Dyeing with Real Saffron

Those of you who have followed my webpage for some time know that I dyed linen with weld and broom, trying to replicate the colour of saffron as described in the 16th century accounts of léine crioch, The Saffron Shirt, worn in Ireland at that time.   Well, I finally decided to see what would happen if I used real saffron on a léine. I was asked to make a Shinrone gown and léine for a friend who portrays a Queen in a local re-enactment group.   Since she heard that "Saffron was the colour of chiefs," she asked if I would make her léine "saffron coloured".   I said, "How would you like it dyed with real saffron?"   I convinced her that the expense was not too great and she agreed.
I bought an ounce of Spanish saffron from San Francisco Herb and started my experiment.  When buying saffron, make sure you get the right thing.   Some Asian food stores label safflower as saffron.   Safflower makes the same colour in food, but not on linen.   Safflower will not dye linen yellow.   A right is an ounce of Spanish saffron.   Saffron is the dried stamens of the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus.   Carthamus tinctorius (sometimes called "Dyer's Saffron") is safflower.   It is a plant related to the marigold and dried safflower looks like petals of an orange plant.   You can see the difference.
An ounce of Spanish Saffron
The colour bleeds out of the saffron on contact with the warm water
The white linen was perpared by washing it in detergent and hot water and dried on high.   This removed any sizing on the fabric and pre-shrunk it prior to assembly of the garment.   The garment was then sewn together except for the neck and bottom hem. Before placing the garment in the dyepot, I wet it with water until it was saturated.   Then I put it into the dye pot and filled the pot the rest of the way and put it on the stove.   When the water started to warm, I sprinkled the saffron over it ppinch by pinch.   At left you can see how the dye discharges into the pot upon contact.
I sprinkled the saffron into the pot slowly, stirring all the time.   As with any dye, it's important that the dye spread evenly throughout the pot.   Although saffron is awfully invasive, you still need to stir and stir and stir. Another thing of which you need be mindful with saffron is that the dye comes out of the plant material very quickly upon contact.   If you're not careful, the plant material can stick to the fabric and make orange stains.   For this reason, it is often wise to put the saffron in a muslin bag and place the bag in the pot with the fabric.   As you can see, I did not take this route, so I had to keep stirring... and stirring...
Saffron in the pot
The result after simmering for only three hours
After simmering for three hours, the colour is striking!   The léine was jack-o-lntern orange!   However, after copious rinsing, the fabric became bright yellow with only a very slight orange tinge.   Another thing that you must remember with saffron — as easy as the dye comes out of the plant, the dye comes out of the fabric at first.   Always rinse the fabric until the rinse water runs clear.   Even after I was finished rinsing the garment, I dried it, then I ran it through the washing machine on hot again.   For the first few washings, it will be washed separately because it will likely bleed.   Saffron is a fugitive dye and to keep the colour, the léine will have to be boiled with a few grains of saffron every once in a while to keep it bright.
The finished saffron léine and Shinrone gown.  

© 2000 by Kass McGann — 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 purposes provided the author's name, the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.