In pioneer days the knitting of socks, mitts, toques, sweaters, and children’s stockings was almost a necessity. Not that commercial articles were not available via Eaton’s & Simpson’s catalogues and stores or trading posts, but they cost more than the home produced article. When “cash money” was sorely needed for other things, buying was a last resort. Besides this, the home-knit article was generally of better quality, and, its yarn could be unraveled when holes could not longer be darned and recycled by re-knitting. The “use and discard” ethic grew upon late in pioneer history.
The thrifty pioneers of various ethnic stocks were expert knitters. Some could card and spin – not always requiring a spinning wheel. A sewing machine could be adapted, but there was a little wooden thing shaped like a dangling pineapple that served very well in expert hands. I heard of one woman who used a hand-turned meat grinder, but I never found out how she did it. These people raised a few sheep — in spite of predators — and used the resulting yarn for themselves or to barter with other cash-lacking pioneers. For example, our famous local craftswoman Esme Tuck tells of buying five pounds of raw wool at five cents a pound, cleaning and washing it (which always reduced it about half) and making a heavy sweater for her husband for the total sum of twenty-five cents. She could have spent ten or twenty cents for commercial Diamond Dye but having the soul of an artist she made her own dyes from native vegetable materials which cost nothing but infinite patience and some careful work.
The Women’s Institutes were the Arts and Crafts centres of pioneer days. Mrs. Tuck’s beautifully coloured yarns, especially the glowing yet muted colours of the window drapes, excited the interest of women whose creative urges had to be satisfied with little cash outlay. For a time the art of vegetable dyeing was a project of many of the Women’s Institute exhibitions.
The introduction to a book on the art published in England, where the processes have been pursued since medieval times, gives the philosophy of the true craftsman. I quote from The Use of Vegetable Dyes by Violetta Thurston [Dryad Press, Leichester.]
“Is this vegetable dyeing that we are hearing so much about — less trouble than chemical dyeing? No, it is more trouble.”
“Is it then quicker? No, it takes much longer.”
“Is it a faster dye (non-fading). No a really fast chemical dye cannot be surpassed by any vegetable dye”.
“Is it cheaper? No, the cheap chemical dyes cost only a few pence.”
“Why then should anyone trouble to learn how to use vegetable dyes? ” Because of the beauty of its results. Those who use them claim that no chemical dye has the luster, that soft underglow of rich colours, that delicious aromatic smell, that soft light and shadow that give so much pleasure to the eye. These colours are alive as all beauty is alive. . . ”
Another way of expressing it is to say that vegetable dyes are as different from chemical dyes as acrylic paint is from oil colours, or synthetic materials are from pure silk.
It may be relevant to our history to remind ourselves that the bright colours of the voyageurs’ assumption sashes were almost all produced by vegetable dyes. The same is true for the ancient and precious Persian rugs that retain their glowing and intense hues for a couple of hundred years or more. The Indians used vegetable dyes for their porcupine quills, which are after all a form of hair.
Part 2: The Mordanting Procedure
Nearly all dyes “take” better after a process known as mordanting which also helps set the colour and makes it more fade-proof. And sometimes the process enriches the colour as well. Pioneer women had the common mordanting agents on their shelves; acetic acid (vinegar), ammonia, tartaric acid (the cream of tartar used in baking to make baking powder) and alum, used in pickling to keep the vegetables crisp. Other useful items on the farm were copper sulfate (used in treating grains before the mercury compounds became available) and lime. It seems certain that the Indians knew something of the chemical process of setting the dye which we call mordanting, probably using urine as the agent, or the salts that leach out of some soils in salt licks or alkali sloughs!
With different mordants and the same plant material, different shades or hues can be produced or even entirely different colours. The mordanting is, after all, a chemical reaction between materials.
