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notes from the desk of Lord Ihone Munro

Dying Leather Blue

Experimentation on using the elderberry dye method from The Secretes of the Reverende Maister Alexis of Piemount. The following process notes are my attempt to refine the process. For images, please scroll to the bottom of the project notes.

Experiment Follow-Up Notes

During the first round of experimenting, I made some notes on variations that I needed to check out before drawing conclusions on the batch itself. The following are observations on the various notes that I made.

1) Adjusting the concentration of the dye

Observation Notes: First (and most obvious) adjustment to make will be to strengthen the color of the dye. If the dye itself is weaker because of using a greater amount of water content, that would be a very simple method to test against. At the moment, I do not see any added benefit of rehydrating the berries either, since boiling them will rehydrate them in the single process.

Follow-Up Test Results: This is a work in progress, but I'm actually going to list test results against a second attempt as a separate set of entries.  What I will say is that I did a single dip against the stronger concentration and got a significantly stronger result. The image below is the original swatch that I was testing in the 3 dip process noted in the original experiment. I dipped the unaltered side into the new dye only once, so that I could compare a single dip versus the sum of the initial whole. There is a significant difference in color that took, as you can see. The other significant difference is, though this is still damp in the image, the purple hues stayed a little more than in the original test.

2) Compensating for the leather itself

Observation Notes: The tanning process that was used in the leather samples may have lent itself to deliver different results from the original formula. From the original notes from the Maister, it looked very much like he was referencing the dye process on a raw skin. If the dye was applied to a raw skin, I think that it would have absorbed better, since there were less chemicals in the skin from the tanning process. As such, I think that I need to do follow up treatments using the following variations:

    1. a piece of veg tanned leather that has been stripped using a deglazer cleaner
      this (in theory) should give a more accurate color, since the deglazer removes the existing finish from the leather
    2. a piece of deer skin that has not been stripped and piece of deer skin that has been stripped
      this will help me to compare a different type of skin to the veg tanned cow hide to see if it was a matter of the density of the leather from the initial experiment - since the treated suede side of the garment swatch seemed to take the color better than the veg

Follow-Up Test Results: I am currently conducting experiments with this change set and will post results as I wrap up the change controls.

3) Varying immersion times

Observation Notes: I need to introduce differing immersion times in a controlled manner. Since dye processes were dependant upon immersing the products in dyes for longer periods of time, I need to challenge exactly what qualifies as a "pass through" the dye as noted by the Maister. In order to achieve this, I think that I will make multiple swatches of the stripped veg tan and place them entirely in a jar of dye. Then I can remove a swatch at controlled intervals, starting with one hour apart. This will allow me to compare at least the first step of the process, since it calls for the swatch to be wiped down and let dry after the pass through the dye.

Follow-Up Test Results: For this control, I set a number of strips/swatches in a jar that had been partially filled with the original dye after having washed down and wrung out the swatches. The swatches themselves had partial impressions from having been rolled out as well, so that I could see the results in the impressions, and whether or not the impressions themselves would soak away. Note that these swatches were also not put through the deglasing process, they are the original tanned composition.

What I see is that, though the image is a little washed out, the immersion did not lend all too much difference in the richness of the color, or the absorption.

4) Attempts at detail painting with the dye

Observation Notes: I do not feel at the moment that this particular method of dye would lend itself to the current manner of detail painting that I do on pieces of tooled leather. Since I've grown accustomed to painting in multiple colors with multiple applications on tooled leather, I can clearly draw the conclusion that this particular period dye method would not have been very good to detail paint with, supporting a separate theory that period work was a single color application of dye - subsequent detailing having been more likely to be burned or gilded into the leather after it was already colored.

Follow-Up Test Results: After seeing the results of the immersion test, I decided to not attempt detail painting with this particular batch of dye. I may make attempts within the second attempt, and will make notes there on further experimentation.

5) Tooling after the dye process is complete

Observation Notes: Given number 3's conclusion, I do think that if the veg tanned leather accepts the dye fully, it may be possible to tool the leather after it's been completely dyed. I will have to try it, for posterity of course, since it's a major no-no of current leather working technique to dye prior to tooling.

Follow-Up Test Results: As seen above, the immersion process did leave a little darker tone in the already impressed leather, as all dyes do. During the tooling process, tooled areas do tend to be slightly darker, which is why antique gives a nice variance in tone once it's been applied to a finished piece. I do not feel that, in this test batch, I will proceed with tooling the dyed leather. I may make attempts on the second attempt though, and will make notes there on further experimentation.

6) Testing the dye pulp instead of immersion

Observation Notes: I've seen other methods that utilize creating a paste and rubbing it into the skins. I will attempt in a future test sequence rubbing the pulp into the skin to compare results, most likely with the test on the greater concentration of berries to water.

Follow-Up Test Results: The pulp from the berries turned out to be a relatively simple test. I utilized the pulp from the second attempt in this case, but my thought is that pulp is pulp, once the juice has been extracted. I started by taking the pulp and making a paste using a hand blender, adding just enough water so that the blender could make a puree. I then washed and wrung the sample of leather out and smeared the pulp into it, letting it sit on both sides of the leather until it was dry. Once it was dry, I dampened and scrubbed out the pulp from the swatch, scraped the back side over a knife, then smeared in a second application of the pulp to the front and back of the leather. I let it fully dry again and gave it a mild washing to get the residue off of the leather.

The tone of the leather after treating with the pulp was more of a bluish purple, and it dried out a little splotchy. It gave a relatively nice tone to the leather, but I don't know that I would quantify it as having really done a good job at dying the leather as a whole. The result itself was a fairly accurate middle ground to the color from the first batch of dye and the second, though it would lead me to believe that if I let the leather sit in a vat of pulp so that it did not dry out immediately, it may be a little stronger in the end. I don't know that I will attempt this method on subsequent attempts, but it was fun making a mess!

Constructive feedback is both welcome and appreciated, please let me know if I missed some pertinent information or if there's somewhere I can improve. As always, thanks for reading!

Sources Cited
  • The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont by Girolamo Ruscelli. OL25228326M
    Translated from French into English by William Ward
  • Medieval Leather Dying by Marc Carlson, original compilation by Ron Charlotte also has a direct translation available.
  • Wikipedia, entry about what a mordant is, along with entries on usage