Natural Dyes — The Unscientific Method

My cavalier approach to natural dye documentation must drive some of you nuts. Any 8th grader knows from working on science projects that I go about things all wrong. Well, maybe not all wrong. But I certainly don’t make it easy for others to replicate my results. When was the last time you read “weight of fiber” here? Right.

Experiments with pH shifts in naturally dyed wool yarns.

This is going to sound awful, but I really don’t care if others can “replicate” my results. I do care, and care deeply, that others feel encouraged to explore uses of natural dye materials they can grow or gather where they live. That’s why I share these experiments in the first place. Chances are you won’t have access to the exact same materials. Or you won’t have the recommended weight of materials in relation to weight of fiber. Or your water chemistry will be different. Or any number of other variables will make your results unique. That’s why I write about the process, instead of the product.

Notes on natural dye experiments.So much for my big juicy rationalization for not following all the rules of the scientific method. In case you decide that’s important to you, though, here’s the first thing that came up when I Googled “science project documentation basics”. It outlines the scientific method as:

  • Ask a Question
  • Do Background Research
  • Construct a Hypothesis
  • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
  • Communicate Your Results

And that’s pretty much what I do: I see what grows around me, look for information about it (at least make sure it’s not toxic), try to anticipate what results certain processes might have, test my theories, ponder, and write up a blog post that helps me both understand and communicate what I learned.

Here’s where I stray from the scientific method:

“It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. A “fair test” occurs when you change only one factor (variable) and keep all other conditions the same.”

Oops. As often as not, if I’m not impressed with results I pop that skein into whatever leftover dyebath I’ve not yet flung into the compost. And maybe another one after that. Or I grab my control skein to try a quick alternate experiment. Or…. you get the idea.

Natural dye experiments with pH shifts.

I find it very helpful to photograph the materials, the process, the results, and whatever chicken-scratch notes I’ve made along the way.

For the record, in the picture above there’s no heat under that dyepot in which wool yarn is soaking in an alkaline dyebath. After simmering frozen-then-thawed willow leaves in an alkaline dyebath (hence the blue color of the test strip), I strained out the solids and just soaked the yarn overnight. When I drained the yarn, I wished I had split it into two skeins. But I hadn’t. So I made a choice and moved on, rinsing the skein right away instead of letting it oxidize for a week or so first.

That’s what I’ll try next time. Unless I get distracted by another thought.

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Donna Kallner

fiber artist, teacher and explorer, inspired by ancient fiber techniques and all the ways contemporary fiber artists give old ideas a new spin

4 thoughts on “Natural Dyes — The Unscientific Method”

  1. Hi Donna,
    I appreciate your honesty. I had recently thrown out my notebook. Trying to stick to scientific method when the variables (plants, water, mordants, amounts, heat, part of the world) are innumerable, gives little chance for an accurate record of results.
    I’ve tried and now I just enjoy the ride. Every try is now an experiment in surprise and the results become precious one-of-a-kinds.

    1. It is a bit easier to enjoy the results of those variables when not measuring them against an expectation! I do admire those who keep meticulous and beautiful notes that add to our body of knowledge. But I am definitely more of a mad science dyer. It’s nice to be in good company, Roxanne.

  2. I think there is really something to be said for making “informed decisions” with all of the variables in natural materials. You have enough knowledge about the material/process/technique that you are pretty sure you know what’s going to happen when you dump something into that leftover dye bath. And rather than meticulous notes about weights and measures, you have gained a little nugget of insight at the end – yup, that did what I thought (or it totally didn’t, so don’t do that again). Then it becomes more about stacking the odds in your favor: ie I am pretty sure if I want this to turn out a golden yellow color I need to do X,Y and Z. I think there is something really valuable about not relying on “recipes”, but using your experience to guide the end result.

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