As usual, I'm working almost at the last minute to get Christmas presents made. Each year my friend in the UK and I exchange something we've made. As the years go by it gets more and more difficult to come up with something I haven't already made for her. But this year I had a brainwave - why not make something, if not exactly for the Christmas table, then something for the table that can be used every day of the year. Placemats and napkins! And what better way to add my own personal touch than dyeing them with natural dyes.
I ordered some Egyptian cotton from Empress Mills in the UK. They were offering pieces just big enough to make one placemat and one napkin for £5 which I thought was pretty good. So I ordered two. The fabric when it arrived was really nice quality and I can see myself buying more next year when her birthday comes around.
Firstly, I washed the cotton in hot soapy water to make sure there were no residues or finishing substances still on there, then I soaked it overnight to make sure it was well and truly wet through. Since I've never done any tie-dyeing before, and it didn't look too difficult, I thought I'd give it a go. I was hoping to maybe get something resembling flower shapes, so tied little scrunched up pieces of material with elastic bands. So far so good.
The next step was making the dyes. I decided to make life a bit easier, since I didn't have a lot of time, and use natural dyes which didn't need a mordant for the dye to adhere to the fabric. Onion skins are usually pretty good for that, and I had a large bag-full in my cupboard.
After boiling the skins in water for an hour or two, the dye was looking pretty impressive:-
so in went one of the sheets of fabric and I heated it for an hour before checking the colour. After an hour, the fabric had hardly taken any colour at all! By now I was feeling a bit despondent, thinking maybe I should have mordanted. Anyway, I gave it another couple of hours simmering and it started to look a bit deeper. In the end I turned off the heat, thinking that was as dark as it was going to get, and left the whole thing overnight to cool. I was actually quite amazed the next morning to see just how much more colour the fabric had absorbed. It's not quite the same as dyeing wool with onion skins as normally I would have got yellow or orange, but I'm still happy with the colour.
At this point, you'll notice my photography skills were slightly lacking - i.e. I didn't take any of the fabric as it came out of the dye pot. Still, I'll show you the finished result at the end.
Next up, woad. Woad never lets me down, never fails to amaze me, and always looks great when it's finished. I was quite hopeful.
I picked, washed and chopped about 600g of woad leaves and poured almost boiling water over them so they were all covered.
After leaving for an hour to steep, I strained out the leaves and added some washing soda to make the solution alkaline.
Then came the aeration part. I used an electric hand mixer to whisk the whole lot up. I think I may have used a bit too much washing soda because the suds were spilling over the side of the bowl! You probably can't see too well in this photo, but the foam does have a slight blueish colour.
This was then left to stand for the bubbles to dissipate, then I sprinkled the surface with Spectralite which removes oxygen from the mix. After about half an hour the fabric was carefully added to the dye liquid. This was particularly difficult with fabric because it holds air in the folds. The trick with woad dye is to keep all air out of it which is quite easy with soggy wool. I did get air in the dye, and wondered if I'd get any blue at all. Happily, I wasn't disappointed and the fabric came out a beautiful pale to mid-blue. How can you not love woad?
Here are the finished results, starting with the onion skin dyed set. It's quite a lot browner than I expected, but it's actually quite a nice brown considering it's a colour I hate with a vengeance!! I sewed the name of the dye using embroidery silks, unfortunately not dyed by me! I didn't exactly get flowers with this either, but the shapes are quite interesting.
The woad set is my favourite, I must admit. Again, not quite flowers, but, given that the fabric was tied in exactly the same way as the other one, the woad attached itself in quite a different way to the onion skin dye. Hubby thought this would make a really nice dress fabric, so that's something to aspire to next year. I think I'll need more than 600g of leaves though!
The plan is to make another four sets like these for my friend, each one using a different natural dye.* I need to start in good time though because mordanting cotton is a bit more complex than wool and I want to be sure I get it right. I think I was lucky this time!
*The friend I made these for is a little bit unconventional when it comes to sets of things. I think she'll quite like the idea of having, eventually, six different coloured place settings on her table. Last year she sent me odd socks after admitting that I sometimes wore them and her admitting that so did she!!