Symplocos sunbathing

At Ceres we often use Potassium Aluminium Sulphate (alum), as the mordant to increase colourfastness and lightfastness of natural dyes. A synthesised version of crystal chemically prised from rock and shale and prized by emperors, kings and popes. Ancient trades of empires long fallen, and secrets stolen in tall-ship heists. Pollution and corruption in the textiles industry already apparent a Millenia ago.

The Symplocos cochinchinensis tree accumulates aluminium from the soil, and fallen leaves become a rich source of alum. Use of this plant derived mordant helps protect the endangered forests of Indonesia and offers an alternative to chemical mordants. 

We did some tests to understand how well the symplocos alum performed alongside synthetic alum.

Printed pastes from top to bottom:


Madder and symplocos

Madder and alum and calcium carbonate

Madder and alum

Modifier stripes from left to right on each sample are citric acid, sodium carbonate, ferrous sulphate.

Symplocos is as wash-fast as alum, but it’s yellower base colour makes it better with the warmer colours.

A playground of colours

Colourfast or precarious-colour, the collecting and printing of local natural dyes as a contemplative study of beauty and change.

Organic calico

Pomegranate from Brixton market (Peru)

Iron-water from the garden

Printed using recycled cut-paper stencils

Buddleia and blackberries; flotsam of inner-city scrubland.

Damson and blackcurrants; sweet glut of friends allotment. 

Mulberries; abundantly sticky-dropping off festooned trees. 

Avocado, cabbage, pomegranate; the closing excess of market stalls.

Heritage of weld and madder; knowledge passed through centuries.

Experimental plants; harvests by myriad of artisan gardeners. 

Steamed to fix the dye.

Gently hand-washed, colour-transpose revealed.

Weld, buckthorn, madder, pomegranate, iron, avocado, soda-ash, and citric, silk-screen printed on calico.

Buckthorn and cochineal; complementary and judicious use of imported dye. Rousingly singing accompaniment to the (gentler) locals.

Some colours gracefully slide from vivid to mute, others stay bold-vibrant. Design for change.

Madder mining

Mining madder

Colour-detectorists; searching for local dye plants.

Half an hour from Kings Cross, deep-rural edging the Chilterns, we mined fire-red madder from the chalk rich earth. Legends of cow’s bones transformed crimson when fed on madder tops. We only want the roots; three years old and twisted repugnant realisations of Brothers Grimm tales.

grand teint, madder is omnipotent in natural-dye hierarchies; its colourfast properties validated and enshrined by 17th century French laws. Dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum) and Indian Madder (Rubia cordifolia) dominate this turkey-red, terracotta, scarlet and purple smorgasbord.

The red-rooted madder clan are illustrious and ingenious; some indigenous to the Uk and some shiveringly light-famished in the northern hemisphere. 

Dyers woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) lacy under the surface, yields a sharp clear red.

Wild madder (Rubia peregrina) coloniser of clifftops and rural West Country idylls.

Ladies bedstraw (Galium verum) roots a network of daintiness. Alleged saviour of the 17th and 18th century Hebridean machair, slowing coastal erosion and binding clifftops with its wiry root system. In a tempestuous climate emergency, we need local heroes.

Susan Dye (a name to die for) of Natures Rainbow, and her husband Ashley, are troves of information. Flo and Lara, in awe of the detailed plant knowledge and intrigued by a rare sighting of the sun, listened to their tales. Rare experimental colours:

Devils-bit-scabious – promises indigo, but renegades on delivery.

Elecampane  – Scottish myths of vivid blue, tantalising but realised only in a useful grey.

Dyers sawort – purple flowers and yellow dye.

And, another grand teint, Weld its tiny seeds waiting meekly, then sneaky germinating in disturbed soil.

Mining of natural dyes, cracking open the earth by spade on an allotment devoted to dye plants. Bird-song, the smell of blossom and neighbourly lunch. Antithesis of coal mining and cracking crude oil used for synthetic dye production.

Colour squabble

Natural dyes  have unique personalities; quarrelsome, needy, mellow, extrovert. Screen-printing with them is to party with a diverse crowd of friends, clamouring for a change in the tempo of the dance music. 


Machiavellian identity changer; rocks up in a leather jacket as mean-man, full of importance. Hangs out with Ferrous Sulphate, and trades his soul for longevity, spending hours on dark mischief making. Without Ferrous, he winds up snoring and grey in the corner as the sun rises (yep, he’s one of those dyes that fade)


Festival aroma of crushed evening grass, wending a way back to the tent. Slinks around with Soda Ash, for heightened perception.


Complicated. Prevaricates about timing, years pass as the slow waltz is perfected in underground clubs. Dominating until the finale; wearing ugly brown cardigan, covering up the palest pink and fiery orange.  


Jets in from Brazil’s coastal Atlantic Forest; rarefied, exotic, whiff of danger. An extrovert, lindy-hops to the wee-small hours in strappy slinky fuchsia dress. Partners Fustic for an orange delight twirl around the dancefloor.

Sappenwood impersonates and replicates, and is so much more available.


Timid until teamed up with an alkaline partner, and then WOW it’s an all night party. 

And then there’s the colour modifiers…