Dyes From Plants: Learn More About Using Natural Plant Dyes
By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
Until the mid-19th century, natural plant dyes were the only source of dye available. However, once scientists discovered that they could produce dye pigments in a laboratory that would stand up to washing, were quicker to make and could be easily transferred to fibers, creating dyes from plants became somewhat of a lost art.
In spite of this, many plant dyeing activities still exist for the home gardener and can be a fun family project as well. In fact, making dye with kids can be a great learning experience and a rewarding one at that.
Arts and Crafts Plant Dyeing Activities
Natural sources of dye come from many places including food, flowers, weeds, bark, moss, leaves, seeds, mushrooms, lichens and even minerals. Today, a select group of artisans are committed to preserving the art of making natural dyes from plants. Many use their talent to teach others of the importance and historical significance of the dyes. Natural dyes were used as war paint and to color skin and hair long before they were used to dye fiber.
Best Plants for Dyeing
Plant pigments create dyes. Some plants make excellent dyes, while others just don’t seem to have enough pigment. Indigo (blue dye) and madder (the only reliable red dye) are two of the most popular plants for producing dyes as they have a great amount of pigment.
Yellow dye can be made from:
Orange dyes from plants can be made from:
- carrot roots
- onion skin
- butternut seed husks
For natural plant dyes in shades of brown, look for:
- hollyhock petals
- walnut husks
Pink dye can be derived from:
Purple colors can come from:
Making Dye with Kids
An excellent way to teach history and science is through the art of making natural dyes. Making dye with kids allows teachers/parents to incorporate important historical and scientific facts while allowing children to engage in a fun, hands-on activity.
Plant dyeing activities are best if done in the art room or outdoors where there is space to spread out and easy surfaces to clean. For children in grades 2 through 4, crock-pot plant dyes are a fun and educational way to learn about natural dyes.
- 4 crock pots
- Dry onion skins
- Black walnuts in shells
- Paint brushes
- Talk to children the day before the lesson about the importance that natural plant dyes had in early America and touch on the science involved in natural dye making.
- Place beets, spinach, onion skins and black walnuts in separate crock pots and barely cover with water.
- Heat the crock pot on low overnight.
- In the morning, the crocks will have natural dye paint that you can pour into little bowls.
- Allow the children to create designs using the natural paint.
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Growing a Dye Garden
Tucked away in the Dandenong Ranges just outside of Melbourne, Myf Walker’s garden is filled with botanical treasures that any serious natural dyer would love to get their hands on. She takes the leaves, roots and flowers of these plants and, without the use of any chemicals, turns textiles into beautiful, wearable keepsakes that will last a lifetime.
I first met Myf last year while searching for an experienced local natural dyer to teach a community workshop on the process. Her passion for this ancient practice currently experiencing a modern revival was immediately apparent, but there was something about the way she talked about and practiced it that set her apart from the other natural dyers I’d met. I found her passion for being involved in the dyeing process from start to finish and doing it in a way that was environmentally sustainable really inspiring. I knew that I had to find out more about what Myf was up to at her home in the mountains.
This spring, when her collection of colour yielding plants was really coming to life, she took me on a garden tour that was like no other I had ever experienced. We chatted about plants, creativity and connecting with the natural dyeing process.
Tell us a bit about your background. Is there anything in your childhood that attracted you to plants and natural dyeing?
I grew up on a small farm, my parents were urban kids who married and moved to the country in pursuit of a simpler life. Mud brick house, loads of animals, my brother and I had horses. My Dad kept bees, my Mum was a passionate gardener and had an extensive garden. She was also really into natural therapies and foods, I was THAT kid at school with dark rye bread alfalfa sandwiches and carob instead of chocolate. Most of this completely mortified me at the time, my folks were pretty eccentric in comparison to those of my peers. But now I appreciate just how much freedom I had to be on my own and be myself, I learnt to be very independent and resourceful. I had to make my own entertainment with what I had at hand and so I gravitated towards making things.
How long have you been dyeing with plants, and how did you get into natural dyeing?
I’ve just always done it. One of my favourite books as a child was ‘Gnomes’, I adored Rien Poortvliet’s illustrations and immersed myself in that world. There’s a section in the book outlining the gnomes dyeing their clothes with plants and I can remember raiding
Mum’s garden, grabbing a pot and having a go. I don’t think I was very successful but that was the beginning. I dyed bits and pieces over the years, rejuvenating clothes I bought from
the op shop, tie-dyed car seat covers for my first car but it didn’t really become my passion until I had my son five years ago and really needed to focus on a creative outlet apart from my work as a graphic designer.
Tell us about your natural dyeing process. What methods do you practice, what textiles do you use and what objects do you create?
I guess if I had to distil my ethic I’d say – simplicity and subtlety. Beauty and use. I use only natural fibres, my favourites are wool and silk because they accept dye readily, wear well and because they aren’t as resource intensive. I’d love to use hemp in place of linen but haven’t yet found hemp cloth quite fine enough. I have a small label called Tinker, sporadically producing clothing, textiles and accessories, I have also run natural dye workshops. I’m not really interested in having a recipe or creating deliberate patterns and colours, because that’s what I do all day on the computer. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and like exploring how the pigments in one plant might combine or react with another. I think the serendipitous results of that process are much more beautiful than anything I could ever contrive.
