Expecting To Fail With Mulberries

By Tonya Pettit – New York, USA

I decided to take part in this collaboration as something I could do as a homeschooling project with my kiddo.

We probably could have chosen a better or more promising dye recipe, but the mystery of creating a “fine excellent purple” from mulberries was such a curiosity that we had to try.  Mulberries can make a short-lived dye that quickly fades in the light due to the anthocyanin colorants.  Looking up anthocyanin as a dye was discouraging, so we chose not to research too much, and relied on what we had discovered already in science class. After all, making a pH scale with the anthocyanins of elderberries was an experiment we had played with since the early years of our homeschooling. We were tempted by the idea of rediscovering a method of making purple stick to the wool by ancient alchemy. The unique twist to our recipe of ‘mordanting’ the wool with unripe grapes caught our curiosity.

Our first conversations were filled with more questions about variables than a plan, and we quickly realized we would need to run multiple small tests to determine the direction of our final project. This was homeschool science lab after all, and seeing the results was our goal, lightfast or not. 

To make things repeatable and practical for the modern dye pot, we decided to use the wild fox grapes near our home, and to pick them the same week as the mulberries were ripe. We thought that should give us unripe enough grapes, and made sense for a historical dyer to be sourcing materials in a similar time-frame, without the need for long term storage. This presented a problem however. Our recipe called for mulberry juice. Should it be fresh pressed? Left to ferment slightly? Fully wine or vinegar? 

We decided to freeze our mulberries until we could settle on a plan,and focused on the ‘mordant’ process.

Our recipe instructed us to crush unripe bunches of grapes and add wool to this for three days, only heating it on the third day. It called it a mordant. This was a messy process. They were like hard marbles with very little juice, and popping them by hand stung a touch due to the acidity. It also sent them shooting across the room! We decided to crush them in a plastic baggie and were able to harvest 4 tablespoons of the precious liquid that way. 

We used two jars for our ‘mordant’ bath. In one we had undiluted juice from the grapes, in the other we placed the grapes and covered them with water calling it diluted.

We let them set at room temperature for the three days with wool roving and homespun yarn added, and then the fourth day we put them in the sun to heat. We observed that the heating was likely to keep the natural organisms from traveling on to the next stage of the recipe after we found a layer of something organic growing on the surface of the jar that still had grapes in it.

There was a slight difference between the two mordant jars after the wool was removed and washed, but the there was a big difference between them and the wool that had not been in the mordant. 

Now, if we can settle on how to go about using the mulberry juice, we might be even closer to answering the question… will our dye fail? And was it meant to mislead the customer in historical times, promising purples that were known to come from the Murex snails? 

Wool dyed with Murex
by Mohammed Ghassan Nouria

We were fortunate to meet a gentleman, Mohammed Ghassan Nouria, who has been recreating the purple of the Murex snails. He sent us some fiber from Tunisia, and it will help us see if our purple is close enough to the real thing to be deceptive, or if the wool is its own unique shade. This is turning into quite the opportunity for my student to learn geography and history alongside science.

After much thought and discussion we decided to pretest our mulberries and see if any of our combinations kept enough color to be worth our while exploring further. We had two of our variables that looked promising, and discovered all of our variables started to ferment after two days, even if they had been heated or left in the sun. This led us to think that fresh juice was unlikely, unless the mulberries were pressed on site at the dye house.  The recipe said to boil the juice twice before adding the wool, and we settled on the crock pot and the sun for heat sources. In the dye house in ancient times they might have been heating with wood, we imagined, and the twice boil could mean to feed the fire twice, so we chose to heat and cool for two days. The only thing we could see that accomplishing was a settling of sediment in the juice by the second day.

Our minds were swimming at this point, and we had to focus. What had started as a simple thought was quickly becoming complicated for an expected failure. We put untreated homespun in all of our mulberry juice jars ( six at this point) and only put unripe grape ‘mordant’ fiber in the two promising jars. These were heated in the sun and crock pot, and allowed to cool overnight once again.

Wet wool removed from the dye baths and awaiting washing

While our wool looked promising coming out of the dye pot we knew that it isn’t expected to last, so we will watch as it dries and see which of our six jars holds the most promise before completing our final project. 

Expecting to fail, was it really worth all this time and energy? We still think yes, and figure we will learn something along the way, and maybe even rediscover something amazing.

Sheep Urine Shenanigans

I like to keep life simple. With 4 home educated kids and a flock of sheep, it can get complicated enough some days. So when reading through the papyri methods, I decided I would choose less complicated sounding ones, and when I spotted one using sheep urine, I was sold.

My flock of sheep.

We have a flock of 46 sheep that we inherited with a couple of friends a few years ago. They are mostly large Cotswolds, Lleyn and crosses between these two breeds, 3 Lincolns and 3 little Shetlands.

They were bucket trained from lamb on, which basically means they recognise the bucket as a source of food and, as such, are easy to move from one field to the next, come when called, and especially the older ones all know their name. They love their cuddles, are keen to rummage through your pockets in the hopes of finding a treat or two, and if they could they would climb on your lap and rub against you much like the average family cat or dog would do.

Having a cuddle!

In a commercial flock of sheep there is very little human contact and sheep will generally walk away from people. Not so with our lot! You rarely need to introduce new things carefully as they have seen it all.

So if you had told me six months ago that I would curse the fact that we have our sheep bucket trained I would not have believed you! But here we are…

I foolishly thought that collecting their urine would be easy peasy. I had an almost romantic notion of getting one or two separated, and I would just wait for them to start urinating and catch it in a bucket of sorts. It would be effortless, because our sheep are so tame. Wrong!

Any bucket for them is a sign for food. It apparently doesn’t matter if this bucket is clear, blue, or red, or if it isn’t actually a bucket at all but a bowl, or a scoop, or even a cut down milk bottle. Both the sheep that is currently urinating and any other sheep even remotely close will dive for that bucket because FOOD! And much like Labradors, sheep are apparently never fed.

You want WHAT from me?!

This has resulted in getting no more than about a shot glass full of urine at a time making things far more complicated than I had ever imagined!

On the flip side, it has resulted in much hilarity for my partner when I go out with my “pee pot” to do my daily collection. I don’t think I have ever been so covered in muck, knocked over or peed on as much as since I started my collections.

Next time I will choose a project that only involves our sheeps’ wool and no other involvement from them!

Vera Hoenen – Wiltshire, England

The Little Spiral

And Away We Go!

The beauty of being involved in a collaborative project such as the Stockholm & Leyden Papyri dye replication project is that each participant comes about the work that needs to be done in a unique way. I have adopted a “let’s see what happens if …..” approach. For me, the worst part of the whole process is beginning.



