experiments

How not to dye green

Ironically the most difficult colour to achieve using natural dyestuffs is green, and sadly the irony has always been lost on me.

From deep forest greens to lovely light mints, I was always a little sad I didn’t have any in my collection.

[I did manage to create a few green tones using woad on weld dyed fabric, but the process is quite laborious and woad was proving to be a difficult dye friend (patchy and fading).]

So as soon as the post graduation dust settled I began delving into some natural green research. Most dyers achieve their greens by either modifying dyes, such as onions, with iron water/iron sulphate, or by dyeing with chlorophyllin powder, a copper compound made with chlorophyll - the green pigment in plants that is essential for photosynthesis.

The exception to this is Rebecca Desnos who details her dye recipes for nettles here https://rebeccadesnos.com/journal/2018/04/dyeing-with-nettles/. The soft mint greens seen in her blog post are from nettle tops gathered in the spring/summer. In autumn/winter the colour dulls to beige - which is my nettle experience! My timing was off for my to try this but is definitely on the cards for this spring.

For me the iron modifier wasn’t an option, predominantly because iron can degrade natural fibres and my focus is to make long lasting clothing.

So naturally you’d think I’d just buy chlorophyllin… pffft, come on, I can’t make things too easy for myself now can I?!

Instead I became fascinated with how the chlorophyll extraction works and whether I could do it myself. I watched videos of scientists and chefs removing the chlorophyll from a variety of leaves, the latter boiled spinach to use as a natural colorant to have longer lasting bright greens in his green food. For the science experiments, mainly interested in assessing the strength and colour of the chlorophyll in different leaves, various high percentage alcohols were used for the extraction. This was the quick and easy method I chose to try.

Note: This was quite limiting research to go on (with no reference for fabric dyeing), and that’s why I’m posting about my unsuccessful dye baths. For me the experimenting was half the fun of it but I wanted to share my method in case anyone else was thinking of trying it and wanted a little more guidance for what NOT to do!

Alder, Rosemary & Ivy

As this was a first test I picked a few rich green leaves that were locally available to me. I started with roughly 1 alder leaf, 3 small ivy leaves and 1 small sprig of rosemary. I didn’t weigh the dry dyestuff amounts like I normally would because my weighing scales were out of batteries (oops). I thought a visual record would be ok.

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I then chopped up all the leaves as small as possible before adding each of them to a glass jar with 100ml of acetone.

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All three jars sat in hot water like a bain marie, and I heated them until boiling (which didn’t take very long at all). They then sat for around 2 days to allow more colour to develop.

Alder: Day 1

Alder: Day 1

Rosemary: Day 1

Rosemary: Day 1

Ivy: Day 1

Ivy: Day 1

All colours after a 2 day soak and with the dyestuff removed.

All colours after a 2 day soak and with the dyestuff removed.

As you can see the alder leaves produced a really dark green, the rosemary became a mid grass green and the ivy didn’t develop very much at all so I didn’t bother testing it at this point. It was a promising start to the experiment … but then came the unknown part, how do I get fabric to absorb the colour.

With all the excitement of the colour extraction I had forgotten about the fact I now had an acetone solution of colour, not a normal concentration of coloured water. Although an organic compound, acetone is a volatile solution that is highly flammable - in hindsight not the best plan for a dye bath. However I carried on with my curiosity and mainly hoped that once this was diluted within the dye bath this would be less dangerous (also I use an electric hob - a gas hob would’ve been a no-go).

You may have guessed, but at this point I was winging it. All I knew was that I couldn’t heat the bath too high because of the low boiling point of acetone.

I used 1 part concentrate to 6 parts water so I had enough liquid to cover my fabric. I added my pre-wetted fabric to the pot and heated on a medium setting for 20 minutes with a lid on.

SAFETY FIRST: I wore my goggles and mask for the whole process and used my extractor fan to ventilate the room.

Alder

Alder

Rosemary

Rosemary

Each bath, including the fabric, was taken off the heat and poured into a different container to cool for roughly 3 hours. It was then thoroughly rinsed and left to dry.

Whilst these two were soaking, I decided to jazz up the ivy solution by adding 1tsp of spirulina powder. Spirulina is normally used as a dietary supplement and is a deep rich green colour, I thought this may be the answer to my green prayers.

I did the same as before and heated the glass jar bain marie style, but only allowed the solution to sit for half an hour as the colour seemed quite potent (see below).

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I cooked the ivy/spirulina like the previous baths but thought it may have been for too long or at too high a temperature.  As you can see the colour turned brown after 10/15 mins, often a sign of over-heating.

I cooked the ivy/spirulina like the previous baths but thought it may have been for too long or at too high a temperature.

As you can see the colour turned brown after 10/15 mins, often a sign of over-heating.

This is the coffee filter paper after straining the ivy and spirulina solution.  The thicker parts of the concentrate are a deep green but I thought the overall yellow-ish khaki colour was a better indication of the potential dye colour (how wrong I was).  Also, note how there is an orange/peach colour at the edges of the green. If only I had a scientist on hand to explain what was happening here! (If anyone knows, please let me know).

This is the coffee filter paper after straining the ivy and spirulina solution.

The thicker parts of the concentrate are a deep green but I thought the overall yellow-ish khaki colour was a better indication of the potential dye colour (how wrong I was).

Also, note how there is an orange/peach colour at the edges of the green. If only I had a scientist on hand to explain what was happening here! (If anyone knows, please let me know).

Results

As you can see, I mostly ended up with beige, if anything at all. The wool was best at absorbing the colour and showing the difference in tone between each dye. The results were interesting in that the colour of the dye liquor was not indicative of the final results on fabric. The rosemary definitely has the greenest tones seen in the wool but was the weakest extraction.

Adjustments

After these tests I did create a second round of baths to see if any adjustments to my method would improve my results. This time I chose to use fir needles, nettle (in dried tea form) and spirulina again. In hindsight it may have been better to use the same dyestuffs using drastically different methods, but I had a hunch it wouldn’t make a huge difference.

For this experiment I used more dry dyestuff to extract the colour using acetone. I also allowed the fir needles and nettle to steep in a warm place for roughly 5 days, twice as long as the first batch. Again there were promising results from the chlorophyll extraction but this didn’t transfer to the fabric very well at all. The samples had cooled for 2.5 hours in the dye liquor.

For the spirulina powder, this acetone solution sat for just 30 minutes, it was strained and then I added warm water and the soaked fabric. This sat for 1 day in a jar, which I stirred occasionally.

I have plenty of images of this to show you but the results were very similar, if not worse, than the ones seen above. Trust me, you’re not missing out. #disappointingdyes.

Next Steps

There are definitely plenty of ways left for me to try to achieve a natural green dye - Rebecca’s spring nettle bath, the spinachy chef method or I can even give into the iron modifier.

However, I have already succumb to the allure of chlorophyllin - and it works! Amazingly!

I will update create a separate post for these results as soon as the sun comes back and I can take some lovely pictures of the pro chlorophyll dyed samples.

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If you’re a green hungry machine like me, I do hope this helped, and please do get in touch if you can enlighten me on my mistakes. Sharing is caring kittens.