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Natural Dyes & The 50 Mile Coat

Bringing colour to The 50 Mile Coat was as easy as stepping outside the front door of Neilson Park Creative Centre. The EHS Dye Garden hosts a number of known dye plants ranging from Bedstraw to Tansey. In this post we’ll explore the plants used to give colour to The 50 Mile Coat.

50 Mile Coat NaturalDyedYarns

Choosing Colour

In Southern Ontario we have lots of options for dye plants during the warmer months. Many plants provide light and colour-fast dyes and even more offer colours that are not colour-fast, or will fade in time. Currently, natural dyers across Ontario are gathering the ubiquitous dandelion for its pale green dye.

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Lots of Green and Yellow, But What About Red?

Natural dye plants in Ontario provide an abundance of greens, browns and even yellows. The 50 Mile Coat used Tansy and Marigold collected last fall to make the green and yellow shades. There is, however, a distinct lack of plants that offer red dyes. Luckily, the EHS Dye Garden has a beautiful secret: a Madder bed.

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Madder Root

Madder is one of the few plants that grows in Ontario and gives colour-fast shades of red and orange. Madder is a slow growing plant that takes a few years to adequately establish itself. The slowness of a Madder bed’s maturity is also impacted by the need to dig up the plant’s roots: the dye is extracted from the roots of the Madder plant. Thankfully, there was enough established Madder in the EHS Dye Garden last fall to dig up some roots and freeze them over the winter.

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Roberta, the Natural Dyer

Natural dyeing is a sensitive and lengthy process. Time, ph levels, temperature control are just some of the factors that impact a natural dye’s performance. Roberta, our expert natural dyer, took on the project of dying the fibres for The 50 Mile Coat.

Over the course of a number of days, Roberta prepped fibres for dyeing, soaking and treating them with mordants. Mordant refers to substances, such as alum, copper or iron, that will help a dye take to the fibre. A mordant will also effect the colour achieved.

Roberta chopped up the plant material into small pieces, creating small dye pouches that would swim in the dye pot and allow as much colour to be extracted as possible. Dye pots were heated to and held at precise temperatures (a change in temperature can change the colour too) and finally, after all of that work, Roberta submerged the fibres into the dye pots.

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A Lesson in Slowness

With plant-based dyeing there are no guarantees. Colours can shift from dye pot to dye pot. Small alternations can create different results. The lilac skein shown above was the result of an unexpected ph change in the dye liquid when a small amount of soap entered the equation. The only guarantee offered by natural dyeing is the need for time and patience.

Natural dyes are ultimately a lesson in slowness. During the process of dyeing for The 50 Mile Coat, Roberta reflected on the need to move slowly, allowing the plants to release their dyes over days rather than hours. She told stories of allowing her own dyes to mature over weeks, and even months, in order to achieve a particular colour. The array of colours used in The 50 Mile Coat is truly a representation of local materials and time carefully invested.