The longer it cooks, the darker it gets,” said Laurie Gundersen, telling passersby Saturday what was happening inside a kettle set up on an electric plate inside the U.S. Botanic Garden’s west hall.
That wasn’t lunch the West Virginia artist was talking about, but fabric that had been wrapped around a steel pole from a sheet-metal shop and tied with several feet of fine thread. Earlier, Ms. Gundersen had prepared the scene by filling the pot with water “flavored” by a dozen or more black walnut hulls she had brought with her from home.
What had begun as a piece of white silk was rapidly turning a deep shade of cocoa brown alongside a loose piece of fabric floating in the same kettle. Occasionally, she turned the pole and pulled it out to examine the progress of the coloration, smiling as she did so.
“It may take a while,” she said. “The water isn’t very warm.”
Another vessel held shavings of the reddish-brown madder root. Liquid in a larger metal pot filled with goldenrod was slowly turning a yellow-green shade — dark green from the leaves, yellow from the pods.
These unusual concoctions were examples of techniques Ms. Gundersen was demonstrating during a free two-day public event to show how to use botanicals — chiefly plants native to the Appalachian region — for dyeing textiles by hand. Most of the methods she employed are derived from a traditional Japanese art form known as shibori.
Shibori incorporates many kinds of techniques, she explained patiently to wide-eyed visitors strolling through the conservatory corridor, much like a teacher before a group of students too restless to stay put. Printed matter and samples were laid out on tables; a rack held several pieces of finished work in vibrant colors.
Several people from Asian backgrounds nodded knowingly, acknowledging their acquaintance with the tradition on display.
“It’s a more sophisticated version of your tie-dyed T-shirt,” she agreed, responding to a Canadian native.
The methods she favors are a form of “resist” that employs stitching, clamping, pole-wrapping, binding and knotting. Dye doesn’t penetrate that portion of fabric covered or bound by thread, and what emerges is a distinctive and often unpredictable pattern or design.
The process is about as natural as it can be, and is a way for people to make their own domestic items — scarves, clothing, runners, pillow covers, wall hangings, etc. — out of everyday materials. “Often I’ll make house furnishings this way,” Ms. Gundersen said.
She even has made “very sexy” evening wear using this method, she said. One fabric sample was akin to the shimmering pleated effect found in the Fortuny line of fabrics or the couturier gowns of American designer Mary McFadden. Sansar, a retail store in Bethesda specializing in American crafts, sells some of Ms. Gundersen’s scarves.
Depending on the technique used, a piece of fabric undergoing such treatment can resemble a field of flowers or flowing wheat.
Spying a woman wearing a white and red top spotted by abstract floral designs, she identified the pattern as shibori.
“It has a long tradition and has been in vogue the last few years,” she mentioned. The woman nodded, pleased to be brought into the conversation and eager to be part of this informal seminar on folk art.
“I use simple things that are prevalent and free and then a mordant, often a nontoxic alum similar to a pickling alum found in milder form in condiments and spices,” Ms. Gundersen emphasis. A mordant is a metallic compound needed for fixing the dye.
“My belief is if I use a lot more dye stuff, I don’t need as much alum,” she said.
The potassium alum, a white powder, was dissolved into the water halfway through the cooking process to help set and deepen the dye. “It just blooms up,” she observed of the effect. Depending on the material, it can take from one to three hours to complete the job.
Another advantage of home dyeing, she noted, “was I can sit here and do things right on my lap.”
Operating out of a business in the Goff House Weaving and Textile Studio in Beverly, W.Va., called Appalachian Piecework, Ms. Gundersen identifies herself as a utilitarian folk artist — someone dedicated to creating objects useful for a specific task or job.
She also does rag weaving and basketry and, using natural fibers such as wool, creates fabric on a spinning wheel. Scraps of fabric seldom are thrown away.
Different plants can be used in different seasons for dyeing, she noted, and different metals will affect dye in different ways. Likewise, different colors and widths of thread leave different marks.
Queen Anne’s lace can turn wrapped and threaded fabric a soft light green. The indigo plant found in warm climates is the basis for blue shades. The sawdust from the wood of a hard African tree that a friend of hers uses for making flutes results in a purple color; the sawdust is held in a mesh bag during the boiling stage. Osage orange wood produces vivid yellows. The fresh root of the madder plant, a perennial, contains a pigment called alizarin that can be dried and stored in concentrated form.
Any cooking vessel can be used, she explained, but iron or metal pots help create the metallic interaction that bonds the dye and the fabric fibers. Thread wrapped around fabric that is then twisted and forcibly shoved up a metal or bamboo pole creates a pleating effect. A fabric that is folded instead of wrapped will create an entirely different pattern.
Fabrics stay colorfast, if the dyeing process is done slowly and properly, Ms. Gundersen remarked to answer a passerby’s question about whether the finished product would bleed in the wash.
Madalina Gavrila, of Herndon, stopping by, volunteered how women in her native country of Romania would use onion skins to color fabrics light brown and black walnuts to dye their hair brown.