What do you love about natural dyeing, and is there anything that you dislike about the natural dyeing process?
I love the anticipation of waiting to see how something is going to turn out. It’s solitary, meditative, quiet and slow. I love the fact that nothing I do is a reproduction and can’t be replicated in turn. I really appreciate how being able to use plants to colour cloth demonstrates just how valuable and amazing they are. And I love how domestic it is, that on a small scale it’s possible to be environmentally sensitive and largely self sufficient.
But it does concern me that natural dyeing as an industry can be polluting and exploitative.
The pigment used to dye something might be naturally derived but what was used to fix it to the fibre? What happens to the contents of the dye vat afterwards? Where and how was the dyestuff grown and by whom? These are all important questions to ask.
Tell us about your dye garden. How long have you had it for? What plants do you grow in there and why did you choose them? Why do you grow your own dye plants?
I’m a little bit obsessed with starting from the very beginning with everything that I do. If I had the ability to make my own cloth I would. Because I can’t do that I resolved to try and grow as many of my dyes as I can. My dedicated dye garden is a few years old now. I chose my plants primarily for their ornamental value and suitability to dyeing clothing. This means they need to be relatively light and wash fast and not an irritant or poisonous, if I don’t know what it is and why it works I don’t use it. In my garden I have Australian Indigo, Yarrow, Woad, Hollyhocks, Madder, Chamomile, Lady’s Bedstraw, Elderflower, Blackberry, Roses, Eucalyptus, Woodruff, Saffron, Turmeric, Black-eyed Susans, Coreopsis, Meadowsweet, Pomegranate, Tansy and Goldenrod. I also plant annuals like Tagetes and Zinnias.
What are you up to now in your natural dyeing journey, and where are you hoping to go next?
I had my second child seven months ago so this year has been a bit of an enforced time out for me which has actually been really nice. I’ve been spending a lot of time enjoying just pottering and doing my own thing, playing with ideas, working on designs, developing my aesthetic and working in the garden. Once I have a bit more time I might start producing a few things for my little online shop again. I’m focusing on small, one-off pieces dyed using plants from my garden. I’m expanding my plantings of Indigofera australis and Coreopsis and I’m planting out a new crop of Woad and Madder seedlings.
You can see more of Myf’s products, growing, natural dyeing and making process on her website and Instagram, and what’s inspiring her on Pinterest.
Grow Your Own Color: Planting a Natural Dye Garden
Did you know that you can easily grow natural dye plants in your own garden — for dyeing fabric, wool yarns, or even children’s art supplies?
In fact, chances are that you already have some plants in your garden that have dye properties. Common garden plants, such as marigold, Black-eyed Susan, fennel and blackberry all release pigment when simmered in hot water, so they can be used as dyes. So can many so-called weeds that grow wild by the roadside or in the less-managed corners of your land, such as stinging nettle, pokeweed, goldenrod, and yarrow.
You could simply start experimenting with gathering such plants from your garden or the wild. For basic instructions for natural dyeing, see here.
But if the idea of producing your own non-toxic, über-local colors is really exciting to you, you can create a designated dye garden.
Dye Plants are Everywhere
Before the invention of synthetic dyes in the 1850s, all dyes were natural pigments – from plants, mushrooms, minerals, or in some cases insects or mollusks. In fact, most plants around us release some kind of color if simmered in water. Mostly, they are faint yellows and beiges. Over time, dyers learned which plants possessed particularly strong and vibrant pigments, and started to use mordants such as tannins or rhubarb leaves to keep those colors strong. Coreopsis, marigold, lady’s bedstraw, madder root, weld and woad were all used as dye plants in Europe. Particularly vibrant blues, purples and reds tend to grow in tropical climates, and they were imported from places such as India and South America at a high cost that only the elites could afford. North American Indigenous people used plant dyes from bloodroot, black walnut, and sumac to dye basketry materials, moccasins, and cloth.
Here are some easy-to-grow dye plants for temperate North America:
- yellow: marigold, goldenrod, dyer’s chamomile, tansy, weld, Osage orange heartwood, onion skins
- orange: rhubarb root, madder root, staghorn sumac bark, tickseed sunflower
- red: madder root, pokeberry (with vinegar mordant)
- pinks and lavenders: lady’s bedstraw root, purple basil, blackberries, elderberries
- blue: woad, Japanese indigo, hollyhock
- tans and browns: black walnut hulls, oak bark, leaves, galls and acorns, staghorn sumac berry
- greens: comfrey, nettle (see note below)
(Note: Even though much of the natural world is green, a bright grassy green is one of the hardest colors to achieve naturally! Many plants, such as yarrow or Queen Anne’s lace, will yield a greenish yellow. Putting the fibers in an iron afterbath will turn yellows into olive greens. Overdyeing a yellow dye with a blue dye such as woad or indigo will produce the brightest greens.)
Many of these plants are multi-purpose plants. Marigolds repel pests in the garden elderberry attracts birds and beneficial pollinators comfrey improves garden soil and black walnuts, fennel, purple basil, onion, rhubarb and blackberry are edible. So even if you have limited garden space, you can choose plants such as these that have multiple benefits and purposes.
