Have you ever tried dyeing with Safflower? It's something I had done, but only years ago, in my art school days. Talk of safflower dyeing kept popping up in different places for me recently (including as one of our dye garden seeds) so I thought it was time to give it a go again.
It's a little more involved than most natural dyeing, so if you're a beginner, this newsletter is a little more technical than most that I send, but I still wanted to share what I learned, and I'll go back to basics in upcoming letters.....
It's the petals that you dye with, and you need quite a lot of them. Most resources recommend 100-200% WOF (weight of fibre), which is a huge amount, especially if you compare it to something like cochineal, which is usually more like 5% WOF. I began with just 100%.
Since the petals are so light and small, you need something to contain them. I had my serger already set up for another project, so I made a quick little bag from some muslin, and sewed it shut, almost like a little safflower stuffed pillow. I would suggest making the bag bigger than it needs to be, it makes it much easier to squeeze all the liquid out, which you need to do over and over.
The first step is to extract the yellow dye, which you do by simply soaking the petal pouch in cold water. After an hour or more, squeeze it out, then put the pouch into some fresh water and soak it again. You should see the colour becoming less concentrated with each soak, as below.
You can save the first two or three extractions and use as a yellow dye. Combine them in a pot, add your pre-mordanted fibres, and cook for at least 45 minutes.
But even after these first three or so extractions, you need to keep going. But now you can just dump the extraction water. It feels weird, as there still appears to be some yellow, but I tried dyeing some pieces in it and hardly any dye took up. You have to do this over and over, until there seems to be no colour at all coming out.
I enlisted my six year old for this - she was quite happy to just play in the liquid and repeatedly squish and squeeze the bag. She was up for doing it way more times than I would have been, haha.
You're aiming for a pH of 11, which is pretty high. I have a roll of pH test strips that I used to test it - these are great fun, and again I had my kid playing along with me - we ended up testing the pH of a whole bunch of random liquids in the kitchen (lemon vs lime, etc) ;)
Once your liquid is at pH 11, put the bag back in - even though it was previously showing no more colour in regular water, in this alkaline water, a new reddish dye will appear. Let it soak for at least an hour, then squeeze all the colour and liquid out.
You now need to turn the bath acidic - aiming for a pH of around 6. I did this by adding about 1/2 regular white vinegar. Your pink bath is finally ready.
Interestingly, for pink, you can only use cellulose, or plant fibres. If you use silk, you will get a (gorgeous) coral colour (the left hand fabric in the top photo). Wool will not dye at all. And secondly, you don't need to mordant your cellulose fibres - the carthamin (the active dye component) attaches to the glucose in the fibre. If you do use mordanted fibre, it will of course still dye, but the colour veers more towards peach than pink.
The pink dyebath also does not get heated. Just leave the fibre in the bath for several hours or overnight, stirring often if you don't want your fabric to be streaked.
Because it is a cold process, the pink dye of safflower is also a good candidate for shibori - I did some simple itajime (clamped) pieces that turned out quite lovely.
So, after all that, I must tell you that safflower has only medium lightfastness. But it is an important historical dye, especially in Japan, and I think that because of that, and it's unique methods and extraordinary pink colour make it one worth playing with and understanding. We definitely had fun with it!