Saturday, December 1, 2012

Notes from my SCA henna classes...

As one of my reasons for having this blog is to post my henna documentation and class notes, I suppose I should start doing just that! :) These notes are from my Intro to Henna class that I have taught at many events over the past 5+ years, including 3 years at Pennsic.

An Introduction to Henna
THL Anabel de Berchelai
Henna in SCA Period: A brief history
Henna is one of the oldest known and widely used cosmetics of all time. Archeologists have found henna on the hair and nails of Egyptian mummies, dating it’s use as far back as 3000 BCE The use of henna was popularized in Saudi Arabia around 632 CE  by the prophet Mohammed who used it to color his hair and beard. Henna traveled from Egypt to India, North Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East, and it’s use was common all around the Mediterranean in medieval times. It’s use and practices can be seen in paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and miniatures from India, Persia, and Turkey, as far back as the 11th century.

What is henna? How does it work?
Henna is a Persian word, which describes a small flowering shrub (Lawsonia inermis). Henna powder is made from the dried and crushed leaves of the henna plant. Henna powder, in its pure and natural form, is a bright or deep green, khaki or brown. The stain produced by natural henna ranges in color from pale orange to red, chocolate brown, black cherry and near black color. Contrary to the popular belief, pure black color is not produced by natural henna powder. Henna is never black! So called “black henna” contains para-phenlendiamine- a chemical hair dye. Applying PPD, or any other caustic chemical to skin can cause severe allergic reactions, blistering, permanent scarring and possible future health complications.
The leaves of the plant contain a dye (Lawsone), that, when mix with water or other ingredients, can stain natural fibers including wood, silk and wool, human hair, nails, and of course, skin. After the paste is applied, the dye molecules attach to the keratin in skin (or other fibers). When the paste is removed the stain oxidizes, much as some fruit turns brown when cut and exposed to air.

Mixing the paste
As henna recipes and practices were handed down generation to generation, the basic recipe has probably not changed too much since medieval times. The basic ingredients include henna powder (dried and crushed leaves of the  Lawsonia inermis plant), something acidic to release the plant’s dyes (lemons and limes were found to be used in period), and something sweet and sticky to help the paste stay on the skin (honey was the most common and readily available sweetener in the SCA time period). Essential oils that contain monoterpene alcohols are added to help bring out the dye as well as make the paste smell good!

A basic henna recipe
Henna powder (Jamila brand is recommended and does not need sifting)
Lemon juice
Essential oils (Lavender, Tea Tree, Cajeput are all mild and work well)
Sugar (table sugar, sugar substitute, honey)

In a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl mix together 20grams (about ¼ cup) henna powder and ¼ cup lemon juice. Stir with plastic or wooden spoon as metal may react to the acidity in the lemon juice. The paste should be thick, about the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes. Cover with plastic wrap (push wrap down over surface of henna so it is mostly airtight and add a second layer of wrap over the bowl). Let the paste sit in a warm area (70-80 degrees F) for 8-12 hours. Add 1-1 ½ tsp. of essential oils and about 1 ½ tsp. of sugar. Use a little less if using honey. Stir until smooth, cover again with plastic wrap and let sit again for another 8-12 hours, or until dye release. The surface of the paste will turn brown when it has achieved dye release. Stir in enough lemon juice, a drop or 2 at a time, until the consistency you would like is reached, similar to that of yogurt. Cone or bottle henna and use within 2-3 days or refrigerate up to a week or 2, freeze up to a year.

Henna application has changed greatly since ancient and medieval times. Though there is minimal evidence of actual period application techniques, some period practices may have included dipping fingers, hands and feet, as well as applying henna patterns with a brush, a stick, a wire, a quill, and even by hand. While many of these practices are still in use today, henna is most commonly applied using plastic or mylar cones or jacard bottles. Use of these modern tools assures that henna designs are applied more precisely with less practice, and less mess.

Applying henna with a cone
Begin by cutting a very small opening in the tip of the cone with scissors or nail clippers. Hold the cone similar to how you would hold a pencil or paint brush. Applying light pressure on the end of the cone with your thumb, slowly squeeze out the henna paste, applying the desired design. Once the design is applied, leave the paste on as long as possible, 1-2 hours minimum, 6-8 or longer is prefered. The henna paste can be sealed with a lemon/sugar mixture, covered with medical tape, or wrapped in toilet tissue to help keep it on as long as possible. Keeping the paste warm and moist will also allow more dye to penetrate the skin. Wrapping as well as steaming the paste will help to keep it warm. Once the paste is removed, avoiding water exposure for 6-12 hours will help the stain fully develop its color. The mature stain will be revealed in 24-48 hours, and as the skin exfoliates the stain will begin to fade. Applying a beeswax based balm or vegtable oil over the design will help prolong its life, especially when swimming or bathing.

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