Friday, November 14, 2008

Prickly Pear Dye Experiments

Prickly pear fruits yield the most gorgeous, luscious, magenta juice that you can imagine. Naturally, when I'd juiced a batch for jam-making, I wondered about dyeing with them!

The pigment in prickly pear is betalain, which is the same pigment that gives beets and bougainvillea their lovely, deep, purplish reds. Betalain turns out to be a rather unstable dye-source, as its sensitive to both light and heat.

But the juice color was too deep and seductive to pass up! And anyways, I thought prickly pears might still be a good candidate for dyeing, since you don't have to heat them to get juice.

I soaked alum-mordanted alpaca/wool yarn in straight juice overnight, and I got this enchantingly deep magenta yarn. The picture doesn't begin to capture the richness and saturation of the color. Truly one of the most beautiful colors I've ever gotten with my natural dyeing.

And then (sigh) I went and tested it for lightfastness. I started with samples of three naturally-dyed yarns -- (1) a light lilac from local cochineal on alum-mordanted yarn, (2) a medium magenta from prickly pear on unmordanted yarn, and (3) a dark magenta from prickly pear on alum-mordanted yarn -- and hung them, half-enclosed in cardboard, on a south-facing fence. There they got a three-weeks' dose of good, strong Arizona sun.


And here's the big reveal - such drama and disappointment! The prickly pear dye disappeared from the unmordanted yarn and faded to a dull peachy tone on the alum-mordanted yarn. Interestingly, the cochineal faded more than expected, too, although it's to be noted that I used strange little cochineal scraped from neighbors' cacti rather than cochineal that was specifically prepared for dyeing.

After this debacle, I found some terrific old books on Native American dyeing at a used bookstore. The prickly pear recipes in those books had the yarn fermenting in prickly pear juice for several days; perhaps it is worth trying this experiment again with that method. I think, though, that from now on I will enjoy my betalain in the bougainvillea....

10 comments:

Jessie said...

Very cool color... I hope it turns out better the second round!

larissa said...

What a fantastic colour! I love seeing the results of your experiment. You should definitely try again...that colour absolutely worth it.

Kathy said...

Oh darn! I LOVED the original color. Absolutely fabuolous. I hope you feel like dying it for a few days and seeing how that works out.

Sue said...

It must have been such a disappointment seeing that lovely deep magenta disappear.

Mind you, I'm sure the strong Arizona sun would make anything fade!

petra said...

Well, even if the experiment didn't work out, your pictures are beautiful! Good luck trying it again!

Turtle said...

yes, try again! the original color was truly gorgeous! your making me miss my varigated bougainvillea!

moirae said...

Hey, I was peeking at your environmentally friendly yarn page and thought it was pretty cool. Wondering though if you would also kindly present some of the information on the harsher mordants as most people misunderstand the word natural.

Most of the natural dyers I know avoid those mordants, but I believe anything that gets people to look more closely at what they buy is a good thing.

I dye with chemical dyes at the moment; I may move into natural dyeing eventually.

Nat Red Knits said...

I love how the prickly pear turned out. don't be too disapointed in the fade result in the sun. Just remember back in the day before we had Clorex they used the sun to bleach their clothing white.

I think the fermenting of the dye should work good for you.

Amy said...

That's an amazing experiment--I wonder how conventionally dyed commercial yarns would hold up to 3 weeks of direct sun?

Anonymous said...

I have heard that if you leave the cactus fruit to ferment with the yarn/wool/fiber for about two weeks, it will dye light and colorfast.

I tried it with pomegranate (I have to buy whatever, and the grocery was out of cactus fruit), but got nothing, but it was also cold and rainy the two weeks that I tried it. I didn't mordant the wool, either.

Audrey