Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Blood Root the Recipe

The photos above are of commercial cane dyed with bloodroot. These instructions are from Sandra Pallie a citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and member of the Cherokee Artists Association. This is as she instructed me:

What you need:

  1. 2 gals. of water
  2. 1 cup of cut blood root
  3. 1 cup of plain table salt to set the dye
  4. 1 coil of commercial cane
  5. Enamel Stock Pot (commonly called your dye pot)
  6. Nylon stockings either panty hose or knee highs

Cut the blood root into pieces and place in a nylon stocking, this eliminates the need to strain your dye bath and keeps the natural material from cluttering the dye bath up.

Combine the water, blood root and salt in your dye pot and boil it for about 10 minutes. Then add your cane (or other natural material) continue to boil for a few more minutes. Remove from the heat and set it aside for 1 to 2 hours.

Now check your cane by taking a small piece out of the dye pot to check the color. This is probably the most important part of the process, since it is this checking that will show you the color you have obtained. Remember when wet the cane color will look dark, so if you let the cane dry, you will get a better idea of what the color will be when you remove it. If the color is too light, you can at this point add more bloodroot boil the mixture for another 10 minutes and again let the mixture set for an additional period of time. The length of the time you leave the cane in the dye pot depends on the color you want, darker takes longer than lighter and will require more dye material. Your color will be anywhere from a pale yellow to a dark burnt orange.

Adding alum to the dye bath will turn the blood root to a more red-orange. So it just depends on what color you want and the best way to achieve the desired color is to take the basics and experiment. Alum is considered a mordant and there are likewise other mordants you can experiment with to see if and how it will change the color.

Once you have finished or gotten to the desired color, you can put the remaining dye bath into a container and freeze it for future use. It will last for about a year. Any remaining roots you have you should also be put in the freezer for future use.

Mike Dart, also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a member of the Cherokee Artists Association, brings his dye to a boil and then simmers it for about 1/2 hour, so with every basket weaver who uses the natural dyes, the process becomes one of personal preference.

I'm new at this so, I'm still experimenting.

The cane dyed in the photos above, was made with 1 gal of water and one cup of blood root, however, 2 cups of blood root would have given me a darker color and 2 gals of water would have given me a more consistent color since the cane could have circulated in the water better. Since this was my first time trying this, the color came out good but could have been darker. I also simmered my dye bath with the cane for about a 1/2 hour, then set is aside for a short time and simmered it again. I repeated this process for several hours however, Sandra tells me it should not take more than 2 hours to reach the desired dark color. If by that time it has not gotten dark enough, then you would need to add more blood root and repeat the boiling process again.

I did not use the alum mordant since I was looking for a color which would match that used by Eva Wolfe in her baskets. Her bloodroot is darker than mine but it appears she likewise did not use any type of mordant in her dye for at least some of her baskets.

This same dye method will work on any natural material including woods splits, honeysuckle etc and reed used in Cherokee basketweaving as well. You will of course need to vary the recipe depending on the amount of material you are dyeing.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Other Dye Materials

Well if it grows in the wild and is either small enough to fit in a dye pot or can be cut small enough to fit in a dye pot, it can probably be used to dye cane for baskets.

Other examples of natural dye material:

  • Red onion mentioned earlier;
  • Spinach;
  • Beets;
  • Red cabbage;
  • Leaf of the River Cane plant;
  • All types of berries, raspberry, blueberry (dyeing with berries is somewhat different than with say Red onion);
  • All types of flowers, leaves, bark and roots

Dyes used by the early pioneers:

So look around you and see what is available!

Yellow Onion Skins - Grey/Yellow

I use Hamburg/Bleached commercial cane for my baskets. The bleached cane comes very white, so I find, to restore it to it's near natural color, Yellow Onion Skins will restore some color to it. Just enough color to reduce the white effect of the bleached cane color.

