FEEDBACK FRIDAY: This Week in Natural Dye Questions

This week: Mordanting like Native Americans once did, mobile natural dyeing and fresh leaf indigo vs. extract.

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:

I have been experimenting with natural dyes for a while. I know that to mordant cellulose fibers you must use aluminum acetate, but I was wondering if there was something that I may be able to harvest myself in order to mordant my fabrics? Or if you can key me in on how to obtain aluminum acetate myself without purchasing online? I’m wondering what did the Native Americans use?

Cotton was used less than wool, but either may be mordanted with acorns which have a lot of tannin, and tannin is historically an important indigenous mordant source for many cultures and avoid aluminum acetate altogether. If you do some internet searches on plant mordants, you should be able to get a list of plants that contain alum, or contain tannin.
In California, you have oak galls (those huge puffy balls that fall from California oak trees), acorns (from the same tree) and probably a lot of different barks that are in your area. Alum in mineral (raw form) is potentially found in the ground as that is how the Navajo used it, but it’s much harder to identify and use.
We offer a number of different tannin extracts if you aren’t able to locate a California scrub oak, such as gallo-tannin, chestnut, cutch, myrobalan, pomegranate and tara powder. In addition, we offer symplocos, which is an alum accumulator and the dried leaves are pulverized for mordanting all fibers.

Is the fresh leafed indigo method as light and wash fast as the extract indigo vat methods? 

Since the fresh leaf method really only works on silk and wool fibers, I would guess that the answer is no, but it seems to have pretty good resistance to light and washing. I have a number of pieces that are 4 years old, and they have been sitting by a window with no fading.

Can you tell me if you can get any kind of substantial color by dip-dyeing a mordanted piece of cotton fabric into a jar of any of your dye extract colors that has been dissolved, heated, and cooled? We are trying to get a mobile natural dye station as part of our kids activities, and wondering how and if we can do this with some pre-prepared dyes in big glass jars. Thinking many kids, limited time.

It is possible, but I don’t know what the effect will be. If there is enough dye in the jar, it will color the fabric, so maybe the answer is to make sure you have enough dye to dye the darkest value. Cooking it beforehand may also help with increasing the depth of shade. If you are at all open to using wool, you may get better results.