Fiber & Dyeing Research

I have a mini obsession going right now, researching growing cotton & flax for my fiber class, and now I’ve branched into dye plants, wouldn’t it be great to bring in plants for the kids to use on their hand spun wool? I just need to figure out how it all works, and I’m always happiest when I’m learning things! And I’ve been learning some funny things reading Rita Buchanan’s A Weaver’s Garden which I found at the library.

Regarding the history of cotton (which as far as the Old World is concerned originated in India, but in the New World has apparently been independently cultivated from “Peru to Arizona” since prehistoric times along with New World spindles and looms predating European explorers):

Long ago, the amazing appearance of cotton was explained by the myth of the “Scythian lamb”. Medieval Europeans recited fantastic tales about the mysterious East. One story told of a tree or shrub that grew tiny lambs instead of flowers. Each lamb would bend ever on its stalk to browse on the nearby foliage, eat all the leaves within reach, and then wither away. The pure white fleeces of the lambs were “vegetable wool” or cotton bolls.

Isn’t that a fabulous image? I’m looking forward to growing miniature sheep in my garden this summer.

Flax: The flax species grown for seed and oil is the same, but it is harvested before the seeds set for fiber use. The awesome bit is the name, Linum usitatissimum, that’s Latin for “the most useful kind of flax.” (via The Herb Companion which has back yard flax growing and processing instructions.) [edit: I just realized this article is also written by Rita Buchanan which is wonderfully coincidental, but not surprising I guess.]

Indigo doesn’t chemically bond to fibers, it only adheres to them. It is a pigment, not a dye at all. Bluejeans are dyed (painted?) with indigo, and they become paler through rubbing off the indigo dye, not through fading via sunlight as many natural dyes do.

The chemistry of indigo is pretty cool too, you should read her book to find more out about it, but one thing I thought was neat: You get indoxl (C8H7NO) from soaking the leaves in water, which it isn’t soluble with, so it will precipitate out to the bottom. I think it is whitish or yellowish depending on the pH of the water. What it wants for its reaction into indigo is oxygen, so if you dip yarn into the water, and pull it out into the air (or churn the water) the indoxl coating the yarn will grab some oxygen, two indoxl molecules combine, loose 4 hydrogen, and produce indigo and water, and suddenly your yarn is blue. C8H7NO * 2 + O2 = C16H12N2O2 + H2O. (Disclaimer, I dropped out of AP Chem in high school and never looked back!) Rita’s description in A Weaver’s Garden (Google Books) is much more involved and I encourage you to read it if you are interested.

For the curious, here are the (less toxic) dye plants I’m now planning on (trying) growing (I’m also planning on harvesting nuts and tree woods locally):

  • Coreopsis / Cosmos (Yellow to Orange)
  • Dyer’s Broom (Yellow)
  • Madder (Red)
  • Weld (Yellow)
  • Indigo (Blue)
  • Woad (Blue)

Most of which it looks like I can get from HerbalHut (never tried them before). I got some Pima cotton seeds from Mielke’s Fiber Arts (Who I like) and I finally found some Linum usitatissimum at, we’ll see how that works out. I’ve listed these sources because I know you want to grow your own yarn too! Don’t you? I think growing cotton in the backyard is such an awesome educational project, whether you do anything other than play with the bolls or not.

Have you ever grown fiber or dye plants?

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