Video From LIVE FEEDBACK FRIDAY: Catharine Ellis

This week, we’ve got video from our live FEEDBACK FRIDAY featuring Catharine Ellis. She even answered all your chat questions we didn’t get to (below!)

Watch the recording here:

You might know Catharine as the author of what many call their natural dye bible, The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments, and Results. Co-written with textile engineer and chemist Joy Boutrup, the book is a comprehensive guide that explains the general principles of natural dyeing to help dyers become more accomplished at their craft. She also has a fantastic blog that features all her experiments that’s a must follow.

She also just published The Studio Formulas Set for The Art and Science of Natural Dyes that you’ll want. to check out.

She has been a weaver and a dyer for over 40 years. And also teaches in the U.S. and internationally.

She is also the originator of the woven shibori process and author of the instructional book, Woven Shibori. Her textile work is shown extensively in exhibitions and shows. She is currently working collaboratively with the Oriole Mill in North Carolina to produce specialty Jacquard fabrics.

Catharine is also on the board of the Textile Society of America, a founding member of the Southeastern Fiber Educators Association, has served on the boards of Penland School of Crafts and the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design and established the Western North Carolina Textile Study Group in 2012.

Phew! She does everything, including answering many of your questions from the chat box we never got to!!

Q. Have you discovered why some indigo fades so dramatically along the fold?
A. All dyes fade! Lighter shades of indigo can fade quite dramatically – more so than darker shades. I find that the indigo needs at least 3 immersion dips to be stable to fading. The other issue is proper finishing – and of course the lime….???

Q. Is it bad to dry weld in the sun?
A. It is recommended that herbs be dried in the shade, as the essence of the herb can be damaged by the sun, but I’m not sure that applies to dye plants.

Q. What kind of grinder are you using?
A. The electric grinder/mill I am using for the madder root is used for grains and medicinal plants and roots. It’s very heavy duty. It looks like this.

Q. I noticed that Jenny Dean seems to wait longer before “reloading” her tannin vats — is there a reason to add tannin immediately to refresh, or just wait until the tannin bath doesn’t leave a pale tone?
A. By “reloading” the tannin each time, I feel that I have consistent results and know what is in the bath.

Q. Your indigo vats seem to be alkaline; what about wool and silk?
A. Good question. Even the quick reduction vats that use lots of lime and have a high pH seem to leave the wool and silk with a good hand. The alkalinity combined with a chemical reduction agent, such as Thiox, is much harsher on the textile. Of course, neutralization and thorough cleaning afterwards is important. But the fermentation vats, which I am mostly using now, never have a pH over about 10.5 and I find that the hand with wool is even nicer.

Q. Any ‘best’ yellow plant dyes lightfast for hands-on cotton thread?
A. Weld or dyer’s broom. They both contain much of the same dyestuff.

Q. Do you use the whole flower or pick off the petals – i.e.marigolds, etc.
A. The whole flower. In fact you can use the whole plant at the end of the season but the color will be different – not so much of the yellows.

Q. What’s the best cotton fabric to use and do you have a source? I’ve use PFD in the past. Or isan organic cotton better?
A. The quality of cotton is important. Mercerized cotton will absorb dye most readily, and it is typically of good quality fibers. A PDF cotton is good and I’ve had excellent results from organic cotton. Try it out before purchasing a large quantity. I most often purchase cotton fabric from Testfabrics in New York.

Q. There is suggestion about leaving dyed fabric in the dye bath overnight for deeper colour. Will that cause un-evenness being un-touched for hours?
A. Leaving it overnight will cause more dye to attach. Unevenness in the dyeing usually comes from an uneven exposure to heat. That’s why it’s important to have a large enough pot, stir regularly so that the textile isn’t exposed to “hot spots” on the bottom of the pot. It’s also very helpful to put a rack in the bottom of the pot, so that the textile is kept away from direct heat. I use a stainless-steel dumpling steamer that looks similar to this:

Q. Can sodium bicarb (plain old baking soda) be subbed for chalk?
A. NO. If you don’t have chalk readily available use a TUMS tablet. It’s basically chalk (calcium carbonate) and servers the same purpose of neutralizing acid.

Q. Trying an indigo vat for the 1st time with madder root, it has been simmering since yesterday afternoon, still looks milky when stirred. Is this normal? I am using Stony Creek pigment and lime, it also has the good copper/brown color.
A. You can make a quick reduction vat with madder root tin lime. If you are referring to fermentation – it takes several days to complete the process. By “simmering” I hope you don’t mean heating and actually simmering…test the vat by dyeing in it. The fermentation vats can be done with soda ash rather than lime

Q. Do you lime your madder bed? I have read madder grown in limey soil is red-er.
A. Calcium does play a role in the dye complex with madder in the dyeing process and madder also grows well in soil that contains calcium. So, yes, I do add calcium to the soil as we have very little here.

Q. I only have access to alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) here in Switzerland, not aluminum acetate so I have to use a tannin first, right? What tannin would you recommend if I want to gather it myself (or use food waste)… pomegranate?
A. I assume you are talking about mordanting cellulose. You can use tannin (pomegranate rind is fine), followed by alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) combined with soda ash. It works just as well as aluminum acetate for immersion mordanting and the recipe is in the book.

Q. can you share the link for the conference in Japan by email after our gathering?
A. I believe that information will be posted in about a week. At this website. There will be a virtual exhibition and workshops.

Q. Please can you tell us when you will publish your results of dye and contact printing?
A. I am finding this a HUGE topic to wrap my brain around as I explore contact printing and the role of mordants. At some point I will post observations on the blog.

Q. So many different opinions about using soy milk to mordant (yes, I know it’s a binder)… do you ever use soy milk for cellulose?
A. You’re right. Soy is a binder – NOT a mordant. There are places in the world that soy is used instead of tannin to “proteinize” a cellulose textile before applying a mordant, but my experiments have proven tannin to be far more effective.

Q. Please remember to share the resource for the fabric you talked about at the beginning.
A. I think this refers to the woven shibori scarf blanks that I have woven at The Oriole Mill in NC. The only place they are available now for retail purchase (in limited quantity, as the mill has been closed for COVID since March) is the Slow Fibers Studios Shop.


Next week, our special guest is Kenya Miles, the artist & alchemist behind Traveling Miles Studio. She is a textile artist, farmer and artist in residence for the Baltimore Natural Dye Initiative at MICA and Parks & People, an initiative to grow and process natural dyes in Baltimore city.


If you are not familiar with FEEDBACK FRIDAY, every week, we are emailed with questions from our natural dye community. Weekly, all of  your questions are answered by Kathy Hattori, Founder of Botanical Colors. Both Kathy and Amy DuFault, Botanical Colors’ Sustainability and Social Media Director will be on hand to moderate and answer questions.