In all of the natural dyeing I’ve been doing (or hoping to do!) in the last little while, I read a little about using wood ash as a dye modifier. In Rebecca Burgess’ Harvesting Colour: How to find plants and make natural dyes, she notes that wood ash can be used interchangeably with soda ash to create an alkali after bath. In reading about fermentation dyeing, wood ash lye also came up, and further it came up in my experiment with my first woad harvest.
Since I’m trying to do my dyeing experiments with as little out-of-pocket expenses as possible, the idea of using wood ash instead of buying soda ash sounded like a great idea… so I put out a call on my Facebook profile asking if anyone had wood ash from their stove for me… (I don’t have a wood burning stove) and got a reply!
The challenge – I don’t know if the ash is from hard wood or soft wood trees, my friend just burns whatever he can get his hands on, but since this is a natural product that is already out there, I’m not complaining!
Rebecca instructs making sort of a ‘tea bag’ out of fine cheesecloth or woven fabric and hanging the bag over a bucket or vessel. From there she suggests covering the bag with water, and squeezing it for 4-5 minutes, letting it soak for a few more days, squeezing the bag twice a day.
This wood-ash ‘tea’ is poured into the afterbath vessel, and gently heated until hot to the touch. Fibers can be introduced shortly after being pulled from their dyebath, and placed in the alkali after bath for approx. 10 minutes.
I actually read Rebecca’s book after already starting based on another set of instructions. Textile artist Natalie Stopka gives instructions to fill a container 1/3 full with cold wood ashes, and top with cold water. She instructs to leave it for about a week until the ashes settle, and the liquid feels slimy (as it’s now alkaline). The decanted liquid can be kept indefinitely, as a dye modifier and to control pH in other dye pots. She also references a 1705 dyer’s treatise talking about the proper way of making lye from wood ash, and how they can be used.
My wood ash lye
I filled up a small mason jar 1/3 full with wood ash from my friend’s stove.
Then I filled the jar up to approx 2/3 full with filtered water, closed up the jar, and shook it to mix everything up.
Then… I just let it sit for 7( +) days, shaking it once or twice a day. Once it had sat, I carefully poured off the liquid at the top of the jar into another jar. Then I re-added more filtered water to the jar and started again.
When I measured my solution using pH test strips, I estimated it at about pH 12.
Wood ash water for alkaline extraction
In A Heritage of Colour Jenny Dean writes about using wood ash water for alkaline extraction of tannin based dyes. (see Natural Dyeing – alkaline extraction/ tannin fermentation… when I get it posted.)
Wood ash water for dye modification
In A Heritage of Colour Jenny Dean writes about a number of different dye modifiers including iron, copper, (shifting colour as well as potentially improving colourfastness). She also discusses alkaline modifiers made from wood ash water or washing soda, and describes this as one of the most useful of the colour modifiers. Her reason for this statement is the impact an alkaline modifier has on dye colours that are applied without a pre-mordant (specifically alum). She reports that this modifier will result in a brighter and clearer colour when used after dyeing. One example is weld, when used without a mordant but with an alkaline modifier will give colours almost as bright as when an alum mordant is used.
Jenny reminds her reader not to heat alkaline modifier solutions once the fibre is introduced, as hot alkaline solutions can disintegrate protein fibres particularly.
In contrast, acidic modifiers she claims are not as useful, with clear vinegar, citric acid, lemon or lime juice, not tending to produce significant colour changes with most dyes. There are a few exceptions; acidic modifiers will shift madder from red to orange, and will make mustard shades more yellow.
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