My plan all along has been to focus on recipes #115 – Dyeing of Various Colors (Phoenician dye and a “cherry-red” variation) and recipe #118: Gold Color by Cold Dyeing. The ingredients are plants I had hear of and the recipes seem rather straight forward. The instructions are rather vague, but I was convinced I would be able experiment with each recipe, refine the recipe, then produce something close to what was described in the recipe.

It seemed like a good idea to start with recipe #118. It was the most straight forward and I had the ingredients, although they were dried ingredients, not fresh. “Take safflower blossom and oxeye, crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to air, and use it”.

Dried safflower blossom and dried oxeye

Each dyer needs to complete and submit a final project using the dyes recipes we have chosen. I have yet to decide exactly what I will make, but I do know that it will be nunofelted. As a nunofelter, my favorite fibers to work with are natural cotton cheesecloth as a base and silk or wool roving. Dharma Trading Company provides an excellent description of nunofelting (for those of you who have never heard of it): “In a nutshell: Nunofelting is the process of felting wool roving and/or wool yarns onto another fabric.”

Since this was an experiment, I decided to expand my repertoire and include some additional fabrics and fibers for each of the dye recipes. I chose fibers and fabrics that are more easily accessible to me (in my remote area of Minnesota, USA) and fibers and fabrics that I really wanted to use in nunofelting. Shetland wool fleece, cormo wool roving, natural cotton cheesecloth, Egyptian cotton top roving, natural raw silk fabric, and Tussah natural silk roving were chosen for the first round of this dye experimen. My goal was basic – I was interested in seeing how each of the fibers reacted and held the dye. All fibers were prepared by scouring, mordanting, (and a tannin bath for the cotton) using modern techniques.

Well….after about a week in the cold dye crock, I was excited to see which fibers looked like the “gold color” promised in recipe #118. As you can see below, the results for recipe produced some wonderful colors, all of which I will use at some point. The closest to “gold color” is the shetland wool fleece and the cormo wool roving. I was encouraged and excited by the results.


Encouraged by the outcome for recipe #118, I moved on to recipe #115 with a focus on both Phoenician dye and cherry-red. “To prepare Phoenician dye. Take and combine heliotrope with alkanet. Lay them in an earthern vessel and sprinkle them for 3 days with white vinegar. On the fourth day, boil them, with the addition of water, until these float at the top…if you wish cherry-red then add krimnos soured with a little soap. Put the wool in and boil it together with the substances until it appears to you to be good.” Below you see the earthern vessel, powdered alkanet, heliotrope (which I used dried), and the addition of krimnos (safflower) to the pot..

The results from recipe #115 were a bit more subtle and to me, not quite as exciting. Once again, the closest to the Phoenician dye color was the Shetland fleece and the cormo wool roving, although the silk fabric was quite close and any of the choices could be refined (I think) to look more purple. None of the options used for “cherry-red” really look cherry-red. The raw silk fabric did produce a really nice almost copper color, which I could use in a future project and the wool (both the Shetland fleece and cormo roving) held color well.


My aim was to try to use the limited instructions to see how close I could get to the colors the Egyptians had achieved and to see which fibers seemed to take up the dye best. I was more than happy with the color results with recipe 118 – gold color. While I was disappointed in the colors of recipes #115, I realize that with some refinement the Phoenician dye colors can be deepened to a stronger purple and the cherry-red color can be achieved. As I continue to research the ingredients listed in the recipes, I have discovered that with alkanet, “the root produces a red dye, alkannin, which has been used in the Mediterranean region since antiquity. Alkannin is soluble in alcohol, ether, and oils, but is insoluble in water, so the cut up roots should be soaked in alcohol to extract the most color…..In alkaline environments, alkanet dye has a blue color, with the color changing again to crimson on addition of an acid. The color is red at pH 6.1, purple at 8.8 and blue at pH 10.” (per the Dharma Trading Company website). https://www.dharmatrading.com/dyes/alkanet.html?lnav=dyes.html Other dye reference materials concur with this information. There is also some discussion about the length of time fibers need to sit in the dye bath in order to achieve the cherry-red. Some sites suggest 4 to 6 weeks, which is considerably longer than what I did.

In an earlier blog post I wondered if the ancient Egyptians had any idea about pH. Maybe they didn’t know or understand pH as we do today, but it seems clear that they had some sort of understanding about the impact of using various liquids for the development of dye.

So….what were my take-aways?

  • Focus on wool fleece and roving, silk fabric, and cotton cheesecloth. These fibers will provide a nice contrast, will hold the dye color fairly well, are easy for me to obtain, and are fibers I like to work with. The Egyptian cotton top roving was difficult to work with due to it’s shorter structure. I was not happy with any of the silk roving colors, but I may try again with a refined recipe as silk roving is something I enjoy working with.
  • Use water from the fresh water lake (instead of tap water) to more closely mimic what the Egyptians may have had to work with or to at least give it a more natural feel.
  • Check the pH of the liquids at each step of the process.
  • Due further investigation on the addition of soap to the #115 cherry-red dye. I suspect it will help to change the pH of the dye bath and help to shift the color.
  • Carefully measure the weight of fiber (WOF) and all dye materials. Aim for 100% WOF with the dye materials.
  • Measure the amount of water used in each of the recipes.
  • Document all the the time frames and steps in the process in order to make these recipes more replicable.

After this experience, one thing I realize I need to do is to go into my cooking recipes and recipe books and add some better descriptors to the handwritten comments like “cook until right”. Some day, someone may be attempting to re-create my recipe for Finnish Christmas tarts and be completely stumped by the scratched out notes in my recipe book. 👩‍🍳


Follow more of my experiments –

Sally’s Dye-versions

Tags: leydenpapyrusliving historynatural dye historynaturaldyeroman egyptstockholmpapyrus

Ash and clay makes clean?

Rubia tinctorum (Picture source: H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have long been fascinated by the permutations and combinations, twists and turns and variations that can be coaxed out of madder (Rubia sp.) and when the opportunity came up to explore madder as mentioned in the Stockholm papyrus, it was an easy choice. The papyrus was a familiar source to me. I am part of a historical reenactment group that has a very generous mandate (pre-1600, a glorious mishmash of eras and cultures, historical interests that cover a glorious breadth as well as depth), and as such, I had glanced through it a few times with passing interest as a record of dye methods from the far past. My usual research was much later, generally hanging out in the 16th century rather than the 3rd, but what’s 1300 years between friends?

