Natural Dyes with Alpacas

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I was so lucky to assist my good friend Theresa at her natural dye class. We had seven dye pots during this class. But the best part was all location, location, location. This dye class was at an ALPACA FARM, people: Alpacas of Troy.

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Let’s talk about Alpacas:

A camelid native to South America, Alpacas are herd animals bred for their fiber. There are two types of Alpacas, both of which reside at Alpacas of Troy: Suri (long smooth fibers) and Haucaya (lofty fibers).

img_4910(An unusually cuddly Alpaca named Helen interrupts my lunch)
Alpaca fiber is softer and less prickly than wool, but just as warm. It’s a great fiber to wear close to the skin, for things like scarves, cowls, and maybe even underwear (alpaca bra, anyone?).

Alpacas have a range of natural colors, all of which are desirable for garments. But the lighter colors (white and silver) lend themselves more towards dying than those dark varieties (obviously).

Local Yarn

Alpacas of Troy is not only a fiber farm, it’s also a fiber mill! The farmers have a fully operational mill than turns beautiful fleece into high quality yarn. They do it all.

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This is a great ethical option for yarn.

  • The need for fuel to transport fiber to and from a mill is eliminated
  • A local farm can remain small and independently/family owned
  • Alpacas are known, named, and cared for
  • Natural color variation in Alpaca fiber means less water is used to dye yarn and no new chemicals are introduced into the environment

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Natural Dyes

While natural color variation in Alpaca is amazing, sometimes neutrals don’t cut it. Enter the process of natural dyeing. Natural dyes are sourced directly from the environment, they are biodegradable, and do not contribute to pollution. We had seven dye pots at the farm, and produced an actual rainbow of colors.
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Clockwise from the top: Annato Seeds, Turmeric, Red Onion Skins (with alum), Indigo, Alkanet, Cochineal, and Madder

In classic reclaimed fashion, I also tossed a few non-alpaca pieces into the dye pots.

img_4921This reclaimed mohair/merino blend (now in cochineal)

img_4927This marinara sauce stained dress (refreshed by indigo)

img_4925This hand me down sweater (bathed in turmeric)

img_4928img_4932And this deconstructed fitted sheet (top with alkanet, bottom with madder)

Some colors really turned up the bright in this dye session. Others showed up muted and delicate.

  • Annato seeds – what a great orange – if only I wore orange.
  • This is the first time I’ve intentionally dyed with turmeric. I’ve stained many a cuff while making curry. And I’m not thrilled with how it took to this sweater, or the yarn. I’ll probably stick with yellow onion skins for my yellow dye, or maybe marigolds.
  • Red onion skins with alum is one of my favorite dye combinations. On it’s own, red onion skins can produce a purple/red, but mordant your fibers with alum and it’s a whole new world. A green world.
  • I love indigo. It’s enchanting.
  • Our alkanet dye was extracted from soaking the root in alcohol. Another hallmark of natural dyeing in my experience is variegated fabric. This is most visible on the small piece of purple cotton jersey. I think its magical.
  • Cochineal is a bug that feeds and lives on the prickly pear cactus. Other cochineal dyes I’ve encountered have been maroon pink or purple pink, but this one was a shocker. Bright.
  • Madder root is known for producing a true red. Our dye pot produced a peachy coral color that was deeper on cotton. I’m really excited about this coral color at the moment. We expected a deeper red from our dye pot, but in true natural dye fashion, our expectations were so off the mark.

When I dye with natural materials I rely heavily on Kristine Vejar’s book The Modern Natural DyerI appreciate her precise approach to materials and measurements. That said, I tend to estimate my weights and measurements in practice. Natural dyes are welcome to both approaches, it welcomes both the methodical scientists and the haphazard artists with open arms.

My Every Day Dress

I love this dress

Okay: time to actually stop swooning and talk about this beauty.

The pattern: the Peplum Top by In the Folds. It’s a free pattern from Peppermint Magazine. It’s a loose fitting peplum top great for warm weather and those heat waves. You can grab the pattern here.

The instructions were so simple to follow, the back has a great v-neck detail and the shoulders have these cute separate panels. As a beginner sewist I managed this pattern with ease.

I lengthened my peplum pieces to hit just above my knee. After checking the total length measurement on the pattern, I held a tape measured at my shoulder and let it fall to the ground. I found the desired length. Then I subtracted he bodice measurement from that new measurement to get my peplum pieces.

The fabric: this was a cotton king sized bed sheet. It might even me a California king… that’s how big it was. That’s all I know. It also has slight bedsheet stripes where the weave of the fabric changes direction. It doesn’t come across as obvious bedsheet though, and isn’t even visible in the photos. Sheets like these are everywhere at thrift stores. And most have tags that reveal fiber content.

I did a burn test to identify if it was a natural or synthetic material. Natural materials like cotton or wool are great for natural dyes – which is exactly what I was hoping to do with this sucker.

The dye: INDIGO!

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This was a very successful resist-dye. I chose to dye the entire sheet… which was a massive undertaking. I basically twisted it from the corner, wrapped it with cotton yarn, and rolled it over a broom handle to make it more manageable.

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Indigo is an amazing dye material. Maybe one day I’ll devote more time it’s glory, but for now I’ll point you to The Modern Natural Dyer for a guide to all things indigo.