Homestead Junction

Dyeing Irresponsibly August 24, 2014 14:32

When I was six, my kindergarten teacher announced that we were going to learn how to tie-dye. Being six, I'd never heard of it, but it soon became my favourite thing in the universe. We spent one glorious day wrapping elastic bands around our white cotton tee-shirts and dunking them in cups of food colouring, and I was hooked. I talked about it for months, wore the tee-shirt til it developed holes, begged my mom to patch it, and continued to wear it until it was see-through, faded beyond belief, and so small I couldn't get into it. I then dressed my favourite stuffed animal in it and he still wears it to this day.

So, with all of that enthusiasm and love for dyeing, it's a wonder that it's taken me this long to return to it. I suppose I found it intimidating and overwhelming, what with all the articles and books and podcasts lecturing about mordants, fibre types, water qualities, and ethical plant harvesting. Every time I'd start to read up on it, I'd learn something else that I'd been about to do wrong, and I'd quietly set aside my plans for plant-dyed scarves and yarn, thinking that I'd only make horrible mistakes and ruin all my fibre, spill dye stuff everywhere, and inadvertently wind up dyeing the cat purple. Finally, this summer I said “to heck with it”.

I'm doing it. I don't care how it turns out! The perfect opportunity presented itself on a family vacation to the beach, where I'd have plenty of outdoor work space (no mess!), and a team of assorted relatives I could dragoon into helping. Perfect! I chose black beans and turmeric as my inaugural dyes, partly for ease of transport, and partly for the disparity in colour the two of them would create. I had purchased a stack of both silk and cotton scarves, and family members had brought their own cotton tee-shirts, so I thought this might also give us some variety in results. Lastly, I decided to use seawater as a mordant. I'd read multiple articles saying that it would work, though not as effectively as metallic ion mordants. I didn't mind this as the ease of obtaining it (we were at the beach), the safety of working with it (some of my conscripted team members were ten years old), and the novelty of being able to dye fabric with common, every-day materials were all more important to me. The fabrics were all boiled and then soaked in seawater the night before, and then hung out to dry. I also set the black beans to soak overnight, well away from any light and heat. I stirred them a few times, and then in the morning I ladled the murky bean-water off the top and placed it in a stainless steel pot, ready for dyeing.


We had a perfect day for our dye adventure – cloudy and grey, but warm enough to work outside. I prepped the turmeric by boiling it with water, and then set out all the supplies I'd brought. Soy wax for batik patterns (a beeswax & sticky wax mixture is traditional, but soy wax is easier to get out of fabric!), a tjanting for drawing with the wax, copper stamps (tjaps) for stamping the wax, string for shibori tying, and stencils for wax application. I guess you could say I like options.


The kids quickly announced that my chosen colour palette was critically deficient in pink, and a pot-full of beets was offered up as a remedy to this. I couldn't remember beets being used in dyeing, but in keeping with my “to heck with it” mantra for this project, out came the beets!


To say that people had fun would be an understatement. Wax was flying everywhere, lengths of string were being wrapped around anything that would stay still, and fabric was flying in and out of dye pots faster than I could keep track.

We quickly discovered that the beans would take the longest to impart any colour, and after an hour with no discernible change in those fabrics I decided to up the ante and threw an old rusted bolt and some vinegar into the pot, hoping to put some oomph into the mordant and dye at the same time. The turmeric was a far better dye for all of us impatient sorts, as it produced a gorgeous, rich, yellow colour with only a few minutes of immersion.

The beets were starting to look like a poor idea as fabric after fabric came out of the pot with only an anemic peach colour, but some enterprising team-members decided to apply the beets directly to their work, in hopes that it would set better.


After several hours of waxing, tying, and dyeing frenzy, the fabrics were left to finish their process. Turmeric and beet dyed ones were hung to dry in the shade, and the beans (still sluggish) were placed in a dark corner to work their magic overnight.

n the morning, all the fabrics were pulled out and trundled down to the ocean to rinse.

I was going with the theory that salt water is supposed to set dyes, and a post-dye mordanting shouldn't hurt either. What I didn't count on was the difference in pH between the dye baths and the ocean!

All of our turmeric-dyed cotton darkened to a beautiful, deep orange, though the silk dyed the same way became a bright, lemony colour. The lavender purple of the black beans muted into a lovely dove grey colour, on both cotton and silk, and places where the two had mixed became an interesting grey-green. Sadly, the beets just washed right out, leaving my poor helpers without their beloved pink.

