Thursday, April 03, 2008

Natural Dyes-Not So Safe or Environmentally Friendly

I want to do it all! It started with crochet, then hand-painting yarn, then knitting, and most recently spinning. I wish I had more time to do each. That would be heaven! I would love to raise sheep and alpaca but that will have to wait.

Then I decided I'd like to try growing my own natural dyes. I had bought this great big house with plenty of land. I could use the garden area where my great-grandfather had grown green chili and tomatoes. It would be fun right? I began my research right after the holidays so I'd have plenty of time to decide what I wanted to grow before the growing season began. I would need to make sure I had a variety of mordants to get different colors from the same plant. I couldn't wait to experiment and see the results!

It seemed like such a great thought. Natural dyes would be safe and environmentally friendly right? What harm can come from flowers, leaves and roots? Well, if that was all there was to it that would be great, however, I soon realized using natural dyes is neither safe nor green.

First of all, I live in a desert. We have much needed water restrictions and growing my own dye plants wouldn't benefit my environment. That alone is reason enough. There's also the metal ion mordants (which remain in the fiber to hold onto the color) required for natural dying, most of which are quite toxic.* While I could take precautions to protect myself, natural dying is best done outside and I have three big K-9 friends to consider as well. There's also the energy required for boiling or steaming to cure the dyes. While natural dying might be great for some it's not for me.

I'm going to stick with fiber reactive dyes. In all the research I've done I've found them to be the safest. All that's required is pure washing soda (aka soda ash; sodium carbonate) to increase the pH for vegetable fibers or vinegar to lower the pH for animal fibers. They are colorfast and require little heat. From March through October I can just set them out in the sun to cure and my laundry room is a great place for curing in the colder months so I don't need to use extra energy. Of course I still have to take precautions like wearing a mask while mixing and gloves should be on for the entire process. My dying utensils are used exclusively for dying, never for eating or cooking.

*While I've acquired this information from various books it can all be found in one place on the internet. If you'd like more information on all types of dying please see Paula Burch's site. This link takes you diretly to information on natural dyes. Before you do any dying please read up on the process and safety requirements.

While this information was disappointing it's probably for the best. There's only so much free time and I already feel I don't have enough of it to concentrate as much as I'd like to on the things I love doing.

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