Dyeing with Safflower

One of the defining characteristics of the aesthetics of the Heian Period is colour sense.  In 603 C.E. in the Western calendar Shotoku Tashi (Prince Shotoku) established a system of government ranks mirroring those used in China.  With these ranks came the Chinese practice of distinction by colour.  The ranking colours had to be produced precisely using the correct materials.  These colours were purple, blue, red, yellow, white and black.

In 701 C.E., the Ministry of the Imperial Household organized a new office, the Palace Dyeing Office or Naisenshi.  To the madder reds and indigo blues used in antiquity were added other dyes from the Continent.  Benibana or safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) was one of those dyes.  Safflower was imported from China in the 5th century and has been cultivated in Japan ever since.  Although known as a pretty red dye, it was not the red associated with rank and therefore not a desireable dye in China.  But the Japanese were beginning to develop their own colour taste.  By the beginning of the Heian period (late 8th century), Japan’s distance from the ideals of the Tang Chinese court could be seen in their use of dyes.  Kurenai, the red dye produced from the safflower plant, became a forbidden colour.  Only women of high rank and those favoured by the Empress could wear it.

Being a Japanese living historian re-enacting the Heian period, I just had to experiment with safflower.  So I went to my local Asian grocery and asked for safflower.  “Saffron?” they asked.  “No, safflower,” I said.  But when I looked at the packages of “saffron”, they were obviously flowers, not flower stigmas like saffron.  Safflower is also much less expensive ($13/lb as opposed to $150/lb for real saffron).  I have run into this confusion in quite a few groceries so buyer beware.  For cooking, saffron and safflower impart a similar yellow colour to the food.  For dyeing, the saffron will never make the beautiful safflower red.  So make sure you get safflower.  Safflower looks like dried marigold flowers.  Saffron looks like reddish threads.

Linen and cotton will both take the safflower dye, but to witness the true beauty of safflower, you need silk.  You can buy white silk handkerchiefs for just a  few dollars from some silk suppliers.  Three scarves are enough to experience the “miracle” of benibana.  You will also need some cotton.  A terrycloth towel or other absorbent 100% cotton fabric will do.  By the by, wool does not take safflower dye at all.  Although it is an animal fibre like silk, all the wool swatches I put in the dyebath came out as white as when they went in.


Yellow Safflower Dyepot Before you can begin dyeing with safflower, you must rinse the petals.  There is alot of yellow on the surface of the safflower so keep rinsing until the water runs clear.  Some dye sources call this discharge “useless” or “waste”.  However, it does dye silk a pure yellow.  You may chose to keep the rinse or discard it.  If you keep this yellow liquid, bring it to a boil and place your silk in it to simmer for 1-2 hours.  This is the only time you add any heat to safflower dye.  After two hours, the dye will become dark and turn silk mustard coloured.  As you can see in the picture below, cotton and linen appear to accept the dye as well as silk does.  However, when rinsed in water, it is obvious that the yellow was just sitting on top of the vegetable fibres and not penetrating them.  The silk retains its colour.  I am given to understand that this yellow also dyes wool, but I did not try it.
Silk, cotton and linen boiling in the yellow dye rinsed from the safflower petals.
After rinsing the petals, I wrapped them in a piece of cotton gauze so they wouldn’t get mixed in with the fibres to be dyed.  I placed this poultice in a dyepot and covered it with cold water.  Then I added washing soda until the dyebath registered pH 11 on my test strips.  This solution sat for one hour.  Then I added enough vinegar to make the solution pH 6.  Immediately, the colour of the bath turned from ruddy brown to bright pink.  To this bath I added three yards of cotton gauze, a few cotton swatches, a silk scarf, and some linen swatches.  This bath soaked overnight. Silk, cotton, and linen in the acidic dyebath
Silk, cotton, and linen soaking in an acidic bath with a poultice of safflower petals.
The next morning, the results were amazing.  The cotton became a pink words cannot accurately describe.  It was nearly neon!  I didn’t think these colours were possible with natural dyes.  Yet safflower dye has been in use since ancient times in India and central Asia.  Without the use of chemicals or even common mordants, simple steeping in the dyebath produced these dramatic results.  The linen in the bath became a similar colour, although not as strong a shade.  The silk, however, turned an entirely different colour.  According to the sources, safflower petals retain a second yellow dye.  As with the first yellow dye we extracted, the yellow dye has no affect on linen and cotton, but dyes silk quite well.  The result of this dyebath was a peach coloured silk scarf.  Strange how one dyebath can produce two decidedly different colours at once.  At left is a picture of the cotton after a night in the acidic safflower bath.
Cotton after a night in the acidic bath.
In order to obtain the red dye on silk without any taint of the secondary yellow which made the previous silk scarf orange, you must discharge the dye from the cotton by making an alkaline bath.  I added washing soda to a pot of cold water until the test strips registered pH 11.  Into this I put the pink cotton from the night before.  Almost immediately upon entering the bath, the beautiful bright colour of the cotton “saddened” and I knew that the chemical reaction was taking place.  After about half an hour, I noticed that the bath was becoming red and the cotton was losing its colour.
The alkaline bath
I removed the cotton from the alkaline bath.  At left is what the cotton above looked like after discharging the red dye into the alkaline bath.
The same cotton after removal from the alkaline bath.
After removing the cotton, I added vinegar until the test strips registered pH 6.  The bath turned from dark maroon to bright pink, just like before.  I added the silk scarf and allowed it to soak overnight.  In the morning, the scarf was as pink as the cotton had been the previous morning!  My experiment had worked.  I sucessfully produced kurenai, the forbidden colour of Heian Japan.  The three colours of safflower can be see below.
The alkaline bath after vinegar was added.

The three colours of safflower.

In Japan, wood ash water would be used to make the dyebath alkaline and spoiled sake would be the acidifying agent.  Wood ash water can be made by collecting water that has run through the ashes of a wood fire.  Sushi su (rice wine vinegar) can be used as the acid.  The use of these traditional ingredients will not change the colour of the dye since they are only catalysts to the absorption of the dye chemical.  However, next time, I intend to use wood ash water and sushi vinegar just for the periodicity of it. 😉

For my next safflower adventure, I will dye a pair of nagabakama with safflower dye.  I have hand sewn the two legs and the sash, but have not yet joined them.  I expect it will be easier to dye them evenly if they are separate.  As soon as I acquire enough safflower, I will try this in my bathtub.  The problem is that the draught in the Northeast U.S. this past summer severely crippled the safflower crop.  My intention is to visit every Asian food market in the Tri-state area until I have two pounds of safflower petals.  This should be adequate to dye my nagabakama.  Watch this page for details.


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© 2000, 2003 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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