Dyeing with eucalyptus leaves Part 3

Simmer Dyeing Part 1

To begin simmer dyeing, first collect the following containers from Op shops or second-hand stores (DON’T use dye containers for cooking):  Enamel/enamel coated or stainless steel, tin and cast iron.  I use a cast iron saucepan by Michael Lax for Copco (NOT enamel coated).  The range is no longer produced but sometimes comes up for sale at second-hand or antique stores or on Ebay.

Cast iron camp ovens often flake into the dyebath and spot the fabric, so a quality cast iron container is important if you don’t want this effect.  Make sure the container is big enough to hold the water and leaves and still produce enough dye to colour the required amount of fabric.  I use an old tin billy so have to repeat dye baths for large pieces of fabric.

Enamel/enamel coated and stainless steel containers are neutral, which means they don’t influence the colour of the leaves in the dyebath.

SAFETY PRECAUTION:  Use rubber gloves and a fluid resistant face mask such as dentists use for safety.  To my knowledge, there is not much research on the safety aspects of inhaling steam or handling dyes from Eucalyptus trees and there are hundreds of different varieties including genetically modified.  Don’t use cooking containers as dye containers if you still want to cook with them.  Dye outside in a well ventilated area away from children and animals.

Leaf varieties

This blog deals with eucalyptus varieties only, but some wattle and quandong leaves can yield interesting shades of brown, and possibly more colours through experimentation.  After trial and error with lots of  eucalyptus varieties, I use mostly the following leaves and sometimes bark and pods:

Red Ironbark (e. sideroxylon), River Red Gum (e. camaldulensdis), Lemon Scented Gum (e. citriodora), Mottlecah (e. macrocarpa)

Dyes from trees vary from one location to the other and in winter the dye is often weaker than summer, especially if the tree is flowering.   The most important indicator I’ve found about the quality of the dye and colour is the smell of the leaves when they are simmering.  Some leaves from the same variety of tree can smell wonderful and produce great dye, and leaves from the same variety but a different location smell awful  and yeild terrible colours.  All this is a matter of trial and error.

Collect leaves, preferably fallen so dried, and squash as many crushed leaves or leaves/pods/bark as will fit in the required container and add water (rainwater if possible) to fill the container.  If using bark or pods, leave to soak overnight or as long as possible to assist the dye extraction.  Place the container on a heat source and heat to simmering.  Simmer for one to one and a quarter hours.  The first hour extracts the mordant and colour from the leaves.  If left simmering for longer than an hour and a half, a chemical comes out of the leaves that muddies the dye and smells awful.  You will notice a change in the smell of the dyebath if this happens!  Nothing can be done to fix the dyebath at this stage so dispose of it thoughtfully.

If the resulting colour is not strong enough, remove the leaves from the bath, add new leaves and repeat.  Don’t reuse the old leaves.  Bark can be reused.   To create a print paste from the dyebath, reduce as much as possible by simmering slowly after the leaves or bark have been removed.  This has to be watched carefully at the end stage or the dye evaporates completely.  Some dyes don’t thicken but do become more concentrate in colour.  They can  then be added to a print paste base.

When using bark or pods, add leaves to the dyebath as mordant.

Part 2 of Simmer Dyeing is discussed in the next article.


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Artist in Adelaide, South Australia. I enjoy viewing and participating in street art and experimenting with photography for surface design.

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