Part 3: Dyeing
Woolen material or yarn must be thoroughly washed to free it from natural oils or grease. Skeins of yarn should be tied loosely but securely with cotton cord in several places. Use mild white soap (not detergent) at a rate of about 2 tablespoons to each gallon of warm water. If new wool is very greasy, repeated washing and rinsing are necessary.
If the wool is dried after washing, wet it thoroughly before mordanting by immersing and squeezing to remove excess water. Never twist wool cloth when removing liquid from it. Wrinkles will be all but impossible to remove.
When either mordanting or dyeing as water evaporates, remove wool and add necessary quantity of water to keep original proportions, return the wool to the bath to finish the process.
Directions are slightly different for each kind of mordant, but with all of them it is important not to change the temperature suddenly and to keep the yarn or cloth submerged during the whole process.
Once mordanting is finished as a separate process, the bath should be cooled until the wool can be handled. Then the excess water is squeezed or pressed out by hand. While still damp, the mordanted yarn can be placed loosely in a towel or bag for slow drying in a cool place. This may take four or five days. It is then ready for the dye pot.
Some mordants are added during the process, some after the dye has boiled a while. Anyone really interested in dyeing as an experiment can purchase a book of directions, or try an endless number of changes in the procedure to get individual results.
With the current return to handicrafts, hand-dyed batiks or other woven goods can command fantastic prices. The fame of the old hooked rugs of French Canada depended on the use of home-dyed wool, which characterize some of the priceless museum pieces.
Part 4: Native plants for dyeing
The number of plants whose roots, leaves, flowers or bark which can be used for dyeing in the Peace River country, are endless. Some, though, produce nothing but neutral grayish, brownish or other less attractive shades. The pioneer who did not like to keep white woolen socks presentable looking did not care too much about the colour.
Crush, break or chop the plant material, whether dried or fresh. Two quarts of fresh flowers, leaves, or roots will generally dye a pound of yarn. One quart of bark will do the same. Let stand in rainwater or softened water over night. Boil one-half to two hours. Strain into an enameled dye kettle and add soft water to make four to four and a half gallons. Barks and roots require longer boiling, but the bath can generally be used again. Most gives stronger colour in the autumn.
Local Plants useable for dyeing:
Northern Bedstraw: Also called wild baby’s breath and wild candytuft. The roots give a strong yellow. [mordant — alum] Best collected in early spring or in fall rather than when flowering.
Yellowish tan or old gold. [mordant — alum]
Dock: Coarse tall roadside weed in wet areas. The roots make a dark yellow. [mordant — alum]
Marigold: garden annual flowers produce yellow buff, or old gold [mordant — alum]
Nettles: wear gloves when gathering whole plant except roots, greenish yellow [mordant — alum]
Bracken: the tall coarse fern of the woods, young shoots, yellow green or gray green [mordant — alum]
Lichen: The “reindeer moss,” like greenish leather on tree trunks, hard when weather is day, leathery after a rain produces tan [mordant — alum] If gathered in August gives strongest colours, no mordant needed.
Poplar leaves: various shades, [mordant — alum]
Onions: only the brown papery skins, produce brunt orange [mordant — alum]
Alder: (swamp birch) is said to produce black.
Birch bark: red
Larch or tamarack: needles picked in autumn give brown.
Dandelion: the whole plant, said to produce magenta or purplish pink
Bearberry or kinnikinick: the whole plant except root, gathered June to August, gives a strong yellow colour. Much used in Norway.
Horsetail: roadside and wet soil plants that come up like snake’s heads with jointed stems, soft yellow.
**There is a special way of using this. Gather a generous basketful in spring. Put into a granite pot filled with rainwater. Use about one tenth as much alum-mordanted wool as horsetail by weight in layers with the plant material. Simmer for one-half hour, rinse well and dry in shade. Any of the dyed wool not used as yellow yarn should be kept to top- dye with plants of other colours later in the season. The colour seems to brighten and improve other dye plants. **
Strawberry blite or Indian Dye Plant: has nothing to do with strawberries, a roadside weed of the pigweed or lamb’s quarters family, with spikes of red fruits that look like raspberries with black seeds. No information to hand on the colour produced as a dye but the strong red juice was reputed to be used for staining leather
White Birch, inner bark: boiled in an old copper boiler makes a light brown dye which becomes green when a little copper sulfate (bluestone) is added. One of the few greens.
