is for plant pigments
I delight in synchronicities. Yesterday I was out on a walk and came upon a bit of sidewalk that was stained with ghostly images of tree leaves. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen in the autumn months, but I don’t believe I’ve noticed it in summer before. It always makes me smile though. Although I don’t recall specifics, I believe the staining has to do with the level of tannin in the leaves, and the term “tannin ghosts” is what I remember. Later I heard the term leaftovers and that stuck in my mind as well.
When I got home the mail had arrived and in it was a shipment from PaperbackSwap.com the on-line service I often use to swap books as I have a great many credits available there. The book that arrived was by Susan Wittig Albert. a China Bayles cozy mystery entitled Indigo Dying, and the setting is in a small town where a natural dyes workshop is being held. Each chapter has a preface with some information about indigo and other natural dyes.
And so voila, my P topic showed up – pigments.
Plants have been used as coloring agents for thousands of years – for dyeing cloth, for coloring hair, coloring skin, as paint, and as inks.
When I was young my grandmother once dyed eggs using onion skins – yellow onions turned the shells light tan and red onions a deeper brown. Even more impressive red cabbage turned them blue. I was enchanted and I suppose that was the seed planting for my life-long interest in alchemy.
Sources of plant dyes include flowers, berries, roots, nuts, and leaves. Until the mid-1800s plants were the primary source of dye, but quickly became obsolete with the development of chemical dyes which required less time in preparation, transferred more easily to fibers, and withstood washing and exposure to sunlight in ways natural plant dyes couldn’t.
It’s exciting that artisans are returning to natural plant pigments, and open to the serendipitous occurences that are often the result of such work. The amount of pigment in each plant is dependent not only on the genetics of the plants, but also its stage of development and growing conditions. Add in the varying conditions of the dyeing process itself, including use of various mordants (agents used to help colors bind with fabric) and lots of other factors and no wonder the whole thing is an experiment in magic and mystery.
Indigo, Madder, and Henna are probably the three most commonly known dye plants, but there are literally hundreds of others. Pioneer Thinking blog offers a listing of useable plants organized by color.
Another way to get pigments out of plants is to press them under extreme pressure. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself by hammering leaves or plants which can leave an amazing impression. Here’s a tutorial on how to do it if you’re interested.
To be honest, I feel like it’s kindest and most respectful to use a fallen leaf or a plant that’s already broken and then ask permission before doing this, but that’s just me.
Another example of the extreme gorgeousness of this is artwork of Anne Ten Donkelaar. She puts flowers through an etching press which results in pigment release and bits of flower material embedded into the paper. See some of her pieces here.
Have you ever worked with natural pigments? Done tea or coffee staining or used walnut ink? Ever been adorned with mehndi? Do tell – you know I love to hear.