Where to Find Dye Plants and Seeds
You can find seeds or starts for most of the plants on the list above from standard garden seed companies and nurseries. Even if you just plant marigolds, Black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and purple basil, you’ll have a striking flower bed all summer long, and can harvest colors ranging from sunny yellows to sweet pinks at the end of the season.
But some plants are specifically grown as dye plants because they have unusually strong and colorfast pigments, and I recommend trying some of them. Some of the classics include madder root, Japanese indigo, woad, and weld. For these, you will probably have to source the seeds or the plants from a specialist seed company or nursery (see Resources below).
Planning and Planting Your Natural Dye Garden
Choose a site that gets good sun, ideally at least 6 hours a day. Decide on the shape of your dye garden area. It’s better to start small and then “roll back the edges” rather than take on more than you can manage.
Prepare the soil as you would a vegetable garden bed: remove any plant debris and the sod, then dig deeply to loosen the soil. Work in compost, aged manure, or other organic matter to improve soil structure and drainage. Many dye plants tolerate poor soils, but they’ll be more productive in rich soil.
Most dye plants require 1-2 foot spacing, but check the seed or plant supplier’s specifications.
Here are four easy-to-grow dye plants that deserve a place in a dye garden:
– Acorns (boiled)
– Amur Maple (Acer Ginnala)- black, blue, brown from dried leaves.
– Barberry – (all plant, fresh or dried ) – mordant: alum – tan
– Beetroot –Dark Brown with FeSO4
– Birch (bark) – Light brown/ buff – Alum to set
– Broom – (bark) – yellow/brown
– Broom Sedge – golden yellow and brown
– Butternut Tree (Juglans cinerea) – (bark) -dark brown – boil the bark down to concentrated form
– Cascara sagrada
– Coffee Grinds
– Colorado Fir – (bark) – tan
– Coneflower (flowers) – brownish green leaves and stems – gold
– Comfrey ( Symphytum officinale) (leaves) – mordant: iron – brown
– Dandelion (roots) brown
– Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) (fresh flowers, leaves) mordant: chrome – golden brown
– Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) (fresh tops) mordant: iron – brown
– Goldenrod (shoots ) – deep brown
– Hollyhock (Alcea) (petals)
– Ivy – (twigs) – yellow/brown
– Juniper Berries (Juniperus)
– Madder (Rubia tinctorum ) (roots) – mordant: iron – brown
– Oak bark will give a tan or oak color.
– Onion (Allium cepa) (red skin – fresh or dried) – mordant: tin – tan/brown
– Onion (Allium cepa) (yellow skin – fresh or dried) – mordant: iron – brown
– Onion (Allium cepa) (red skin – fresh or dried) – mordant: chrome – dark tan
– Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquifolium) (fresh roots) mordant: chrome – tan
– Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquifolium) (fresh roots) mordant: alum – light yellow brown
– Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquifolium) (fresh, all plant) mordant: alum – khaki gold
– Oregano – (Dried stalk) – Deep brown- Black
– Pine Tree Bark – light medium brown. Needs no mordant.
– Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) (dried fruit) mordant: alum – brown
– Potentilla (Potentilla verna) (fresh roots) mordant: chrome – brown/red
– Quince (blossoms) – beige on wool – mordant: alum, warm gray – mordant: iron
– Raspberry (tan)
– St John’s Wort (blossom) – brown
– St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – (fresh stems) – mordant: alum – brown/red
– Sumac (leaves) – tan
– Sunflower (tan)
– Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratium) (fresh leaves, stems) mordant: alum – tan
– Tea Bags – light brown, tan
– Uva Ursi (Arctostaphylos Uva-ursi) (fresh leaves) – camel
– Walnut (hulls) – deep brown (wear gloves) – black
– White Birch – (inner bark) – brown
– White Maple (bark) – Light brown/ buff – Alum to set
– Wild plum root will give a reddish or rusty brown.
– Yellow dock (shades of brown)
Plants Used for Dyes
Throughout the world, evidence of natural dyeing in many ancient cultures has been discovered. Textile fragments dyed red from roots of an old world species of madder (Rubia tinctoria) have been found in Pakistan, dating around 2500 BC. Similar dyed fabrics were found in the tombs of Egypt.
Finely woven Hopi wicker plaques made from rabbitbrush and sumac stems colored with native and commercial dyes. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.
Mordants can be used to increase color intensity such as in this Southwestern–style rug. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.
- Tyrean purple dye was discovered in 1500 B.C. and was produced from the glandular secretions of a number of mollusk species.
- This purple dye was extremely expensive to produce as it required nearly 12,000 mollusks to produce 3.5 ounces of dye.
- Tyrean purple became the color of royalty.
- Lichens were used to produce ochril, a purple dye, which was called the “poor person’s purple”.
Native North American Plants Used for Dyes
European settlers in North America learned from Native Americans to use native plants to produce various colored dyes (see Table 2).
|PLANT||Number of Uses|
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Photo by Dave Moore.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was used to produce red dyes. Green dyes were made from algae and yellow dyes were made from lichens. Early colonists discovered that colors produced by the Native Americans quickly faded, thus suggesting that mordants may not have been used.
Mountain alder (Alnus incana).
Mountain alder (Alnus incana)
This small, riparian tree has been used by many native tribes to make a brown, red-brown, or orange-red dye to darken hides, stain bark used in basketry and dye porcupine quills. Inner bark was used to make yellow dye. Outer bark was used to make a flaming red hair dye. Some tribes mixed this species with grindstone dust or black earth to make a black dye. Bark was used to wash and restore the brown color to old moccasins.