Juniper bark: bark berries and twigs, give khaki (if you like khaki.) Add a little of all the mordants you have for mordanting the wool; boil the wool for 1-2 hours, and let stand in bath until cold. Then boil for a long time. Add a little copper sulfate and vinegar and boil 15 – 20 minutes longer. (Is it worth it?)
Almost any strong-coloured plant, root, fruit, or leaf is worth trying. Personally, I should like to try the deep-red bark of the red-osier dogwood with the white doll’s eye berries. It should make a good maroon. Iron rust dyes a beautiful deep red. The sails of fishing boats in the Mediterranean have been dyed with it for generations.
I can think of no more rewarding hobby for an art class or a naturalist’s club than a group experiment with native dyes. — Cheap, useful, satisfying.
A word of warning – better stay with proven plants unless one is in love with off-beat dull shades.
Postscript by: Mrs. G. E. Bellevean — add these to the list above; all use alum as mordant
Tansy: a large green herb in pioneer gardens, gives a good green.
Beet Juice: put through a food chopper; a pleasing tan.
Chokecherries whole: a purple dye.
Part 5: More About the Pioneer Dyeing Process
Until the end of World War II home dyeing was an important pioneer process. In those days the philosophy of “make do and make over” was almost universal. Even well to do people on the frontier practiced the art.
Probably the most common material for the dye-pot was flour-sacking, or any of the other cloth bags and sacks in which flour, rolled oats, sugar, salt, stock feed, and other commodities were packed for sale before the days of plastic.
The bag was always printed in large red, blue or yellow lettering. One company in particular, using green and brown which rendered the picture of Robin Hood with his drawn bow, was a special nuisance to the economy-minded housewife. “Robin Hood” was as persistent, seemingly, as the story of his ancient namesake.
The bags ranged in size from the yard-square of the hundred-pound flour-sack to the handkerchief size of small cereal and salt bags. Woe to anyone who got out of patience with the two-thread chain-stitch with which the bags were sewn shut, and who cut the top off the bag instead of fiddling to get the closure-opening started properly! When done right, pulling on the two ends would separate the two twines in one continuous motion. Then the twine would be carefully wound onto a ball, if the housewife were at all thrifty. There were numberless uses for it.
Now began the hard work of getting out the lettering. Every housewife had some surefire way of doing it. Only in some unaccountable way, once in a while something would happen that “set” the colour and left a more or less faint residue of colour, no matter what you did thereafter. I remember one garment that caused me acute anguish because “Robin Hood” stoutly refused to leave, and so appeared on the outside of the left leg of a pair of “bloomers”. Supposedly he would fade out in subsequent washings, but he never did. I always had to hold up my hand to leave class between recess periods when it was less probable that some other little girl would open the lockless door and discover the disgrace I wore beneath my two (flour sack) petticoats! Those were day of “modesty”.
The methods of loosening the painted lettering, as before said were numerous. Some housewives swore by an overnight soaking in cold water after a vigorous application of Sunlight, Fels Naptha, Royal Crown or homemade soap bar, and tight rolling up. Others put in a dollop of coal oil. Others put in salt which still others said would “set” the colour. Others added a solution of lye. There may have been other tricks, but I didn’t know about them.
In the morning, a rinse and vigorous scrubbing on the washboard flushed away the loosened paint but some portion would usually resist, requiring determined hand rubbing until blisters appeared. If the sack had got wet and dried again this was pretty sure to happen. I remember how fervently I wished “Robin Hood” had drowned while he was about it, when the verdict was pronounced on the probable reason for his embarrassing ghost!
