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PHOTO: Patricia Lehnhardt
Deriving the pigment from a plant to make paint is not the quickest way to add color and design to fabric, but it is a fun and fascinating process. Most paints today are made from artificially produced pigments and synthetic binders, but I like to take the all-natural approach whenever possible.
To extract the pigment from plants you can start with fresh or dried plants. For the project below, I used weld, coreopsis, madder, Queen Anne’s lace and walnut hulls.
Soy milk is used as a binder to adhere the plant pigment to the fiber. It is easy to make with fresh soy beans. The natural protein oxidizes in the curing process to form a non-water-soluble protein polymer, which holds the color to the cloth. It needs to cure for several weeks before washing and using the fabric—three weeks is minimum, but as long as three months is even better.
Use these recipes for making your own pigments, binders and paints to decorate fabrics for all kinds of uses and sewing projects.
This recipe is for a small amount of pigment: 1 or 2 teaspoons depending on the plant. This is plenty for the four napkins I made. If you want more paint, just increase the amounts proportionately.
- 2 cups dried or 4 cups fresh chopped plant material
- 2 quarts water
- 1 T. powdered alum
- 1½ teaspoons sodium carbonate (soda ash)
Place the plant material, water and alum in a cooking pot designated only for crafting use, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain into another container, discarding the solids. Stir the sodium carbonate into the liquid. Let settle for 10 minutes. The pigment will separate from the water, which you will see as tiny specks of color. Drape a piece of muslin over a bowl and pour the warm liquid through, catching the pigment on the cloth. It will take about an hour or so to drain completely. Scrape the colored paste onto a thick cardboard to dry. After several days, the mixture will dry and crack and easily be scraped off the cardboard. Place it on a smooth glass or marble surface, and grind into a fine powder with a glass muller. (A mortar and pestle could also be used, but the powder will not be quite as fine.) Store in a jar indefinitely.
- 1/4 cup soy beans
- 2 cups water, plus more for soaking
Soak the beans in water for at least 4 hours. Rinse the beans lightly and place in a blender with 2 cups of water. Blend on high speed for 2 to 3 minutes until very finely ground. Strain through a muslin cloth, squeezing out as much milk as possible from the crumbled beans. Use the binder within a day, and refrigerate any leftover, using it within a day. The milk needs to be very fresh to work well.
- 1 tsp. pigment powder
- soy milk
- sodium alginate (optional)
On the glass plate with a muller, mix the pigment powder with an equal amount of soy milk to start. You can add more milk to thin it, or if it become too thin sprinkle on a few grains of sodium alginate to thicken it. Grind into a paste.
Sizing Your Fabric
To create a smooth surface for stamping and also to assist the pigment to the fiber of your fabric, it is best to size the fabric. Use a large, soft brush to brush the milk in an even layer onto the fabric. Hang to dry overnight.
Stamping and Curing Your Fabric
Using a soft brush apply the paint to the stamp and press the stamp to the fabric. Reapply paint before each stamp. When finished with the design, hang the fabric in a warm, dry place to cure for several weeks. Gently wash by hand with mild soap.
There are many plants that produce stable colors. Experiment with those you find or plant on your farm. Here is a list of native North American plants used for dyes.