In the western United States, various layers of red alder bark, Alnus rubra, yield red, red-brown, brown, orange, and yellow dyes. These colors have been used to stain baskets, hides, moccasins, hair, quills, fishnets, canoes, cloth, and other items.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), an important dye plant, with fall colors.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
This deciduous shrub is a widely distributed throughout most of the contiguous United States. It is readily recognized by its thicket-forming habit, milky sap, compound leaves, and dense, terminal panicles of bright red drupes. A variety of dye colors can be obtained from different parts of the plant depending on the mordant used.
The leaves are rich in tannin and can be used as a direct dye. Leaves can be collected as they fall in the autumn and used as a brown dye. The twigs and root are also rich in tannin. A black and a red dye can be obtained from the fruit. A black dye is obtained from the leaves, bark, and roots. An orange or yellow dye is obtained from the roots harvested in spring. A light yellow dye is obtained from the pulp of the stems.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea)
Butternut (Juglans cinerea)
This tree native to the eastern United States was important as a food and dye source. Native Americans used the bark to make a brown dye and young roots to make a black dye. Using an iron mordant, brown dye can be changed to a charcoal or gray color.
- The famous gray coats that the Confederate Army wore during the Civil War were colored with dye made from butternuts.
- Confederate soldiers were called “butternuts” because of their dyed uniforms.
The genus Rubus belongs to the rose family. Common names include raspberry, blackberry, blackcap, and thimbleberry. Varieties of blackberry include dewberry, boysenberry, and loganberry. This group consists of erect, arching or trailing, deciduous and evergreen shrubs found wild in Europe, North America, and Asia.
These berries are actually aggregate fruits, which means they are composed of individual drupelets, held together by almost invisible hairs. Some berry canes may be armed with formidable spines and make great security hedges, while others may be nearly spineless. All parts of the blackberry plant (berries, leaves, canes) yield dye colors.
Rubus species are important for food, medicine, and dyes. Photo by Marry Ellen (Mel) Harte © Forestryimages.org.
|Dye Color||Plant Common Name (Additional Colors)|
|Yellow Dyes||Yarrow (green, black)|
|Golden wild-indigo (green)|
|Tall cinquefoil (black, green, orange, red)|
|Indiangrass (brown, green)|
|Orange Dyes||Western comandra (brown, yellow)|
|Prairie Bluets (brown, yellow)|
|Bloodroot (brown, yellow)|
|Sassafras (black, green, purple, yellow)|
|Eastern Cottonwood (black, brown, yellow)|
|Plains Coreopsis (black, green, yellow, brown)|
|Red Dyes||Ozark chinkapin (black, yellow, brown)|
|Sumac (yellow, green, brown, black)|
|Prairie Parsley (yellow, brown)|
|Slippery Elm (brown, green, yellow)|
|Black Willow (black, green, orange, yellow)|
|Purple / Blue Dyes||Indian blanket (black, green, yellow)|
|Hairy coneflower (brown, green, yellow, black)|
|Red Mulberry (brown, yellow, green)|
|Mountain alder (brown, red, orange)|
|Summer Grape (orange, yellow, black)|
|Black Locust (black, green, yellow, brown)|
|Green Dyes||Butterfly milkweed (yellow)|
|Texas Paintbrush (green, red, yellow)|
|Basket flower (yellow)|
|Sagebrush (yellow, gray)|
|Goldenrod (yellow, brown)|
|Gray Dyes||Iris (black)|
|Canaigre Dock (yellow, green, brown)|
|Brown Dyes||Prickly poppy (green, orange, yellow)|
|Texas Paintbrush (green, red, yellow)|
|Downy Phlox (brown, green, yellow)|
|Black Dyes||Northern Catalpa (brown, yellow)|
|Sumac (yellow, red, green, brown)|
|May-apple (brown, yellow)|
|Sand Evening Primrose (green, orange, red, yellow)|
Did You Know?
- The tissues of canaigre dock (Rumex hymenosepalus) - a southwest desert native plant used to make yellow, gray or green dye, and widely noted for its medicinal, edible, and social uses - contain toxic oxalate. The needlelike crystals produce pain and edema when touched by lips, tongue or skin.
- Eastern cottonwood used to make a variety of dyes was a sign to early pioneers that they were near water. Ribbons of cottonwoods were found across the prairie where underground watercourses were located.
- Prior to chemical synthesis of indigo dye, blue jeans and cotton were dyed with a blue dye derived from tropical indigo bush, native to India. Mayo indigo, from the Sonoran desert was used for blue dye for thousands of years.
- Rubber rabbitbrush, a western native, can be used to create both green and yellow dyes. The bark produces green dye while flowers produce yellow dye.
- Not only is stinging nettle edible, it can be used to create a green dye. Stinging nettle can cause severe skin irritation, but is useful for dyes, fiber, and food.
Planting a Dye Garden to Make Your Own Natural Dyes
Sounds like the beginnings of a recipe for a good Indian dish? It could be, but it’s also something entirely different: a list of items that can be used to naturally dye textiles.
