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Discovering Natural Dyes – The Teacup Test

If you have been following us on Facebook or Instagram you will know that I (and therefore my class) have a bit of an obsession with natural dyes at the moment. It began when we made our own inks last year, then Cheryl, our local dyeing expert came in to show us the incredible work she is doing discovering natural dyes native to New Zealand.

From there on, we were pretty much hooked. Every time we go anywhere – on a bush walk, a cross-country run or even a trip down the road to the library – someone comes back with a handful of flowers, leaves or berries that they think might yield a good dye.

But nature can be a bit of a trickster. Sometimes we find a flower or leaf that is full of beautiful colour but we just can’t get the colour out, or if we do get it out, we can’t get it to stick to fibres. Other times, we find plant matter that looks dull and colourless but with a bit of coaxing it gives us a stunning dye.

So how do we know which plants to use? Of course there are books that help, but not only does this take the fun out of the discovery, it is also very limiting as people tend to document the very best dye materials and side-line the runners up.

We use the ‘Teacup Test’ to determine whether a sample contains enough extractable pigment to yield a decent dye. I’m not sure who invented this method, I first saw it in India Flint’s book: Eco Colour.

It works like this: Place handful of the material you wish to test in a lovely white, china teacup and pour boiling water over it. India says to wait about ten minutes to see if any colour comes out. We wait until the next day as we know that some plants take a while to release their precious pigment. If the water has a reasonable depth of colour the following day, it’s probably worth pursuing the experiment further. If there is little to no colour in the water – it’s probably not.

Please note, all cups, pans, utensils, etc. used for dyeing can NEVER be used for food/ drink again, so maybe not Grandma’s best china.

I have two white teacups (with saucers because I’m English) set aside for this test, but when we first started doing it, the samples came in so thick and fast that we used whatever we could find (namely Cheryl’s collection of recyclables). White containers are preferable as they reflect the true colour of the liquid whereas a dark or clear container makes it hard to see.

Once you start doing a few tests at a time you soon realise how important it is to label so you know which is which. It’s also important to keep records – I’ll write more on this another time, but for now it’s worth pointing out that you should record the ones that don’t work as well as the ones that do – it will save repeating failed investigations.

Of course, the Teacup Test is not an exact science. Many of the most revered ancient dyes require long and complex processes to achieve the incredible colours we see in ancient textiles and artworks. Our test is only going to show us if our sample has easily extractable colour, but it’s good enough for our purposes.

If we decide a dye sample is worthy of further exploration, we collect more of it, put it in a pot of water and simmer it until we have a strong looking dye bath.

The next step is to try to make the colour adhere to some fibre. There are many ways to do this and, again, I’ll write more on this another time, but if you just want to experiment, I suggest you start with simmering some wool in the dye bath for forty minutes or so. Wool is the friendliest of fibres as far as colour goes. It is constructed of such complex molecules that there is a good chance it will have something in it that will bond with whatever you are introducing it to.

I would love to know how you get on with your Teacup Tests, or is you have another method of discovering natural dyes. Please share your insights in the comments section below.

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