Tie-Dye Fun!
I had figured that at this point we would simply dry our work and be done with it, but it turned out there was so much more to experiment with! People were dipping scarves and shirts in vinegar water (turmeric and cotton became yellow again, beans became more purple), re-dyeing where beets had failed, rinsing with hose-water to see what colours would appear, and mixing patterns and colours until I couldn't keep track anymore of what produced what.

image (5)
Then, finally it was all laid out to dry. In the sun. Oops. So, our final experiment of the day was the power of solar energy on dyes, which informed us that turmeric is NOT light-fast, but beans are actually kind of ok. Next time, I think I would forgo the seawater in favour of a more traditional mordant (like alum) in order to get slightly more consistent and stable results, and I'd likely stick to doing just one dye at a time, so I could keep better track of results. I've since learned that turmeric is never going to produce a lightfast dye, no matter what precautions are taken, and while the black beans seemed to do ok in the sunlight, many other people report them fading over time without the use of metal ion mordants. Still, in the end, I didn't utterly fail. Everyone went home with a one-of-a-kind article of clothing, full of memories of fun, experimentation, and family. We learned a lot about what to do next time, and what not to do, and more than anything we learned that sometimes, “To heck with it” is a great way to start a project!

striped shirt

About as All-Natural As You Can Get Soap February 27, 2013 18:45

When I described this project to me mum some weeks ago, she brightly exclaimed "Oh!  We tried that when you were a little kid and it was a MISERABLE failure!" So I guess this post chronicles my second effort at making soap like in the old days.

The Goal:

Make useable bar soap starting with suet (beef fat) and wood ash.

The Plan:

I divide this project into phases. Phase 1: render the beef fat to get pure tallow.  Ha!  I already did this.  See my blog post about it here. Phase 2: leach potassium hydroxide (aka KOH or caustic potash, a form of lye) from hardwood ash. Phase 3: use science and guesswork to combine these two into bar soap.

Phase 1: Done!

Phase 2:

 2013-02-11 15.35.15
 First I poked some holes in a bucket.  This is a 5-gallon bucket left over from coconut oil.


 2013-02-11 15.38.20
Nest the bucket inside another and line the bottom with some kind of non-reactive filtering material.  Here I've used a cotton rag.  You can't see it, but the lower bucket is larger, so there's plenty of space between the bottoms of the buckets when they are stacked.


 2013-02-11 15.41.48A couple inches of sand poured in over the filter material.  The sand is really the main filter bed; the rag is just to keep the sand from escaping.


 2013-02-11 15.45.10
Hardwood ash packed in about 4 inches deep.  There was still a bit of residual charcoal in there, as well as some old burned nails.  It helped to wet the ash in a big garbage bag (which is where I'd been keeping it) before transferring it to the bucket.  Otherwise it's really dusty.


 2013-02-11 15.46.15
Any homebrewers reading this will recognize this process as similar to lautering during an all-grain brew.  Basically, you add small amounts of water at a time and allow it to trickle through the solid filter bed, dissolving solutes (in brewing, sugar) along the way.  In this case, we are trying to dissolve the potassium hydroxide (hereafter KOH) present in wood ash.


 2013-02-23 10.30.13
Leached ash water

 This is the liquid that collected in the bottom.  I collected it once and poured it back through the ashes to leach more out, but since I only measured the density once I don't know how effective this was.  Those floaters are bits of coconut oil that were leftover in the bucket I used.  At this point I'm pretty sure that liquid contains some lye, so Phase 2 complete!

Phase 3:

Now for the pièce de résistance; actually make the soap. The classic problem of old-timey soap makers is that it's difficult to know the concentration of the lye solution produced by the leaching process.  Many recipes (widespread on the internet) call for such folk remedies as floating an egg or dissolving a feather to determine whether it is strong enough.  A more quantitative solution would be to boil off all the water and weigh the remaining solids.  This, of course, would assume that KOH is the only solid present in the water. Luckily, I came upon this website that offers a neat conversion between density and mass ratio (i.e. what % of the mass is KOH) of a KOH solution.

 2013-02-23 10.32.18
ascertaining the density

 Not having a graduated cylinder or other accurate measurement for volume, I weighed equal volumes of tap water and lye solution, assumed the water had a density of 1kg/liter, and used the ratio of the two weights to estimate the density of the solution at 1.07 kg / L.  From the table on the aforementioned HandyMath website, this puts the KOH content around 8%.

 2013-02-25 14.07.32
soap in the making... hopefully!

 I decided to use 1kg solution because I figured it would fit my pot well.  At 8% KOH, this amounts to 80g KOH and 920g water.  Now I want to see how much tallow to use.'s Soap Lye Calculator only lets you input fat amounts, so I used 1kg tallow at 5% superfat and it spat out 190g KOH.  A little math and I see I need 421g tallow for my 80g KOH.  Shown above mixing and heating.