We have the soil to thank not only for our food, but also our clothes. If you are currently wearing any type of natural fiber – cotton, linen, wool, hemp, etc – someone was responsible for growing and producing it. But compared to growing food, growing fiber and turning it into an item of clothing is a bit more of an elaborate process. One does not go from a field of cotton to a t-shirt overnight. But for the home gardener that’s interested in having amore active role in what they wear, growing plants that can be used to dye with is an excellent option.
What are natural dyes?
We have been dyeing textiles for centuries, but because textiles inevitably break down, it’s hard to determine at what exact point we started dyeing cloth. According to Kristine Vejar, the author of Modern Natural Dyer, the process of dyeing occurred simultaneously with the development of agriculture, and we can go as far back as A.D. 77-79 to The Natural History, written by Pliny the Elder and which included a brief description of dyeing. In other words: we’ve been dyeing for pretty much as long as we have been cultivating food.
But just like the production of food has changed as the world has industrialized, leaving us in a system that’s destructive for both our health and the environment, dyes have changed as well.
Until the 1850s, almost all dyes were obtained from natural materials, but after the first successful synthetic dye was concocted in 1856, these quickly came to dominate the market. While easy to produce on a mass scale, synthetic dyes come at a cost, and they are a large part of the reason that the textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. There are some 72 toxic chemicals that enter our water supply on account of textile dyeing, and it is estimated that around 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing.
There are however thousands of natural materials out there which can produce an abundance of color, and you don’t have to look farther than a nearby field or forest, or even your own kitchen. Easily foraged lichens and mushrooms can be used to dye fiber, as well as food scraps like onion peels and avocado. Natural dyes can also be cultivated, a way to have a little more choice and direction in what colors you can use.
That’s where the dye garden comes in.
Planting a dye garden
Beyond the environmental reasons, growing plants and dyeing with them is a way to reconnect with the natural world, much like growing our own food is. As Vejar writes in her book, “the practice of naturally dyeing becomes a way to honor and enjoy nature – like gardening or taking a hike. Wearing naturally dyed clothing is a delightful way to be with nature throughout the day.”
Want to get started in your on farm to fashion revolution? If you are interested in planting your own dye garden, to complement your food growing this spring, Vejar has kindly offered up her five favorite dye plants, and what to do with them.
If you live in the Bay Area, you can find seeds for these plants at Vejar’s shop, A Verb For Keeping Warm. She’s also planning on making seeds available online soon. Some of these seeds, like marigolds, will be easy to at any gardening store. Others may require ordering from a seed company.
Vejar has chosen these five plants for their long history of making great dye plants, allowing you to dye your favorite t-shirt, piece of fabric or skein of yarn, all from flowers grown in your own garden.
Note that natural dyes do require mordants to achieve long-lasting colors, and since that’s enough for a whole other post, for now I’ll just point you in the direction of The Modern Natural Dyer where you can find full directions. There are also plenty of natural dyeing resources online for those who are interested.
Plant, grow, then head to the dyepot to create vibrant colors from plants grown in your own garden!
Five plants for your dye garden
These five plants will allow you to achieve the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue – and from there you can experiment in combining them to achieve a full color palette.
Marigolds, coreopsis, and yarrow
“Marigolds, coreopsis, and yarrow all produce shades of yellow,” says Vejar. “Plant them in full sun, they will thrive, and produce beautiful flowers. Use the flowers for the most potent color, though the stalks and leaves will also dye. These plants are all drought-tolerant and need little water which is an added bonus!”
Vejar notes that, “the real treasure of the madder plant is not its leaves but its roots, which once harvested, chopped, and added to a dyebath will create rich, warm shades of red.” But red isn’t all you can do. “Add a bit of cream of tartar and get shades of orange,” says Vejar. As for planting notes, “if you want to grow and dye with madder, make sure you get it in the ground ASAP, as it can take up to two years to produce roots with enough pigment to dye red,” says Vejar. “Also, if you live in a temperate climate, like we do in California, madder can spread quite easily, so plant it in a raised bed.”
“The leaves of the plant called Polygonum tinctoria, a member of the buckwheat family, make shades of blue,” says Vejar. “Indigo dyeing is a bit different, so make sure to use a recipe, like the one which can be found in Rebecca Burgess’s book, Harvesting Color.”
Achieving different colors
“Now that you have guidance in making primary colors, red, yellow, and blue, experiment in combining these dyes to create even more colors,” says Vejar. “Create the full rainbow: to get orange, combine red and yellow, to get green, dye yellow, and dip into indigo, and to get purple, dye red, and dip into indigo.”
An Introduction to Natural Dyeing
Use plants from your neighborhood and garden to create a rainbow of textiles. By Tracy Majka.The Adelaide dress in natural-dyed linen.
Spring and summer are coming, and if you’ve ever been interested in natural dyeing, now’s the time to start planning.
Why would you ever want to dye with plants? For one thing, you can get an incredible range of hues, including yellow, orange, green, red (if you use madder), blue (if you dye with woad or indigo), purple, grey, and brown. Natural dyeing can be mysterious and gloriously imprecise—you can sometimes predict the color, but plants and dyeing materials vary so much that you’ll never really know what you’ve got until you chuck stuff into a pot and see what happens. It’s a fun hobby for those who are curious, like to experiment, and don’t mind unpredictable results.
