A Natural Dye Garden – Plant to Dye Pot – Part I

Natural Dye Day

Early dyers relied on easily obtained natural materials to add color to their textiles.  Natural dyestuffs come from flowering plants, bark, fungi, lichens, insects, shellfish and various ‘earths’.  Dye materials can be gathered at most times of the year, used fresh or dried.  The amounts of natural dyestuffs required to dye protein fibers are not very precise because so many variables are involved in natural dyeing.

Dyestuff: cochineal

What’s the appeal of dyeing with plants?

♦ An ancient craft, rich history, sustaining old traditions

♦ The beauty of natural colors

♦ Simple pleasure of tending a dye garden

♦ Enjoyment of gathering leaves, flowers, and other natural materials

♦ The alchemy ‘magic’ and unpredictability of plant dyestuffs

♦ Unique, one-of-a-kind results

Dyestuff: apple leaves.

Guidelines for choosing natural dye plants to grow

◊ Consider annuals and fast-growing perennials

◊ Grow plants that provide interesting color, especially blue & red

◊ Grow plants that are inexpensive – that you don’t mind chopping up

◊ Grow plants & herbs that you’d want in the garden anyway

◊ Consider potential yield of the dye plant, especially if your garden space is limited

◊ DON’T grow plants that are considered weeds that you can gather from vacant lots or along the roadside (with the owner’s permission of course!)

◊ Be responsible; avoid invasive or endangered species

◊ Use common sense and safety practices; some natural dyestuffs can be TOXIC!

Dyestuff: dahlia

A few natural dye plants

Most common colors from plants are yellows and tans; a true green is almost impossible to achieve from a single plant dye – most is achieved by overdyeing.

 – Rhododendron, leaves

– Clematis, leaves

– Asters, flowers                                

– Dahlia, flowers         

– Zinnia, flowers                    

– French marigolds, flowers & leaves

– Pot Marigold/Calendula

– Hibiscus/Rose of Sharon

– Coreopsis, flower heads

– Sunflower, flower heads

– Hollyhock, flowers

– Yellow Cosmos, flower heads

– Rudbeckia/Black-eyed Susan

– Yarrow, flowers

– Tansy (very invasive)

– Purple Basil

– Rosemary

– Comfrey

Dyestuff: madder

Natural dye WEED plants

– Queen Anne’s Lace (wild/domestic carrot)

– Goldenrod

– Purple Loosestrife

– Common Yarrow

Dyestuff: french marigold

Historically significant natural dye materials

– Madder (Rubia tinctorum), roots harvested in their third year – red (‘Turkey Red’)

– Brazilwood (Caesalpinia), heartwood sold as wood chips or shavings – red

– Cochineal (Coccus cacti), insect bodies which live on the prickly pear cactus – red

– Saffron, pistils of autumn crocus- yellow

– Safflower, petals; requires long, hot summer– yellow and red

– Logwood, heartwood sold as wood chips or shavings – purple

– Lichens – purple and red

– Shellfish – purple

– Indigo, leaves contain indigotin, insoluble in water; tropical/sub-tropical growing conditions – blue

– Woad, (biennial) leaves harvested during first year; mustard family, 2-3 ft tall; “weed”? – blue

– Weld/Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda luteola), leaves & flower stalks – yellow

Dyestuff: goldenrod

There’s so much more to talk about…

Part II – Mordants, assistants, dye bath variables

Part III – Equipment, preparing a dye bath, dye process, recordkeeping, resources

22 thoughts on “A Natural Dye Garden – Plant to Dye Pot – Part I

  1. Thank you for posting the results of your exploration of natural dyes – these are great to see. I had no idea about the apple leaves!

    I agree with each point about the appeal of natural dyes, including tending one’s own garden and sustaining old traditions. Too much culture is being lost now; it’s important that at least a few people continue.

  2. This is a really excellent series of articles! I especially value the photos showing dyed wool samples with all the info!
    I am a new member of a fiber art guild and we are having a natural dyes workshop next Sunday. I have walnut hulls/leaves, goldenrod, pokeberry, onion and red cabbage.
    Are you aware of any comparison of various types of natural plant dyes that give info about color permanence to multiple washings and light exposure? Are there mordants and other treatments that increase the permanence of the dyes? A chart would be great!

    • Hi! I wish you well on your natural dye day! It’s very addictive. There’s many books & natural dye experts out there. I suggest you play and experiment. A book I particularly like is ‘Wild Color’ by Jenny Dean. As you know, color ‘fastness’ or ‘fading’ occurs in both natural and synthetic dyes over time; some plant dyes retain color better than others, but I use a suitable mordant (usually alum is most common) on all my animal fibers. Rhubarb leaf (caution: toxic!) is also a possibility. Just cause it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe! You must also consider proper disposal of spent solutions. Repeatability is often a factor in natural dyeing…so dye up enough yarn for your project in one day! Happy fiber’n!

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    • Regardless of natural or synthetic dye stuff used in the dyeing process, one must always use safe practices…both in the dye room and ultimate disposal of any residuals. ‘Natural’ dyes does not mean that they are necessarily ‘safe’; some natural dyes are also more color fast than others and require little or no mordants. Whatever the dye source, dyeing should be a rewarding experience for the artist, requiring knowledge, time and talent.

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    • Hi Linda! What are you dyeing? Asters (with small light lavender flowers) grow wild in just about any uncultivated space, blooming in late summer and early fall. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning “star”. Collecting enough for dyeing small amounts of wool is no problem. Its stems, flowers, and leaves will provide a range of yellow based shades, depending upon mordant:

      Alum – Yellow-green
      Tin – Yellow-gold
      Iron – Grayish green, muted
      No mordant – yellow-green, pale

  6. hi sheepy hollow.
    thank you for such easy to understand articles on dyeing. I am wondering what the CU stands for in natural dye garden II…it was under assistants, vinegar.
    also I wondered if you have ever done dyeing in the sun, with or with out mordants.

    • Hi Linda!

      Thanks for visiting! “Cu” is copper 😉

      I haven’t done any ‘solar’ dyeing recently… but, instead of using a kettle on the stove, microwave and yes, even the oven, allow the sun-power (over a period of days) do the work for you! Have fun!

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