The Art Of Natural Dyeing - A Conversation with Jessica Unsell


"The Earth is one big spectrum of color" -- Jessica Unsell on the art of dyeing

We see so many mesmerizing colors in the the natural world and with some patience and knowledge it's possible to capture them onto our favorite medium. I talked to Jessica Unsell, creator of Wild Fire Water, about her passion for the natural dyeing process onto fabric. Her work speaks for itself in beauty and Eco-consciousness, creating heirloom pieces for anyone to enjoy. 
I had the pleasure of collaborating with her on my own recent project and wanted to expand on our conversation! Read on to hear what she had to say:

Tell us a little about the process of dyeing with natural materials. First of all, thank you for collaborating with me!  I love to “spread to love” of natural dyeing and see how the dyed fabric ends up.  The process of natural dyeing has many stages.  First the fabric is pre-treated before dyeing.  Since your canvas was cotton (cellulose plant fiber) it was scoured in hot water and soda ash.  Scouring is a deep cleaning of the fiber, it removes dirt, hidden waxes and oils within the fabric.  It also opens the fiber to ensure an even dye.  The next step is “mordanting”.  The word “mordant” comes from the Latin word modere, meaning "to bite or sting".  This is an essential step to ensure the color will stay put.  In your case, your canvas was mordanted with the natural metallic salt Alum.  Alum is considered the safest of all metal mordants.  For other items, like blankets (that may be chewed on) I use another method where I dip the blankets in soya milk repeatedly and dry between dips.  Though this is is not a mordant per say, the protein in Soya acts as a binder to hold the dye.  

What sort of plants are used? Natural dying is so much more than just plants!  You can also use insects, mushrooms, minerals and even food!

What inspires you the most about hand dyeing?  I think I am inspired most by that fact that all these colors are found in nature, that the earth is one big spectrum of color!  I also love the challenge of mixing and layering dyes to try to get custom colors.  Natural dye is so far from being perfect and I’m constantly learning valuable life lessons from it… it is teaching me patience and acceptance among other things.

What is your favorite ingredient to work with?  My current favorite dye stuff is wood shavings and wood chips.  These tannin rich barks hold beautiful color inside them ... that and I have a soft spot for anything wood.

What surprised you the most about the process?  The sensitivity of some dye stuff!  A slight shift in PH, a few drops of iron or even washing in hard water can all significantly change color.  There has been SO many times I started with one color and ended up with another, who knew!
Where would you recommend someone start if they are interested?
  Get a book, take a class, watch some you-tube videos.  If you are interested, just start!  You have to start somewhere….  I’ve only been dyeing with natural dye for the last 2 years (synthetic dyes since 2001).  It’s overwhelming at first, so start slow and learn the process before taking on big projects.  Record all your dyeing in a journal.  Most of all have fun and get dirty!

Anything else you'd like to add?  YES!  To anyone reading this, please educate yourself on the harmful effects that synthetic dyes have on the environment and your health!   The skin is the largest organ in your body and is highly absorbent.   Commercial dyes contain toxins that are likely to be absorbed through your skin over time.  Some dyes even have medicinal properties that may be beneficial to your health.  If you eat organic, why not wear organic?  Natural dyes have dated as far back as 2,600 BC.   The art of natural dyeing is as old as civilization.  It might not be tomorrow, or even 20 years from now but I do think natural dyeing is (not only the past but) the future!

You can check out all her work on her social media site Instagram & Etsy store.

Thank you for stopping by!

I will be offering these  limited, naturally hand dyed bags at my Etsy shop this Fall, 10-11 2018


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