A Natural Dye Garden – Part III

So far, we’ve talked about the basics of natural dye-stuffs, plant selection, mordants, etc. But, before you actually begin to dye (wool) fiber, recordkeeping is probably the most important consideration, especially if you hope to achieve similar dyeing results in the future. Make sure you have notebook paper and pencil in hand and record your process! Don’t leave it to memory…because you will forget the details.

Here’s an example of the dye info you may want to record.


Date:___________________                                SAMPLE/SWATCH:

DYE SOURCE:____________________________________________











Natural Plant Dye Bath Equipment List:

– enamel & stainless steel pots, plastic buckets

– wooden spoons, strainer, thongs, paint stir sticks

– rubber gloves

– drying rack or clothesline

– measuring spoon, cups, thermometer

– scales for weighing fiber & dye plants

– camp stove/portable electric burner (if working outdoors)

– well-ventilated workplace

– access to water

Generally speaking, the dye process (for protein/wool fiber) consists of:

1) Pre-Treatment  – scouring, weighing, mordanting (chemically bonding the color to the wool)

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

So, to get started dyeing, we’ll pre-mordant our wool.

Pre-Mordanting Protein Fibers with ALUM:

1) Weigh the dry fiber; thoroughly wet fiber in tub of warm water

2) Fill your dye pot with warm water (4 gal/pound fiber)

3) Add mordant: 10% WOF alum + 5% WOF cream of tartar (WOF = weight of fiber)

4) Add wetted fiber to bath

5) Bring pot to gentle simmer, 30 – 60 min.

6) Remove pot from heat and allow cooling until lukewarm

7) Remove fiber and rinse with lukewarm water

8) Dye immediately or air-dry for later dyeing (label ~ that the fiber has been pre-mordanted ~ and date)

Now for the fun dyeing part…BASIC DYE METHOD:

1) Add chopped natural plant dyestuff into pot

2) Add H2O and simmer 30 – 60 min. to extract natural pigment

3) Strain dye bath; add wetted fiber (pre-mordant treatment)

4) Bring dye pot to gentle simmer, 30 – 60 min.

 5) OPTIONAL Post-mordant/modifier Treatment

~ OR ~

6) Cool fiber overnight in the dye bath

7) Remove and rinse fiber; air dry

Ta Da! You have just dyed your first wool fiber with natural extracted dyestuff!

Here’s an easy onion skin dye project recipe:

You’ll need 8 oz. of yarn or fleece, 2 T alum, 8 oz. onion skins, cheesecloth or old nylon hosiery to make a ‘tea bag’ for the onion skins, large enamel pot.  (Note: Red or yellow-skinned onions will result in a ‘golden’ color.)

Procedure: Tie the yarn/fiber in several places to minimize tangling. Soak the fiber in the lukewarm water just enough to cover it until it is wetted thoroughly. Dissolve the alum in a small amount of water and add to the pot. Gently heat the water to simmer for about 1 hour. Meanwhile, place the onion skins in the cheesecloth or hosiery and tie to secure the skins inside. Place the ‘package’ of skins into the dye pot and return to simmer. Gently stir occasionally until you’ve achieved the desired color. Remove the yarn from the dye bath and cool before rinsing (don’t shock the fiber!). Or, allow the fiber/dye pot to cool to room temp overnight…then drain and rinse. Hang the yarn/fiber to air dry.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of dyeing! There’s so much more detailed info out there for you to peruse if you’re truly interested in natural dyeing!  


A Dyer’s Garden, Rita Buchanan

Dye Plants and Dyeing, John & Margaret Cannon

Early American Weaving and Dyeing, J. and R. Bronson

Nature’s Colors – Dyes from Plants, Ida Grae

The Craft of the Weaver, Sutton, Collingwood & St Aubyn Hubbard

The Dyer’s Companion, Dagmar Klos

The Herb Companion/The Herb Quarterly (Magazine)

The Weaving, Spinning, and Dyeing Book, Rachel Brown

Wild Color, Jenny Dean (My favorite!)

3 thoughts on “A Natural Dye Garden – Part III

  1. I have never dyed before, so am experimenting with various natural materials.
    I have heard that walnut leaves make a greenish brown dye. Since our walnut trees are very tall, I raked up fallen leaves and stems.

    Have you had experience with fallen walnut leaves so that you can advise me of what I might expect?

    • Walnut leaves and the green outer husks of the nut are usual dye stuffs. No mordant is typically required. Use equal weights of leaves and fibers; use at least half the weight of dyestuff to fiber for nut husks. Depending on ‘modifiers’, you can shift color from leaves from tan to an olive green. Most plant materials need simmering for at least an hour to extract the color and husks should be soaked overnight (or several days) and then simmered for about an hour before using. Happy dyeing!

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