Graham Keegan Forages LA for Natural Dyes

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Graham Keegan runs a natural dye studio in Los Angeles, California. His focus is on growing and foraging plants to produce limited edition, small batch dyed textiles for fashion designers. He also hosts workshops to teach natural indigo dyeing and basic shibori pattern making.

Los Angeles is verdant and wild. Plants spring up everywhere, in back alleys, through concrete, along the sides of the freeway. Many of these contain the hidden gift of pigment. We follow him as he explains the process of foraging and extracting pigment from Schinus Molle, the Peruvian Pepper tree which is used to produce the color yellow.

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The Peruvian Pepper has naturalized throughout tracts of the American south and southwest. Here in Los Angeles, it is commonly used in landscaping as a drought tolerant shade tree. The bundles of pink skinned berries give off the fresh scent of pepper when rolled between fingertips, as does any muddled green growth of the plant. An infusion of the leaves has long been prescribed as a panacea.

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Grant takes us through the process of turning an everyday plant into something completely individualized.

Things You will need to complete this project:

• A pocket knife or small set of pruning shears for foraging the leaves

• A sack to tote your harvested greens

• A large stainless steel or enamel pot (aluminum, iron and copper pots should be avoided as they can affect the quality of the pigment)

• A set of kitchen tongs

• A kitchen scale

• One or two white garments or fabric yardage to dye.

• Alum, a mordant. Find it at fabric, craft and art supply stores, as well as in many grocery stores as it is also used for pickling. It is in the form of a white crystalline powder. It is best to have at least 25% weight of alum as compared to the weight of the fabric you plan to dye. So for example, if you are dyeing 1 LB of cotton, have 4 oz alum available.

• For making a striped pattern as shown here, 2 – 12″ lengths of square hardwood dowel (available at hardware stores).

• Two lengths of 2′ of strong mason’s string or twine.

• Something to strain off the dye rich liquid from the boiled plant material, a large colander, old pillowcase or silk sack would all work fine

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Harvesting the Plant:

The leafy growth can be harvested easily using a blade or handheld set of pruning shears. As a rule of thumb for harvesting foraged dye plants, it is best to gather at least 3 times the amount of plant material by weight when compared to the material being dyed. Often, the more plant material you can gather, the richer the color. Because Schinus Molle is so ubiquitous and has so much fresh growth, I gathered enough to stuff my large dye pot entirely full with leafy material in just a few minutes.

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Mordanting the Fabric:

Mordants are compounds which fix the dyestuff to the fabrics. This common mordant is Alum. The mordanting process described here can be done at any time in advance of the actual dye process. The fabric can be dried and stored until ready to dye.

If you’re pressed for time, as an alternative to this pre-mordanting process described, you may elect to meta-mordant, that is, to apply the measured mordant directly to the dye vat, skipping these next four steps. You may have differing results, but it should work out!

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1 : Using your kitchen scale, weigh out an amount of alum equal to 25% of the weight of the fabric you are dyeing. If you do not have access to a scale, 3 TBS of alum should be sufficient to treat an average garment (dress, t-shirt, or a couple yards of fabric)

2 : Fill your dye pot with water and bring to a boil. This vessel should have enough water in it to allow your dyed goods to be able to swish about freely. Remove from heat and dissolve the alum in the liquid.

3 : Submerge your fabric. Resume heat, keeping your liquid at or just below a simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally.

4 : Using the tongs, remove the fabric from the hot liquid and hang to dry. The remaining mordant bath can be disposed of in any drain.

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Folding a simple shibori stripe pattern:

Follow these instructions to create a set of stripes across the length of the fabric, or simply skip ahead and the whole piece

1 : Lay out your fabric yardage on a clean surface, ideally on a large piece of fabric or an ironing board.

2 : Fold in half, then half again so you are left with a long rectangle. Check to see if your dowels are long enough by laying one down on top of the fabric. You should have at least an inch of dowel sticking out off of either side of the fabric. If the fabric is wider than the dowel, you will need fold the fabric in half again.

3 : Zig-zag fold the length of the fabric with about 1.5 inches between folds.

4 : Place one dowel on the work surface and set your fabric on top of it, centered. Place the other dowel on top and tightly pinch the fabric between the two.

5 : Make sure you have at least an inch of dowel overhang on both sides of the bundle.

6 : Tie each of the ends of the sticks as tightly together as possible. If it is too loose, pigment will seep in and dye the whole fabric.

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Extracting Pigment and Dyeing:

1 : Fill your dye pot with enough water so that the fabric you are dyeing will be able to move around freely. Bring to a boil and fill with your foraged dyestuff.

2 : Allow to simmer for about an hour as the pigment is transferred from the leaves to the dye vat.

3 : Remove the spent leaves from the dye vat with your strainer. This material is great for composing.

4 : Gently immerse your fabrics into the vat.

5 : Pigment transfer with Schinus Molle is very quick but with some other dyestuffs you may want to leave the pieces in the dye liquor for an hour or more.

6 : When the pigment has fully saturated the piece and it does not appear to be getting any darker, remove from the vat and rinse your piece.

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Hang dry your pieces.

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And dream up what to do next.

Written by Graham Keegan

Photos by Hilary Dust

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