After the worst of the colour was gone, the usual washing process took out all of the rest as a rule, except “Red Rose” or “Ogilvie’s Royal Household” which featured a broad stripe of red that frequently left the whole piece of cloth a more or less pale pink. I wouldn’t have objected to pale-pink-all-over panties except that the family’s reputation for snowy white washings on the line was at stake. Pride demanded a processing in the washboiler to finish the job.
Chemical bleaching to render the “natural” off white colour a snowy hue was frowned upon — it would “rot the goods.” So, in winter, the squares would be repeatedly wet and hung out to freeze, or spread on the grass, dew being greatly praised as a whitener. A good housewife ended with cotton squares of a snowy whiteness that was better than commercially – bleached material. [Note: it was more likely the action of sunlight which bleached these items rather than either the frost or the dew]
Probably most flour bags wound up as tea towels. Stains on these were reduced by salt, vinegar, soap and vigor. Next in importance were pillowcases. Hours and hours and hours of labor were lavished on these and on teacloths, tablecloths and aprons. They were decorated in carefully executed hand embroidery with “six strand cotton” and often had crocheted or tatted lace borders. The pioneer housewife needed some outlet for her craving for beauty!
Sugar sacks made excellent baby diapers — and all other kinds of baby-dresses, petticoats or pantywaists. They were no match, though, for the pure wool vests worn next to the skin to ward off pneumonia.
With the addition of rickrack braid at the joins, six flour sacks made a bedspread, window curtains or big tablecloths. Little girls’ Sunday blouses with “kimono” sleeves and little boys’ white shirts came out of a sugar sack, but fathers’ shirts took nearly three flour sacks each.
Enter the dye-pot, and the uses expanded add infinitum. Men’s work shirts, boys’ shirts, little girls’ dresses, and even mothers’ outfits betrayed their humble origins to the initiated. As far back as 1905, when Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces, commercial dyes were available. None were really colour fast but “Diamond Dye” appeared in nearly every household.
What a process it was to use it! Seemingly endless, for the boiling solution must be agitated for an hour to keep the goods moving to avoid streaking the colours. Nobody thought of “batiking” for uneven effect in those days! Generally the little girl of the household would be elected on Saturday morning to stand on a stool and stir, and stir and stir and stoke the fire with wood (or coal) just sufficiently to keep the solution simmering, but not boiling hard! Then the endless rinsing, and drying in the shade, both at time of dyeing and afterwards during the wearing!
As late as the early forties the local agriculture fairs’ handicraft section offered a prize for the best women’s dress made from flour sacking, also the best apron, and tea-cloth.
Came the day when certain companies began to put out their product in pretty gingham plaid cloth bags, and the home-sewers pattern companies like McCall’s, Butterick, and Simplicity began featuring patterns which “can be cut out of one yard of cloth.”
It wasn’t that inexpensive, cotton goods were not available except during the wars. It was simply that most housewives did their own baking, and purchased less processed cereal, etc. Old frugal ways died hard. It was an outrage against economy to burn or throw away those good pieces of strong, free cloth! In my years of teaching in the country, or living in a pioneer village, I don’t recall seeing a single scrub-rag or dust-rag that hadn’t been properly de-lettered before using for rough work.
The other use for home-dyeing technique grew out of the common practice of handing-down clothing, or making over. Many an outgrown garment was carefully ripped, re-cut and re-sewn. Often the old cloth was turned inside out to renew the colour more. Often a rebellious younger child would consent to wear big sisters’ made-over dress or coat only if a change of colour disguised its previous origin. Providing that her taste didn’t run to pale or pastel colours, any new, rich hue that her little heart desired could be achieved in mother’s dye-pot.
Many a little girl learned to sew doll’s clothes on the cheap material. It wore forever but it had one outstanding fault. Flour sacking was limp and easily wrinkled. In order to keep a press it had to be starched. In a day when ruffles were the thing on small girl’s undies, those paper-like garments were memorably uncomfortable.