A Safflower Frock Coat

As is usual, Thanksgiving passes and we start thinking about what we will wear to the Colonial Christmas Ball in New Hope this year.   Of course Thanksgiving is far too late to be thinking about making things, so many things get left over for next year.

Such was the case with the Safflower Frock Coat.   My husband liked the look of this photo from Hart and North’s Fashion in Detail: From the 17th and 18th Centuries.
I liked the opportunity it presented.   You see, when we see an extant silk garment that is tan, it probably wasn’t always that colour.   Many fugitive dyes fade to tan, and this one looked to be as if it may have once been dyed with safflower.

So we start with this — The lowly safflower.   Safflowers are often found in autumn dried flower arrangements, but I get mine from the local Asian food store.   It’s used in cooking, you see.   Be careful, though.   Often times they mislabel it “saffron”.   But it’s easy to tell the difference.   Safflower looks like dried flowers.   Saffron looks like dark orange threads.   Saffron will also be much MUCH more expensive.   One ounce of safflower is about $2.   One ounce of saffron is around $30!

A pound of safflower
A pound of saffron

 

Before you can begin dyeing with safflower, you must rinse the petals.  There is alot of yellow on the surface of the safflower.   I wrapped the petals in a piece of cotton gauze to ease the process.

 


I untied the gauze and poured the rinsed petals in a tub and covered them with cold water.  Unlike many plant dyes, heat destroys the pink dye in safflower.   So boiling up a pot of petals on the stove will only get you a mustard yellow colour.   The petals need an alkaline (basic) rinse to release their dye.   But the bath needs to be acidic for the fabric to take the dye.

To make the bath alkaline, I added washing soda until the dyebath registered pH 11 on my test strips.  The bath foamed like a warm can of soda.   The water in the bath was rust coloured.   This solution sat for one hour or so.   Then I added enough vinegar to make the solution pH 6.  Immediately, the colour of the bath turned from ruddy brown to bright pink.   The photos are a little dark because they’re taken in the shower.

Alkaline fizz
The acidic bath

Next I wet the silk I planned to use for the frock coat.   Then I got a brilliant idea.   Why not use linen for the lining and dye it in the same dyebath.   You see, safflower has two dyes in it:   yellow and red.   The red dye works on animal and vegetable fibres.   But the yellow dye only works on animal.   So even though the silk and linen were dyed in the same tub, the silk would be orange (red + yellow) and the linen would just be red.   This was too cool not to do, so I wet down some white linen and threw it into the tub with the silk.

Silk in the dye bath
Safflower-dyed silk (left) and linen (right)

Silk can also be dyed red (not orange) with safflower.   This is a much more involved process that involves dyeing a piece of vegetable fibre material red, discharging the dye from the vegetable fibres, and then using the discharge to dye the silk.   This process is outlined on this page, if you’re interested.   The yellow dye rinsed from the petals in step one can also be used.   If boiled, it will dye silk.

The linen lining
The safflower-dyed silk outer material before cutting

Bad Pictures of the Final Product



© 2003, 2004 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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