Monday, February 23, 2009

Natural dyes

I'm doing some experimenting with natural dyes, both for adding natural colours (and some healing properties such as from calendula) to the soaps I make, as well as for dying fibres and fabric. I found some great resources which feature simple plants we have in our own yard. I'll be adding the harvest of dye plants (roots, leaves, bark, flowers) to this season's garden list.


Did you know that a great source for natural dyes can be found right in your own back yard! Roots, nuts and flowers are just a few common natural ways to get many colors. Yellow, orange, blue, red, green, brown and grey are available. Go ahead, experiment!

Gathering plant material for dyeing: Blossoms should be in full bloom, berries ripe and nuts mature. Remember, never gather more than 2/3 of a stand of anything in the wild when gathering plant stuff for dying.

To make the dye solution: Chop plant material into small pieces and place in a pot. Double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Strain. Now you can add your fabric to be dyed. For a stronger shade, allow material to soak in the dye overnight.

Getting the fabric ready for the dye bath: You will have to soak the fabric in a color fixative before the dye process. This will make the color set in the fabric.

Color Fixatives:

Salt Fixative (for berry dyes) 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups cold water

Plant Fixatives (for plant dyes) 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar

Add fabric to the fixative and simmer for an hour. Rinse the material and squeeze out excess. Rinse in cool water until water runs clear.

Dye Bath: Place wet fabric in dye bath. Simmer together until desired color is obtained. The color of the fabric will be lighter when its dry. Also note that all dyed fabric should be laundered in cold water and separately.

Muslin, silk, cotton and wool work best for natural dyes and the lighter the fabric in color, the better. White or pastel colors work the best.

NOTE: It's best to use an old large pot as your dye vessel. Wear rubber gloves to handle the fabric that has been dyed, the dye can stain your hands. It's also important to note, some plant dyes may be toxic, check with the Poison Control Center if unsure.

Oranges & Yellows:
will give a good orange to reddish orange color.

Sassafras (leaves)
Onion skin
Lichen (gold)

Barberry (mahonia sp.) yellow orange (with alum) very strong & permanent. Any part of the plant will work.

Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) Yields bright permanent orange with alum.
Oak bark will give a tan or oak color.

Walnut (hulls) (deep brown)(wear gloves)
Tea Bags (light brown)
Juniper Berries
Coffee Grinds
Yellow dock (produces shades of brown on wool)

Roses and Lavender, with a little mint and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids can make both a brilliant pink dye and a very tasty pink lemonade.


Sumac (fruit) (light red)

Dandelion (root)

Beets (deep red)

Rose (hips)



Hibiscus Flowers (dried)

Red cabbage
Mulberries (royal purple)
Elderberries (lavender)
Grapes (purple)


Black-Eyed Susans

Grass (yellow green)

Plantain Roots

Daylilies (old blooms)

Red Clover (whole blossom, leaves and stem); alum mordant; Gold.
Yellow cone flower (whole flower head); chrome mordant; Brass to Greeney-Brass
Onion (skins)
Marigold (blossoms)

Willow (leaves)

Queen Anne's Lace


Celery (leaves)

Golden Rod (flowers)

Sumac (bark)

Weld (bright yellow)

Dandelion flower

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