Dyeing with safflowers has always been a bit of a mystery to me, but when I was given a bunch last summer from our fabulous local florist and traditional greengrocer 'Sprout & Flower' I had to give them a try. Knowing their reputation for being more ‘fugitive’ than ‘fast’ I wasn’t over hopeful but, I thought, there must be a reason why people have been naturally dyeing with safflower petals for millenia.
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorious) is a thistle-like plant in the Asteraceae family, originally native to the Middle East but now widespread. If you have a well-drained, sunny corner to grow them, the bright orange and yellow safflower heads on tall stems will make a striking addition to any plot - and insects will love them too.
Safflower is one of the oldest known cultivated crops and traces of safflower dye have been found in Egyptian textiles dating back over three thousand years. The plant was introduced to Europe in the 16th century and until the 20th century was still being used to dye the red tape bindings of legal documents – hence the term ‘red tape’.
But Safflower is a complex, pH sensitive dye plant containing both yellow and pink dyes that react differently on different fibres. The yellow can be used on plant fibres such as linen and cotton and also on wool, which requires heat during the dyeing process. The red ‘carthamin’ dye is damaged by heat so will not dye wool, but is suitable for plant fibres and for silk.
Achieving vivid pink shades on silk, like those historically associated with Japanese silk dyeing, requires a lengthy process to separate out the red carthamin dye from the residual yellow dye that would result in shades of orange. This complex process for dyeing silk is best described by Jenny Dean in her wonderfully accessible book ‘Wild Colour’, and is not covered as part of this blog.
The aim of this blog is primarily to see what shades of pink can be achieved on plant fibres and how this unstable dye behaves.
As already mentioned, safflowers contain two dye colours; yellow and red. The yellow dye is water soluble and will fade quickly, though it can be used on mordanted fibre. The red dye, carthamin, is the prize and requires a high pH solution (alkaline) to extract the colour.
- The first thing you need to think about is the WOF (weight of fibre). At 100% WOF (that’s equal weight of dyestuff and fibre) you’ll need quite a lot of petals even if you’re planning to dye a small item.
- The WOF for safflowers is based on their dry weight, so if using fresh petals you would need to double the quantity.
- It takes a little time and patience to remove the petals from the flower heads. These can then be used immediately or dried and stored for later use.
- My gifted safflowers yielded 11g of fresh petals, but just 5g once they had dried out, so to dye all the samples I wanted to experiment with I had to add to this by buying some more. (georgeweil.com)
- For this experiment I used three plant (cellulose) fibres: cotton fabric, linen yarn and banana yarn.
I did not use wool (a protein fibre) for safflower pink.
- It’s not necessary to mordant fibres being dyed safflower pink, but I included some mordanted samples out of interest. For instructions on how to prepare different fibres for dyeing see our online course 'An Introduction to Natural Dyeing'.
- Some recipes suggest 100% WOF for dyeing with safflowers and some 200% WOF, so I decided to try both, as follows:
DYEING PINK WITH SAFFLOWER
- The extraction of the safflower red dye is done using cold water, as the dye is damaged by heat.
- Before extracting the red dye it’s necessary to rinse out the main yellow dye, which readily washes away in cold water.
- So having weighed out the amount of petals needed for your project, put them into a net bag and soak them overnight in cold water. The next morning rinse them out well, washing away as much of the yellow dye as possible, and then squeeze them out. Put the yellow dye aside for later use if required.
- Next prepare the alkaline solution for extracting the red dye. I used soda ash for this, adding it bit by bit until the pH reader indicated a pH of 11. Alternatively you can use pH papers and gauge the approximate alkalinity of the solution using the colour chart.
- Once you’ve prepared the alkaline bath, add the safflower petals and leave them to soak in the solution for an hour or two.
- Then strain the petals through a fine muslin cloth and squeeze out well.
- The next stage in this dual process is to reduce the pH level of the dye bath to an acidic pH6 with the addition of white vinegar. Add the vinegar slowly and keep testing the dye bath until it reaches the correct pH. The dye bath will change colour, turning redder as the pH reduces.
- The dye bath is now ready and the fibres can be immersed and left overnight.
- The next day remove the fibres and hang them to dry without washing. The result should be a vibrant, fuchsia pink on the non-mordanted fibre. The mordanted fibre gives a salmon pink due to the tannin mordant.
DRYING 100% WOF (top) / DRYING 200% WOF (bottom)
- Fibres always dry to a lighter colour but I wasn’t expecting the change to be this dramatic – and disappointing! I was also surprised to see streaky lines where the cotton fabric had hung over the drying poles. The yarns were unevenly dyed too, though I thought the candy-cane-pink banana yarns were very pretty.
- Washing the fibres lightly in cold water and a little detergent resulted in further loss of colour.
DYEING YELLOW WITH SAFFLOWER
- Using the initial yellow extraction solution that I’d set aside, I dyed some cotton fabric and woollen skeins using 100% WOF and 200% WOF, heating the dye bath to 80C to allow the dye to penetrate the inner cortex of the wool.
- The result, before washing, was a bold yellow but still with streaky lines on the cotton fabric. The woollen skeins dyed more evenly.
- A cold water wash resulted in some colour loss, but not as much as the safflower pink.
As Jenny Dean says “All dyers should experience the brilliance of safflower pinks”, and there is nothing quite like safflower’s neon allure, BUT ……..madder root, another ancient dye source, gives subtle and colourfast shades of coral and salmon pink as well as the bold red that it’s renowned for, (see our blog Make The Most of Your Madder). Cochineal, produced from a South American insect, will give vivid and reliable reds and pinks but this is an animal rather than a plant dye.
Weld (a flavonoid dye) gives beautiful shades of pale to almost luminous yellow which are far more colourfast than the fugitive safflower.
So why did ancestral dyeing communities grow large areas of safflower in order to produce this tricky dye? Astrid of Midgaards Have (w.midgaardshave.com) suggests it was the only way for most dyers to achieve a bright pink; kermes and lac being more expensive and cochineal from the New World not available until the 16th century.
It’s hard to imagine how ancient dyers worked out this complicated process for extracting safflower pink and then applying it to silk. Perhaps successive dye baths and emersions resulted in more solid results – better than mine anyway! One can only admire their knowledge and skill.