The recipe that I’ve chosen to focus on is as follows:

107. Dyeing in Rose Color

Rose color is dyed in the following way. Smear the rolls of wool with ashes, untie them, and wash the wool in the liquid from potter’s clay. Rinse it out and mordant it as previously described. Rinse it out in salt water after mordanting and use rain water (which is so) warm that you cannot put your hand in it. Then take for each mina of wool a quarter of a mina of roasted and finely pulverized madder and a quarter of a choenix of bean meat. Mix these together by the addition of white oil, pour it into the kettle stir up. Put the wool in the kettle and again stir incessantly so that it becomes uniform. When it appears to you to have absorbed the dye liquor, however, brighten it by means of alum, rinse it out again in salt water, and dry it in the shade with protection from smoke. (Source: https://homepages.uc.edu/~jensenwb/books/Leyden%20&%20Stockholm%20Papyri.pdf )

There’s a lot going on in this recipe, and for the moment, we are going to look at just the first bit of instructions, right up to the first rinsing.

This recipe is pretty clear that it starts with raw wool, fresh from the sheep and that’s where my quest began as well. The debate over what kind of wool would be most suitable raged on for quite some time, and ultimately I settled on a locally grown Rideau Arcott fleece. While this is a Canadian bred sheep, and not even the tiniest bit Egyptian.. it’s a nicely middle of the road fleece. Not too coarse, not too fine, not too greasy, not too crimpy, just delightfully average. Perfect for experimenting with, coming right down the middle of all of the potential options. There’s also something to be said for embracing what’s local, even if my local doesn’t look much the same as what would have been local for our writer.

My little suburban home has no fireplace, but a friend’s woodfired pizza oven came to the rescue, and provided me with a bucket of ashes, and perhaps a little more charcoal that was ideal, but a quick sifting sorted that out. Thank goodness for friends who are very accepting of odd hobby requests!

I will admit that we did more of a dusting of ash over the wool than anything I might call a smear. The ash was full of charcoal, so it got scooped up into a metal mesh strainer, and sifted over the raw wool laid out on a table. Think dusting a cake, but without any desire to eat it before the guests arrived. There are a couple of potential points of failure here. I did not know what wood had been burnt in the pizza oven, and it was a very hard black grit rather than a softer grey ash. There is speculation that the goal of this step of the process is that the wood ash, when mixed with water, will form a very mild lye solution that will help scour the wool. This is only even faintly possible if the ash is from hardwoods, as softwood does not accumulate enough potassium to be an effective source. I am skeptical that a sprinkle, or even a smear, of ashes upon the wool is enough to produce lye in any appreciable sense, but that is yet another thing to test in the coming days.

The next question was what kind of potter’s clay should I be looking for. A kind friend of a friend offered me cast off dried clay bits from her studio, and I jumped at the chance to experiment with a perfect price point for said experiments, free! The clay she was offering was white clay, that I soaked thoroughly, stirring it periodically and then let the clay settle to the bottom of the bucket again. The water, still very cloudly and full small clay particles, was poured over the wool and left to soak. I decided to see if temperature played any part, and as it was quite an autumn day when I left the wool outside to soak for a few hours (about 15C), I also kept a pot of wool just under the boil (about 70C) to soak in its clay water.

Then then rinsing began. And continued and continued and continued. I can assure you that wet raw fleece has no interest in giving up flecks of gritty ash nor fine silt of clay. The rinsing was extensive, and then both fleece sections were left to dry. I had no illusions that I had gotten all of the clay out, but I was worried about felting it after that much rinsing and handling.

The wool that got the ash and clay treatment does feel cleaner than the raw wool, certainly less greasy, and some initial flicks with a comb saw clouds of clay dust poofing into the air. After combing, the locks were considerably less full of clay and ash bits and even looked clean and fresh and lovely. There is no appreciable difference between the wool that was soaked at 15C versus the wool that was soaked at 70C, and I would argue that whatever ambient temperature is would be fine.

Next step? Figure out the ever helpful line of ‘mordant as previously described’.  

Foraging & Finding Ingredients


This first stage of the Stockholm and Leyden Papyri Dye Project was a lot of fun to find and collect the ingredients for the methods that I plan on testing for this project. There were adventures and outings that I did not imagine that I would experience in order to acquire them. Here is an account of a few of my adventures.

Stockholm Recipe 113

Another (Recipe) Dyeing in purple with herbs. Take and put the wool in the juice of henbane and lupines. The juice should be brought to boiling in water, which thereby becomes sour. This is the preliminary mordant. Then take the fruit clusters of rhamus, put water in a kettle and boil. Put the wool in and it will become a good purple. Lift the wool out, rinse it with water from a forge, let it dry in the sun and it will be purple of the first quality.

Rhamnus cathartica / Common Buckthorn

Rhamnus (Common Buckthorn Berries)

The family (Rick, me, and the 2 doggos, Kaity and Lucy) went on a drive to Camrose, Alberta about 45min from home. It appeared it was almost too late in the season to get the Rhamnus berries. I was hoping that they were not all eaten or worse, fallen off the bushes. We went to the park that extends south, beyond Mirror Lake along the creek. Going from memory, we went to the area where I saw the berries a couple of years ago. But there was Zero, Zilch, Nada, None!

After an hour of searching elsewhere in the park and only finding about a ½ cup of berries, Dear Husband was done. But I couldn’t give up yet; I wanted to work on this method. I asked Rick to come and pick me up later while he went to visit his sister. 

I walked a few paths in another direction, that I had not checked earlier and, finally, I found a few bushes along a trail and got about 2 cups of berries. But this was not enough for a good amount of dyed fibre let alone just a few test swatches. So, I continued to search for an hour and a half more and came up empty. 

After scaring a rabbit in the bush and happening upon some dear that looked at me like I was crazy, I was just about to give up and call Rick to come and get me. I climbed a paved path toward the street so that I could give Rick a pin on the map indicating my location. And there! low-and-behold! I came across a huge tree/bush that was black with berries. What a relief, shock and joy! I could work on this method after all. Later we drove home in a beautiful sunset with a bucket of about 7 cups of berries after a lovely supper at the sister’s place,

I later sorted and semi dried the berries in the dehydrator over night and the froze them for later use.

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)

Hyoscyamus niger / Henbane

Because I knew that this plant is a prohibited noxious weed in my province, I was almost certain that I would not find this ingredient for my recipe. (The seeds will kill the chicken that eats them.) Just in case, I asked my sister-in-law if she had seen any since she lives out in the country north of Edmonton. She said she would keep an eye out for it. 

