This post will introduce you to the craft of dying paper pulp but, for more in depth reading, there are some wonderful books available on dying with plants. Many of them focus on dying wool rather than cellulose fibres but I'll list my recommended resources for dying your handmade paper with plants. I must admit that I'm rather slapdash when it comes to dyeing but I get the results I want. If I don't get exactly the same results every time, that's okay by me. But if you want to duplicate your results, take good notes.
When I play with plant dyes, I generally use corn husk and recycled paper pulp. The corn husk pulp is a pale green colour and doesn't compete with the dyes. Some of the other plants I use in my papermaking have a lot of natural colour so the dye colour doesn't show up as well. For information on papermaking, click on this link for a tutorial I posted last spring, Make Your Own Paper From Plants.
You can use plant fibre pulp mixed with recycled paper pulp, plain paper pulp or pulp made from purchased fibre such as cotton linters or abaca. Keep the pulp wet while you prepare your dye materials.
|Wet paper pulp after pre-mordanting with tannin.|
MORDANTBefore dyeing your cellulose pulp (plant fibre, recycled paper, etc.), most dyes require that the plant based fibres be soaked in a solution called a mordant. The mordant binds to the fibre and then the dye binds to the mordant.
There are various methods for mordanting pulp but this is the one I use. I first use a tannin solution as a pre-mordant and then I use an alum solution as the mordant. The alum doesn't readily fix to the pulp on its own so the tannin is used first. You can purchase tannin and alum from companies that sell natural dyes and from some papermaking suppliers but I make my own tannin solution from willow bark. You can also use oak galls or staghorn sumac. The tannin can be used alone as a mordant but I haven't used that method.
|Jars of prepared tannin solution.|
Pre-MordantPrepare your tannin solution. Add more water if required. I like the tannin solution to be strong enough to colour the pulp a pale tan colour but not so strong that it interferes with the colour of the plant dye. I've found that if my plant dye is strong enough, even when my pulp is a dark tan colour, it still dyes well. The basic formula is to use bark equal to about 1/4 of the weight of the pulp to be mordanted but, as I said, I'm pretty cavalier about the whole process so if the resulting colour is a bit lighter or darker, that's okay. Since I just boil up a bunch of willow bark at one time, I'm not measuring for a particular dye session.
Add the paper pulp to the tannin solution and soak for 8 to 24 hours. The longer the soak, the more tannin is absorbed. The pulp should be a pale tan colour. Strain it and save the tannin solution. It can be used again until it no longer colours the pulp adequately.
Mordant with AlumI mordant my fibres once with alum after the tannin solution but you can do it twice for stronger colours, if you wish. The alum is used with washing soda to make it less acidic and it also helps to make the fibres more absorbent.
The amount of alum and washing soda you use depends on the weight of your fibres. Once again I must confess to being less than scientific about my process and I usually estimate the dry weight of my fibres. Your alum should weigh 20% of the weight of your fibres and 6% of the weight for the washing soda (or 20 gm of alum per 100 gm of fibre and 6 gm of washing soda per 100 gm of fibre).
Dissolve the alum in boiling water in a large stainless steel pot. Fill the pot about 1/3 full of hot water. Dissolve the washing soda in boiling water and add to the alum solution in the pot and stir well. Carbon dioxide releasing will cause bubbles to form (they'll overflow if the pot is too full). When the bubbles have subsided add the pulp to the pot and add enough water to cover them. Heat to a simmer, turn off the heat and leave the pulp to soak for 8 to 24 hours. Strain and rinse the pulp but reserve the left over solution to use again. I usually save the remains from a couple of batches and then add them together for the third batch.
Now the fun begins! I love the time spent outdoors collecting the flowers for my dyes. Many wildflowers will result in some hue of yellow, from greenish to orangey. Modifiers can be used to create a range of colours from one dye plant. There are books and information on the internet that tell you what colours to expect from many common wildflowers but often the information is about colours on wool, which can be quite different. I enjoy experimenting.
Be careful not to disturb rare or endangered plants or to spread noxious weeds. Some plants will render a rich, gorgeous colour in the dye pot but the cellulose fibres don't pick up the colour, even with the mordant. I tried strawberry blight and it made a deep pink solution but it didn't dye the fibre. If you're looking for a sure thing, then use plants that are recommended by other dyers and follow their instructions.
I use the same process with all of the wildflowers I collect for dyes. Collect as many flowerheads (or other plant parts that you wish to try) as the weight of the pulp you are dyeing. Pour boiling water over the plant parts in a glass or stainless steel bowl or pot and leave to steep for an hour or so. Sometimes this is enough to extract the colour but I usually add more water and then simmer in a stainless steel pot for an hour; then strain out the plant material.
Add the pulp to the pot of dye and simmer for an hour (less if enough colour has been absorbed). Strain and rinse, reserving the dye liquid if you wish to add it to another batch or for a lighter shade of the colour with the same solution.
|From left to right (yellow is dyed with wildflowers, green is the same dye as the paper to the left but modified with iron): cow parsnip, orange hawkweed, goldenrod, yarrow|
Modifiers are chemicals that are added to the dyed pulp to change the colour. There are several common ones that are used and each affects the colour differently. The only one that I use is iron. I make the solution by soaking rusty nails or other iron bits in a solution of 2 parts of water to one part of clear vinegar for 2 weeks or more. My current solution has been sitting in my studio for over a year so it's quite strong.
After dyeing the pulp with the plant dye, I put it in a stainless steel or glass bowl, add some water, and add a couple of tablespoons (all very scientifically measured, of course....not!) of the iron solution. I stir until it changes colour (with iron it is called "saddening" the colour). It results in a duller colour which is often quite beautiful. The yellows turn to varying shades and hues of green.
Then I make paper and wait for the final results.
IMPORTANT NOTE: After dyeing and modifying, strain and rinse the pulp. Check with your local environmental authorities for disposal of any chemicals, including alum, washing soda and iron solutions.
My very favourite book is Wild Color by Jenny Dean (Watson-Guptill Publications). Highly recommended for beginners to advanced dyers as her information for dyeing cellulose fibres is so comprehensive, yet easy to follow.
A Dyer's Garden by Rita Buchanan (Interweave Press). Wonderful information on growing your own dye plants as well as some info on dyeing.
Home Dyeing with Natural Dyes by Margaret S. Furry and Bess M. Viemont (United States Department of Agriculture No. 230). There is a lot of information packed into this small booklet.
Mushrooms for Colour by Miriam C. Rice (Mad River Press). Some gorgeous colours are possible with certain kinds of mushrooms.
The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by J.N. Liles (The University of Tennessee Press). In depth information on dyeing.
Dharma Trading Company Even their catalog is fun.
The Papertrail A Canadian company but ships internationally
Maiwa Handprints A Canadian company. They have an extensive supply of books and materials as well as lots of good information.