VG Paper Blog


Dyeing Paper (& Pulp)

You can color paper before it is sheetformed or after by tinting the already formed paper.

There are 3 - 4 methods of tinting paper: Pigments, Natural Pigments, Dyes and Natural Dyes. Each of these methods use some type of 'Retention Aid', so lets talk about 'Retention Aids' first.

The Safety Disclaimer - Be safe. Wear a mask when working with dye pigments or other fine materials. Wear gloves. Use containers that will NO LONGER contain food. Store dyeing materials away from children. Wash your hands after using pigments or dyes. This might be toxic and a skin irritant.

Retention Aid is a cationic substance made up of positively charged ions that binds the pigment (referring to any coloring method) to the fibers surface. Pigments tend to have a negative charge & will attach to the pulp if the proper amount of retention aid is added.
  Some say "Add retention aid first," others will say "Add retention aid later!" When you are tinting pulp before sheetforming, if pulp is colored properly, the water stays mostly clear. You want the pulp tinted, so if the water is also colored, start adding drops of retention aid until the water clears up. NOTE: internal sizing (starch or AKD) can also give the pulp a positive charge and act as retention aid itself. If the retention aid is a liquid, dilute with water first. Rule of thumb, same amount of retention aid as amount of pigment (i.e. 30g [2 Tbs] of pigment, 30g of retention aid diluted in a cup of water).

Pigments: Manufactured & Natural
Pigments are more permanent than dyes, especially with light fastness. Pigments are insoluble particles that do not naturally attach themselves to the fiber. They must be physically attached to the fiber with some type of retention aid.

Pigments can be in a wet form or dry powder that is mixed with water to make a thick paste. Dry pigment powder must be mixed with water and then ground in a mortar & pestle and strained through a fine silkscreen (like 12X). (Geesh, are we in the 14th century making paint??). Wet pigment is added based on the amount of dry fiber. 453.5g (1 lb.) of dry fiber get 70g (4.5 Tbs) retention aid, 45g (8 tsp) pigment in 1/2 ltr (1 pint) of water. Stir thoroughly. Add pigment to pulp in beater or blender and let run for 15 min. allowing pulp to sit overnight which will increase its color saturation.

Some dry pigments are 'Hydrophobic' so a wetting agent needs to be added (liquid soap, denatured alcohol, gum Arabic). Add the appropriate amount of water as needed by directions, grind, strain and add to pulp. As you can see, pigments are better for dyeing a complete batch of paper pulp before sheet forming.

Natural Pigments: One of the great things about natural pigments is that you know exactly what it is and what its made of. Unfortunately, today we are living in a world that is driven by consumerism. Don't get me wrong, I like to have money, but some companies and industries have gotten out of hand with greed. Here is my Masters Degree speak on natural pigments: Working with natural pigments is a transformative journey that fosters a harmonious bond between oneself and the Earth. Becoming acquainted with pigments within their natural settings and learning to ethically gather them possesses the power to significantly alter one’s artistic approach. Pretty funny, huh? Not the message, that's solid, just how I said it. Ha, ha!

The splendor of nature sparks a rekindling of our inner essence. It prompts an awakening of the senses, enabling us to delve into the sanctity of all that exists within nature and to acknowledge our interconnectedness with everything we encounter. Pretty funny, huh? Not the message, that's solid, just how I said it. Ha, ha!

Hunting out (foraging) for Natural Pigments in the Wild - What we are looking for are exposed rocks. Since we have to make this, we don't want something that is incredibly hard. We are looking for stones that are kinda soft. A simple text is rubbing a stone against a hard surface, like another rock. If it leaves behind a colored mark that looks like paint or clay, it is a good rock for pigment. Note: harder stones may still be worth processing, especially if they offer unique colors.

