PLANT DYE MODIFIERS: PAINT PATTERNS WITH IRON WATER AND VINEGAR
Plant dyeing is my day job but I don’t often get to play with the dyes. This month I decided to shake things up a little and get some time off to just have fun. I got inspired after my last Dyeing with Plants workshop for the year. I saw my students experience modifiers’ magic and I felt an urge to try out some patterns myself. I recorded the process and I’m sharing my top pattern-painting tips with you.
All you need to start is some plant dyed fabric, iron crystals (or rusty pieces), white vinegar (or another acid) and a brush. If you need tips for dyeing fabric with plants, go to my plant dyeing directory. If you don’t have any previous experience in dyeing with plants I would suggest starting as easy as dipping cotton fabric in black tea!
If you followed this tutorial, please tag me in your post, I’d love to see what you come up with! And if you’re interested in taking a class with me in the future, check out my workshops.
Making iron water
Plant dyes react with a range of different modifiers. One of them is iron, known for “saddening” or darkening the color. You can either make iron water yourself, or use iron crystals (I purchase them online).
If you want to make iron water at home, collect rusty nails and pieces and cover them with white vinegar. Close the lid and let the solution develop for at least 2 week or until you see the color change. The longer you wait, the stronger the solution.
If you’re using iron crystals, you can make the solution whenever you need. The right concentration would be 1-2%, which means for every 100g fabric you’d take 1-2g iron crystals. If you don’t have a scale, start with a tip of a spoon. Iron is relatively heavy. What you see in the photo is 2g.
White vinegar solution
I used this acidic solution as a discharging agent. That means the acid will discharge the iron that connected with the dyes and will wash it off. I am using it to make some negative space patterns. Acid breaks the fiber-pigment-metal bond and reverses the reaction.
I used white vinegar diluted in water, but you can use other acids as well, for example citric acid crystals or lemon juice. Make sure the pH is 3-4. You can purchase pH strips in every pharmacy or just test the solution and charge it if needed.
Choosing the right dye plant
Not every plant dye reacts with every modifier. Some dyes are pH sensitive and will change color when painted with or dipped in acidic or alkaline solution. Some examples would be mahonia berries, red cabbage or black hollyhock (all of them not lightfast).
Plant dyes that change color when modified with iron, ale tannin-rich dyes. Tannins are compounds produced by some plants that help them protect from predators and might help regulate the growth. Tannin rich dyes would be for example oak galls, alder cones, tea - and many others!
In this tutorial I am using 3 dye plants:
oak galls (brown-beige)
…and a mix of two mentioned above and madder root (burnt orange).
Go to my plant dyeing directory for more dyeing info.
The difference between light and heavy fabric
I let all my pieces dry before I started painting but if you don’t care about clear patterns, you can paint on damp cloths.
Lightweight fabrics will take up the iron water faster and easier, which means you have to be careful with every brush stroke. My main advice would be to take less iron water on your brush than necessary - you can always add more but you can’t take it back!
Heavy fabric, like this cotton canvas I’m using, doesn’t take up much dye at the beginning, so it might be difficult to paint on. It needs multiple strokes to show the pattern but it also allows for more precise painting. So even though it might seem more difficult to paint at first, you might actually like fine lines more. Try different weights and see what works best for you.
Take it slow
Especially when you’re working with a heavyweight fabric, it will take a while for iron water to soak in and react with the dyes. You might see the color change after a few seconds up to even a minute later. Take it slow, let the iron reveal itself and don’t rush the process. It is easier to retouch some of the paler spots than to clean up spaces that weren’t supposed to get dark in the first place,
I started the process using a thin brush with a minimal amount od water and worked my way up from there.
Have fun with a single brush
Even with just one single brush, the possibilities are endless. Geometric patterns, repetitive forms, random shapes, lines, diagonals, curves, circles, spots…. Enjoy the process!
...or test different brushes
Test different brushes to make more intricate patterns. Even something as simple as straight lines can get interesting when you alter the widths. I made some super thick lines on this swatch that I will later partially discharge to make the pattern even more interesting.
Even more patterns - use a sponge
Nothing easier than making round spots with a round sponge brush. This swatch took just a few seconds and I love the polka dots style. It gave me an idea to try rubber blocks next time. I still have my carved rubber stamps of lavender, berries and ferns that I want to try with this technique. As always, once I start experimenting, the inspiration starts flowing!
Try going big
For the last few pieces of fabric, I made big-surface patterns, that I later discharged with white vinegar solution. I like how they look before discharging, too. Combining different brushes and different techniques is a nice idea for even more unique patterns.
Discharging iron with acid solution
As mentioned above, I used white vinegar diluted with tap water to make a discharge solution. I painted over iron water patterns to break the bond between the dye and iron and reverse the reaction. It helped me creative negative space patterns.
I think it’s also important to mention here, that this is a prime example of white vinegar NOT being a fixative in plant dyeing. White vinegar (and other acids) don’t fix the colors. Instead, they break the bond between the mordant (metal salt) and the fabric, causing the color to bleach. The only process that uses acidic environment to it’s advantage is dyeing with acid dyes. You can read more about it in my blog post called Plant dyeing directory.
Other plant dye modifiers to test
I hope you had fun following this simple tutorial! If you have an appetite for more, I would suggest testing the influence of low and high pH on pH-sensitive dyes, such as mahonia berries, red cabbage or black hollyhock. None of these are light fast, so please don’t plant any time consuming projects involving these. But they are great dyes to test with kids and see how the pH changes them.
The general rule is that high pH shift the color towards warmer shades (pinks and reds) and low pH shifts the color toward cooler tones (greens and blues). As said not all dyes are pH sensitive, so test the ones you have at hand and be open to many surprises.
More samples on lightweight fabrics
As the last slide I’m adding patterns painted with iron water on lightweight cotton. It was mordanted with aluminium acetate and dyed with a goldenrod & oak-galls & madder-root dye bath. I hope this blog post inspired you to play with plant dyes modifiers too. I’d love to see your results, so please share them if you can!
A stop-motion video of the whole process
Here’s the full process again as a video. If you’d like to see more tutorials like that, sign up to my newsletter at the bottom of this page. I am planning more blog posts like that plus some additional tips delivered straight to your inbox.
If you have any questions, I am happy to help. I hope you will enjoy this colorful practice and find joy in little things this spring.
If you want to get a clear overview of the world of plant dyes,
I recently published a small ebook about all the dyeing basics.
You can find it here:
And if you are ready to start diving deep with your dyeing practice,
check out my “Mordants for natural dyes” ebook
with useful tips, recipes, and alternatives, available on Etsy.