On a chilly Sunday morning, a group of women sat together in a 1747 farmhouse to bask in a common interest in out of the box creative processes.

On March 11-12, Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton held a Plants and Flowers for Natural Dyes workshop taught by Pat Browdowski, the former head gardener at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Attendees learned about gardening and foraging for natural dyes as well as the importance dyes have played throughout history. Following lectures, attendees went hands-on and dyed their own garments with natural dyes.

On the first day of the workshop, Browdowski taught the group of 11 about plant identification, pH of mordants, making patterns, overdyeing to create secondary colors and plants used to make basic dyes on an open fire:

  • Yellow dyes — Osage orange, Goldenrod, Marigold

  • Orange — Annatto, Quercitron

  • Brown — Walnut, Mullein

  • Red — Madder, Sandalwood

  • Blue — Indigo

The workshop even had dye plants for participants to buy and continue their dyeing journey. The available plants included Weld, Woad, Japanese Indigo and Cotton.

Wollam Gardens’s next workshop will be Ikebana Workshop with Arrin Sutliff of Tint Floral at 1 p.m. on April 1. Go online to https://wollamgardens.com/shop/ikebana-workshop-with-arrin-sutliff-of-tint-floral for more information.

Attendees, some of which came as far as Richmond and Washington D.C., had the opportunity to get creative and dye such things as yarn and silk scarves.

Renee Hoyos of Richmond spins her own yarn. On the second day of the workshop, she brought a basket full of her homemade skeins — yarn that is wound into an oblong shape — to dye.

First, she took two skeins and soaked them in water for about 30 minutes after deciding she wanted to use Indigo to dye them.

As Browdowski explained in her lectures, in order for garments to be successfully dyed with Indigo, there must be a complete absence of oxygen. Since Hoyos’s yarn was spun from wool, it naturally played host to a lot of oxygen, which was necessary for keeping its prior host, the sheep, dry from the elements.

The soaking would eliminate the oxygen, making it an ideal candidate for Indigo dying, but not before the mixture itself went through some innovative chemistry processes spearheaded by Browdowski.

The dye needed to be a specific acidic level before it needed to be simmered and reduced. Once reduced, an element to trigger fermentation was needed - such as urine. Lucky for attendees, Browdowski instead used a store-bought product to emulate similar results. The fermentation of the dye eliminates the oxygen, paving the way for dyeing. 

Once articles are placed in the Indigo, they turn a yellow color. It’s only after the garment is reintroduced to oxygen does it begin to slowly turn green and into blue.

Mother and daughter team Cherie and Claire Downey unraveled skeins for dyeing as well as prepared silk scarves. 

Claire Downey took some of her yarn and dyed it in Logwood to create a plum-maroon color before dipping half of it into rust, transforming it into a dark navy blue. 

Downey’s mother took to the Marigold pot to dye a silk scarf. Once it was completely golden, she dipped it into the Indigo pot, which once removed, turned it into a blue-green pattern that resembled traditional tie dye.

Browdowski has given natural dye workshops for fiber arts groups and museums in the Mid-Atlantic area for 20 years. Last year, she researched the plant histories and dye methods of 57 dye plants to grow, forage, or purchase and published them in a manual to help others.


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