Today, I bring you a pesky but informative experiment, and an unfinished project. I love anything that could be classed as putting color on fabric. At school, I took several textile classes and learned a lot about dyeing, printing, and general application of color, which only fed the fire. You might recall a few times I've dyed my bra findings to match fabric - in addition, I really enjoy yarn dyeing, and mixing new colors for the knitting bags in my etsy store.
My experience with natural dyes is a bit more limited. I did a weekend workshop with indigo a few years ago (it was amazing) - but never recreated it at home. Indigo is a living, breathing, thing-in-a-bucket that has feelings and emotions and is terrifyingly dangerous to keep when one is renting and when white is such a...prevalent...color.
The turmeric situation just kind of fell into my lap. My 'day job' is in-house marketing and graphic design for an online grocery delivery service, so I often get my hands on kind of 'weird' food items - a few weeks ago I ended up with a pile of fresh turmeric root: way too much to consider using it all for curries (that's especially saying something considering how much I love curries). Anyone who's familiar with turmeric knows that if you so much as glance at it the wrong way, it'll stain the first thing it touches a spectacularly bright shade of yellow. Even though yellow is the one and only color I actively dislike*, I couldn't exactly resist a natural dye experiment, could I)
(*okay, okay, you won't catch me in fluoro orange anytime soon either...)
My pre-dye research revealed the following: Turmeric doesn't require a mordant to set the dye. That's cool - no other specialized ingredients needed! Unfortunately, it's also what's called a 'fugitive dye' - the chemical nature of fugitive dyes means they're kind of semi-permanent. As time passes, as the object is used and washed, the dye fades. Apparently traditional turmeric garments are generally re-dyed annually. Ain't nobody got time for that! I made a mental note to sew my project with cotton thread so that I could re-dye it later if needed. Lastly, I found one very old blog post which stated that if one adds baking powder to a turmeric dye bath, the color will change from yellow to a bright orangey red. I couldn't find any corroborating evidence to suggest it would work, but it sounded amazing so I decided to try it out.
I found some 100% linen at The Fabric Store that had a nice drape and a unique herringbone weave - I figured if the experiment turned out I'd have a few options for what to make. Worst case scenario, I could dye the whole thing with fiber reactive dyes to a color I actually liked and call it a day. I bought a meter of the fabric for $24.
I chopped my turmeric into small chunks, and then blitzed it in the blender with about two cups of water to a bright orange pulp. Then, I boiled a large pot (for my main yardage) and a small pot (for the baking powder test) on the stove, and added three tablespoons of the turmeric to the small pot, and the rest to the large pot.
Here's where the fun started: I added the yardage to the large pot and a test square to the dye pot, and let both simmer gently for about half an hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so. It darkened to a point and leveled off eventually to a mustard sort of color. After half an hour, I added a few teaspoons of baking powder to the small pot, and watched with amazement as the pot fizzed like a potion and my mustard square turned to a deep pumpkin-y orange, and then rusty red! I was so excited!
I let both simmer until I couldn't wait a moment longer, then pulled my red swatch out and cut a swatch from the yellow yardage. I washed both with the same soap in warm water - and watched with great surprise as all the red washed out of my swatch and it faded back to yellow!
I was very surprised and a bit sad to see it go because it was such a pretty color, but I can't remember the last time an experiment surprised me like that - what a good feeling! It was so much fun! (as a non-chronological side note, there's some sort of chemical reaction at play here: Turmeric also turns the same shade of red when bleach is applied, right before the whole thing fades entirely! So. Weird. Pipe up in the comments if you know things about this, chemistry friends- and I'll add to this post)
Edit, August 5th 2017: The lovely thethreecharities, whose whole comment you can read below, shared this delightful bit of chemistry:
"Re: the colour change with bleach and baking powder: curcumin is the main compound that gives turmeric its colour. It oxidizes in bleach, so I would guess that its primary oxidative product is red. (Further oxidation renders it colourless.) It also autoxidizes (oxidizes spontaneously in open air), and it isn't stable under either acidic or basic conditions. So my guess is that the baking powder sped up the autoxidation, possibly by changing the pH of the water.
This may also explain why the red rinses out so easily: curcumin is a very hydrophobic compound (i.e., it doesn't like to interact with water), and the oxidative products of hydrophobic compounds are usually more water-soluble than the original compound."
I decided to let the yardage soak in the yellow dye pot off the heat overnight for maximum depth of color, but something very strange happened. After its extra time in the dye pot, the fabric lost a lot of its color! It looked... well. it looked like a yellowish khaki. Like a tea-stained burlap sack.
I have no idea what happened here, but I guess it's all part of the experiment! At this point, rather than settling (and because I knew I'd never actually wear anything that color...) I decided to get my hands on some more turmeric and dunk the thing again to see if I could get it brighter if I took it out sooner, like I'd done with the swatch.
I blended my Turmeric, and let it simmer for another 2 hours, then rinsed and dried the yardage. The result is a delightful, bright goldenrod that's precisely what I was expecting. Objective Accomplished, but Houston, we have a problem. What am I going to make with this fabric?
I'm having a hard time, here. Objectively, I like the color, but I don't want to wear the color. Jon suggested a cushion cover, but that didn't seem fair to the fabric or the dye. I was thinking a cropped tee but that's just... So. Much. Yellow. So close to my pale white face. To make things more difficult, I ended up with a couple of brown stains somewhere along the line, that I'll have to cut around.
The other options, so far as I can come up with, are a pair of high waisted shorts (hello, sailor) or an A-line skirt, or possibly a little short sleeved button-down. My problem is that turmeric, as a fugitive dye, is especially prone to sun-fading, so I want to make something that's not summery beach-wear. Something... work-appropriate? (in the loosest interpretation of that phrase. I regularly wear rainbow thigh-high socks to work...)
Any and all suggestions for what to do with slightly less than 1 meter of sun-sensitive goldenrod linen are very, very welcome. In case you hadn't figured it out yet, part 2 of this post will come as soon as I figure out what the heck I'm going to make with it...
(you might be waiting a while to find out)