Studio, Exploration, Exhibition

Natural Dyes: Pecan and Dandelion

Those of you who follow us on Instagram are well aware of our recent foray into natural dyeing. You've seen the results of different tests, but you might be wondering what sparked this interest in the first place and what we plan on doing with these dyed fabrics.

The idea for making natural dyes started nearly a year ago, after we saw a photograph from Folk Fibers' Instagram feed of green pecans being fermented in a big pot for later use as a dye. Pecans and fermentation resulting in an easy-to-use and non-toxic fabric dye? We were all over it. 

We gathered some green pecans from trees that we crossed on our daily walks around the neighborhood. We had been taking these walks together as a way to spend time outside, get some exercise, talk through our worries and fears, discuss projects, and—perhaps most relevant to this topic—to directly interact with our immediate environment. Those daily walks brought on an awareness of and deeper connection to all the plant life that was right outside our door and how that life shifted and changed day-by-day and season-to-season. 

We took the pecans (hulls, leaves, stems and all), put them into a big orange bucket, covered them with water, and waited for them to ferment. They fermented for... weeks?... months? We didn't keep track of the time, but eventually strained the pecans out and let the dye sit in a bucket on our back porch, where it rested for the better part of a year.

During that period we spent a lot of time researching the process of natural dyeing, but never had the motivation to get started. The process seemed too complicated for casual experimentation (wash and scour and pre-mordant and then mordant all before you get to the dye pot) and required materials that weren't readily available in our studio (alum, tannin, dedicated cooking vessels, et cetera). The information was either highly specialized, or vague and presumptuous. We felt overwhelmed, a bit confused, and, at the end of the day, always seemed to be neck-deep in other projects. So we set the fermented pecan dye aside.

When we hit the road a few weeks back, we packed the dye up with the intention to experiment—and experiment we did. Not only was it far more straightforward than we had been led to believe, but we soon learned that the potential for (successful) experimentation was vast.

About that pecan dye: because pecans have plenty of tannin in them, they don't require the addition of an alum mordant in order for the color to stay wash-fast and light-fast. With this knowledge, our first experiment was simply sticking some test pieces of cotton fabric into our bucket of pecan dye, forgetting about them for a few days, and pulling them out. The result: a light shade of brown! 

For our next test, we took a small piece of linen fabric and let it rest in the dye solution for two days. We pulled it out of the dye and dipped the ends in an iron mordant with the hopes of getting a deeper brown (or at least seeing some kind of color change). Simple, but successful.

Eager to continue, we thrifted some white cotton sheets and prepared them for the dye by washing them in hot water with a small amount of detergent and some washing soda. We folded them and wrapped them around sticks, sandwiched them in between cut pieces of wood, wrapped them with string, and let them float around unencumbered. 

Next was a dandelion dye. The initial results were unimpressive—we didn't use a mordant, didn't scour the fabric, and didn't use quite enough dyestuff. Not wanting to waste a whole pot of dye, we added some homemade iron mordant (rusty nails in diluted vinegar water) and proceeded to test some more fabric, this time wrapping the material into bundles with oak leaves, dandelions, mint leaves, and black walnut leaves. The results were exciting!

As these experiments become more purposeful, and the results more visually interesting, we are starting to develop the material for a large scale fabric installation for our upcoming show, Night Walk, at Lawndale Art Center in Houston. These naturally dyed fabric pieces will serve as panels in a wall-spanning patchwork curtain, overlaid with ink drawings and embroidery. More on that to come...


OK, now here's a question for all you artists out there working with natural dyes: 

So far we have tested pecan, dandelion, and black walnuts for making our natural dye. Do you know of any other forage-able or easily accessible substantive dyes that we should try using? We are focusing on materials and techniques that are very low-tech and don't require the use of too much water or any hazardous materials. Any suggestions? Leave them in the comment section below! And thank you!