Useful Plants Workshop: Plant-Based Dyes with Lotta Helleberg

Last Tuesday, the Thomas Jefferson Demonstration Garden was fortunate to host a plant-based dyes workshop with local textile artist, Lotta Helleberg. Lotta uses several plant-based techniques to transform textiles, including eco dyeing, eco printing, and leaf printing. It was a pleasure to learn more about dye processes with Lotta!

We began by admiring textile samples that Lotta had dyed using materials from the TJ Demo Garden. We think the colors are quite beautiful. What do you think?

Colors obtained from the TJDG plant collection (save the indigo samples, which were borrowed AND blue).

After gathering sumac leaves and tansy blossoms from the garden, Lotta instructed students to cut the plant specimens into small pieces suitable for a dye bath.

Students work with Lotta to prepare the plant specimens.

While the dye solutions bubbled and boiled, we discussed the ways in which plant-based dyes have inspired and shaped diverse cultures throughout history. Thomas Jefferson and Dolley Madison both recognized the importance of plant-based dyes, and lobbied for plants such as madder (from which “Turkey red” is derived) to be grown on American soil.

Tansy and Smooth Sumac begin to stew.

Marissa takes in the scent of boiling tansy.

Next, students took turns carefully wetting linen in clean water to prepare it for the dye bath. We chose to dye linen because it, too, is made from a plant that we are growing in our garden: flax.

Ayesha soaks the linen squares in water.

The wet linen squares were then added to the simmering solutions one at a time. They remained in the dye baths for about thirty minutes.

Sharon, Sherry and Shelley add linen to the dye baths.

Our first glimpses of Tansy yellow and Smooth Sumac brown can be seen below. Compare these subtle shades with the more piercing synthetic colors of UVa orange and William & Mary green (as seen in background).

On the left: Tansy yellow. On the right: Sumac brown.

After a quick rinse, the linen squares took a dip in the mordant. Mordants are used to help attract dye to fabric; the word comes from the latin mordere, which means “to bite.” Mordants can be made from many substances, such as tannic acid or salt. Our mordant was a solution of aluminum acetate and water.

Lotta, Marissa and Natalie carefully deposit linen squares in a pot of warm mordant.

While the linen enjoyed its second stint in the dye, Lotta showed us an array of beautiful hues that she achieved using local plants.

Plant-based dyes and natural fibers are fundamental to Lotta's process.

Thirty minutes later, our fabric was ready for a final rinse in clean water.

Our newly-dyed textiles undergo a final rinse.

As an added experiment, we subjected both linen and silk to our dye baths to see whether any differences between the two materials could be observed. Typically, animal fibers absorb certain dyes more readily due to their high protein content. In fact, our linen had been soaked in soy milk to give the plant dyes added structure on which to bind.

Yong and Natalie fervently untie pouches containing silk thread.

To our surprise, sumac-dyed silk and linen looked quite similar, while the tansy-dyed silk was much lighter than its linen counterpart. Perhaps future experimentation will yield some conclusions.

Finished products: dyed silk and linen.

Finally, it was time to hang the fabric to dry. Each student received a parting gift of linen and silk colored in TJDG Tansy yellow and Smooth Sumac brown.

Jonathan and Lotta hang textiles to dry.

Thank you for a wonderful workshop, Lotta!

The fruits of our labor.

–Rachael

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One Response to Useful Plants Workshop: Plant-Based Dyes with Lotta Helleberg

  1. Pingback: Class Dismissed! | Thomas Jefferson Demonstration Garden

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