Making Natural Pigments

  1. Make Smaller Pieces - Break the rocks into smaller pieces that can be ground in a mortar and pestle. Get a thick piece of plastic sheeting (a heavy-duty zip-lock also works) and a hammer (don't forget your safety gear, glasses, gloves, mask). Put the rocks on the plastic and fold it over and hit with a hammer until the rocks are as fine as you can. Personally, I would do this outside, but I'm not telling you what to do.
  2. Grind - Grind the pieces using a pestle and mortar (that you will never use for food again) until you have achieved a very fine powder. Keep at it, don't settle for chunky powder.
  3. Sifting - Sift the powder multiple times to get a fine grind. Use a sieve with a very fine mesh. Then move to a fine silkscreen mesh or panty-hose. This grinding is almost an artform itself. Some rocks are easy and some are really hard and time consuming. There is another process called levigation which uses water. It is no easier and actually takes longer but it makes nice pigment
  4. Use it - Using previous instruction about manufactured pigment as a starting place, try and tint a small batch of pulp. You will find that it takes more than 30g of pigment to dye 453.5g of fiber. It seems to really depend on the fiber. So do some experimenting and keep good records of what you do. It will be well worth it!

Dyes: Dyes are soluble substances that penetrate the fiber structure & chemically attach to the cellulose molecules, becoming part of the material. MOST DYES ARE NOT LIGHTFAST! Many are also toxic. There are direct dyes - powdered RIT dye, Fiber-reactive dyes - liquid RIT & Procion. You can dye the cook, the half-stuff in the blender or beater, sheet-forming vat, and the paper after it is made and dried.

Dyeing Pulp with Fiber-reactive dyes

  1. Using non-reactive pots for all of these processes, add 2 to 4 Tbs (depending on how deep you want the color) in 2 cup of 95° water.
  2. Dissolve 2 lb of non-iodized salt to 2 gallons of water at 95°.
  3. Add dissolved dye to salt water bath to create the dye bath.
  4. Drain the pulp well and add it to the dye bath and stir continuously for 15 min. Add 6 Tbs of soda ash (Na2CO3) in three separate portions, stirring for 2 min. between each addition. For maximum permanence and depth of shade stir every 5 min for 1 1/2 hours.
  5. Drain the exhausted dye bath and rinse the fiber well.
  6. Use as needed.
  7. NOTE: you can also add 4 Tbs of dye, right to the sheet-forming vat but the color will eventually fade as you add more pulp. You get a big range of colors that way. Sort of ombre!

Dyeing Sheets of Paper
  1. Make up a small dye bath (2 - 4 Tbs dye in 2 cups water) in a tray that is big enough to accommodate your paper.
  2. Carefully submerge your sheet of paper for roughly 5 min. Carefully remove (as the bond between the paper fibers may have weakened. Sometimes inserting a dowel rod under the paper as you use the rod to slowly remove the paper, letting it drain before hanging it to dry or putting it on blotter sheets to dry.
  3. If the paper is not the desired hue, re-dye it. At some point it will not get any darker. Also if the paper has been internally sized, it will not dye very dark. Paper without sizing dyes better and then external gelatin sizing can be added after the fact.

Natural Dyes:
Many people (papermakers and homemakers) want to use natural dyes. Many of us have dyed Easter Eggs with onion skins or marigolds or other vegetables. Even though the majority of vegetable/flower dyes are not lightfast, you can get hues that are not made in manufactured pigments and dyes. Bugbody LAC, deep brown of walnut husks or shells, blue-gray from blackberry shoots to name a few.

Most natural dyes require the use of 'mordants' (materials that fix the dye in or on a subtance by combining dye with an insoluble compound). Amazingly enough, retention aid is a good mordant.

Basic Instructions for Making a Natural Dye

  1. Put 3 quarts of water in a non-reactive pot.
  2. Add 1 - 3 lbs. of dye-stuff (marigolds, onion skins, carrot tops, mint leaves, red cabbage leaves, kale, spinach, parsley leaves, beets, Queen Ann's lace, etc.) and soak for 30 min.
  3. OK this is iffy Add 4 oz of Alum and bring mixture to a boil, slowly, cover & simmer for about an hour. Longer will be darker up to a certain saturation point. Here is why it's iffy - if you add Alum it will no longer be archival, ever. It is being used as a mordant. Personally I would use anything else retention aid later, calcium carbonate (which will push it to more of a base) white vinegar (which will make it more acidic) or cream of tartar (no clue).
  4. Remove from heat and strain out dye-stuff. Let cool. If it needs some concentration, heat dye liquid to reduce volumn by about half.
  5. Add dye liquid to the half-stuff pulp, add it to the vat for sheet forming, or add to a shallow tray to dip paper sheets in.
Remember, above all take and keep lots of notes and records. Try and be a nice person and share these with other papermakers and artist who use natural pigments and handmade paint.