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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Dyeing Wool

by Julia Watson

For anyone interested in dyeing their own wool for rug repairs, but may not have much time or space to devote to the project, I can offer a couple of suggestions. One method would be to use the modern ‘washfast’ acid dyes Pierre Galafassi discusses in his Salon on dyes (also see www.pburch.net for more information on this class of dyes and how to use them). Another choice might be to try natural dye extracts. Or, for those with the time and interest, using the raw materials to make natural dyes can be very rewarding and a powerful link to the past. I have used all three methods to dye silk and wool with good results. I haven’t tried using my wool yarns for rug repair, so I can’t offer help with that. I hope others with more experience in that area will add their comments.

You will get the best results if you use good quality, scoured, untreated yarn. Some dye suppliers offer ‘prepared for dyeing’ fabric and yarns. Suppliers for textile conservators also usually carry this type of goods. Or you could just use what you have on hand and experiment. My biggest problem in dyeing wool has been not treating the fibers gently enough so the wool retains its luster and texture. Since I use my dyed wool to make felt or hand-spun demonstration skeins for teaching, I’ve been able to use even the most mangled stuff. You won’t want wool like that to repair your beautiful carpet, so take care to handle the yarn carefully, avoid alkalis, excessive agitation, or abrupt temperature changes. Again, I expect others who are experts with washing and dyeing wool will have much to add on this topic.

 Modern synthetic dyes for artists and craftspeople are available in small quantities and with detailed instructions from many suppliers. Some offer ‘samplers’ of small amounts of primary colors and the fixative. I use white vinegar to fix acid dyes but, if the smell bothers you, you could substitute citric acid crystals. The process is fairly simple: add boiling water to a small amount of dye powder to dissolve, add this to a non-reactive container (stainless, enamel, ceramic) large enough so your fibers swim freely, add the yarn, heat to a simmer for about 45 minutes, then allow the bath to cool down. When the process is done correctly you should be left with a clear bath as acid dyes exhaust completely.

Using natural dyes can be complicated but doesn’t need to be. I occasionally use natural dye extracts made by Earthues (there may be other sources). On the Earthues site the extracts are only available as a rather expensive sampler but the names of suppliers for smaller amounts are provided as well. To start, you could limit your palette to madder, a good yellow such as weld, walnut for toning, and indigo. The madder extract reliably yields good reds. For madder and weld you will need to pre-mordant your fiber by simmering in an alum (potassium aluminum sulphate) solution first. Alum is the most benign of the commonly used natural dye mordants and can be used to produce a very full range of colors with different dyes. Indigo is a different animal. To use any type of indigo, natural or synthetic, you will need to understand the basics of indigo chemistry.

Natural indigo is the blue pigment derived from processing the leaves of various plants. Synthetic indigo is chemically identical to natural indigo. To make a dye, the blue pigment must be dissolved in an alkaline solution and then have the oxygen removed, by either bacteria or chemicals. The resulting yellow-green liquid is the dye bath. Fiber dipped into this liquid will emerge yellow-green and gradually turn blue as you watch. I have found that even the product described as ‘instant indigo’ needs some tinkering to make the vat work properly. This is a very superficial description of the process, but a novice should not be discouraged by all the voodoo that sometimes comes with this subject.

The easiest practical way I have used to make an indigo vat, especially if only a small vat is needed, is synthetic indigo, washing soda to make the vat alkaline, and thiourea dioxide (a less toxic and stronger reducing agent than hydrosulphite) to remove the oxygen. I have used many other recipes and would be happy to share those with anyone interested. Care must be taken to protect the wool from alkali damage. I let my indigo-dyed silk and wool oxidize under water and give the fiber a vinegar rinse after washing.

Dyeing with the raw materials - plants and insects - is an art. It can be messy, time-consuming, and hard work. It can also be deeply satisfying. I grow my own indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) and madder (Rubia tinctorum) and forage for many other dye plants. For anyone interested in taking this route to reproduce the wonderful colors of the old carpets, visit the lively ‘naturaldyes’ discussion group on Yahoo and get started! Some excellent books on this topic are: Liles, J.N., The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing; Bohmer, Harald, Koekboya; Cardon, Dominique, Natural Dyes. Or try Rita Buchanan’s little paperback, A Dyer’s Garden, which contains succinct and accurate instructions any novice dyer can follow.

Julia Watson