During school, Lauren and I did a joint research project on printing with natural dyes, which is a process that became more or less obsolete after the mid 1800’s, with the advent of synthetic dyes. Because this process is no longer commonplace, there is very little technical information to be found. Lauren and I experimented and came up with our own way of doing it using modern day thickeners and application processes.
The term “natural dye” can be deceiving; although the dyestuff itself is extracted from a natural source, to adhere it to fabric it requires something called a mordant, which often comes in the form of a heavy metal such as tin or iron. Mordants can also be organic compounds such as tannic acid, which, in the case of black walnut, is found naturally in the hull and thus needs no additional chemical to adhere it to fibre. This is one of many reasons why we choose to use this wonderful brown dye as our primary print medium.
Our process for printing our classic brown prints begins in October when we gather the black walnuts that have fallen from the various trees we glean from in Toronto, Burlington, and Paris, Ontario (ideally getting to them before the squirrels do). To make the dye, all we need is the husk, which we peel away with gloved hands (otherwise they would be stained for several days). We then return the nutty cores to the great outdoors, where they are quickly whisked away by squirrels and other foraging animals. We have arranged for next season’s harvest to go to an artisanal preserve maker, who will cure them and use them for his preserves.
The hulls are then boiled down in water for several hours and then strained. The dye liquor is boiled further until it reaches the level of concentration that we like for printing.
We steam our prints to set the dye in the fabric, then add our colour blocks using a non-toxic, textile medium. Though it is non-toxic, it is still acrylic, so we use it sparingly as it can affect the absorbency of the beautiful organic linen that our tea towels are made of.
Like any dye, black walnut dye will mellow out with continued washing and exposure to extreme sunlight, but it will not completely disappear.
You can find the full line of our products on www.freshlyprinted.ca or come by Freedom Clothing Collective to check out a selection in person!