FEEDBACK FRIDAY: This Week in Natural Dye Questions

This Week: Reusing symplocos for mordanting and considering just what a “chemical” is.

Each week, we are emailed with questions from our natural dye community asking simple and complex questions that we thought might be worth sharing. Here are a handful from this week answered by natural dyer in chief, Kathy Hattori, Founder of Botanical Colors:

Can symplocos be re-used? I have a pot full of it after mordanting cotton today, and I was wondering whether it has any additional use before cleaning out the pot.

I suspect it can be, but I’ve not done any serious experiments. We held a class where we used the symplocos bath over a period of a couple of days – mostly because we didn’t discard it and new pieces kept ending up in the mordant.  As I recall, they dyed just fine. My advice is to try it and see if you can tell if there’s a difference or not. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how it performed if you do re-use it.

Are mordants not considered chemicals?

All natural dyes are chemicals. It is the chemical compounds in plants that yield color, and it is our manipulation of these colors using different chemical mordants that adhere the color to cloth. If you think about it, everything is based on chemistry: it’s how we scientifically describe our understanding of the world. But the word “chemical” has a nasty association due to the negative impacts and widespread use of unsafe chemicals in our lives.
I think what most people mean when they say that natural dyes don’t use chemicals is that they generally don’t use harmful chemicals. And even that isn’t always true. It is possible to use very aggressive chemistry with natural dyes, especially in mordanting.  To directly answer your question:  yes, mordants are chemicals and they are incredibly important and effective in natural dyeing. The key to safe chemical use is to stay informed and avoid toxic chemical ingredients, including chrome and copper.


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