Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”
There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.
Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.
So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?
My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.
I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance, compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.
It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.
(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)
ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.
This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.
A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends. I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.
Read on if you dare.
The first step is to weigh the dry fabric and the plant matter. You are supposed to use equal measurements of each (e.g. 6 oz of t-shirt/6 oz. plants). The second step is to steep the plants in water. This is where I made my first half-assed mistake. I threw the plants into the pot whole, instead of chopping them up, as I was supposed to.
Then, I covered the greens with water. The instructions didn’t give exact water quantities to match the fabric weight–it only said “cover”–which seems a bit problematic. “Cover with water” is not a helpful instruction, especially when the plant matter you’re working with floats.
But I added water as best as I could judge. There were two steeping options–with heat on the stove or by a long sun steep. I opted for the long steep, put a bowl in the soaking pot to sink the plants beneath the water, and put the pot on the front porch.
The day turned out to be cloudy and cool, so I don’t believe that solar energy aided my cause. Then, I ended up leaving the pot out all night long.
In the morning some of the Oxalis had turned olive, other parts were still bright green. So I decided it was not done and put it on the stove, bringing it to a bare simmer as described for the direct heat method.
In the meanwhile, I rose above my lazy half-assery and scoured my fabric–two white t-shirts and one white cotton table napkin. Scouring is supposed to yield better dye results with cotton, so I scoured well and my fabric turned snowy white.
By this time I had realized I’d forgotten to chop the plants, but decided to dye the napkin in the plain plant brew, just to see what would happen.
Nothing happened. The napkin floated around in the dye pot, taking on no color. This boded ill. Even without chopping, surely some color should appear. I looked askance at the napkin, wondering if it were truly 100% cotton, or adulterated with polyester. We always blame the victim.
At that point I decided that I’d just start over and do it right from the start. I gathered more plants, chopped, and increased my ratio of plants to water to make the solution stronger. Then I heated the water to 180 F, simmered, drained, set aside the plant matter and returned the theoretical dye to the pot. (NB: when straining plant matter, put it through a super fine strainer, like cloth, to capture any and all solids. I had some tiny flecks of plant matter adhering to my shirts, leaving dark marks behind. Of course, these washed out with everything else, but you may not be so…er…lucky? ) At this point I decided to add alum to the mix.
Alum is a mordant, something which makes dye “hook” to fabric, increasing the color’s brightness and fastness. Relying oxalic acid alone as a mordant didn’t seem very promising, so I decided to up my chances of success. I added alum and cream of tartar, as directed, diluting it in a cup then stirring it into the plant infusion. Then I put a t-shirt in the vat.
Nothing happened in the suggested 15 minute dye period, so I left it for a couple of hours. When I came back, I fancied it had taken on a very pale, but sort of pretty, yellowy-green hue. I hung that t-shirt in the shower, feeling more hopeful.
Experiment #2 was to add iron (ferrous sulfate) to the dye bath. In combination with the alum, it should have pushed the dye to more a of a green.
A note here that the mordant quantities in the book were figured in relation to the fabric weight. That doesn’t account for the measurement of water– the dilution factor–which seems a bit dodgy. Water quantity, as you will recall, is just enough to “cover” the herbs. For the record, I believe I used 3 tsp of both alum and cream of tartar in the first round, for t-shirt #1, then added 3 tsp of iron for round 2. But how much water I used, I have no idea.
T-shirt #2 went in and I let it stew forever. The water took on a nice green color, but the shirt couldn’t even pick up the pale tint that shirt #1 had acquired. It was like the dye had actually become weaker. I finally gave it up and took both shirts to the bathtub for a rinsing and gentle washing.
By this time it was dark, and so it was hard to see if anything had a delicate citron tint by the light of our horrid compact fluorescent lights. I hung the shirts up to dry.
This morning I found that indeed, the Green Fairy had indeed abandoned me, leaving the 2 t-shirts and misjudged napkin looking like they’re in need of a serious washing.
Nature. Phht. Life was easier when I was a punk kid dipping everything I owned in RIT.