Outlandish Ways with Dyes

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

279. Dyeing.- Occasionally, when colored articles of silk, wool, or cotton have been cleaned, their color requires to be made deeper; at other times, it may be desirable to change the color altogether, when that already in the stuff must be discharged, and the article dyed anew.

Blue is prepared from indigo; but, as this dye is not easily made, it will be better to purchase a bottle of “Blue Dye.”

Fulling wool Outlander

Claire and the Bucket

Episode 5 on Outlander really got me going. Not  because I have loved the books since forever but because how the producer is daring to show authentic history. When I heard women singing and pounding of hands on a table, my heart got a thrill. It might be new to Claire, but as a weaver and historian I had heard fulling songs sung at Williamsburg a long time ago. When the bucket of urine was poured on the cloth, I got a laugh as I recalled my own experience dyeing.

Indigo Grows in Manoa Valley

In 1972, I was student in the textile program at the University of Hawaii. Exploring old ways of using natural dyes. Indigo plantI approached a botanist at the college and learned that in the 1830s-1840s, indigo was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands as a cash crop. It failed, but indigo grew wild in some places. It turned out there was a patch up in a field near the Safeway in Manoa Valley. Armed with a book with illustrations and description, I went searching for some.

Lance-Shindigo_Ball_grab indigo ballIndigo, if you don’t know, was an important source of blue, Before coal dyes in the mid-19th century and the dyes that come from petroleum (that’s what we wear), blue was a rare color to obtain. Indigo was introduced into Europe sometime in the 14th century (as I recall) and became a rage. It was more color fast than the local woad, but it had an unusual property. It needs air for the color to form. But I digress.

Primo Beer, Urine and Indigo

In Manoa Valley, I did find my indigo and brought a bag of it home. From the beginning, I planned to dye with it old school. One of the challenges of natural dyeing is getting the color to set. In the past, there were many recipes to this, many of them with urine. It’s the urea in it makes dyes set. For that I had a plan. I removed most of the woody parts and with no instructions on hand, I put the plants and leaves into a large glass vat. I added water to cover and URINE thanks to my boyfriend (later husband) who had been plied with lots of Primo beer and I think a bit of Rainier from Seattle. I covered the plants and let them ret.

Once a day I checked on the vat. Ideally, a mud or sentiment was supposed to settle to the bottom. I just watched and put the cover back on. Yes, Indigo pot at Sierra Drive House 1973it did stink, but indigo stinks too. On Day Ten, I started taking the rotted matter out of the vat. The surface of the water had a strange metallic look, like the blue on a fly’s back with flicks of gold. I put a skein of white wool into it and let it sit in the indigo solution. I could Indio dyed yarnsee that nothing changed. It was still white. But when I lifted it up into the air on a stick, it turned a pale blue. Truly, a miracle that a molecule in the plant makes this possible. Dip in and lift up and the blue will deepen. Five dips will give you a medium blue. Fourteen dips, the dark blue of jeans. After my wool was dyed the color I wanted it was hung up to dry. Later I washed it gently with a little bit of Ivory. Whatever smell was in it was gone.

Maybe it’s something Claire would find out too.


Bongie's summer winter blanket summr side


2 thoughts on “Outlandish Ways with Dyes

  1. Really enjoyed this post, Janet. I’ve always had a passion for indigo-dyed textiles and it’s my favorite watercolor. I even wrote about it from another perspective on my blog. [ http://stilllifewithtortillas.com/2013/08/22/indigo-blues/ ] There’s a marvelous book on indigo referenced there, by the way. Also, I believe that they are still using indigo for some clothing articles at Maiwa, on Granville Island, Vancouver, B.C., if you’re ever up there. Exquisite color!

    • Wonderfully fascinating, as always, dear Janet. I take it that you would have provided your own urine if necessary? Reminds me of my recipe (receipt?) for gardener’s deer-be-gone. It included, but was not limited to, rotten eggs, hot chili flakes, and my own bodily fluids.. Yes, it also stank pretty good — and worked — too.

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