In early July, we went on a camping trip south of Edmonton in the Drumheller area and stayed in Rosedale along the Rosebud River. It was 32C to 37C those days and the river looked very inviting. I went for a swim and explored a small island. It was on this island that I saw the Henbane plants blooming – I couldn’t believe my eyes and I found five plants there.

Next was to make a plan to extract the plants from the island the following day. I decided to walk to the bridge and approach from upstream. I was equipped with a plastic bowl to pour water at the base of the plants to loosen them from the stony soil. I was unprepared for the rapid, shallow, rocky water at the bridge and by the time I got through those rapids, my bowl was broken to smithereens and no longer useful and thankfully, I did not get impaled on any submerged tree branches. We another bowl which Dear Husband tossed to me from the bank and I continued to the island. It was tough work adding water and loosening the plant. Not being sure as to what part of the plant I would be using in the recipe, I wanted it roots and all.

By the time I gathered the three largest plants, the bundle was three feet long and a foot and a half thick. With this I reentered the river but, where I needed to get out it was narrow and deep as it rounded a bend. I came upon a family with teens playing there and definitely noticed some giant question marks on their faces as I came floating toward them with my arms full of plants. Not a usual foraging method. Thankfully the teens had been carving and placing stones in the steep bank and had almost completed a set of stairs to the top. I proudly mounted those steps with my treasure. I decided to dry the plants and then rolled them in a sheet for transport in the storage area of the RV.

As we rolled out of town, I called Alberta Agriculture and reported the sighting of the (remaining) Henbane plants on the island in the Rosebud River. 

Lupin Seed

In the previous blog post by Jackie Bush, she found that the likely type of lupin needed was the white edible seeds. I. too, will be using this variety and comparing them to the locally available garden variety. 

I used to have many lupin plants in my front yard but sadly the aphids liked them too much and I decided to remove them. Now, a couple of years later, I need the seeds of this plant and I had to resort to asking for help on social media. I posted a request for the seed tops and got a few replies. I also decided to cruise my neighborhood to look for them. This was an interesting and, for me, a brave endeavor being an introvert and all. When driving around, I spotted the furry beans on stocks, so, I went and knocked on the doors and explained my purpose…Egyptian papyri… recreating dye recipes….. and they said, “Sure, help yourself!”  Later, between poking and scraping in my mouth, I even asked my dental hygienist! She said that she had just cut hers down and tossed them in the woods behind her acreage house and that, if her husband hadn’t yet bulldozed them into the compost heap, I could have them. The next day, I was given a huge bag of lupin tops. 

All of these I laid out on a large table on top of a sheet of fabric, over this I laid a large screen door and tucked the fabric in around the edges. This then was set to dry in the sun and as the seed pods burst open the screen prevented the seeds from flying all over my backyard. I’d say that about half of the seeds burst open and the other half I shelled by hand. This was relaxing and as usual I had some good thinking time.

Lupinus / Lupine seed pods

Stockholm Recipe 86

For purple boil asphodel and natron, put the wool in it 8 drachmas at a time, and rinse it out. Then take and bruise 1 mina of grape skins, mix these with vinegar and let stand 6 hours. Then boil the mixture and put the wool in.

Asphodel (Aphodelus ramosus, of the lily family)

Asphodelus ramosus, Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this method, Asphodel and Natron would be considered the mordant for the fibre (wool) in this case. The lily family is known to be a bio-accumulator of some metals.

Asphodel is common in the Mediterranean and I was able to source some seeds out of the UK. With six packets of approximately 15 seeds per packet, I would try to get them germinated. The advice was to “over winter” the seeds to maximum -5C. On the Alberta prairie this would not do, I would have to find a way to mimic a UK/Mediterranean winter. 

For the first attempt the seeds were planted into pots and put into the freezer for about an hour. When the surface of the dirt was hardened, I removed them and hoped for the best. Shortly thereafter, we went on a road trip to southern Alberta and I took the pots with me. Well, I confess that they dried out more than once during our heat wave in July 2021. Nothing emerged from the soil on this attempt.

Next, as it was becoming autumn, I tried to duplicate the natural freeze and thaw that I believed necessary for germination by leaving the seeds outside as the days and nights went above and below 0C in a range of 12C to -5C. Again, I potted a packet of seeds and, this time, I also layered another packet of seeds between moistened paper towels inside a sealed plastic bag. After approximately 2 weeks of this freeze/thaw cycle, I brought them inside into lots of light by the window. 

I now have a single green shoot in one pot that may or may not be Asphodel. Although it may look like a blade of grass, it is completely round. Maybe chives? And, 2 of the seeds in the moist paper towel are larger than the rest. I just may have asphodel after all. If, in the end, this ingredient of the method is a wash, I will be using a local garden variety of lily. I must go out and dig up the bit I have before it is frozen in.

Natron – A natural, salt/carbonate deposit

Alberta natron

The Province of Alberta, Canada has an arid south east where there are salty white areas that form as the water dries up over the summer. On the same road trip that I found the Henbane, we stopped so that I could collect some of the white deposit. I gathered the crust in a tub and stored it in the RV. When we arrived home, even before unpacking the motorhome, I added rain water to dissolve the natron and poured it over to jars to allow the dirt to settle out. 

After a few weeks, the liquid was filtered to remove as much of the insoluble particles as possible. The resulting solution was put into a shallow tray to evaporate. Over the course of a few more weeks, as it dried, it began to form the cleaned and isolated white product again. 

Since my natron has a peachy tint to it and the liquid was orange, there is likely some iron in it as well. It is unknown if this would have been in the Egyptian natron but a comparison with a homemade recipe of natron will be interesting.

Grape Skins – Coronation purple grapes

Store bought Coronation grapes

My decision to use Coronation grapes in this method is that they were in season and available. Additionally, they are THE purple grape for grape jelly making, so, I figured that they would be suitable. In September, they were in stock at the Italian Center Shop in West Edmonton, Alberta. The grapes were grown in Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada, and even though that is 1078km away, in Canada, this is still pretty local. At the store, I was curious about the flavour of these grapes and so, I took a grape out of the packet and slipped it under my mask (Covid) for a taste when I realized I was too late to notice a little kid had seen me. While I tasted, I tried to come up with a story for him (Egyptian papyri…. ancient dyes…) but, to my relief, the kid was being dragged away while his head was twisted backward and his stare convicted me. Whoever causes a little one to stumble……

The fruit is very sweet and the skin is tart and dry so it likely has a good tannin in it and is acidic. 

I spent the evening removing the skins off of the fruit. The skins went into the freezer for later use in the method, the fruit was separated from the seeds and frozen for sweet juice in smoothies. 