In addition, the beginning-to-end process of finishing projects dyed from plants you’ve grown yourself can be enormously satisfying. It’s slow and labor-intensive, but hey, we’re sewists many of us enjoy the process as much as—if not more than—the finished product. Finally, the process of dyeing fabric or yarn yourself is more sustainable and the plant-based dyes you’ll produce are arguably less toxic than commercial dyes. (For more information on the ecology of a dyebath, check out Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose.)
I’ve been gardening since 2008, working with native plants since 2009, and playing around with natural dyes for the last five or six years. In this article, I’ll explain how to dip your toes—or yarn—into natural dyeing with plants you grow from seeds (versus buying plant-based dyes online, which you can do, but I think growing your own is more fun). You can also dye with all kinds of other natural substances—tea, coffee, berries, bark, vegetables, and more.
What you’ll need
Before you begin dyeing, you’ll need to pick the plants to use and gather up supplies and equipment.Many plants in your own neighborhood can be used to dye fabric.
Choosing Your Plants
Begin by looking at what you already have in your own backyard or outdoor space. Any plant you have a lot of will most likely produce some color in the dyepot. Generally, the more plant material you have, the more you can add to the pot, and the more concentrated your dye will be. You can use just one type of plant in the dyepot or a mix. This year, I plan to try dyeing with wild bergamot and evening primrose—I have no idea how viable they are as dye plants, but we sure do have a lot of them.
A couple things to keep in mind:
- Make sure the plant is safe to handle and work with. (Trust me: Dyeing with poison ivy or oak is probably a bad idea.) Check with your local Department of Agriculture if you’re not sure.
- Dye color may differ from the color of the plant it’s derived from. For example, pink and red flowers might produce yellow or brown dye.
If you’re planning a dye garden (i.e., selecting plants to use specifically for dyeing), keep an eye out for plants with tinctoria in the name (Latin for “color”). Generally, though not always, these plants are good for dyeing. My all-time favorite plant is coreopsis tinctoria, also known as dyer’s coreopsis, which has a small yellow flower with a purple center. It produces a range of colors from intense yellow to deep orange to brown and looks cheery in the garden to boot. You can also dye with herbs such as purple basil, which is sometimes tough to work with (you need a lot of it) but produces a pretty range of colors, from muted purple to pale pink to sage green. Bonus: It smells amazing when it’s cooking and is also delicious in a caprese sandwich.
Whenever possible, I try to choose native or native-ish plants, meaning plants indigenous to my area or ones that have been grown in the area for a long period of time. I go for native plants because 1) I’m trying to keep the process as sustainable as possible 2) I’m lazy and don’t want to spend a lot of time on my garden, and once they’re established, native plants tend to grow well without a lot of maintenance or weeding and 3) I like to watch insects, and planting a native garden is a good way to create a bug-friendly backyard. Also, because native plants tend to do well once they’re established, I wind up with lots of material for dyeing.
This image shows several common plants and the colors they can produce. Some can be grown, and others can be purchased online.
Before you plant your seeds, you might want to clear the space, especially if it contains invasive plants. (Creating a dedicated space will make your dye plants easier to identify, too.) If you’re planning a garden several months in advance, an easy way to prep is to sheet mulch with cardboard, or you can clear and till the space the old-fashioned way by pulling and raking.
Use flowers from your garden to create
a unique dye bath.
If you’re thinking about planting a dye garden, Rita Buchanan’s excellent A Dyer’s Garden—the book that got me hooked on dyeing—has instructions and diagrams of sample gardens. I tend to take a throw-the-seeds-in-the-ground-and-see-what-happens approach, but I do keep herbs in containers if possible to keep the bugs out. To keep your garden sustainable, do not use pesticides or toxic substances in your garden.
You can also try dyeing with invasive plants and other unwanted materials from your outdoor space, such as Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard. Before you dye with any invasive species or other questionable plants, though, check with your local Department of Agriculture to see if there are any special rules for handling them.
Choosing fibers and mordants
Many factors affect the final color of your dyed fabric or yarn, including the type of fiber you use, the type of plant, and the mordant. Other considerations are whether the plant material is fresh or dried, when you pick it, variations in the growing season, and the type of water you use. Protein (animal-based) fibers, such as wool or silk, generally take dyes better than cellulose (plant-based) fibers, such as cotton, linen, or hemp. You can dye either, but the color tends to be more saturated and, in my experience, more consistent in protein fibers.
Types of mordants
- Lemon juice
- Cream of tartar
- Baking soda
Many natural dyers are knitters and work with skeins of undyed wool yarn. My go-to book, A Dyer’s Garden, is geared toward dyeing skeins of yarn. I’m a sewer, not a knitter, so I source undyed wool felt by the yard from Weir Crafts, a dollmaking supply site. Dharma Trading Company offers a range of dyeable clothing, including t-shirts and scarves I should also mention that Sonia from Naturally Dyeing has naturally dyed scarves made from cotton gauze and linen voile, and they’re gorgeous. You can also look for lower-impact fabric or fibers, such as organic cotton jersey.
You’ll also most likely want to use a mordant. A mordant is a fixative, often a powdered metal such as alum or iron, which enables dye to adhere to a material. You can dye without it, but your color will usually be stronger and more saturated if you use it. The type of mordant you use may also change the color. For example, according to Buchanan, using alum and cream of tartar as a mordant on wool and then dyeing it with whole marigold flowers will produce a yellow dye, but using copper will produce brown.