 2013-02-25 14.12.57much more watery than the cold-process recipes I'm used to!

 ... and mixing and mixing.  But it doesn't come to trace like your regular cold process soap.  You see, there is a lot of water in here, and since we're using potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide like we normally do for bar soap, we get potassium tallowate (soap) instead of sodium tallowate.  This will clean the same, but is more soluble in water and hence forms a liquid soap unless nearly all water is removed.  I have a lot of water in this batch but I want hard bar soap, we need to add some sodium. I poured half the batch into a jar as the control, then to the rest I added some sodium chloride - one tablespoon.  I added it 1/2 tsp at a time while mixing until it reached a pudding consistency resembling the trace stage of cold process soap.

 2013-02-25 15.20.00
This is the stuff without any salt added.  The whiter layer solidified enough to prevent the bottom (liquid) layer pouring out when the jar was tipped.


 2013-02-27 15.36.43
solid enough to mould, just barely

 This is the stuff with salt added, 24 hours later.  Pardon the impromptu mould.  As of this writing it attained the consistency of fudge.  I'm going to let it cure for a while and see if it hardens as more moisture evaporates. If that doesn't work, I'll consider doubling the salt.  Here's why: 80g of KOH is 1.43 "moles."  A "mole" means a gazillion molecules.  When describing chemical reactions, it's useful to talk in terms of molecules rather than weight or mass. I only added salt to half the batch, so we had 0.72 gazillion KOH molecules containing potassium.  We want to displace them, so we might reasonably add 0.72 gazillion salt molecules containing sodium, and assume that most of the soap molecules will end up with the sodium rather than the potassium.  This is probably true because the sodium-soap is less soluble than the potassium-soap and will leave solution as it forms.  Or something like that.  I think.  Any real chemists, help me out here? Anyway, this gives us a ballpark amount of sodium to add.  But I did not do this math when making the soap, I did it just now. I put in a tablespoon of salt, or 22g (again, measured just a minute ago).  A mole calculator tells us this contains .37 moles of sodium, roughly half the 0.72 moles of potassium.  So, doubling the salt would give 0.74 moles of sodium, or about one molecule of sodium for every molecule of potassium we're trying to displace.

 2013-02-27 15.37.02
Here's the non-salted stuff  after another day.  The upper part is a semi-solid foam which does appear to be soap.  I thought it was interesting because the watery layer at the bottom is reduced in size relative to the previous day.


 To be continued?

I'll post an update in a few weeks to report on whether the salted soap cured hard.  If not, I may re-melt it and add the extra salt as proposed above. Postscript on assumptions: One big (too big?) assumption made above is that potassium hydroxide is the only significant solid dissolved in the lye solution.  To see if this is reasonable, I checked the recipe found here using 18.2 oz dried homemade lye and 6lbs fat against  For 6lbs tallow soapcalc recommends 18oz pure KOH, suggesting that this homemade soap recipe (widespread on the internet) assumes that homemade lye when dried contains 99% pure KOH.  Ok, it's a little fuzzy, but at least we're going to be ballpark here. I've also assumed that the equilibrium of NaCl + Potassium Tallowate <> KCl + Sodium Tallowate will favour the right hand side.  I tried some googling to back this up but all I got was cosmetic ingredient lists.



I love T-Shirts almost as much as I love making them! June 12, 2012 00:18

With Car Free Main Street approaching, we're scrambling to get everything ready for the booth.  Among other things, we've got a variety of Canadian-made bamboo / organic cotton t-shirts which, when duly silk screened, will allow you to turn your useless, slovenly torso into a functional, sharply-dressed mobile billboard for the store!
To paint the screen accurately, it's important to close one eye to prevent your perspective from shifting as you peer through the screen at the pattern below.
Crafts are so fun.
The finished design.  Coming soon from my living room to your shirt!
My screen printing jungle guide Lisa has advised me that this is a multi-step, highly involved process, so I predict many more shirt-related photo-ops in the imminent future. Shirts will be available in a variety of sizes, in Natural, Olive, Brown, and Charcoal grey. UPDATE: shirts now in!
The screen pressing setup.  Completed shirts can be seen drying in the background amid tools and other paraphernalia.
Ta da!  Colors are brown, olive, natural, lavender, and charcoal.  Available in men's S-XL and ladies' S-L.  Shirts are Canadian made from 70% bamboo, 30% organic cotton. Only $15 until launch, what a deal!