The plants and mushrooms from our gardens and wild spaces on the Sunshine Coast offer us many beautiful colours for dyeing fabric and fibre. This blog is the beginning of a series which will explore and document dyeing with local plants and mushrooms. I hope that other local dyers will add their dyeing experiences.
Alders (Alnus sp.) are common on the Coast and are regarded by many as a ‘weed’ tree and hated by hay fever sufferers for the large amount of pollen they produce. However, as a pioneer species that grows in a site soon after disturbance, it helps prepare the soil for other species and so plays an important role in the succession of plant growth in which a clear-cut becomes a mature forest.
Alders have nodules on their roots which are home to bacteria which take nitrogen from the air in the soil and convert it into a form that plants can use. In return, the alder tree provides the bacteria with shelter and sugars which it produces by photosynthesis. The nitrogen-rich leaves fall to the ground in the autumn and are broken down by micro-organisms in the soil and the nitrogen is made available to other plants.
The inside of fresh alder bark is bright orange in colour. You can see the intense orange on the very outer ring of bark on this stump and the orange colour of the rest of the wood. Native Americans used the bark for dyeing wood, basket materials, feathers, hair and skin. Some Coastal groups used the inner cambium of the bark as a source of food. The wood can also be used for carving and making furniture.
In December, some alder trees at the end of our road were cut down and I gathered a supply of fresh alder bark. After soaking the bark in water for several days I cooked it up for most of a day. In ‘Craft of the Dyer’, Karen Casselman says that allowing tannin-containing dye plants (such as alder bark) to boil can result in dull, dark browns rather than rich brown shades. She therefore advises keeping the temperature below 190F (88C) to avoid extracting an excessive amount of tannins. For the first dye bath I was careful to keep the temperature at 190F or below.
All fibres and fabrics were pre-mordanted with 15% by weight alum. The large batt of wool on the upper left in the basket is the result of that first bath. I left the bark in the dye pot and let the pot sit overnight. The next day I cooked it again for several hours and the result is the large batt of wool in the middle top of the basket. Wanting a deeper, richer colour I then boiled the bath for a day and let it sit overnight. The next day I put in a bit more wool (the small bit of wool at the top between the two batts), mohair (far right top), silk hankies, silk fabric and cotton (bottom row left to right). The silk, wool and mohair took the colour beautifully but the cotton was much paler.