To test the purpleness of the skins I crushed some and put it on a white surface. After a few minutes I noticed that there was a colour shift as it was exposed to the air. Interesting. The lower line is a bit bluer than the upper, redder fresh line.

Leiden Recipe 98

Another (Procedure) Clean the wool with fullers plant, and hold at your disposal some lamellose alum. (Then) grinding the interior part of gall-nut, throw it in a pot with the alum, then put in the wool and let it remain several hours. Take it out and let it dry. Follow this procedure first: Having ground the lees (from wine) and having placed them in a vessel, pour in sea water, agitate and set aside. Then decant the clear water into another vessel and hold it at your disposal. Taking the alkanet and placing it in a vessel, mix with the water from the lees until it thickens conveniently and becomes as though sandy. Then place the product in a vessel, diluting it by estimation with the preceding water which comes from the alkanet. Then, when it has become as though slimy, place it in a small kettle, add to it the remainder of the alkanet water, and leave until lukewarm. Then plunge the wool in it, lay aside several hours, and you will find the purple fast.

Lees (from wine)

Lees from my husband’s home-made wine

Lees is the sediment containing the yeast after the first fermentation when making wine.

The recipe says to grind the lees so I interpret this to mean that it would have been dried. I imagine that the Egyptian sun and arid climate would have baked the lees dry when this recipe was used. 

My husband makes wine and he had a batch of lees, so I set a bowl out to evaporate the liquid off and I found out that the fruit flies liked it, so I covered it. Then, after two weeks, I checked the bowl of lees and there was a huge mould growth on its entire surface. Eww!  Apparently, this temperate zone is just not dry enough. I rescued it by warming the lees in a pan to steaming to (hopefully) kill any mold spores and then poured it in the fruit roll up tray in my dehydrator to dry it this way, instead.

Each time, I sieved out the oak chips, allowed it to settle in the fridge, poured off the excess liquid and then stirred it and spread it on the dehydrator tray to dry. 

Dehydrating the lees
Dehydrated lees for later use

After a day and a half, it became crispy. This, I broke into pieces and stored in a jar for later use in the method.

Next Steps

All of these ingredients will be used and/or compared to modern substitutions in the various methods now that I am ready to begin the processes. I will be making sample swatches of various fibres with the different methods and testing them for light fastness. Depending on which fibre takes up the most colour, I will dye more of it in order to make a larger example of the colour. In a later post I will show the results of my efforts.

These are some of my foraging and finding stories for the Stockholm and Leyden Papyri Dye Project. Memories to smile about in the years to come.

Donna Fillion, Alberta, Canada

Fair Colours

“Woad Is Me” & Dyeing With Herbs?

By Jackie Bush – Norfolk, England

Diary of a Saxon Weaver

You can rely on the UK weather……..?  What an awful Spring we had this year.  Everything got off to a very late start including my woad which I am relying on to use in some of the dye recipes from the Stockholm Papyrus. I fear that along with the cold start, the mole that uprooted them and the two different caterpillars that have tried to eat them, I may, just may, have to bite the bullet and order some powder in.  All is not lost, yet, and I live in hope that I can harvest enough for at least one recipe but I’m still pulling wee beasties off my leaves!

The depleted Woad patch.

With great enthusiasm I originally signed up for at least 5 dye recipes from the very vast list of recipes in the Stockholm Papyrus.  Reality is dawning and I may have to narrow my choices as my research sends me further down various rabbit warrens and the ability to obtain some quite spurious and often obscure ingredients is proving very difficult indeed.  What might have been obvious to those writing the recipes during the Roman occupation of Egypt (30 BC – 349 AD) certainly is not to me.  

My thoughts had to turn away from woad and on to recipe number: 

113. Another (Recipe) Dyeing in purple with herbs: Take and put the wool in the juice of henbane and lupines. The juice should be brought to boiling in water, which thereby becomes sour. This is the preliminary mordant. Then take the fruit clusters of rhamus, put water in a kettle and boil. Put the wool in and it will become a good purple. Lift the wool out, rinse it with water from a forge, let it dry in the sun and it will be purple of the first quality. 

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) was my first stumbling block.  A poisonous plant, not readily available.  My first thoughts were to grow it. I managed to obtain some seeds surprisingly easily and proceeded to cultivate them in the greenhouse.  Sadly, either due to the weather or my  poor practices, none of the seeds germinated.  My research then turned to what this particular plant may contain that made it so special to the recipe and what I could use as a substitute.  It is in the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, and I have another species in this family in the garden – possibly Solanum ptychanthum (Common Nightshade).

Lupinus albus.

Then there were the lupines. The recipe called for the ‘juice’ of lupines and henbane.  Was this the whole plant, the leaves, the stems, the berries/beans/seeds? I read an article where it said, “Lupins have been grown for consumption since the Egyptian times and were also grown by the Romans”.  This led me to research different varieties and I ended up with the white ‘edible’ lupin, Lupinus albus.

Then on to the fruit clusters of rhamnus.  It is the Buckthorn species of shrubs and trees that produce these.  The closest I had to these was the fruit of Prunus laurocerasus, the cherry laurel (by close, I don’t mean taxonomically/biologically, just close in terms of similar looking/coloured fruit).  I happened to have an abundance of these as the tree was having to be sacrificed.  It was far too large to be next to the house. I read that these berries can be used for dyeing, producing anything from pink, to green, to blue!  It just had to be done. The water from the forge had to be made by using a solution of purchased ferrous sulphate… no forges here either.

Prunus laurocerasus fruit.

I soon realised I was attempting this recipe without one single original ingredient apart from, possibly, the lupines. Even then I wasn’t sure what part to use.

Solutions were prepared and different mordants were used to compare. Preliminary results were looking promising. I dyed two different shades of wool, white and brown plus some cotton and linen both natural and bleached. A control batch with no mordant was also included. But then it was time to visit the ‘forge’ (i.e. my ferrous sulphate solution!).  As suspected, iron will sadden colours and the delicate pinks and yes, purples were quickly turned to shades of grey and to my surprise, blue!  

Some surprising and unsurprising results along with plenty of questions, including did the lupine and nightshade mix actually add anything to the mix? What difference will it make to use an actual Rhamnus species, given that we know many of them contain very reliable quinone dye compounds? I have my thoughts. Currently all samples are undergoing a lightfast test and I’m considering a rematch with some bought in Rhamnus berries! So, watch this space and wait for the final results. But we did get some purple!

