Friday, January 13, 2012

Natural Dyeing with Hawaiian Red Dirt

Red dirt is high in iron oxide.
When we were in Hawaii, I was on the lookout constantly for wild Indigo, a natural blue dye source.  Indigofera Suffruticosa was introduced to Hawaii as a possible cash crop, but failed.  It's rumored to be found in a few rare places on O'ahu.  Unfortunately I guess Makaha Valley might not be one of those places.  

While searching for Indigo, I found a cotton plant that had gone to seed!  Someone had planted it and was obviously not interested in collecting the cotton because it was falling all over the ground.  I gathered a few handfuls of the cotton to experiment with later.  Also, I had brought along a bag of fiber from our Pygora goats and planned on trying some dyeing with it.  I had brought along Val Krohn-Chin's "Hawaii Dye Plants, Dye Recipes"  and was enjoying identifying the various plants she used as dye sources as we travelled around the island.  

We were so busy doing family things on the this trip, it was all I could do to gather just two things to dye with.   I found a dark red fruit that had a pit like a cherry, which I still have not identified, and I collected a bag full of red dirt, which Hawaii is famous for.  My kids were a little embarrassed to pull over to the side of Makaha Valley road and watch me digging in the red dirt with a spoon, filling a plastic bag with dirt.  A friend of mine told me that I'm the only person she knows who would go to Hawaii and dye something.  :)   I remembered anything white being automatically reddish brown as a child because of the iron oxide in our dirt and I had seen the popular "Red Dirt" shirts that were for sale there.  I knew it had to work at least a little!  

This is the plant.  From what I've seen in looking at photos of other cotton plants I think it is actually a cotton plant.  Tell me please if it's not
Cotton from the ground.  Leaves are very hard to get out.
This many seeds from this much cotton.  No wonder people wanted to steal the plans for the cotton gin.  They are sharp at one end.  If this is not cotton, it would still be a very challenging fiber plant to work with.  I had to physically pull the cotton off of each seed.  
I soaked the pygora and cotton for a few days in alum and vinegar, hoping they would help it to take up the dye better.
too pretty not to share
The mysterious red fruit make a lovely pink that didn't stay
the red fruit.

Having read that red dirt is very annoying to dye with because, well, dirt gets everywhere, I bundled the dirt in some fabric my mom had and closed it with a rubberband.  I simmered the fiber for an hour, then added the dirt and simmered for another hour.  I think if I had been able to go longer, possibly all day in a crock pot, or if I had tried tannic acid, which I hear works well as a mordant and for color fastness, I would have a more vibrant reddish brown. 
It's still lovely.

The fiber dyed with that red berry.  :( Did not dye.

Two batches of fiber, side by side.  Red dirt dyed on the right.

Dry, it was a very subtle yellowish brown, which is not showing well in this photo.  It is still much darker than the original white pygora fiber.  The cotton took up the dye similarly, so that I couldn't even distinguish it from the pygora at first.

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