Symplocos Experiment, Part One

Over the summer I was researching alternatives to metal-salt mordants, and found information about a plant-based mordant from Indonesia. Traditionally, weavers have used the bark of several species of Symplocos, but are being encouraged to switch to using the leaves. I ordered some, and followed my usual timeline of thinking about it for months before actually doing anything with it. This weekend I finally got around to trying my first experiment (not coincidentally, right before the last week of the quarter with papers due and finals coming up. Eep.). I mordanted some test skeins of handspun merino cross (sigh, despite being so anti-merino lately) in Symplocos powder, and a control set of skeins in the usual alum purchased down the street at the International Market. I know you all want to see the outcome, so I’ll cut to the chase:


From left to right, the yarn is mordanted with Symplocos, Symplocos + onion skin dye, alum + onion skin, just alum.

I dyed the yarns in the same bath, made with mostly red onions. It’s a little hard to tell in this picture, but the Symplocos skein came out slightly darker and with a slight reddish undertone. The alum-mordanted skein has a slight greenish tinge. I have no idea yet how they’ll compare for light- and wash-fastness.

Okay, now that we got the exciting part out of the way, I’ll let you know how it was working with the Symplocos. The stuff I ordered came as powdered, dried leaves:

measuring out symplocos powder

When I added the powder to my pot of water, it all just floated on top. It took several minutes of heating and stirring to get it to wet.

Mmm, tasty.

It did eventually sink as the directions said it would. It smelled lovely while it was simmering, sort of like a cup of rooibos tea. My housemate came home while I was letting the yarn cool down in the bath, and was disappointed that I wasn’t cooking noodles.

Not noodles.
Not noodles.

The directions suggested straining out the plant matter before adding yarn, and I wish I had. I put the yarn in a strainer that fits in the pot, and the Symplocos was below that. Unfortunately, I let the water come to a boil and that circulated the Symplocos powder throughout the bath. The dried powder did come off the yarn while I was rewinding the skein, but kind of made a mess under the umbrella swift.

Anyway, I declare Symplocos Part One a success! I have test skeins to try it out with a couple more dyes, and then plan to knit all the bits together into a piece that will be functional and also allow me to compare the different mordants over time. Stay tuned!

References for those that want ’em:

Cunningham, A. B., Maduarta, I. M., Howe, J., Ingram, W., & Jansen, S. (2011). Hanging by a thread: Natural metallic mordant processes in traditional Indonesian textiles. Economic botany, 65(3), 241-259. It’s the first hit on this Google Scholar search and is available open-access.

Also, check out the Bebali Foundation’s Plant Mordant website for directions on how to use it and where to order it.

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