Talking Orchil

Isabella Whitworth, Devon, South West England

The Leeds Archive

Thirteen years ago, close friends living nearby decided they were going to up sticks and move house. I didn’t realise at the time, but I was about to embark on rather a different journey. The friends asked me if I could look at some family papers being brought down from their attic because I knew something about natural dyes, and their forebears had been dye manufacturers in Leeds, Yorkshire. The papers related to a family business which started in the early years of the nineteenth century.

The basics of my research into the family papers (which I’ll refer to as the Leeds Archive) are written up in my own blog which is the best place to read the core story of the company and the remarkable family that started it: there is a link at the end of this blog. I am still working on the papers that descended from the attic, and the reason I’m so keen to work on the recipes in the Stockholm and Leyden Papyri project is because the Leeds manufacturers started out in the successful manufacturing of orchil and cudbear.

What is orchil?

Orchil is a historical purple dye made from a wide variety of lichens whose use stretches back into pre-history. It was a staple dye for European dyers until the mid nineteenth century, although known to be highly fugitive. The unique beauty and freshness of its colour was greatly valued by dyers and analysis has confirmed its use in many costly textiles such as tapestries, and artefacts such as parchments. The dye is not available directly from the raw dyestuff and lichen must go through a lengthy fermentation, often of several weeks, to allow the dye precursors to develop into the characteristic purple.

The Orchil Trade

Samples dyed in 2008 after studying in Galicia. Samples on the right hand page were modified using white vinegar

My first research into orchil was to find out something of lichen sources throughout history, and which species were collected for the trade. I was so intrigued by the dye that I travelled to Galicia in Northern Spain to study orchil dyeing with weaver Anna Champeney, and later to Ecuador to follow up on a letter I’d found in the Leeds Archive. The relentless demand for orchil in the nineteenth century drove merchants further and further afield to find new sources, and the stories of West African and South American orchil lichens identified in the 1830s were documented in notes and a number of letters in the Leeds Archive.

Angola

In the case of lichen from Angola, an agent’s letters from Lisbon reveal day-to-day issues affecting the buying and selling of orchil from the Portuguese colonies, and the secrecy in which deals were made in order to profit from a new source. They also record the story of Francisco Rodrigues Batalha, a Lisbon merchant. Batalha was a speculator and in 1837 co-opted a sea-captain named Ribeiro trading along the West African coast to search for new sources of dye lichens wherever he put into port. Batalha gave Ribeiro a ‘reagent’, which was likely to be ammonia. If orchil lichen is placed in ammonia and shaken regularly it will start to turn pink in around 24 hrs.

Through Batalha’s enterprise Ribeiro located a likely lichen and a hitherto unknown and abundant source of dyestuff was discovered in Angola so that a new trade developed.  ‘Angola Weed’, as it became known in Great Britain, was especially valued for its rich dye content. Batalha made – and apparently lost – a fortune dealing in the lucrative dyestuff. 

Luanda was Angola’s main port and a slave capital until 1836, when Portugal abolished the transatlantic trade. Research suggests that human cargo was a part of Ribeiro’s business but I haven’t ascertained whether Batalha was also involved. Enslaved people, or enforced labour, were recorded in the Leeds letters as involved in carrying lichen to port from the interior until around 1858.

I wonder whether, with the abolition of the transatlantic trade in 1836, Batalha was prompted in 1837 to find a new commodity to keep ships’ holds full?

Ecuador

A set of letters from the Leeds Archive also describes the search for orchil lichen in 1837 in the area of modern-day Ecuador. The accounts were written by a George W. Bruce, the son of a Scottish merchant located in Tenerife who dealt, among other things, in dyestuff. Bruce reported finding a new source of orchil lichen at Punta Santa Elena on the Ecuador coast, not far from Guayaquíl. Bruce’s expedition thus identified another commercial source of orchil lichen and a trade to Europe followed. It is possible that Bruce took a collection of dye lichens with him to aid identification on a ‘looks like’ basis, or had studied such collections before embarking for South America. A collection of Canarian dye lichens (see image below) found in the Leeds Archive originated in Tenerife – and may have been compiled for this purpose.

I found a botanical collection of Canarian dye lichens in the Leeds Archive, dating from the 1830s and later identified as compiled by French botanist Jean-Marie Despréaux. This collection is now in the Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

I have relatives in Ecuador and decided to make a trip to meet them and to follow up on Bruce’s letter. In advance of the trip I was in touch with a mycologist on the Galápagos Islands who specialised in identification of lichens and he generously confirmed the modern name (Roccella gracilis) as the most likely lichen used in the dye trade. This enabled me to find images of it which I printed out and took with me. I wondered if there would be any left at Punta Santa Elena.

Using urine

On the outward flight I spied a dessert in a robust plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. In the interests of science I ate the dessert and I’ll leave you to imagine the rest. I carefully transported a precious sample of my ageing urine down the spine of the Andes for several weeks until we reached Punta Santa Elena. The original area mentioned in Bruce’s letter had become a restricted military base so I wasn’t able to go in without risking arrest, and the Punta area was heavily built up. I felt that lichen was unlikely to be growing there any more.

My distant Ecuadorian cousins owned a beach house along the coast from Punta Santa Elena, a fact I hadn’t known when I set out from England on my quest. From the serendipitously-located beach house I was able to explore the hot, arid and rather magnificent coast and hinterland by car, bus, and on foot. Eventually, I found a lichen closely resembling the images I had with me. It would not have been legal for me to take samples from the wild but I was able to take photographs in a few sites where I found what I believed to be Roccella gracilis.

Roccella gracilis growing at Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

I also found tiny windfall fragments and took some to immerse in the urine, which was by then ammoniac. The small samples turned the ammonia pink in just a few hours. I can still remember how excited I felt: that’s probably why the photo below is so out of focus!

Small fragments of R. gracilis steep[ed in stale urine and aerated for 12 hours

Stockholm and Leyden Papyri

When I returned to the UK I continued to study orchil but never attempted to make it from stale urine, instead opting to use household ammonia (as opposed to ammonia at laboratory strength). Nineteenth century manufacturers knew that better results were obtained from purified ammonia and distilled their ammonia from stale urine but this option will not be open to me. For the project I intend to try to make four sets of orchil in parallel using two different orchil lichens. Two will be brewed up in stale urine and two in household ammonia.

How orchil should look when it’s ready

Orchil can take a very long time to ferment and I have had several batches end in failure, with the dye sample remaining obdurately rust coloured. So although there appear to be endless weeks before our sample deadline, I need to leave myself time for it all to go horribly wrong. I hope to write a follow-up blog on my progress later in the project.

