows and people whose fabrics are a blur of overlapping colours.
Gum leaves, it seems, are particularly good for dyeing. Unusually, they don’t require chemical treatment of the fabric – mordanting – in advance. On the basis of my wide, superficial and contradictory reading, I washed my silk (very pale pink, no white available, $12 a metre at Rathdowne Fabrics), soaked it in a 50/50 solution of water and soy milk and hung it out to dry.
By the time I got round to assembling everything, however, I was getting cold feet. How could these dry leaves and gumnuts – mostly foraged from the ground before the rain started – possibly transfer their colour to silk? I decided to stew them briefly: put them in a pyrex bowl, poured a kettleful of boiling water on top, and stirred them round until the water looked as though it was beginning to colour up a little.
I spread the silk – ripped from a wider length – onto plastic bags on top of oilcloth. Cold feet continuing, I sprayed the silk with a solution of vinegar and water, fished my leaves out of the hot bowl and spread them more or less evenly along one side of the silk. As you may be able to see, I am an adherent of the blurred mess aesthetic.
Then – cold feet again – I added a sprinkling of particles from a rusty length of piping unearthed by builders from our back yard; iron is one of the less toxic chemicals that can be used to prepare fabric for dyeing.
Then I folded the silk over lengthwise and wrapped it as tightly as possible around a piece of plastic downpipe left over from last year’s restumping. That’s bright yellow nylon string holding it all together, which turned out to be a good choice, adding no colour of its own.
And then there was nothing to do except wrap it in plastic bags to prevent drying out and wait till the following Friday. As a precaution, I made a special pot of tea and drenched the whole thing with it.
None of this was very scientific.
After three weeks of texting, it was great to get together with Barb. She had organised an electric ring, big stainless steel pot and bamboo steamers for our hot dying experiments. First, however, we had to inspect our cold-dyed handiwork.
It was great to see that my pale pink silk was no longer pale pink but a sort of pale, mottled brown. When I looked for leafprints, however, I was disappointed. The deepest patches of colour clearly came from the bits of rust. The outlines of gumnuts could just be seen. Overall, however, it was a tossup as to whether my silk was now a gloriously random example of natural dyeing, or more like a World War I bandage removed a century ago from somebody’s suppurating leg wound. One thing I will say: it smells lovely. Not like a used bandage at all.
Our hot dyeing experiments weren’t much better. We bundled our silk around sections of my rusty iron pipe and steamed them for a couple of hours. The deepest colour, on mine, came from the end that was closest to the pipe, and also from strips of bark that we mixed in with our leaves. It was a lovely day, but we both felt that the spectacular examples of natural dyeing we’d seen in the books must have been based on quite a lot of practice and study.
But this is just the start. I am about to begin taking proper notes as I read, in a special exercise book, before considering how to approach the next session. Meanwhile perhaps I should learn how to roll the edges of one of my two pieces of not-very-well-dyed silk (Professor YouTube to the rescue, as usual) and wear it to a New Year’s Eve party, as an emblem of good resolutions for 2018. Learn how to value your failures. See what’s good in your own work and take it from there. Patience, patience.