This information is reprinted from the Beginner Topics column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #64 (October, 2003).

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Color and Dyes

In the conclusion of our story it is not the villain who dies, it is the fiber that dyes. Don’t moan! Prepare to have seasonal fun collecting a wide palette of natural dyestuffs, many available most abundantly in the fall.

Just as they do in all fall classrooms, we must begin by reviewing what we previously studied. There are two basic ways that paper receives color: pigments and dyes. If we think of the paper fiber as a straw, pigments sit next to that straw; dyes are sucked up and become a chemical part of the fiber. This renders the dyed fiber more vulnerable to various forms of deterioration. Be aware that most dyed papers are very light sensitive. Also, many of the agents that “fix” or hold the dye in the fiber are detrimental to the paper. Dye recipes often use metals and alum as the “fixer” or mordant. These materials decrease the longevity of the paper. But in spite of these cautions and concerns, there are good reasons to choose dyes as coloring agents for paper pulp. One of the main ones is the wide and subtle variety of color produced with these methods.

Where do we begin? Dyes are generally grouped into categories: direct (like RIT and colorants you can use in your washing machine), fiber reactive (like Procion and art supply products), and natural (like walnut hulls and other “collectables”). For the purpose of this brief article, we will look at using the later category: natural.

As with all of life it is best to take a lighthearted, experimental approach with natural dyestuffs. Collect all manner of materials. Some I love are marigold and zinnia flower petals, walnut hulls, sumac pods, and parsley. You will need to gather these things in bulk as most recipes call for a pound of the material. This is not too difficult with walnut hulls but marigold petals may require a neighborhood effort. Once the materials are gathered you need to have a large, enamel cooking pot. This is very important as many dyes and mordants react adversely to metal cookware. Inexpensive pots are readily available at this time of year for making jam.

Here’s the recipe. Soak one pound of dyestuff (i.e., marigold petals, walnut hulls, etc.) in three quarts of water in the cook pot. Allow about an hour to thoroughly wet the material. Mix in one-half cup of alum (from the hardware store) and bring the pot to a boil. Mix with a wooden spoon or stick as it begins to boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer for an hour or until you have achieved a desirable deep color. Let the pot cool and then strain off the liquid using a mesh bag or colander. A word of caution: utensils used in dyeing should be kept clear of food preparation if you are working in your kitchen.

You now have a liquid dye that may be used in several ways. When adding it to western or recycled pulp, you need only to mix it in thoroughly and let it stand until the desired color is achieved. When adding it to natural and Asian plant fibers, make sure the fibers have been well rinsed, then add the fibers to the dye and cook them together for at least another hour. I often let the mix stand overnight after this “cook” to insure a deep color. With these two methods, the dye that is ultimately pored off the fiber may be reused. The third method is to simply dip finished, unsized sheets of paper into the dye and/or brush the dye onto the sheets. An added bonus in all this processing is that often the cooked material that created the dye makes an interesting addition to the pulp.

If you do not want to use alum, there are all manner of mordants that may be tried. You may use white vinegar, cream of tartar, baking soda and other carbonates like washing soda. Experimentation is the name of this game. For additional information, consult fabric dye shops, Elaine Koretsky’s Color for the Hand Papermaker, and Helen Hiebert’s Papermaker’s Companion. The later has an excellent description of how to make an indigo dye pot and keep it going.

Now it is time to stop writing (in my case) and reading (in yours) and lets get outside to collect our color. Enjoy!

Copyright 2003 Hand Papermaking, Inc.