The recipes: Stockholm 108 – 111

I have elected to study recipes Stockholm 108 -111. You can read the recipes by following the link at the end of the blog. It intrigues me that the recipes say nothing at all about how the orchil (archil) is made in the first place and simply advises how to use the orchil; it is assumed that the reader already has it to hand. There is a further oddity. In 110 the recipe states :

To dye in genuine bright red purple grind archil and take 5 cyathi of the juice for a mina of wool. 

This is curious, because once orchil is made, it is in liquid form and one simply wouldn’t grind it. And if you grind something, you don’t then obtain a juice. If you grind lichen dyestuff and add water you will not produce a colour without the long fermentation.

Maybe the grinding refers to a form of dried orchil, similar to the cudbear of the Leeds Archive. Maybe it is a translation error, or maybe the original author didn’t understand the process.


Using lichen today

I am often asked whether I recommend using lichens for dyeing. My least controversial reply is that I choose not to. Lichens are vulnerable organisms, highly sensitive to environmental change, and they cannot be cultivated. They are also hard to identify so that anyone without specialist knowledge often has little idea of what they are collecting. Is it a dye lichen? If so, is it endangered? If you can’t identify it, how do you know?

Insofar as orchil is concerned it is very light fugitive and for studio work I prefer to use a more stable source for purple, such as an indigo / cochineal combination.

Conservation and research

I make very small quantities of orchil (maybe using 20 gr raw material) for research purposes and share my knowledge with those who are working on conserving precious artefacts such as the Vienna Genesis, a project in which I was involved a few years ago. These projects do not normally need large quantities of dyestuff. I have been given collections of UK dye lichens gathered in times when the activity was not as controversial as it is today. So I am in the fortunate position of having raw material to hand, which I occasionally share with researchers and conservators.

I never use orchil (or any lichens) for my studio work.


A paper on the Angola / Portugal sections of this blog was delivered in 2010 at the DHA 29 Conference in Lisbon.


Links

Leyden and Stockholm Papyri The English translation used by the re-creation group

Isabella Whitworth My own blog with posts on the Leeds Archive. Follow the word cloud links for Yorkshire Chemicals, Wood & Bedford, orchil, Tyrian Purple etc

Download recent conservation research on the Vienna Genesis here

And the Answer Is…..Or Is It?

Leucanthemum vulgare – Oxeye daisy

My previous blog post ended with more questions than answers. There is a lot to ponder and research with the Stockholm & Leyden Papyrus ancient dye recipes. I initially chose two recipes to try to replicate primarily because I thought I had access to the ingredients. Today, I’ll focus on recipe #118 – Gold Color.

#118 Gold Color: ” To produce a gold colour by cold dyeing, take safflower blossom and oxeye. Crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to the air and use it.”


One of the first issues I encountered was a difference between harvest seasons. Here in northern Minnesota, oxeye daisy season is in June; the season to harvest safflower (which you need to grow yourself) is probably August. I didn’t think about this until one day while driving down the road. I was thinking about how pretty the oxeye daisies in the roadside ditches were. Then I realized that if I were going to use oxeye daisies in a dye recipe I needed to get busy and start harvesting very soon. So I did.

Since oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) are not listed as a dye source in any of my current reference materials I wasn’t sure if I should save the flowers, the stems, or the whole plant. I started harvesting and saving the whole plant, thinking the flowers would be easy to separate from the stems even if the plants were dried. I was wrong about that. After several rounds of trial and error (and whole plants drying in my garage) I found my rhythm. Harvest the whole plant, then come home and sit outside and snip the flowers from the stems. Flowers in one bag, stems in another. Interestingly, as the flowers were drying, I noticed color! Granted, not a lot of color, but color nonetheless. I was encouraged.

Oxeye color stains (Leucanthemum vulgare)

After harvesting, drying the plants, and thinking about the next steps, I decided to experiment. Oxeye experiment #1: I started by soaking oxeye parts in water. Jar #1 was oxeye flowers. Jar #2 was oxeye stems. And Jar #3 was flowers and stems. I wasn’t worried about water pH or the type of water I was using, I just want to see if a color appeared. I added swatches of Cormo wool roving and cotton cheesecloth to the mix and let the samples sit.

My hypothesis was that it is really the safflower that produces the dye. At best, the oxeye might be more of a stain. We’d see in a few days.

After a week of the samples sitting, it appeared that nothing much was happening, so I removed the fibers from the jars…and found…color (see the image below on the left)! I also performed a light test by letting the samples sit in a sunny window for about two and a half weeks (image below on the right). Yes, there was some fading, but the photo doesn’t really show how little fading there really was. This is encouraging. Imagine adding the safflower blossoms to the mix; I bet the result is a “gold color”.

I’m not totally convinced the oxeye daisies I see out my window and the oxeye referred to in the dye recipe are one and the same. If you look at the global distribution map of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Global-distribution-map-of-Leucanthemum-vulgare-Blue-dot-represents-native-regions-and_fig1_335012792 oxeye daisies don’t seem to be located in Egypt, however they are found in Europe and parts of Asia, so it is possible oxeye daisies grew in Egypt during the third century. It could also be possible that Oxeye (Leucanthemum vulgare) might have been a general term used by translators of the papyri for any number of similar plants, that could include known dye plants, like Dyer’s Chamomile and relatives (thank you, Mel Sweetnam for the excellent information).


When I decided to join this venture, I knew I needed to decide a philosophy and aim for my particular work on this project. I have always been interested in taking traditional methodologies and giving them a more modern twist. I enjoy using “ingredients” that are easily accessible to complete projects. Will I use the oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) that I have stored in my garage or will I use a similar yet known dye plant? I haven’t totally decided. I do know that I now face the same dilemma with an ingredient, Heliotrope, in my second recipe, #115. Heliotrope. Not really known as a dye plant. Do I use stems? Flowers? Both? Stay tuned!

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Albert Einstein

Preparation Is Everything… I Hope!

By Sue Crook – Hampshire, UK

Sue Crook Textile Artist /

HapticArt Textile Artist

As someone fairly new to natural dyes – I have (almost) completed Mel Sweetnam’s/ Mamies Schoolhouse’s Guilded, Modules 1 & 2 – the chance of trying out some third century Egyptian dye recipes was very appealing. I settled on 3 from the Stockholm Papyrus: numbers 100, 101 and 134 which use such interesting items as mulberries, woad, alkanet and safflower. The original recipes were for dyeing wool, but I wanted to try them on other fibres: silk, cotton and linen. I also wanted to compare the results from different mordants (and un-mordanted fabric). One recipe uses grapes as a mordant, another rust and vinegar and I wanted to also try an alum based one and also a plant based one. That was beginning to sound like a lot of samples – and if I wanted to also compare different modifiers (none, acid, alkali and iron) …….the numbers were mounting up. I made that 176 in all!

