And Away We Go!

The beauty of being involved in a collaborative project such as the Stockholm & Leyden Papyri dye replication project is that each participant comes about the work that needs to be done in a unique way. I have adopted a “let’s see what happens if …..” approach. For me, the worst part of the whole process is beginning.

My plan all along has been to focus on recipes #115 – Dyeing of Various Colors (Phoenician dye and a “cherry-red” variation) and recipe #118: Gold Color by Cold Dyeing. The ingredients are plants I had hear of and the recipes seem rather straight forward. The instructions are rather vague, but I was convinced I would be able experiment with each recipe, refine the recipe, then produce something close to what was described in the recipe.

It seemed like a good idea to start with recipe #118. It was the most straight forward and I had the ingredients, although they were dried ingredients, not fresh. “Take safflower blossom and oxeye, crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to air, and use it”.

Dried safflower blossom and dried oxeye

Each dyer needs to complete and submit a final project using the dyes recipes we have chosen. I have yet to decide exactly what I will make, but I do know that it will be nunofelted. As a nunofelter, my favorite fibers to work with are natural cotton cheesecloth as a base and silk or wool roving. Dharma Trading Company provides an excellent description of nunofelting (for those of you who have never heard of it): “In a nutshell: Nunofelting is the process of felting wool roving and/or wool yarns onto another fabric.”

Since this was an experiment, I decided to expand my repertoire and include some additional fabrics and fibers for each of the dye recipes. I chose fibers and fabrics that are more easily accessible to me (in my remote area of Minnesota, USA) and fibers and fabrics that I really wanted to use in nunofelting. Shetland wool fleece, cormo wool roving, natural cotton cheesecloth, Egyptian cotton top roving, natural raw silk fabric, and Tussah natural silk roving were chosen for the first round of this dye experimen. My goal was basic – I was interested in seeing how each of the fibers reacted and held the dye. All fibers were prepared by scouring, mordanting, (and a tannin bath for the cotton) using modern techniques.

Well….after about a week in the cold dye crock, I was excited to see which fibers looked like the “gold color” promised in recipe #118. As you can see below, the results for recipe produced some wonderful colors, all of which I will use at some point. The closest to “gold color” is the shetland wool fleece and the cormo wool roving. I was encouraged and excited by the results.

Encouraged by the outcome for recipe #118, I moved on to recipe #115 with a focus on both Phoenician dye and cherry-red. “To prepare Phoenician dye. Take and combine heliotrope with alkanet. Lay them in an earthern vessel and sprinkle them for 3 days with white vinegar. On the fourth day, boil them, with the addition of water, until these float at the top…if you wish cherry-red then add krimnos soured with a little soap. Put the wool in and boil it together with the substances until it appears to you to be good.” Below you see the earthern vessel, powdered alkanet, heliotrope (which I used dried), and the addition of krimnos (safflower) to the pot..

The results from recipe #115 were a bit more subtle and to me, not quite as exciting. Once again, the closest to the Phoenician dye color was the Shetland fleece and the cormo wool roving, although the silk fabric was quite close and any of the choices could be refined (I think) to look more purple. None of the options used for “cherry-red” really look cherry-red. The raw silk fabric did produce a really nice almost copper color, which I could use in a future project and the wool (both the Shetland fleece and cormo roving) held color well.

My aim was to try to use the limited instructions to see how close I could get to the colors the Egyptians had achieved and to see which fibers seemed to take up the dye best. I was more than happy with the color results with recipe 118 – gold color. While I was disappointed in the colors of recipes #115, I realize that with some refinement the Phoenician dye colors can be deepened to a stronger purple and the cherry-red color can be achieved. As I continue to research the ingredients listed in the recipes, I have discovered that with alkanet, “the root produces a red dye, alkannin, which has been used in the Mediterranean region since antiquity. Alkannin is soluble in alcohol, ether, and oils, but is insoluble in water, so the cut up roots should be soaked in alcohol to extract the most color…..In alkaline environments, alkanet dye has a blue color, with the color changing again to crimson on addition of an acid. The color is red at pH 6.1, purple at 8.8 and blue at pH 10.” (per the Dharma Trading Company website). Other dye reference materials concur with this information. There is also some discussion about the length of time fibers need to sit in the dye bath in order to achieve the cherry-red. Some sites suggest 4 to 6 weeks, which is considerably longer than what I did.

In an earlier blog post I wondered if the ancient Egyptians had any idea about pH. Maybe they didn’t know or understand pH as we do today, but it seems clear that they had some sort of understanding about the impact of using various liquids for the development of dye.

So….what were my take-aways?

  • Focus on wool fleece and roving, silk fabric, and cotton cheesecloth. These fibers will provide a nice contrast, will hold the dye color fairly well, are easy for me to obtain, and are fibers I like to work with. The Egyptian cotton top roving was difficult to work with due to it’s shorter structure. I was not happy with any of the silk roving colors, but I may try again with a refined recipe as silk roving is something I enjoy working with.
  • Use water from the fresh water lake (instead of tap water) to more closely mimic what the Egyptians may have had to work with or to at least give it a more natural feel.
  • Check the pH of the liquids at each step of the process.
  • Due further investigation on the addition of soap to the #115 cherry-red dye. I suspect it will help to change the pH of the dye bath and help to shift the color.
  • Carefully measure the weight of fiber (WOF) and all dye materials. Aim for 100% WOF with the dye materials.
  • Measure the amount of water used in each of the recipes.
  • Document all the the time frames and steps in the process in order to make these recipes more replicable.

After this experience, one thing I realize I need to do is to go into my cooking recipes and recipe books and add some better descriptors to the handwritten comments like “cook until right”. Some day, someone may be attempting to re-create my recipe for Finnish Christmas tarts and be completely stumped by the scratched out notes in my recipe book. 👩‍🍳

Follow more of my experiments –

Sally’s Dye-versions

Tags: leydenpapyrusliving historynatural dye historynaturaldyeroman egyptstockholmpapyrus

2 thoughts on “And Away We Go!

  1. This is all so fascinating. Everything has an impact, from using lake water instead of tap water, leading me to think about what difference the plant growing conditions may have as well. Soil in ancient Egypt vs. contemporary Minnesota? So much to learn!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Janet – I agree. Even if the conditions were “perfect” I don’t know that a complete replication is even possible.


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