Doing | Natural Paper Dyeing

Kasane (かさね) meaning complementary layered colours.

Image of Doing | Natural Paper Dyeing
Saturday, October 17 2020

Dyes have always been inextricably linked to nature, through their names and their origins.

Akaneiro is the oldest red dye used in Japan, often featured in poetry to describe the sky at sunset. It stems from akane, or the madder plant as we Brits know it.

Fun fact: madder extract was used as fake blood in the old Westerns. In one movie, John Wayne finds himself in Japan, at the losing end of a skirmish. Knowing he can’t win, he looks around for something, anything- until he spots some madder and spreads it all over his body. He then proceeds to claim he is injured and beg for mercy (somehow suddenly speaking Japanese).

Yasha is a natural yellow-brown dye extracted from cones of the Alder tree (Alnus Japonica) and has been used in papermaking in Japan since the 8th century. It helps to soften the white of paper and is still used for fine art and hanging scrolls. Gofun is an off-white pigment made from crushed oyster shells, used to print patterns into high quality papers. Oh là là!

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In Japan there’s even a word for the art of complementary colour combinations, ‘kasane’, stemming back to the Heian period. It originally referred to the gloriously dyed kimonos of aristocrats, or even using different shades of paper for poems and love letters. You could show off your good taste and sophistication by selecting the colours of the season: wisteria and gromwell purples in the summer, cherry blossom pink and safflower yellow in the Spring. Are you hearing me, potential suitors?

Papers come to life when coloured with natural dyes, and in this blog post we’ll show you how to dye paper at home with fruit, vegetables, tree bark, plants or flowers. Each plant will express its own unique colour.

You could even try some kasane for yourself, you cultured things you.

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To get the best results use paper with a rough, uncoated and natural feel. For avocado dye, you’ll need to use just the stones and skins, cleaned of any flesh. They’ll produce a spicy pink colour.

A few ground rules before you start: use cloths to protect your work surface (and clothes). Or don’t come blaming me when nana’s prized antique sideboard is turned orange. Use a separate pan and spoon to your everyday cooking equipment…no one likes the taste of nettle in their creme brûlée. Be sure to ask for permission before snagging your neighbour’s prized begonias, and try to avoid any toxic plants, OK?

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The process is essentially the same regardless of the plant you use. Start by popping your plants into a pan and pouring over just enough water to cover them. Then heat gently. The general rule is that the more of a plant you put in, the less water, and the longer you heat it (without burning the pan), the deeper the colour. You could do as the professionals do: turn the heat off and leave the pot to sit overnight, then repeat in the morning for a greater depth of colour, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Bonus points for spotting the pestering cat.

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Sticky, crimson juice, good enough to eat.

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When you’re happy with the colour, strain the dye through a cup and muslin cloth to catch any pieces of plant. This leaves you with a lovely clear dye.

Pop the dye back in a clean pan and heat it briefly. It’s as simple as that. Then you can begin dyeing.

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Dip the paper in the dye for just a few seconds. You can re-dip to produce a deeper colour, but not so long that the paper disintegrates. Allow the first layer to dry before dip dyeing for gradients of colour, submerge for an overall colour.

When you take each sheet out of the dye, blot it on a cloth to absorb any pools of excess dye and then allow it to dry flat (or hanging up, if you’re into that drip look).

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Reheat the dye when it cools, to keep the colour vibrant. You can keep the dye in a jar for a day or so thereafter.

Take it to the next level by adding lemon for acidity or bicarbonate of soda for an alkalinity, depending on your plant these will affect the colour of the dye.

Some artists like to soak their papers in milk beforehand, it acts as a fixative or ‘mordant’. Japanese papermakers use mordants including ‘ubai’, smoked plums mixed with boiling water. They prevent the fading of colour over time, but we rather like this aspect of natural dyeing: an appreciation of the fleeting beauty of nature.

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A rainbow of nature: the colour possibilities are endless.

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For salmons, blush and peachy pinks: beetroot, avocado stones, red onion skins, cherries, camellias, madder root, weeping willow bark.

Purple and plum come from pounded gromwell leaves and rich berries: blackberries, elderberries, mulberries.

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For yellows and browns: save onion skins from the compost bin, pomegranate skins, tea, bay leaves, crocus, yarrow, gorse, daffodil, dandelions, coffee, turmeric, a few nettle leaves.

For greens: chamomile leaves, grass, heavy on the nettles, spinach. Think “What Would Popeye Eat?”.

For black: ground iris roots, walnut hulls.

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Indigo for beautiful blue. Cornflower, irises and woad work too.

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We folded and clamped paper before dipping it in the dye. The result: graphic shibori patterns, just like with fabric. Makes for fabulous wrapping paper.

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Take it to the next level by painting with the coloured dyes, or drawing with milk to create a resist pattern with the mordant.

There’s something rather magical about dyeing with natural pigments, the unpredictability of the dye, experimenting with colour in its rawest form.

For those of you who still think this sounds like too much effort, we’ve got you covered. Kakishibu is made from the juice of fermented unripe persimmons and has been used as a natural dye in Japan, China and Korea for hundreds of years. It’s a bit of a miracle worker, producing a deep amber colour, and comes available to buy as a readymade dye. Shhh…we won’t tell anyone.

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