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Natural Dyeing: Are Metal or Non-Metal Mordants Better?

Natural Dyeing: Are Metal or Non-Metal Mordants Better?

Based on the roaring success of her previous natural dye post,  “Dyeing With Plants In Autumn and Winter”, I asked the brilliant Susie Wareham to return and shed some light on the the natural dyeing minefield we know as “Mordants” – specifically, whether or not we should be using metal mordants.  Here are some of Susie’s thoughts;

[Tweet “Natural Dyeing: Metal or Non-Metal Mordants Explained! #naturaldye #naturaldyeing with @susiewareham”]

Michel Garcia Preparing different metallic mordents

Michel Garcia Preparing different metallic mordents

Fixing the colour to the cloth comes with its own set of problems: to use metals or to not to use metals – that is the question!  This really is down to your individual feelings.

Here’s what I think: in the past we used tin and chrome to fix plants to our cloth. These I would steer clear of today as they are extremely harmful to both yourself and the environment. Which seems a bit of a contradiction given that we generally plant plants to care for the environment!  So I’d say that heavy metals are a no no.

So what can you use? I use alum. Though it is a metal, it is a naturally forming element with plentiful supply within the earth’s crust. It can be processed from aluminium foil (check out Jenny Dean at Wild Colours). If you want to go down the homemade route – great! This will take some experimenting, and don’t worry about the maths, as the amount of alum that you get out of the foil will vary. I particularly like to use alum because it can be disposed of easily and is fairly safe. Precautions should still be taken, so wear gloves and never using a pan that you cook in to dye with – also remember to use different wooden spoons.

Another commonly used mordant is aluminium acetate, this mordant is better for cellulose fibres such as cotton and bamboo.


Making my own alum from aluminium foil

Making my own alum from aluminium foil

Non-Metal Mordants: Tannins

I can, however, easily see how you may not want to use metallic mordents at all. Cellulose fibres are very hard to dye without the use of metal mordents so the following only really applies to silk and wool.

Tannins can be used to fix colour to cloth. Tea contains tannin, as do oak gulls which are found on oak trees. Sumac is also a great source of tannin.

Michel Garcia (in the photo above) is a natural dye master. He promotes the use of plant based mordents, such as symplocos, a plant found in Indonesia. It is a bio accumulator: the plant stores up aluminium naturally found in the ground, which when added with fibre creates the mordant effect without having to use a process of extracting the alum from the earths crust.

The joy of natural dyes is the experimentation so head outside see what you can find and soon new colours and creations will be finding their way in to your wardrobes.

Symplocos ready to be used as a mordant

Symplocos ready to be used as a mordant

To read more about any of the process mentioned I would read Jenny Deans book Wild Colours she also has a very good blog, and to find out about using 100% from plants look on a foundation set up to support and empower local women in Indonesia.

Please also feel free to be in touch with me to find out when I will be teaching more natural dye workshops in 2015.

[email protected] 

If you like this article, then please do sign up to the monthly mailinglist where I send out loads of interesting sewing articles!  Also, I’d be delighted if you’d please share this using the tweet to share buttons throughout the post and below.

[Tweet “Experiment with #naturaldyeing – what’s your preferred mordant? #naturaldyer “]

[Tweet “Well, you learn something new about mordants everyday! #learning #creative #create #sew #dyer”]

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