Supplies and Equipment
All kitchen supplies should be used only for dyeing.
- Undyed length of fabric or yarn
- Plant material (flowers, leaves, or roots, or a mix the more you have, the more intense your dye will be)
- A large stockpot with a lid
- A large plastic bucket with a lid
- A mesh strainer
- Measuring spoons
- A wooden spoon or paddle
- Household or garden gloves
- Optional: Garden scissors (for collecting flowers or plant material)
- Optional: Kitchen scale (to weigh plant material and fabric or yarn, if you’re following a specific recipe)
- Optional: Camp stove with propane tank (if you want to dye outside)
- Optional: Thermometer with clip (if you’re following a dye recipe with specific temperatures)
How to make natural fabric dyesEcoprint on silk by Birgit Moffatt Osage orange silk by Birgit Moffatt Osage organe loquat on silk by Birgit Moffatt
Your garden is full of opportunities for you to make and use natural dyes.
Words: Jane Wrigglesworth Photos: Birgit Moffatt
Madder, woad and weld aren’t commonly grown in our backyards these days, but for thousands of years these unassuming plants were the go-to for creating natural dyes.
Intense reds, blues and yellows were obtained from their roots or leaves, providing the primary colours from which almost any hue can be derived.
The linen used to wrap Tutankhamen was dyed with madder, as were the coats of the British Army Redcoats from the 17th to 19th centuries. The woolen yarns of the famous 70-metre long, 1000-year-old Bayeux tapestry were dyed with the natural pigments of madder, woad and weld.A small section of the Bayeaux tapestry, thought to have been created in the year 1070, still holding its vivid colours The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry (made around 1500) used dyes of weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue)
Other natural materials were used for dyeing too, notably leaves, flowers, roots, berries, bark, the shells from nuts, marine mollusks, invertebrates (like the dried, ground-up cochineal insect), ochre and other earth pigments, and lichens.
Today, many hobbyists and textile artists are finding joy in reviving this ancient practice. Fibre-artist Birgit Moffatt completed a Bachelor of Applied Arts at Whitireia Polytechnic and became hooked after being introduced to natural dyeing in her first year of studies.
“Every now and then I used synthetic dyes because of the quick process and exact outcomes of hues when measured accurately,” she says. “But every time I was disappointed with the ‘solidness’ of colour. It also concerned me pouring waste water down the sink.”
Conversely, Birgit was impressed with the results of natural dyes.
“The vivid, harmonious and always unique results convinced me to explore this field further,” she says.
Birgit, who lives close to the bush, says it also suits her lifestyle.
“I feel more connected with the land and for me this is a more mindful and sustainable approach to my arts practice.
“I prefer using dye stuff I can easily source where I live: on a walk in the bush, in the garden, from neighbours’ orchards. This allows me to go through the whole process, from the harvest to the actual dyeing.”
Peach leaves in a dye pot.
Birgit also enjoys dyeing with the seasons.
“It challenges me to look for new sources of dye material available in a certain time of the year. This summer I enjoyed dyeing with wild fennel, fig leaves, peach leaves and loquat leaves.”
But she doesn’t use berries and other fruits too much as they have the reputation of being fugitive (the colour fades quickly).
“And I rather enjoy them on the plate,” she laughs.
For her projects that use eco-printing, a technique that results in leaves being ‘printed’ onto cloth, Birgit is exploring the print properties of native leaves such as kowhai, bracken fern and kapuka.
“This includes identifying and researching plant properties of the native flora, and teaches me to appreciate what nature has to offer.”
She’s also experimented with the rich colour palette of cochineal, and she enjoys using eucalyptus, both bark and leaves.
“Eucalyptus is abundant where I live, yields beautiful colours and has the advantage to be wash and light-fast without the use of mordants (fixing the dye to the fabric), so it is very safe to use.”
For most other materials, mordants are needed as most natural dyes, with the exception of woad and indigo, do not adhere very well to the fibres. One of the most commonly-used mordants is alum powder, often with an addition of cream of tartar to help evenness and brightness.Others include iron, tin, chrome, and tannic acid which is particularly good for cotton and linen (vegetable fibres).
But you will need to research the various mordants and quantities to use before experimenting with dyes, as different colours can be achieved from a given dye molecule by using different mordants.
Birgit typically uses alum, sometimes in combination with cream of tartar.
“It is an easy process and reasonably safe to handle. I also use iron to modify a colour. Sometimes I dye fabric in my copper pot, so I don’t need to add any mordant (the vessel is the mordant). I am not using metal mordant such as tin or chrome as they are toxic.”
Instead, Birgit is hoping to explore alternative mordants such as soy, ash and tannins in the future.
Experiment is the name of the game, as any number of organic materials can be used to create a natural dye.
“I love experimenting with the endless combinations of natural dyes, mostly on wool and silk,” says Birgit. “The colours always seem to match and enhance each other.”
Moffatt nunofelt shibori dyed with harakeke.
NATIVE NZ DYES
Natural dyes were used by Māori, principally for dyeing the fibres obtained from harakeke, or New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), and cabbage tree (Cordyline). There were three main dyes used:
• iron-tannate, to produce black
• raurekau (Coprosma grandiflora) bark, to produce yellow
• tanekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) bark for a red/brown colour.
