Dana Mulder, one of the Tecumseh staff members, gave us the opportunity to experience the Science of Art last week. She has developed a considerable amount of background knowledge through her work providing programs at Van Dusen Gardens and provided an after school session for interested staff members on dyeing wool from natural materials. My experience to date with dyeing anything has been Rit dyes out of a package. It felt like a whole new world was introduced.
Dana not only taught us about the natural dyes used historically but also the stories and collection of the plants and insects that they were derived from. The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay, Wild Color and Quilt History also provide a plethora of information for further exploration. We learned there are three types of natural dyes derived from three different sources. There are natural dyes obtained from plants (indigo), those obtained from animals (cochineal), and those obtained from minerals (ocher).
We used ALUM as the mordant to facilitate the chemical reaction that takes place between the dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed and brightens the colour slightly. Other common mordants are: IRON (or copperas) which saddens or darken colors, bringing out green shades; TIN to brightens colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows; BLUE VITRIOL which saddens colors and brings out greens and TANNIC ACID used for tans and browns. Some dyes like walnut hulls and lichens do not require mordants.
I chose the cochineal dye, not for the smell, but for the story and for the rich, red colour. Historically cochineal was a valuable commodity, only beat out in trading popularity in Europe by silver and gold. These dead insects, hence the smell, are ground with the mortar and pestle into a fine powder that is mixed with the alum for a beautiful colourfast dye.
As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers. Knitting, crochet and embroidery projects were clearly enjoyable but also had a specific utilitarian purpose. Creating clothing, decorating pillow cases and saving money were a driving force. I learned to appreciate these endeavors and continued to pursue them and teach them to students as hobbies. Dana’s session provided us the opportunity to consider the cross curricular connections implicit in the craft. Her dyes included crushed marigolds, dandelions, leaves and the cochineal insect. Dana also provided information on respectful harvesting, although I have grand aspirations of our students stripping the ground of all traces of dandelions in spring to deal with this pernicious weed on our school grounds and use them for something purposeful!
The new curriculum in British Columbia gives educators the opportunity to consider the things that we do in schools through a new lense. Dyeing wool no longer belongs solely in the realm of arts and crafts. It becomes part of science, the stories of history and Indigenous practices, as well as outdoor education. It also provides a high level of engagement that was able to keep educators at school after a week of parent-teacher conferences and preparing for professional development sessions the following day. It continues to hold our attention as we shake our jars daily to distribute the colour and imagine the final outcome. Special thanks to Dana for opening our eyes. My Nanny Keenan would be thrilled . She had fond memories of this long-haired sheep on the farm in Brandon, Manitoba. I can only imagine what she could have done with these dyes!