The EEC had its butter mountain in the 1970s and I currently have, if not quite a mountain, then at least a very sizeable hill of home-made soap! I thought it might be wise to find an alternative creative outlet for a while.

Since I colour my soaps with various botanicals rather than artificial colorants, then turning to natural dyeing of fabrics seemed a small and logical step to take.

My first go at such dyeing was with alder cones. We have many water-loving alder trees growing around our lakes, and last year’s woody cones are still hanging on them. (The alder is the only deciduous tree to produce cones.) I quickly collected a bucketful and soaked them. Then I filled the crockpot with them and cooked them for a while.

Then I added some offcuts of various white cotton fabrics that I had in my stash.

Alder cones are high in tannins so don’t require the use of a mordant when dyeing with them. (A mordant is a substance, typically an inorganic oxide, (actually a metal complex :Chris) that combines with dye and fixes it to fabric.) I left my bits of cotton in the warm crockpot overnight, and next day they had taken on a warm beige tint. I removed them, and then, because I wanted a different colour now, added some home-made ferrous sulphate to the brown liquid. This is just a vinegar/water solution that’s had rusty metal soaking in it for a day or two. As well as being a mordant, ferrous sulfate is also a modifier and it dramatically modified my alder cone dye from brown to grey.

Delighted with my first endeavours, I turned to another bountiful botanical: broom flowers. The broom in question is Scotch broom, which is something of a nuisance plant. It has beautiful yellow flowers, though. I picked a load of these, then left them spread out on paper so that all the resident bugs could scuttle away to safety, then boiled up the flowers in my dyeing vat.

About my dyeing vat: I picked it up for a tenner at the second-hand store in Boussac. It’s a vintage SEB pressure-cooker. Who knows, it could even be the very first one off the production line back in 1953, when this brand of French autocuiseurs were the first pressure-cookers to appear for sale.

I strained the flowers from my vat and added my pre-mordanted fabric. (This time I was using potassium aluminium sulfate – alum – as a mordant.) The results were disappointing. I wasn’t expecting a bright yellow, since only dyer’s broom will do that, but Scotch broom is reputed to produce a pleasant pale yellow. I barely got that, but I did get some lots of grey streaks. Hmm. A bit more research revealed that my autocuiseur was made of aluminium, and my mordant had caused some corrosion inside it. This had resulted in those grey streaks forming where the fabric had been in contact with the sides of vat.

Back to my crockpot and I had better luck with rose clay, a small packet of which I bought to use in my soaps before discovering that it will just go brown in the presence of high pH lye. Again, though, the results didn’t quite live up to expectations.

So far I’ve been dyeing cellulose fibres (i.e. those that come from plants). Next I’ll have a go with protein fibres, which come from animals – sheep’s wool and silk being examples. These need a slightly different mordant from cellulose fibres: I shall need to add some cream of tartar to the alum. This is proving hard to find in France in a small quantity, but I’m sure I’ll track some down in a supermarket soon.

My new part-time hobby of natural dyeing promises to have the same, sometimes exciting, sometimes demoralising element of unpredictably that soap-making does!