Natural dyeing: eucalyptus leaves

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When I was a child, we lived next door to a grove of towering blue gum eucalyptus trees. The Grove, as we always referred to it, was central to our lives. We built forts around the trunks and in the forks of the trees; we gathered the nuts for good luck, for doll hats, for a sort of currency; one hollow tree was the entrance to a secret underground house Amelia and I spent hours designing; and most of all The Grove was my escape, a quiet place to be alone.

For Christmas I gave Prima The Modern Natural Dyer. The book is full of helpful tips on preparing fabric to dye, mordants, different types of fibers, and other aspects of dyeing, and I might have bought it just for the beautiful swatch pages showing dyes with different concentrations, fabrics, and additives. But we were most excited to learn that you can use eucalyptus leaves as a dye.

Natural dyeing combines so many of my favorite things. Gathering the materials involved running around outside, climbing trees, and throwing leaves at Prima. Extracting the dye is all chemistry and experimentation: careful measurements, slight adjustments, unexpected results. And seeing the beautiful colors emerge has all the fun of a good textile project.

Eucalyptus dye swatches

We dyed 880 grams of old linen fabric (and a few scraps of other things). We left the fabric to soak overnight in a mordant solution containing 36 grams of aluminum acetate. For the dye, we gathered 450 grams of eucalyptus globulus leaves, simmered them in 16 cups water for an hour, then left them to soak over night.

The dye reached a boil at one point while we were simmering the leaves, and I was worried that might affect the color, so for comparison I made a second smaller batch and was careful not to let it boil. It didn’t cook as long, or soak over night and the color was much less intense but fundamentally the same (2nd row, far right of the swatches above). It is fine to boil your eucalyptus leaves, at least for a moment.

Our eucalyptus makes a subtle gold when cold processed (top tow) and has a slightly greener tone when simmered (second row, left and center), both of which I think are quite pretty. The Modern Natural Dyer suggests dipping the dyed fabric in an iron bath to change the color, so we borrowed a rusty iron pot from a neighbor and filled it up with boiling water. The book recommends soaking your rusty iron in vinegar for a couple of weeks, but we found the boiling water became quite rusty. It gives the fabric an uneven warm gray tone (bottom row), which I didn’t like as much but might make an interesting contrast for some projects.

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