In her south Edmonton kitchen, it only takes Deborah Merriam a few hours to demonstrate how to transform a couple skeins of white, local wool into antique-gold-coloured yarn.
Merriam was one of the workshop facilitators during the first-ever Edmonton Resilience Festival in February 2015, teaching 10 participants how to use natural dyes in an immersion dye bath — in this case in particular, using foods from the kitchen as dyes.
“They’re all the kinds of foods that you might be a little more careful when you’re preparing or eating, because they can stain your clothes,” Merriam said, adding that onion skins, used in her demonstration, are usually used to add a layer of dirtiness to a colour, similar to dyeing with tea or coffee. “If it can stain your clothes, it’s a really good dye, chances are.
“In addition to those, there are barks and mushrooms and roots and shells of certain beetles and secretions of certain sea snails that have historically all been used as natural dyes.”
Merriam has been dyeing fibres for about 30 years, but it’s only been in the last five years that she’s become really interested in natural dyes, she said.
“As an artist, sometimes you want to have a colour that is perfectly [replicated], and that’s when an artificial dye is really, really important, and that’s why artificial dyes are used in the clothing industry, for the most part,” she said.
“Whereas if you want to have variability and extra interest in the fibre that you’re producing that you’re then going to be using for knitting or rug hooking or however you’re planning to use that fibre, having that extra variability that comes with natural dyeing gives it more life and more interest, and it also has more interest over time, because natural dyes can fade and change over time.”
Using orvus paste to scour the wool for lanolin, Merriam then boiled another pot of water with alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), which acts as a mordant and helps the dye attach to the wool. She then created essentially onion skin soup, and immersed the skeins of wool (one covered with plastic tape so as to create a striped pattern, where the dye couldn’t get at the wool) into the water. After rinsing the yarn two or three times, she left it to dry on clothes racks, after which it could be used.