Should you use mordants?
Some time ago I posted a question on Instagram, asking other natural dyers how they keep their botanically dyed fibres wash fast without compromising their methods. I was a long-time advocate for not using mordants while dyeing or mordanting fibres with soya milk only. It worked wonderfully on wool but I wasn’t happy with the results I was achieving on linen. I wanted to know how other dyers work around this problem.
I started reading and researching what I could do to improve the durability of my products but to do so without using alum. I read many articles but I wasn’t able to find any reliable no-alum solutions. Many articles in, though, I got to a conclusion that no-alum policy is not as easy as it seems. It’s not all right or wrong and there are so many factors to consider. It was eye opening. Before I would have a bad conscience about using alum, now I realised it's not necessarily bad. And then I got an email from a lovely Instagram friend, Meg, who was super kind to answer my question with a very long message. Her email put my recent findings into words and added some additional perspective to it.
I asked Meg if I could publish her thoughts on my blog. I noticed that so many of us, natural dyers, start with basic knowledge but over time we develop our own methods and processes. Meg’s approach is one of many possible and by no means the only right one. It’s one person’s view based on research and experimentation to date. I thought it’s important that we share the knowledge and keep questioning and reviewing our methods. I believe we could all benefit from sharing what we know and evolve with further research and practice.
Meg is a writer and maker. She is spinning, knitting and dyeing, she also has a lovely podcast about materials, the making instinct and a craft-full life. Her next podcast episode will cover the vast topic of natural dyeing so make sure you don’t miss it! You can find Meg's website here and follow her on Instagram here. This is what Meg says about her process:
I don’t have a specific one-stop solution but did want to share some of the ways that I approach my choices when trying to navigate this dilemma.
I am dyeing for a handmade wardrobe and home rather than retail but durability is a big consideration. For me, it involves a lot of weighing up of pros and cons. I don't think there is a perfect solution so I am aiming for the least impact for maximum benefit, with aesthetics being a factor in that equation.
I know many natural dyers say they don't want to use chemicals, which is a sentiment that drives so many of us, but I have found it helpful to really understand what chemical means. After all, water, salt, vinegar are chemicals andsoya milk and natural dyes all contain chemical elements. Similarly, organic fabrics are grown with soil enriched with nitrogen, potash and phosphorus, it’s just that organic farming achieves these from naturally occurring chemicals or traditional soil enhancing processes.
I have been experimenting with a traditional tannin-alum-alum process, which seems to work well. I use oak galls, a little cutch, or even cold tea for the tannin, although this last one I tend to use for cotton rather than linen. As alum part, I use potassium aluminium sulphate but you could also use aluminium acetate alone. This naturally occurring chemical compound was traditionally used to treat poison ivy.
For my natural dyeing practice, I have had to dust off my limited school chemistry know-how and educate myself using chemical dictionaries and scientific articles (rather than textile literature) to understand different chemicals, how they work, what their impacts are… so I can work out where I stand on the use of chemicals. For me, the key is to choose the naturally occurring materials carefully and focus on keeping concentrations of natural salts, acids and sulphates as low as possible, well within safe toxicity levels. E.g. something as little as a tablespoon of an assist made out of rusty old nails or a piece of copper piping steeped in vinegar can act as a small, safe but effective fixer. A little iron or copper really does make colours more wash fast and can produce interesting colour variations.
May I also offer another perspective which comes from my past work in sustainable energy and life cycle analysis. For me, it is very important to think about impacts in the round, holistically. E.g. while I dye using food waste, I won't dye with soya milk as environmentally and ethically I struggle with using valuable food and the imbedded land, soil nutrients and water for non-food purposes, especially in high concentrations.
I'm not advising anyone not to use soya milk. We all need to work out for ourselves how we navigate the ethical/environmental dilemmas. It just might be helpful to think through if there is a tipping point between using a high concentration of a naturally grown substance and a low concentration of a naturally occurring one, and where that tipping point is? E.g. you may decide that for 9 out of 10 natural dyes a soya milk mordant is sufficient to achieve a reliable result but for 1 dye matters you need to use the smallest amount of alum, iron or copper because it achieves significant benefits that are not available throughsoya milk alone.
For example, for my own linen/cotton dying practice I have after much research and soul searching decided to favour the substantive dyes (i.e. ones that work without mordant). I use turmeric andcutch, which both work at very low concentrations, and safflower, which yields multiple dye baths for different fibres from one batch. I will allow myself to use madder and onion skins with a traditional mordant/assist, though. These combinations produce well tried and tested durable colours and are the key contrasting colours that make my wardrobe work.
As I previously worked in communications, I know how important it is from a marketing perspective to keep messages about the brand simple and straightforward. However as a science communicator, particularly in the environmental sphere, I realise that everything is much more complex. One of the fabulous things about working with natural materials and traditional processes is that we don’t just get to make beautiful things. They also give me an opportunity to engage others on important topics, help inform, encourage learning... I, therefore, don’t think here is anything wrong in having a brand statement that acknowledges some of the complexities.
I hope the above provides some useful thoughts and suggestions but also encourages natural dyers in their efforts to make beautiful objects with natural materials and integrity.
P.S. If you're a dyer yourself and would like to add to this post, please share your insights in the comments. I'm hoping to combine multiple points of view into one blog post, so that other dyers can read about different perspectives all in one place.