It’s harvest season again!

At this time of the year I gather different plants to dry for use throughout the winter.  Sumac, both the leaves and the berries are amongst my favourite of plants for natural dyes.  Its natural abundance in southern Ontario makes sumac perfect for local foraging expeditions.  You’ll often find it in areas of disturbed land like forest clearings or along side rail tracks and as a rapid grower, sumac is key in succession growth.  Whenever foraging it’s important not to disrupt the area and over harvest.  Ample berries, leaves and flowers should remain of whatever you are harvesting to support the natural eco-system – a place for bees, birds, insects and for the plant itself to regenerate.

Sumac offers many gifts.  You can read more about its polyvalence and my recipe for preparing sumac-ade, a tangy cooling drink rich in vitamin C,  here.

Its naturally occurring tannins that bond the colour to the fibre without the need for additional steps make it a wonderful plant source of natural dyes.  The resulting colours can also be modified with benign mordants like alum and iron to draw out a range from neutral beige to neon yellow, lavender and grey from the leaves and blush to purple/grey from the berries.

In preparation for a fun family backyard project my niece joined me to gather sumac. We kept things simple and made a sumac berry dye vat and a concoction of rusty nails and vinegar as the ferrous, modifying post-mordant.

Making a dye vat is akin to making a very strong tea.  Basically we’re aiming to draw out the tannins and colourants through a long steep.  The process begins by mixing the berries (or leaves) with water in a non-reactive pot and heating to just below simmer.  They should remain for at least 45 min to extract the colour however you can also leave them much longer.  I often will let the berries sit in room temperature tap water over night, then heat the mix the next day to develop the intensity of the dye vat.

Once the colourants have been extracted from the plant, the next step is to strain the liquid from the solids.  At this point, I often do a second infusion and repeat the first step in the process to be sure I have fully extracted the remaining colourants from the plant.

To create pattern we played with some easy tie dye methods using elastic and string.  My niece wrapped elastic in single rings that created a circle shape on her t-shirt.

My nephew experimented with a spiral method.

Working with sumac berries alone gives lovely pink blush tones and with the additional step of an iron post-mordant the colour can be modified to tones of lavender/ purple/ grey depending on how much iron is used.

An iron mordant can be purchased as ferrous sulfate or you can make your own blend by combining nails and vinegar and let sit to further oxidize the metal.  The liquid will be a rusty colour.  There are different ways you can use iron to change the colour or add a design element.  In this case we had a bucket of hot water and mixed in a small portion of the rust liquid then dipped a few of the t-shirts in this post-mordant bath.  (I find that using a designated iron bucket is best. It ‘s also wise to keep your dye pots separate from your kitchen pots)



My niece and nephew had fun results and it brought back the memories of my first ventures into dyeing, tie-dye and batik at my aunt’s studio along with cousins and my sister when I was about their age.

Some experiences just stay with you and take new forms.