Chinese yellow – gardenia

A lady working at Herbie’s Herbs in Toronto suggested that I try out gardenia when I was shopping for dye-herbs there. She said, gardenia is used to color food in Chinese cuisine. So I bought some to give it a try. Apparently, it’s not just food.

Dominique Cardon writes about gardenia in her Natural Dyes:

Huangzhi is the source of a brilliant golden yellow that was of great cultural importance in ancient China. Together with madder red, indigo blue, white and acorn black (see Ch. 9), gardenia yellow was one of the five ‘pure’ or ‘correct’ colours to which numinous power was attributed and to whose di (power) shrines and ceremonies were dedicated as an integral part of wu xing, the philosophy of the Five Elements (see Ch. 4, p. 137). Of these five elements (fire, earth, wood, water and metal), earth was considered as the centre of all creation and was represented by the colour yellow obtained from gardenia. Not only did the emperor and imperial family wear huangzhi robes, but even the paper of imperial documents was of this colorur. (McClintock Dusenbury 2004)

The dye is supposed to be a direct dye, that is, it is supposed to work without a mordant, but I haven’t had time to play with it properly yet, so I used my usual recipe: about half of the packet above (so about 50-60g) of dried gardenia fruit, simmered with about 1.5 cup water, strained, added alum.

The dye came out rather viscous, and soon became too sticky to work as a dye on an egg (it was sticking to the egg surface and not coming off evenly), so I set it aside after the one initial use (the yellow on the brown egg on the left). It did layer quite well with sappan wood, you can see the result, before it became too sticky. After a while I decided to give it another chance, so I strained the dye through a paper towel to remove the thick gluey formations, added more water and brought to a boil again, and when it was thus diluted, it worked perfectly again – see the egg on the right. Probably the way to go would be to use less fruit from the beginning.

It is supposed to give quite a range of colors on fabrics (when changing time, Ph, temperature, oxygen content, etc.) and it is also supposed to be an excellent ground for safflower red (used with safflower pink, which otherwise seems to be rather moody and weak), so I might play some more with it in the future. And I might end up buying more books of the ones Dominique Cardon refers to when talking about gardenia, its a never ending story :).

Dried elderflower

And here is a smell from childhood, we used to make a drink from fresh elderflowers. I wanted to try this for a while now, it gave a beautiful and quite even bright yellow in just 10 minutes.

The recipe is usual for dried flowers, put as many as you have (I had a lot, so I put maybe 40g), add water (enough to submerge 1 egg and a little extra), simmer for about 10 min, drain the liquid and add alum to it, once it’s cool, use as dye.

Buckthorn bark

Buckthorn berries (and less so the bark) have been traditionally used for dyeing in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, later also by professional dyers in North America. I didn’t have access to the berries, but I bought the bark in the herb store and tried it. This buckthorn variety is Rhamnus frangula, other varieties exist and have been used for dyeing even more than this one. The egg on the left is the dye with alum, the one on the right is the same dye post-mordanted with iron.

The books (Wild Color by J.Dean) say that you can extract the dye from this bark without even cooking it, by just pouring boiling water over it and soaking overnight. It is suggested to then simmer the bark again to obtain the second batch of the dye. I tried both, with more or less the same result, so you could make half a batch by soaking and the other half by simmering and then mix them together. Like most wood or bark chips, you can dry them out afterwards and try using again for lighter shades. I have also added some cream of tartar to one of the dyes, as this was suggested by Maiwa, but didn’t see much of the difference. Still it’s something worth experimenting with in the future.

The dye itself doesn’t have a very nice smell, however, unlike most natural dyes it did not spoil after sitting for months on a warm counter. I have made it in mid-December, and it still works in March. From that point, it is definitely a keeper, worth exploring more. The color is also very nice, and seems to give a lot of potential for over-laying with other colors. The iron post-wash was not particularly effective and has partially come off when the wax was removed, it might have worked better if I added the iron directly into the dye instead of soaking the egg in iron-water. I might try that next time, I actually do have two batches of this (and it doesn’t spoil!), so I can turn one of them into an iron batch.

Carrot tops

This is the dye stuff that is easily available, as far as I know it just gets thrown away, so why not try to make a dye, I thought. And I did. Usual approach, boiled carrot tops in water about 20 min, left it to soak overnight, strained, added alum. The lighter color took about 20 min, the darker was left there for about 20 hrs.

This dye spoils very fast, but if you can get it for free and if you like that kind of canary yellow – why not try?

I don’t know yet how it will handle the light, I guess we’ll see.

Sappan wood – brasilwood from India – some history, background, and recipes

Sappan wood (Ceasalpinia sappan) has become my favourite source of red color for now. Native to Asia, it is the “older” cousin of what is now known as Brazil wood. When the Portuguese invaded what is now Brazil in 1500, the redwood trees they saw growing there reminded them of Sappan wood, which they already knew, called it pau-brasil and used for dyeing along with the rest of the Europe. Because of extensive use for dye and for violin bows, or perhaps the opposite, because the dye business was not economically profitable after the invention of the chemical dyes, or maybe due to both these reasons, the Brazil wood (Ceasalpinia echinata, Paubrasilia echinata) is almost extinct now, Wikipedia says that the trade of Brazilwood is likely to be banned in the immediate future. So now we are back to the good old Sappan wood, which is still available and abundant in India and China. It is used medicinally in both Ayurveda (where it’s called Pathimukham) and in Traditional Chinese medicine (where it’s called Su Mu). Continue reading

Raspberry shoots recipe

I tried raspberry shoots, because I had access to them, and they were listed in books. Standard recipe for raw leaves, collect as many as you can, soak overnight, boil for 15-20 min, let cool, strain, add mordant and dye. The left one with alum, the right one with iron. First shade after 20 min, second after an hour, third overnight. I was not very impressed with the result, but still it’s not nothing.

Here is a comparison with chestnut leaves (on the left) and oak leaves (on the right):I would pick chestnut over raspberry any day, and yet if you don’t have one, and do have the other, you might want to give it a try. It can give you a decent yellow with alum after a couple of hours, or if you’re after aged look with that grey with iron, that could also be interesting, especially in combination with other colors.

Chestnut and oak young leaves

Something you can easily find in the middle of the city. Chestnut on the left, oak on the right. The chestnut is the variety with yellowish-green blossoms. Perhaps the one with white or pink (haven’t seen the pink ones here) would give a different shade? The oak is a young tree, also just bloomed recently (if those are considered blooms), according to my dad the variety is the Northern red oak (Quercus rubra or Quercus borealis). The lighter shade is after less than an hour in a dye, the darker one – overnight. No issue with chestnut whatsoever, the darker shade of oak was powdery and was coming off, but it’s possible that would be rectified with repeated dyeing rather that the whole night straight, or also overdyeing with another dye for final color.

The recipe is very simple, took a bunch of young green leaves (use as many as possible, a good bunch), soaked in water overnight, cooked for about 20 min., when cool strained the leaves, added alum and started using. Didn’t prep the eggs in any way at all, didn’t even wipe them with vinegar as I sometimes do. Excellent results, highly recommended.

I also tried a maple with reddish brown leaves, and it did give green but very uneven, it might take some more playing with.