In the journal Chemistry in New Zealand (2008), Gerald Smith and Rangi Te Kanawa explain that to produce the iron-tannate dye, Māori weavers would first soak the harakeke fibres in an infusion of bark that had been simmered for several hours, before drying them without rinsing. This resulted in a coating of tannin on the fibres.
“The fibres were then covered in a fine-textured mud, paru – which has a high iron content – for several hours. The excess mud was removed and the fibres, thoroughly rinsed with cold water to remove the remaining paru, were then exposed to sunlight to develop the black colour.”
8 DYE PLANTS YOU CAN GROWDyer’s chamomile Madder roots Madder Coreopsis Dyer’s greenwood Weld Woad St John’s wort Rhubarb
The yellow, daisy-like flowers of dyer’s chamomile provide various shades of warm yellow. Sow in spring for transplanting when the weather warms up. The flowers are long-lasting in the summer garden. You can harvest the flowers at any time and use them fresh or dry.
The roots of madder are used to make reds that can then be altered by changing temperature or pH. The end result also depends on the age of the root. For deeper reds, harvest the roots when they are at least three years old. Dry the roots for a deeper red. Fresh roots provide a more orange-red. Madder can spread in the garden, so keep it contained. Plant in full sun and free-draining soil. Better reds are obtained with calcium-rich soil, so add lime during autumn or winter.
Coreopsis can provide dyes in maroon, brown, orange and deep yellow. Sow seeds in late winter and transplant when around 5cm tall. Plant in a sunny spot. The flowers, which are used for dyeing, will start to appear 10-12 weeks later. Acids added to the dye will bring out yellows, while alkaline additions will bring out deeper reddish hues.
Dyers greenwood, also known as dyer’s broom (not to be confused with the weedy broom, Cytisus scoparius) contains luteolin, which gives a clear, yellow dye that withstands washing and light. The growing tops are used to produce the best dyes. Harvest the flowering tips about two weeks after they bloom. This plant has excellent cold hardiness and can grow in any light, well-drained soil.
The spinach-like leaves of woad are used to create a lovely blue hue. Although a biennial, the leaves should be harvested in the first year, during the hot days of summer. Use the fresh leaves as soon as possible after harvesting, as the pigment (actually the precursor to the pigment) deteriorates quickly. This same precursor that transforms into the blue pigment decreases in cooler autumn weather. Woad is a member of the brassica family and should be grown and cared for in a similar way to other brassicas. Plant in sun in fertile soil. You can collect seeds from plants in the second year.
Weld was the preferred yellow dye in Medieval times. It can be over-dyed with woad to create some lovely greens, including the famous Lincoln green associated with Robin Hood. It is the leaves, either fresh or dry, that are used in the dyeing process. Weld can be planted in sun or light shade, but it prefers an alkaline soil. Add lime if your soil is overly acidic. It’s best in a spot that’s not too fertile. Weld is a biennial.
St John’s wort
This highly-regarded medicinal plant produces luxuriant dyes in golden yellows, maroon, browns and greens. These colours are derived from the fresh flowers using different methods. Minus the flowers, the plant tops will provide beige-brown colours. St John’s wort is easy to grow and is on some regional councils’ watch list (but don’t confuse it with the nationally banned Hypericum androsaemum). It is a hardy perennial that grows in full sun or part-shade.
Rhubarb is not only a great perennial food crop, it can also help to fix dyes produced from other plant sources and create its own dyes. The roots produce shades of yellow and orange the leaves produce a yellow colour. Harvest the roots for dyeing when dividing a plant. Use chopped roots, either fresh or dried. Leaves can be harvested at any time for use as a mordant for other natural dye materials or to produce their own colour. Rhubarb requires very little effort to grow, as these plants thrive on neglect.
THE BASIC STEPS TO NATURAL DYEING
The best fabric to dye is a light, natural one like cotton, linen, silk and wool (preferably white).
Roughly chop up your chosen plant material. Place in a pot on the stove, then add water (about double the amount of plant material). Bring to the boil, simmer for 60 minutes, then allow the dye bath to cool to room temperature (this takes about 45 minutes). Strain into another pot, or use the same one.
The fabric needs to be pre-treated with a mordant so that the colour will set in the fabric, otherwise it will wash out.
Add the fabric for dyeing to the pot, bring to the boil again, then simmer for 60 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave the fabric in the dye bath until it attains the desired colour.
You will need a large pot to hold the dye and fabric. The fabric soaks in the dye for a time to get the right hue the longer the soaking, the stronger the colour. The final colour will be lighter once the fabric is dry.
COLOURS IN YOUR KITCHEN
There are some other colourings you can use to dye things like eggs or fabrics including:
• onion skins (yellow-orange)
• butternut squash husks (yellow/orange)
• celery leaves (yellow)
• avocado skin, seeds (pale pink)
• coffee grounds/tea (brown)
• walnut hulls (brown)
• roses (pink)
• red clover (gold)
• red cabbage (blue, purple)
For more information
Birgit runs natural dye workshops.
Where to find plants:
Woad, weld, madder, St John’s wort and dyer’s greenwood plants are available from Kahikatea Farm.