Symplocos Part II: Back in Black (beans)

After she got over her noodle disappointment, my housemate wanted to know what comes next. “Well,” I said, “we’re gonna have to eat more black beans.” Back when I taught the workshop at Lambtown, I had soaked four pounds of beans for that dye bath. Four pounds! Dry! That’s a lot of burritos.

So I’ve been kind of holding off on this next round. But with the heat in the house not working, it seemed like a good time to hang around in the kitchen with pots bubbling for hours on end. Since I’m just running two little test skeins, I only soaked one cup of beans. A totally reasonable amount of burritos.

Alum on the left, symplocos on the right.
Alum on the left, symplocos on the right.

I’m trying to be a little more rigorous about keeping track of projects, so: 500% weight of goods, although since the dye is only in the skins of the beans, it’s really much less. Simmered for an hour and a half. I used tap water, which I’m learning is not only really alkaline but also seems to fluctuate pH. The first few times I did black bean dye with Davis tap water, I got greens like I have here. Then for a while I was getting blues, which means the water was more acidic (or at least not as far off from neutral). That shift coincided with moving across town, so I thought it had something to do with the pipes, or which particular wells feed in to which parts of the system. Guess not.

The other surprise came when I popped another skein into the exhaust bath. I was of course expecting a paler color, but I ended up with…brown.

Exhaust bath. Brown.
Exhaust bath. Brown.

I guess there must be two colors in there, and lucky for us the nice ones get sucked up into the fiber first. Live and learn.

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:

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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.

Fibrous Yes Adventurous Not So Much

This is the part where the blog gets really boring and fiber-nerdy. Not so much adventure these days, back to my hermit-crab home-body ways. BUT.

Last weekend I went to the fibershed symposium on ecologically sustainable production of wool. It was nerdy, and inspiring, and also squelched any lingering fantasies about shepherdessing as a potential career move. (For example: dogs. I don’t think sheepcats would work so well.) The morning talks focused on carbon sequestration in rangelands. In the afternoon, some shepherds talked about their work with contract grazing (hiring out sheep as lawn mowers, basically). The last speaker explored the potential for a vertically integrated production chain for locally produced, ecologically beneficial garments. Woah. Even just the people-watching was great–there were climate scientists with button-up shirts tucked into their khakis, and dudes with beard-dreds, and knitters with funky shawls, and no-nonsense boots-and-flannel ranchers.

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Maybe I do still want to live in a yurt, though.

Since we were already at Pt. Reyes, my friend and I drove a bit further to a beach where we collected seawater for mordanting fiber (the first step in working with natural dyes). We happened to get there right as the sun was setting over the waves, and the full moon was rising over the hills behind us. Let us give thanks for small magics.

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Blessed are the Cheesemakers

So I’ve been researching natural dye traditions of the Himalayas, and came across a mention of “curd water” being used as a mordant. No information about how it is used, so I am experimenting. This will be so awesome if it works. I mostly use dye materials I’ve grown or gleaned myself, but I still have to buy alum and I’ve been looking for a lower-impact alternative. (The article I read also mentioned cow dung as a mordant, but housemates fear not, I’m not going there.)

Last night my cheese-making neighbor brought over a tub of whey, and I simmered some test fiber in it. Put some in a black bean dye bath today, with some alum-mordanted wool as a control. Here are the results:

whey and black bean

The alum-mordanted wool did the best (it’s the one on the far right) but the whey clearly did something. The white wool didn’t go into the dye bath–I just put it in the picture to provide contrast. The skein on the far left is silk yarn. It seems to have dyed a bit more evenly than the wool did. I didn’t rinse the wool after taking it out of the whey, so there are places where stuff sort of clumped on, and those areas took more dye. So, further research is needed! Everybody start eating a lot of cheese so I can play around with more of this stuff.