The Johnson County Herb Society hosts a Natural Plant Dyes Workshop on June 4 in Cleburne. Photo courtesy of Lorelei Caracausa.
May 31, 2016
On a farm “out in the sticks” in Joshua, Tx., fiberartist Lorelei Caracausa has been spinning, weaving and making wearable art for more than three decades. Along the way, she’s become a teacher and advocate of the slow fabric movement. A familiar face at Texas craft fairs and historic encampments who showcases skills ranging from cheesemaking to historic beekeeping, the owner of Heritage Arts Texas and Bee Weaver Studio will conduct a Natural Plant Dyes Workshop for the Johnson County Herb Society at Cleburne’s Chisholm Trail Museum on June 4.
Her career is one of happenstance, the UC Davis graduate says, noting that it all started with an antique spinning wheel her father gave to her mother many years earlier. On a whim, she “stole” it from her parents’ home when her own daughter was just a toddler.
Fiber artist Lorelei Caracausa has been making wearable art for more than three decades. Photo courtesy of Facebook.
“Mom never used it, and I don’t knit or crochet, so I didn’t really know what to do with it either,” she explains. “But I appreciated the historical value of it, and it all just kind of blossomed from there.”
For twenty-plus years, Caracausa and a partner ran a Cleburne area shop called the Heritage Arts of Texas, selling thread and fiberarts materials and hosting spinning, weaving and dyeing classes. Now, she keeps her own studio at home on her Johnson County farm and takes her show on the road for select events.
Dyeing fabrics is a particularly fun aspect of Caracausa’s artistic endeavors, and she says she enjoys sharing the techniques of old with craft fair audiences and groups like the Johnson County Herb Society. Like many a “veteran spinner,” she says she’s constantly “evaluating the countryside” on road trips, “wondering what colors various flowers will make” and using just about anything she runs across.
While many plants produce successful dyes, Caracausa says she’s learned that many are not particularly “pleasing” — producing dull grays, muted yellows and tans. North Texas’ spring wildflowers, however, make great dye plants.
“Pesky” dandelions, for instance, render bright yellows and oranges, depending on the pH of the water used to make the dye bath. Caracausa notes that even the soil plants are grown in impact the resulting fabric colors, and, with plants like dandelions, consistency is impossible to achieve.
Photo courtesy of HomeSpunLife.wordpress.com.
“There is no repeating a color precisely,” she says. “Every year, it’s going to be different. That’s part of the fun of it.”
Gladiolas offer another good example of the unpredictability of plant dyeing hues.
“You will get a dye bath that looks like the color of the gladiola, but you can’t get that color to go into the fabric,” she explains. “A red dye bath, for instance, might produce a green fabric because the fabric will only absorb the colors it is capable of absorbing. So, it can get confusing.”
When it comes to gathering plants for dyes, Caracausa says fresh flowers and foliage produce the best results, although she often has to pre-pick and freeze or dry materials in order to have enough when she’s conducting instructional workshops.
The fiberarts expert says normal garden flowers can make beautiful dyes, but she suggests that DIYers check in with their local Texas A & M AgriLife Extension Service offices to avoid choosing plants that might prove noxious. That being said, some easy choices — and plants she recommends using — include madder, cleavers (a Texas native also called goosegrass and stickyweed), Coreopsis (often found growing along roadsides) and Japanese Knotweed (which produces both indigo and Safflower colors).
Favorite fabrics for Caracausa’s dye projects are wool and silk because they take color much better than cellulose fibers like cotton, linen, bamboo and hemp. For the dyeing process, she typically simmers the plant material in an enamel or stainless steal pot. After that, she adds the fibers that have been pretreated with a mordant substance — usually a water-soluble chemical like a metallic salt — which helps the natural dyes bind more completely.
Some dyes are naturally more colorfast than other, Caracausa adds, while others are “more fugitive,” but she says the mordanting process helps “fix” color to the threads. Natural dyes can be as permanent as "modern" chemical dyes, and Caracausa adds a history lesson that the first coal tar dye — Mauvine — appeared in the late 1850s when a French scientist accidentally produced it. Until then, chemical dyes did not exist — which means that any colorful, pre-1850s textiles you’ve viewed in historical museums, or elsewhere, were naturally dyed.
Photo courtesy of Johnson County Herb Society.
Caracausa offers the opinion that natural dye colors tend to blend well with others, so that no garish colors stick out. And, she never tires of “the surprise factor” of seeing which colors various plants produce.
“Watching how different colors can be obtained from the same plant by harvesting either different parts of the plant or extracting the color with different processes, is always a wonder,” she says.
However, Caracausa warns that natural dyeing is not a chemical-free process, and says she typically uses potassium aluminum sulfate as her mordant chemical because it is a relatively safe product. But some recipes still call for chrome, she says, which is a very toxic substance and not recommended for home use.
“It’s very difficult to be earth kind with the disposal of a chrome mordant bath,” she explains. “It is outrageously toxic, so the issue is what to do with it when you’re done.”
Natural Plant Dyes Workshop
Hosted by: Johnson County Herb Society
When: June 4, 10:30 a.m.
Where: The Chisholm Trail Museum, 101 Chisholm Trail Drive in Cleburne.
Cost: It’s a free outdoor event, and organizers suggest visitors bring their own chairs.
Additional classes: See Heritage Arts Texas Website for upcoming events and appearances.
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