Here are some interesting sites about Yellow Onion skins and how they were used:

It is the outer skin of the onion that is used. Red Onions likewise will produce a nice mauve color which is used for dye.

Black Walnut - the tree & fruit

The Tree:

This above site has some good information on the black walnut tree. It is the hull of the Black Walnut fruit (nut) that is most often used in Cherokee dyes. This was a dye used by ancient Cherokee for dyeing baskets.

Modernly there is available Walnut Powder which is used in Cherokee dyes. This is a *crushed* powder made from the Walnut Hull and can be purchased at most basketry shops.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Blood Root - the plant

This is what the Blood root plant looks like above the ground. The root system below the ground it what is used in dyes. These roots are long tubular roots. The nuts lying among the plants in this photo are acorns, not part of the Blood root plant. The little white flowers are those of the Blood root and it blooms in the spring of the year. Although some sites call bloodroot extremely poisonous, for dye purposes, I don't think you're in any danger, but I don't think I'd say drink a glass of it...:) Just rinse your hands well when you're using it.

More scientific info on the Blood root:

The last link gives you info on medicinal uses of Blood root, apparently the effectiveness of Blood root used in this manner is controversial.

The tools

This is a list of the tools you need for using natural dyes:

  1. An enamel dye pot - I use both the enamel and stainless steel dye pots - these are large stock pots that can be purchased in a variety of sizes from K-Mart or Wal-Mart - some people use one dye pot exclusively for the Walnut dye since it requires an Iron Mordant;
  2. Nylons - either panyhose or knee highs - I've found the knee highs work really well and will hold at least 1 cup of dye material leaving plenty of room to tie a knot at the top - this prevents your dye material from getting in the dye bath and eliminates straining the dye bath to remove the dye material;
  3. Measuring cups in various sizes;
  4. Measuring spoons in various sizes;
  5. Wooden spoons in various sizes - some folks use a set exclusively for Walnut dye
  6. Natural Dye material - Bloodroot, yellow onion skins, Walnut Hulls or Powder, these are the main materials I am presently using; any natural growing material has the potential of producing a natural dye; barks and berries are frequently used as well;
  7. Ordinary table salt;
  8. Water softener, if you have hard water in your area
  9. Some coils of commercial cane - these instructions will be for 2.5mm to 3.0mm of commercial cane, which weight about 1/2 pound each.


I am going to post info here on natural dyes and how to use them with commercial cane at present. Any dye recipe that works with wool will also work with cane or reed. You will see a lot of dye recipes on the web for wool. I have learned the dye process from Sandra Pallie, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and member of the Cherokee Artists Association in Oklahoma, with input from Mike Dart and his natural dye process. Listed here are the dyes that were most often used by the Cherokee in the Southeast, which were blood root and black walnut.

I am learning that probably the best dye recipes you find in books are the recipes for Cotton or Linen, if a version is given for those two materials, however, the recipes for wool will also work. I always mordant with Tara Powder first, not so much with Alum, unless it is needed for the color I want, since Alum has a tendency to turn colors yellow. When you're experimenting, rather than the all in one dye method, you might dye your material and then try putting the dyed material into a color modifier solution when you're done. This way you can see how the modifier changes the color. Iron will always *sadden* your colors, Alum is suppose to brighten your colors, but it seems to yellow the colors I've tried thus far. Try a test piece in your color modifier before you put the entire coil of cane in it.

I am also not a chemist, however, I've found in most sources the person writing the book apparently is very chemistry oriented so gives most of the recipes with weights and measures you'd probably find in a chemistry lab. Most commercial dye stuff comes in 2, 4, 6 or 8 oz sizes so that takes some of the guess work out of the measuring. Most recipes also are for 1 lb of material, commercial cane is usually 1/2 lb or little over, so in some cases you need to cut the recipes in half. However, not to worry, if you don't use enough dye stuff, you can always add more before taking your cane out of the dye bath. So this isn't always a precious process.