Seamwork
 

An Introduction to Natural Dyeing

Use plants from your neighborhood and garden to create a rainbow of textiles. By Tracy Majka.

An Introduction to Natural Dyeing

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.

01 Section

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Forage for plants in empty lots and public areas.

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.

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This image shows several common plants and the colors they can produce. Some can be grown, and others can be purchased online.

Planting Tips

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.

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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
  • Vinegar
  • Cream of tartar
  • Iron
  • Alum
  • Baking soda
  • Copper

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)
  • Mordant
  • 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)
clockwise from the top: cochineal, indigo, saffron, and red cabbage
02 Section
The dyeing process

Once you have your tools and equipment together, it’s time to dye your fabric.

Process overview

The overall dyeing process goes something like this:

  1. Mordant your fabric or yarn
  2. Make the dye
  3. Dye the fabric or yarn
  4. Optional: Exhaust bath
  5. Optional: Afterdip
  6. Rinse, dry, and store fabric or yarn
  7. Make stuff!

Please note that while the process described below will generally work for most plants, dyeing methods vary widely; this is just one method. Also, dyeing with indigo involves a different series of steps. Check the books under Resources for more information on dyeing with those plants.

08-dyeing

Mordant your fabric or yarn

Mordant Recipe

There are many recipes for mordants. Here is a simple one that uses alum. After completing this, your fabric will be ready to dye:

  • 1 lb fiber
  • 4 gallons + 1 cup water
  • 8 tsp alum

Mix alum with 1 cup of hot water to dissolve. Mix with remaining 4 gallons of water in a large pot. Add pre-washed, damp fiber and simmer for one hour, stirring often. Rinse in warm water.

  1. Soak your yarn or fabric in cold water for at least an hour or until the material is thoroughly soaked.
  2. Fill your stockpot with water. Cover the pot and heat the water to boiling.
  3. Add your mordant and stir until it dissolves. The amount of mordant you add depends on you and your recipe. For example, if you’re using alum, Buchanan suggests using 4 tablespoons of alum plus 4 tablespoons of cream of tartar for 1 pound of dry yarn. (You can experiment with different amounts, though; it’s sometimes worthwhile to create a batch of test samples with fabric swatches.)
  4. Add the wet fabric or yarn to the stockpot and stir.
  5. Turn the heat down, cover the stockpot, and simmer the material for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. (Some dyeing sites recommend more than an hour. I say go for as long as you can.)
  6. Turn the heat off. Do not remove the material from the pot. Let the fabric or yarn sit in the pot until it cools.
  7. Rinse the material well with tap water and hang up to dry until ready to use.
  8. You may want to label the material with the mordant(s) and date.
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10-dyeing

Make the dye

  1. Gather your plant material. I tend to pick fresh leaves and flowers in bloom, but you can also try using dried plants or roots if you’d like. Some dye handbooks will give you exact amounts—say, a pound of x plant for every x ounces of yarn—but I don’t really measure. In general, the more you can gather, the better.
  2. Process the plant material as needed to fit in the stockpot: Remove stems, tear large leaves, etc. (You can keep the stems if you’d like. You just need to make sure the plant material fits in the pot.)
  3. Add your plant material to the pot. Then add enough water to cover. The less water you add, the more concentrated your dye will be (but you’ll need enough to eventually cover your fabric or yarn).
  4. Turn the heat to high and cover the pot. When the water boils, turn the heat down to a simmer.
  5. Simmer the plant material for at least an hour—more than that if you can swing it.
  6. Turn the heat off. Let the plant material sit in the stockpot for several hours or preferably overnight.
  7. Strain the dye by placing your mesh strainer over the bucket. Pour the contents of the stockpot over the strainer.
  8. Store the dye in the large plastic bucket until you’re ready to use it. Dispose of the plant material in your compost pile.

Dye the fabric or yarn

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  1. Let the fabric or yarn soak in water for an hour or more.
  2. Pour the dye back into your stockpot. Add the soaked fabric or yarn and make sure the dye completely covers it. If necessary, add more water.
  3. Slowly heat the dye. If you’re following a particular dye recipe, use your thermometer to get the exact temperature. (Note: You can also just add the fabric or yarn to your cold dye and let it sit, or even try solar dyeing, but I tend to get better and more interesting results with heat from a stovetop or camp stove. Different recipes may call for different techniques.)
  4. Cook for at least an hour (longer, if possible). Use your wooden spoon or paddle to stir the fabric occasionally and make sure it’s totally covered with dye. To check the color, use your wooden spoon or paddle to lift a corner of the fabric out of the dye, bearing in mind that the color may change once it dries.
  5. Turn off the heat. Let your fabric or yarn sit in the stockpot until it has cooled, stirring it occasionally.
  6. If you like, pour the dye into your plastic bucket and add your material. Let it soak for several hours or even days.
  7. Optional Exhaust dyebath: You can heat the dye and use it again. The colors will be less intense each time you use the dyebath, but you can get some interesting colors.
  8. Optional Afterdip: You can change the pH (and thus the color) of your dyed fabric or yarn by dipping your fabric or yarn into water mixed with a tiny bit of ammonia or vinegar, or adding those substances to your dyebath at the end of the process. For example, Buchanan says it’s possible to produce reds when using dyer’s coreopsis by adding a teaspoon of baking soda or ammonia to the dyebath. Check your recipe and test a sample first to ensure the dip doesn’t adversely affect the material.

Rinse, dry, and store the fabric or yarn

12-dyeing
  1. Rinse your fabric or yarn well with cold water.
  2. Optional You may choose to wash your yarn or fabric with or without detergent, but the color may change or become less intense. When in doubt, test a sample.
  3. When your material is rinsed well, hang it up to dry. I usually throw it over my fence or the shower curtain rod.
Best practices
  • Work in a well-ventilated area (boiling plants can smell pretty intense). Label your fabric-in-progress with mordant and a date.
  • Keep a dye diary with swatches. You might record the plant you used, which part(s) of the plant, you used for the dye, planting instructions, mordant and afterdip, type of fabric or yarn and where you sourced it, etc. Consider that because plants, fabric, and growing environments can change, you might not get an exact match every time.
  • If predictable results are important to you, experiment with small batches of fabric/yarn and different mordants and record the results first before working with larger batches.
  • Always dye material that has been soaked in water first. Wet material will dye more uniformly.

Resources

Seeds:

  • Hudson Valley Seed Library: Small company in New York offers heirloom and open-pollinated herb, vegetable, and flower seeds; dyeing plants include several varieties of zinnias and marigolds.
  • Prairie Moon Nursery: Native plant provider; dyeing plants include butterfly weed, coreopis, and coneflowers.
  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Good dyeing plants include hollyhocks, zinnias, and marigolds. You can also source woad here—and even cotton, if you wanted to try growing your own.

Fabric/yarn:

Mordant:

  • Dharma Trading Company: Offers all kinds of mordants, fixatives, fabric paints, and other supplies.
  • Griffin Dyeworks: Has a good selection of mordants, including alum, copper, tin, and oxalic acid.

Books:

  • Rita Buchanan’s A Dyer’s Garden: One of the best books you can buy on the subject, this book includes information on selecting plants, planting a dye garden, selecting and using mordants, and step-by-step instructions with exact measurements for dyeing yarn. It seems to be out of print, but it’s well worth tracking down a used copy—it’s really an all-in-one resource.
  • The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr is also a great resource, and its projects use an interesting range of dyeing materials, including turmeric and blackberries.

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