Michelle Parrish, Growing Dye Plants

  • Post published:09/04/2020
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Linen, cotton and silk textile panels dyed by Michelle Parrish
Linen, wool and silk textile panels dyed by Michelle Parrish at Smith College Church Exhibition Gallery

Early this spring Smith College was ready to present its glorious annual Spring Bulb Show. However, as we now know, that show never opened. Like so many events the Bulb Show was shut-down because of the newly blossoming Covid-19 pandemic.

I was fortunate to visit the Lyman Plant House just before the word covid was heard everywhere. I got to visit the space used for the Bulb Show, but preparations had been called to a stop. Fortunately, a magical and colorful textile exhibit, The Art and Science of Dyeing, was in place in the Church Exhibition Gallery.

Michelle Parrish
Michell Parrish

Michelle Parrish, who made those beautiful textile panels, worked with Sarah Loomis, the director of education at the Botanic Garden. Parrish told me that Loomis was the mastermind behind the design and installation. She also wrote all the interpretive information about plants and dyes on the wall panels. Theirs was a close collaboration making Parrish responsible for choosing the dye plants that would be used and then cutting, washing, mordanting and dyeing all the cloth.

Parrish has been dyeing textiles and growing dye plants in her garden for twenty years.  She set up the nine foot panels of linen, silk and wool in shades of blue, red, and yellow, orange and green that showed the reaction of dyes on different textiles.

Michelle Parrish is a woman who has been playing with different crafts ever since she was a child. When she was 16 she tried making a plant dye, but failed and put that idea away. She made pottery for several years, and then learned to weave. In 1999 she became very serious about learning to weave and spin. At the same time she began “to grow dye plants so that she could make textiles from garden to finish.”

Because of the pandemic, Michelle Parrish, the creator of this exhibit, and I met on the telephone, with some help from her Localcolordyes.com blog.

Along with the textile panels there were informational panels on the wall with information about the plants that dyers use. Centuries ago weavers had had to make their own dyes out of plants, or else all textiles would be the basic color of the cotton, wool or linen. In many cases, dyeing was its own specialized craft, separate from weaving. It is hard to think about a world where all textile dyes were derived from plants, minerals or insects. However, before 1860 this was true.

Parrish's woad planting
Parrish’s woad planting

The wall panels explained that plant dyes were used centuries ago. It took me a while to understand that these names, madder and weld and woad are plants, and that the plants date back to ancient Egypt and earlier. Madder alone makes red and orange dyes. Madder and weld are plants that make shades of red and yellow dyes.

Weld and woad plants make shades of green dyes. The green leaves of the woad plant contain the same source of blue as other indigo-bearing plants

An essential process of dyeing textiles is to begin with a mordant. Without a mordant dyed textiles will fade over time because of washings. However Parrish explained that, “woad and indigo do not require a mordant as the vat-making process involves unique chemical processes that allow physical bonding with the fibers.”

As an example of the dyeing process Parrish gave me the instructions for making a yellow dye from marigold petals. Unfortunately the process is too long for my column. I will describe the process of dying briefly, and using woad from her garden. I recommend a visit to her blog https://localcolordyes.com/ for fuller didrections .

Equipment including a stainless steel two gallon pot that will never be used for cooking, along with a thermometer, measuring spoons, a scale and a washtub is essential.

Fiber must be washed or “scoured’ to prepare it for mordanting. It needs to be washed and dried. It can be put into the mordant while wet, or after it is dried. The mordant for wool fiber is aluminum sulfate (usually referred to as alum). The type of mordant depends on the fiber. The fiber needs to be weighed when dry.

Fleece hits the air, transforming yellow into blue

The mordanting process will begin with measuring the weight of fiber to determine measurement of mordant in hot water. The fiber may soak overnight in the mordant .

Now time to dye. The weight of fresh marigold flowers needs to be at least 3 or 4   times the weight of the fiber. For example 2 ounces of fiber will need 6 or 8 ounces of marigolds. Dried marigolds will need a 1:1 ratio.   Put the marigolds in a pot of water and bring to a temperature of 180 degrees.

Fiber should be completely wet when put in dye. Bring temperature back to 180 degrees and maintain it for an hour. Then allow fiber to cool in dyebath.

The woad has been neutralized and rinsed to make blue yarn

Remove the fiber from the dyebath, hang it carefully out to dry.   When dry wash it with biodegradable detergent and rinse repeatedly until rinse water is clear. Hang fiber out to dry. Done!

Parrish will be teaching a workshop as Snow Farm in Williamsburg, MA on September 19-20 called Roots, Shoots, Leaves and Flowers: Local Plants to Dye For. If you would like to learn more about growing and using dyeplants to dye woolen and linen yarns, registration is still open. Snow Farm has made careful arrangements that will enable students to maintain distance while they work. Much of the workshop will take place outdoors.###

Between the Rows  August 29, 2020

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