Natural Plant-Based Mordants

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Photo courtesy Timber Press
Shelled acorns can be crushed using a mortar and pestle. Acorns make good dyes since they are an excellent source of tannin.

Home dyeing can be a gamble if you are new to the idea, but even if you are experienced in the art, knowing the reaction difference between animal fibers and plant based fibers can be crucial to proper dye absorption. Using The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes (Timber Press, 2010) Sasha Duerr walks you through using mordants and natural dyes in perfect harmony. In this excerpt you will learn the benefit of different plant-based mordants.

Plant-Based Mordants

Certain plant materials contain high concentrations of tannic acid, or tannin, which works well as a mordant to bond color to plant-based fiber. Tannin as a mordant, especially in combination with alum, can provide a greater color range with more successful results on most vegetable fibers. Certain tannin-bearing plant materials work especially well as mordants, such as horse chestnuts, pine bark, certain roots, some leaves, acorns, oak galls, pomegranate rind, and some fruits. Among the plant-based mordants, oak galls contain the highest amount of tannic acid. Some tannin substances will bind to the fiber and stay clear, allowing the true color of the dye source to saturate the fiber. But some tannins can alter the color by making it dull, especially if the dyes are yellow, pink, or brown tones.

Acorns, oak galls, pomegranate rind, and certain leaves and bark are just a few excellent sources of plant-based mordants that will brighten your dye color. You can collect acorns and oak galls on the ground under oak trees when they are in season, and store them for later use. You can also buy oak galls from some specialty herb stores.

Acorns. Acorns can be collected under oak trees in autumn, or you can buy acorn powder from specialty herbal or grocery stores. Grind foraged acorns to a powder, removing the shells, and soak the acorn material in water for several days to get the full color intensity. Acorns create colors from light beiges to grays and teal blues.

Oak galls. Oak galls are formed where wasps have laid their eggs on oak tree branches. The galls look like balls sticking to the branch. Galls make an excellent mordant, especially for vegetable fibers, and can be collected from many kinds of trees, especially oak trees (Quercus species). Oak galls have extremely high tannin content, which is also found in plant sources like bark and leaves, and is a natural mordant. It enhances the dye color as well as improving colorfastness. Alum can be used to treat fiber with tannin in one or two dye baths to achieve even stronger color results.

Pomegranate rind. The powdered rind, or skin, of the pomegranate (Punica granatum) can be used as a tannin mordant, as well as a dye to obtain peachy yellow with alum mordant, and to get gray to moss green with iron mordant. Pomegranate rind was also used as a color source for painting medieval illuminated manuscripts. The age of the fruit affects the color of the dye: the less ripe the fruit, the greener the yellow.

Juniper needles. A natural mordant can be made from the needles of the juniper tree (Juniperus communis). Gather the dry branches and burn them over a wide container. Catch only the needle ashes, and add 1 cup of ashes to 2 cups of boiling water. Stir and strain. The liquid is the mordant.

Using juniper needles as a mordant comes from the Navajo tradition. Juniper ashes can be a substitute for alum as a mordant, making the dyes more colorfast and creating brighter shades. Caution: Be careful with this homemade mordant. Since the ashes and water can form a type of lye, which is highly alkaline and can cause burns, use protective measures when working with it.

Sumac leaves. The leaves of sumac (Rhus species) are rich in tannin, making them a good natural mordant. When dried, sumac leaves can contain up to 35 percent tannin per weight. Sumac as a mordant brightens and extends colorfastness for most vegetable- based fibers.

Try This: Acorn Dip-Dyed Angora Baby Booties

Baby booties made of angora and then dip-dyed in acorn dye and iron make stylish and warm covers for little toes (see Image Gallery for the beautiful result). The soft colors of acorn dye and iron are perfect for these little treasures made from sweater cuffs. In dip-dyeing, only a section of the object is submerged in the dye.

Use mordants and aftermordants for your home dyeing projects. Read Using Mordants With Natural Plant Dyes for more recipes and tips from Sasha Duerr.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes: Personalize Your Craft With Organic Colors From Acorns, Blackberries, Coffee and Other Everyday Ingredients, published by Timber Press, 2010.