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Dyeing with Hopi sunflower seeds (Tceqa' Qu' Si)

Linen dyed with hopi sunflower seeds

Sunflowers of all kinds are native to North America and the very special Hopi black sunflowers are descended from plants grown in the Shungopavi village on the Hopi Reservation in what is now known as Arizona. These seeds had been bred over millennia as a dye plant for making baskets and they had been carefully tended and preserved from the contamination of the monoculture sunflowers that were introduced for oil production.

Though lots of sunflowers seeds will give a dye - this variety gives deeper colours, gorgeous luminous purples, greys and blacks. The seeds were collected as part of the Native seeds search project in 1978 and were grown on, harvested and distributed. You can now buy the seeds from specialist dye seed shops.

I was given a packet by Kat Goldin of Gartur Stitch Farm and sowed half of it - sowing under cover in April, growing on the plants until they were well established and planting out in May. They quickly grew to eight feet with big heads - and in mid September I began to harvest the seed heads.

Of course we are not Arizona. The sun does not shine as bright, the conditions are not as dry. A lot of the seeds never matured to the deep black that they would in their native lands. They certainly didn't stain my hands as I harvested the seeds and there are none in a state that I would save for next year.

The purple colours come from the compound anthocyanin - which I find to be a very tender thing. It is sensitive to pH and doesn't seem to respond well to heat, so I abandoned my usual slugging everything together method of dyeing and tried a gentler approach.

1. I put two large handfuls of seeds into a heatproof jar and poured over a kettle of just boiled water - then I left them to steep for 3 hours. The water changed to a Ribena colour.

2. I added a desert spoon of vinegar to the jar to acidify it, the colour lightened slightly.

3. I added pieces of linen mordanted with alum acetate, (Instructions in this book suggest adding raw alum to the dye pot) - after about 30 minutes they had turned a lavender colour. there was no difference in colour between 30 minutes and an overnight steeping.

4. Adding to an iron rinse for ten minutes changed the colour to grey.

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