A Guide to Natural Dyes
History of Harvesting Color
Plants have been used for dye since before recorded history. Our ancient ancestors noticed the staining properties of specific plants and cultivated that knowledge to create natural dyes. They used these dyes to enhance clothing, skin and hair. Although with technology, the use of plants to dye is no longer needed, the process is still fascinating.
I first became interested in natural dyeing after I read Gathering Blue by Lois Lowery. Although the novel is fiction, the protagonist is an apprentice dyer and spends a good part of the story learning the fascinating properties of natural dyeing. As the title indicates, she is determined to find a plant that will yield blue; a rare color in nature. In my experiment, I was not able to attain blue. Nonetheless, I was happy with what I discovered.
Plant Sources for Natural Dyeing
Different parts of plants will result in different colors. Pretty much any type of plant can be made into a dye, but not all will result in an attractive color. Some plants will give you vibrant colors and others a soft, mellow color. Since it was nearing autumn when I started to gather my plants, I was limited to what was in season. I used goldenrod, ironweed, sumac berries and black walnut hulls. The plants I used for dyes all grow around my neighborhood.
Both ironweed and goldenrod bloom in the late summer into early fall. Ironweed likes a wet environment, so you can usually find it growing near creeks or a marshy area. Goldenrod loves open, sunny fields. In the early fall it's hard to miss. Its bright, yellow flowers dominate roadsides for miles. Sumac, a deciduous shrub, is widely distributed throughout most of the contiguous United States. The entire shrub can be used for dyeing. Depending upon the part of the shrub used, you will get colors ranging from orange/red to black. Sumac is easily recognizable, especially in the fall, due its bright red compound leaves and bunches of red berries. Black walnut is the English walnut’s wild cousin. It's a deciduous tree that bears a very distinctive tasting nut.
Wool yarn colored with natural dyes. Top (from left to right): Sumac Berries and Goldenrod. Bottom (from left to right): Black Walnut hulls and Ironweed.
In order to create color-fast fabric with natural dyes a mordant needs to be used. A mordant is a water-soluble compound that creates a bond between the dye and the fiber. Alum (aluminum sulfate) is a popular mordant. Mordants play an important role in the dyeing processes because it also can alter the color of the dye. Some natural dyes will produce a different color with a mordant. Other mordants that are commonly used are iron, copper and tin. The material is treated in a mordant bath prior to dyeing. Sometimes a mordant is used as an after bath. This is another way a color is altered.
The Process of Extracting Color
Extracting the color from a plant is easy; you boil it. There are suggested ratios of plant to water in order to get a nice color. Simply put, the more plant material you have, the stronger the color. Most natural dye recipes instruct you to chop or slightly crush the material to help release the color. Once you add the plant material to a pot with water, bring it to a light boil for an hour. Once you see the color in the water, remove the plant debris and add the pre-mordanted fiber. The fiber will continue to steep in the hot dye bath for at least an hour if not longer. The fiber can sit in the dye bath until it cools, then it can be rinsed in water or another mordant after bath. Natural fibers take on the color of plant dyes better than synthetic ones.
Animal fibers work better than cotton, especially wool. I have used natural dyes on cotton with satisfactory results, but the color is light and not colorfast. I prefer to use wool yarn. It soaks up color beautifully and lasts. Silk is another natural fiber that takes on color very well. Pre-mordanting any of the fibers prior to dyeing will ensure the color will last.
Some Other Popular Plant Sources for Natural Dyeing
Butternut (Juglans cinerea): The Confederate army’s gray coats were made from a dye made with butternuts. The bark, nuts and roots of the tree will yield colors ranging from brown, black and gray.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): This herbaceous flowering plant native to eastern North America, speckles heavily wooded areas in the spring. They are dainty white, crocus-like flowers that produce a vibrant orange sap. This plant produces red and orange dyes. The color fades fast, so a mordant is suggested.
Rose Madder (Rubia tinctorum): This evergreen perennial has been used for centuries as a source for red dye. A stronger dye is obtained from the roots, but the leaves will give some color as well.
Marigold (Tagetes patula): This common garden companion flower will produce colors ranging from bright yellow to a khaki green. A stronger color will result if the flowers are allowed to soak or ferment for a few weeks.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria): A flowering plant native to central Asia. It’s one of two plants that will yield the color blue, the other being indigo. It has been cultivated for centuries for dye.