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Red at the Pelletreau Silvershop

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

April Gonzales joined our Board of Trustees last year and has been an amazing addition to our organization. She has taken a real interest in helping to maintain the exterior of the Pelletreau Silvershop. Specifically by creating really fun decorations for our rear garden. Below is an explanation about her process in creating these fascinating scarecrows that currently reside in the garden. Make sure to stop by when you can to check them out and step inside the shop and say hi to our resident jeweler Alyssa Saccente who is keeping the handmade silversmithing spirit of the building alive 300+ years later.


By April Gonzales

Hi there my interest in dyes started when I was very young, I received a Barbie Doll that had a magical dress. If I used a wand dipped in one liquid her harlequin patterned dress turned a completely different set of colors. If I used a different wand and a different liquid the dress turned colors again. But I could only do this twice. Later I read that Cleopatra's sails were dyed purple from the Murex shell. When I discovered poke berry I smashed some of the gorgeous purple berries on my sweatshirt, but the color washed out in the laundry. I did not know how to get the color fixed to the fabric.

These things remained mysteries until I visited Japan with Yosiko Wada of Slow Fiber studios in Berkeley where we visited the renowned indigo dye workshops of Arimatsu. Indigo is one of many ancient natural dye material that come form plants. I then joined Yoshiko for a seminar in Oaxaca with Michel Garcia of Couleur Guarance.

We dove deeper into indigo, cochineal, purpura and natural dyes of all sorts from plants like Marigolds. Michel explained the chemistry of what I had experienced with Barbie's dress. Ph or acid and base can change cochineal from red to orange. But a fixative is needed for the dye to stay color fast. Cochineal is another ancient dye that was a highly valued form of commerce which made Oaxaca wealthy. Purpura comes from the Murex shell which is now protected and only families with permits can collect the mollusk to make the purple dye.

When visiting friends later in Ojai California, they lamented that their Nopal cactus was infested with a type of scale insect. I wandered out to investigate and squished some of the scale with my fingers. The exquisite carmine red the bugs exuded indicated to me that the scale was indeed cochineal. We then turned their kitchen into a test laboratory to their delight. I collected cochineal and they went to the local citrus depot for tangerine, orange and lime juice to add to the cochineal as acids along with vinegar. We used baking soda as a base. Line tests were done to see what color each citrus juice produced. We visited the thrift stores of Ventura for mohair, linen cotton and wool clothing to test our dyes on. Then we tie dyed with thread, pine cones and blocks to see which fabric took up the dye the best.

Later I tried to produce dye from local plant material we grew marigolds, I collected blue spruce, boiled up orange peels to see what worked and what did not. The dyers art is pure chemistry and the native Americans and Colonists used what they had locally to produce colors on fabrics, wood and leathers. Sumac, Juniper, onions, woad, autumn leaves, marigolds, lupine, hemlock bark, spruce roots were readily available dye materials. Some needed fixing with salt or vinegar.

At the Pelletreau Silvershop we have highlighted some of the local marine life colored with a variety of dye materials that reflect our winter sunsets. Some will remain brilliant, some are already fading, and others will wash out like my various dye trials.

Hilary Woodward (SHM Trustee), Connor Flanagan (Assistant Director) and I conferred and the common denominator for the Colonial era that was easily available was beets! I also used, red iron oxide which the Native Americans could have found in our soils, and the more expensive Cochineal and Lac that would have been used on expensive fabrics like silks of the time.

Demeter Scarecrow

In the back garden the Demeter Scarecrow's shawl and dress are an exercise in beets. The fabrics were boiled first in vinegar as a mordant, outside on the barbecue and then left in beet juice for 24 hours for coloring.

Her necklace is made of large ocean sea scallops with a rim of plaster of Paris tinted with Lac. Lac is a dye from India, it is a brilliant vermillion insect based dye like Cochineal that turned purple when we mixed it with the plaster of Paris, which would be a base in terms of ph. The longer necklace wrapped around her dress is made of bay scallop shells which were also colored with Lac, the dye turned deeper and deeper purple as it reacted with the calcium of the beautiful shell. This is typical of dye chemistry.

Demeter's dress in its beet juice bath
The Sun King scarecrow

The Sun King scarecrow's vest was dipped in red iron oxide. This is not a dye, the iron is loosely sitting on the fabric and will eventually wash out. His necklace of ocean scallops is made with the same oxide mixed into the plaster to create a brick red rim.

The various whelks and moon snails seated on Reindeer moss in the window boxes are colored with beets (purple red), lac (purple), cochineal (pink) and iron (red orange), some have already faded. The lobster has a similar coating. The Horseshoe crab to the left of the front door is colored with Cochineal.

Dyed Horseshoe Crab

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