My dye pot is a stainless steel one. Would the Egyptians have had access to stainless steel? No. Could I persuade my friend John Brazendale, of Cloud Studio Ceramics, to build me one in material as near as possible to what the Egyptians would be using? He contacted his supplier and found something akin to Nile Clay. Once he has finished his Open Studios exhibition in September, he’ll make a start on it. He tells me it will probably be a coil pot.

John in his Cloud Studio

To obtain the best dye results, all fabric needs scouring (removing anything which might inhibit dye uptake, like natural oils and chemical treatments). As the fabric is all from our time and has probably been through far more processes than the original cloth, I took the decision to scour using modern methods: cellulose (soda ash and Synthrapol – gentle boil) and protein (neutral detergent and water brought slowly to 60C).

Next, for my early experiments for recipe 101, I needed some “woad scum”. Oh that I could work out what that meant! So, I have to make some assumptions. As we know, the “recipe” writer(s) often use a shorthand throughout the papyri, as dyers of the time would have known exactly what the meaning was. Perhaps it was something produced during the fermentation of the leaves to extract pigment? Did it mean something produced during the actual dye process? Once I have managed to produce anything resembling “scum”, I’ll use that to mix with the alkanet then safflower. Below is an excerpt from my journal on my attempt to obtain some.

The Jenny Dean fermentation method is from Wild Colour, 2010 revised and updated version. The method demonstrated by Marietta Richardson is from John Marshall‘s book, Singing The Blues..

Jenny Dean Fermentation Method

After 24 hours, and being kept at 35 – 40C, it was finally a yellowy green. Steeped threads for 45 mins, plunged into clean water, then returned to vat for a further soak, plunge and rinse. Colour was, at best, beige. More importantly, there was no scum.


John Marshall Fresh Leaf Blender Method

Skein on far right hand side is after 1 dip. No “woad scum” produced with this method either, so I hope the next trial comes up trumps!

Back to the drawing board now!

And so it begins…..

“We know better where we are going if we understand where we have been”

J. N. Liles
Niles, J. N. (1990). The art and craft of natural dying: Traditional recipes for modern use. University of Tennessee Press (2010 reprint), Knoxville, TN, pp. v.

Greetings! Thank you for following along on our journey. Several months ago, this global group of dyers joined together to develop a plan to recreate the dye methods from the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri (dye methods from Egypt about 1,800 years ago). I’m a natural dyer and fiber/visual artist (Sally KoskiSally’s Dye-Versions) who lives in rural northern Minnesota. How did we start this journey? Where will it take us? I’m here to offer one early perspective….

As member of the Facebook Natural Dye Education Group, we share a love and interest in natural dye work. Our leader, Mel Sweetnam, threw out a challenge to gather a group of people interested in recreating the “recipes” from the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. As someone who has been fascinated with ancient Egypt since elementary school (a very long time ago), I decided this was the perfect fit. Working with this group will enable me to learn from a group of very experienced dyers, to make global connections, share ideas, and expand my knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture. Each of us has been challenged to select a “recipe” or two to recreate. Some of us will try to replicate the recipe exactly; others will add a modern twist to the work. Our collaborative and supportive work will result in a variety of samples, and in the end, each of us will contribute a piece of art, using the dyes we created, to be submitted to an upcoming conference. Simple? Hhhmmmm….

Early in my introduction to the Papyri, I realized the guidelines presented were similar to recipes and other instructions I received from my grandmothers. Ingredients were listed, but not the amounts; instructions included statements like “cook until right” and “plant loose bulbs in a hole and cover”.

Instructions are often handed down and not very specific.

Here lies some of the challenges: what exactly did these early dyers use to make dye, how much, and how long did the process take? How can I select a recipe that I can closely replicate when I live in a climate so very different from the Egyptian climate 1,800 years ago?

Looking through the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, it became clear I needed to focus on replicating recipes that listed ingredients I could more easily obtain or grow (access to camel urine as an ingredient is difficult in northern Minnesota!) Will the results be the same as the dyers achieved so long ago? That’s doubtful. In her book “A Dyer’s Garden”, Rita Buchanan, a dyer and a gardener points out a number of reasons dye results might differ from one time to the next. Soil characteristics, moisture and temperature during the growing season, the mineral content and pH of the water in the dyebath, the type of fiber dyed, how long the fiber was immersed in the dye bath, as well as the ratio of fiber to dye plant are all factors that can contribute to these variations. Since most of this information from 1,800 years ago isn’t available (did the ancient Egyptians even know about pH?) I am not convinced that my colors for recipes 115 and 118 will be identical to those achieved 1,800 years ago.

My instructions for recipe 115 (Phoenician dye) simply states: “Take and combine heliotrope with alkanet. Lay them in an earthen vessel and sprinkle them for 3 days with white vinegar. On the fourth day boil them, with the addition of water, until these float at the top. If you desire, however, to dye cedar color then take out the alkanet, and boil lightly, but if you wish cherry-red then add krimnos soured with a little soap. Put the wool in and boil it together with the substances until it appears to you to be good.” Recipe 118 (gold color) is equally as vague stating: “Take safflower blossom and oxeye, crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to the air, and use it.”

My vision of Phoenician dye and gold color might be very different than the actual Phoenician dye and gold color produced years ago. But here lies some of the fun!

In order to be consistent in our process and also to add to the body of knowledge centering around the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, each dyer is charged with using a template for each dye recipe, keeping detailed notes and explanations of our successes as well as our not so successful experiments. We learn just as much (if not more) from the not so successful results than we do from our successes. These templates allow us to track some of the elements we know that we don’t have knowledge of from the original Papyri. Documenting our assumptions and justifying the reasons we made the decisions we made will be an important part of the process. Hopefully, our detailed work will add to the natural dye work body of knowledge and assist other dyers to successfully replicate of some of these ancient dye recipes – or at least of our more modern variations.

Oxeye growing in a field

Is the oxeye plant mentioned in the Papyri the same as the oxeye plant I see in the field down the road? What types of “earthen vessels” were used as dye pots? How was vinegar made and used in the dye process?  How can we replicate the properties of “Cimolian earth”? What fibers were dyed besides “raw wool”? My growing seasons for oxeye and safflower are different – they are ready for harvest at different times. How do I handle this?  At this point in the journey, there seem to be more questions than answers.  I have no doubt though, through the collective wisdom of this group of dyers, we will persevere, make some mistakes, learn a great deal, end up with a successful “product”, and have great fun in the process. Follow along with us!