A Natural Dye Garden – Part II

People have been coloring with natural dyes – animal, vegetable or mineral – since prehistoric times. Dyeing wool fleece or yarn (animal or protein fibers~ vs~ vegetable/plant fibers) with dyes you create from plants, bark, roots, insects, food and such is a rewarding colorful adventure!

Photo courtesty The Natural Knitter by B. Albright; wool fleece dyed with (top clockwise) brazilwood,logwood,mullein & goldenrod.

Categories of Natural Dyes:

1. Substantive Dyes – dyes fixed within the fibers without assistance of other substances or mordants

2. Adjective Dyes – require a mordant for color development and permanently “fix” to fiber

3. Vat Dyes – substantive dyes, but insoluble in water; deposited on external surface of fiber; color develops upon exposure to oxygen (indigo, woad = blue) or light (shellfish + purple)

Mordants Matter! 

French mordre, ‘to bite’; boiled with the fiber to chemically fix the dye to the fiber; often produces much stronger color on fibers. Mordants join the fiber with the dye to set the color permanently. The most common mordants are:

– Alum – common pre-mordant; use with cream of tartar (too much can make wool sticky!); 8% alum or 1- ¾ tsp per 4 oz (100 g) fiber + 7% cream of tartar or 1- ½ tsp per 4 oz (100 g) fiber

– Copper – gives similar results as chrome, but slightly more green; to make copper liquor, add several pieces of copper pipe to a 1:1 solution of water & distilled vinegar to a glass jar

– Iron – ‘saddens’ or dulls (too much can weaken fiber); to make iron liquor, add rusty nails to a 2:1 solution of water & distilled vinegar

– Chrome – toxic; rich, deep color; more permanent than alum; leaves wool feeling soft, silky

– Tin – enhances and brightens

– Oxalic acid – toxic (found naturally in rhubarb leaves – caution toxic!).  To make mordant from rhubarb leaves, simmer 1 pound rhubarb leaves in water w/covered pot outdoors or in a well-ventilated work area for 1 hr; strain.


– Cream of Tartar – used with Al mordants

– Vinegar (5 % distilled) – used with Cu; increase acidity

– Ammonia – used with Al & indigo; increase alkalinity

Variables affecting the natural plant dye bath (in terms of RELIABILITY, PREDICTABILITY and CONSISTENT Dye Results):

– Moisture and temperature during the plant growing season

– Plant’s stage of growth when harvested for dyestuff

– What part of plant was gathered

– Used immediately or stored (fresh vs. dried)

– How long was dye bath simmered or soaked

– Water pH & mineral content (municipal water, well water, bottled water?)

– Bath temperature during dyeing

– Ratio of weight of dye plant to weight of fiber (WOF)

– Mordant used (pre or post treatment)

3 Basic Methods of Dyeing:

♣  Mordant wool first, then add it to the dye bath

♣ Mordant and dye wool in the same dye-bath

♣ Dye wool first, then FIX by mordanting

Simply put, Basic Steps for Dyeing Wool (Protein) Fibers:

1. Pre-Treatment  – scouring, weighing, mordanting (alum is most common)

2. Making a dye bath; extracting the dye (substantive dyes or adjective dyes = mordant-assisted)

3. Dyeing the fiber

4. Post-mordanting

5. Rinsing

6. Air drying

Finally, in DYEING PART III, we’ll talk about preparing a dye bath, dyeing, recordkeeping, simple recipes to get started & resources!


3 thoughts on “A Natural Dye Garden – Part II

  1. Howdy, I think your website may be haaving weeb broowser comnpatibility issues.
    Wheen I take a look at your web site in Safari,
    it looks fine however whhen opening in I.E., it’s got some overlapping issues.
    I simply wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other than that, fantastic website!

  2. Pingback: What's on My Bobbin? - Natural Dyeing over the Weekend - Crafting by Lora

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s