Dyeing Experiment With Chinquapin

Dyeing Experiment

Mixing chemical compounds with Ozark chinquapin bark creates a variety of colors for cloth dye

by A.J. Hendershott

Although I knew the Ozark chinquapin was used to make dye, I really had no recipe or directions to work with. I wanted to do some experiments to see what colors I could get from the Ozark chinquapin, but I needed some help. So, I took a dive into the color rich world of natural dyes to learn how best to proceed. I referred back to Jenny Dean’s book on Wild Color. It gave me procedures, materials, equipment and good explanations for a beginner like me. A section I liked in particular was where Dean showed dye plants, the part used, and potential colors depending on if alum was used first, iron was used after the fact; or both. That was helpful indeed because it showed the variety of colors and intensities depending on whether you used bark or leaves, and how the dye process was organized. There really is a lot of potential with dyeing with native plants.

If you want to learn more about this process, I recommend Dean’s book in addition to Chris McLaughlin’s A Garden to Dye For. Mclaughlin is an effective communicator that helped me understand the what and why of dyeing. Together, these two books were my go to references.

Here is dyeing simplified:

1. Clean the fibers so anything that would prevent dye absorption is removed. This is called
2. Mordant fibers. This helps the color fix to the fibers and in some cases modify the color slightly.  This can be done before, during or after the dye bath depending on circumstances.
3. Cook in a dye bath according to the item you have as a dye source. This varies from bark, to flowers, to roots. Read up on what you want to use.
4. Do a follow up mordant if you want to modify the color some more.
5. Rinse clean and dry.

There are plenty of additional details needed to dye fabric which is why I recommend the books. 

I examined oak bark dye recipes to discover I needed about a peck of bark to work with. This amounts to a little over 2 gallons worth. That was a small problem since chinquapin trees have become so scarce. I had access to some living chinquapin trees, but I was not willing to cut one down for this project. They were more important alive and producing seeds. However, I found out one of our research test plots was trimming some limbs to make maintenance easier and to introduce cameras for security. I eagerly made arrangements to get a bundle of those limbs.  Once in hand, I whittled every scrap of bark off that I could get. 

Secure in a bucket, I went to work gather materials to dye with and creating some mordants. 

With guidance I placed my bark in a bucket for a week to soak and create a dye bath. Before I did the fiber dyeing, I poured off the liquid and started the heat.

I experimented with different mordants and modifiers and here is the process I liked. I cleaned the cotton and wool fibers with washing soap to ensure nothing would prevent the dye from saturating. That part is called scouring.

For cotton I mordanted the fibers with a tannic acid concoction made from soaking acorns. Following this I soaked the fibers in a solution of alum mordant. While doubling up on mordant methods may seem unnecessary, I can’t argue with the results. I experimented and did one and not the other and each singular mordant yielded lower quality results.

Using both, the colors were bright and every fiber had the same even color. That is what I wanted. Vegetable fibers simply need the extra attention to get good dye results. Using the tannin/alum method I generated an almost golden tan color. Letting the cloth steep in the warm bath for several hours improved the color saturation, but going over night didn’t improve things much more. Wool worked well with just the alum mordant. And came out a light golden tan. The cotton cloth came out a similar hue. 

For other cloth, I followed the dye bath with an iron mordant. It gave the cotton and wool fibers a purple color. Dean’s book wild color suggested when using oak bark and iron mordant, to soak the fibers over night for best results. I tried pulling the cloth out after an hour and observed the color was not very rich. So, I did as she suggested and pulled the cloth the next morning with a much deeper color. Leaving the cloth in the bath for extra time beyond overnight, had minimal improvements and is not recommended.

Remember that in Dora Givens’ recollection she said, “The colors were set in the cloth with the aid of alum and salt.” She was right about that, but I assumed she meant it also generated the purple. My experiments showed the alum is indeed used to set the color especially with cotton. However, it was the iron mordant that modified the color from tan to purple.  I used a copper mordant as well and the wool fibers took on an olive drab type of green. The cotton fibers seemed to have the same color until I did the final rinse and discovered the fabric was more tan/brown than green. While I was disappointed the green hue was lost on the cotton, it was a clear result.

Once all of the dyeing was complete, I dried the skeins and cloth and photographed them for documentation purposes.

My results are here for others to follow and do their own experiments. I didn’t experiment with the effects of pH on color. I didn’t use chrome mordant or tin due to the toxicity, and I couldn’t find any evidence that people from the Ozarks dwellers from the 1800s and early 1900s used them.

A few tips:

• As a matter of ethics, until the Ozark chinquapin tree is once again common across the landscape, please try to take bark from trees that are freshly dead from natural causes or from
limbs that had to be removed for safety or maintenance reasons.
• Do your dye work outdoors if you can. Alum powder and boiling some items can be unwelcome to other noses and in some cases are caustic. Enjoy a sunny day outdoors.
• Don’t rush enjoy the project. 

As a final thought: I suspect that although I had some success coaxing color from bark from a rare tree, there is still a chance that I am missing something.

Take for example how the Cherokee and Choctaw are known to dye river cane with blood root. Cane is difficult to dye and few colors are available that cane will take. Bloodroot makes a soft orangish red.  However, the Choctaw tribe got a deep red by boiling swamp dock to make a bright yellow. Then they boil bark ashes from a red oak tree to modify the cane’s yellow color to red. If that hadn’t been recorded would we have ever known? How many other additives are out there that haven’t been passed down over the decades? It is sad to think we have lost so much plant use knowledge.

I was not able to produce red as the US forest service website indicated was possible. There may be some sources they cited that I am not privy to, and you can be sure I will be digging to see what else is out there. Was there a different modifier out there? Was there another step I was not aware of? Or simply was the report for red misinformation? My suspicion is we are missing something. 

While it is discouraging to think about what we have lost, there is an upside. There is a lot of room for experimentation as the Ozark chinquapin is restored to the landscape. Lastly, I am pleased I was able to do these experiments and preserve this information.

The Ozark chinquapin tree is a tree loaded with value. The nut is edible and nutritious, the wood is rot resistant and was once used to make fence posts, shingles, rail road ties and musical instruments. The leaves made tea and medicine, and the bark made dye and could tan leather. Surely, a tree like this is worthy of our efforts to save it!