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29 Jul 2021

How to Use Dye Plants: Plant Projects for the Home

This book excerpt is taken from A Woman’s Garden: Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things – Plants and Projects for Home, Health, Beauty, Healing, and More by Tanya Anderson, and is reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group.

Using Dye Plants

From archaeological evidence, we know that people have been coloring fabric, fibers, and wool for thousands of years. Ancient fragments of textiles periodically turn up, some still banded with vivid hues and patterns. Through them, we know that madder has been around since at least 3000 B.C. and that the Romans and Vikings used weld.
What’s even more intriguing is that we can use many of those same plants to dye today.
If you enjoy knitting, embroidery, or sewing, then natural dyeing will add another element to your creations. Using plants carries on cultural traditions, creates a connection to the natural world, and the colors you create are all the more special for being homegrown. On a more creative level, experimentation is encouraged in natural dyeing, and it’s a breathtaking experience watching white wool absorbing color from dye-baths made from leaves, flowers, and roots.

Dye Plants

Many of us have had grass stains on our clothing and know that eventually, they will wash out or fade away. Dyeing is different from staining and is a process that uses natural chemicals and minerals to lock color into fibers. Sometimes the plant will have both pigment and staying power in itself, but often you need to mordant fibers to create long-lasting, vibrant colors.
Dye plants come in all types, and when using them, you could use the entire plant or just part of it—the roots, bark, leaves, stems, or flowers. You can also mix plants to create compound dyes, and if you’re not
happy with a resulting color, you can overdye with darker colors for a better result. Overdyeing is also
popular in creating greens with woad or indigo laid over shades of yellow.
different colors of fabric using natural dyes

Credit: Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group

Use the roots, bark, seeds, skins, leaves, flowers, or berries of plants to dye fabrics and fibers a range of natural colors.

The Basic Dyeing Process

You begin the dyeing process with just two main ingredients: the fibers or cloth and the plants that you’re using to color them. The fibers can be either vegetable or animal based, and the dyeing technique will be different depending on what you’re using and the shades you’re trying to achieve.
You’ll need to mordant most fibers to achieve deep, long-lasting colors from plants. Mordanting means
treating the fiber with a substance such as alum, copper, iron, or soy milk before putting it in a dye bath. Some plants can have natural mordanting properties. You can use a rhubarb-leaf solution to mordant many animal fibers, and tannin from oak galls or staghorn sumac leaves is useful for mordanting vegetable fibers.

Mordanting

To mordant wool with alum (aluminum sulfate), first weigh your fibers and measure out your dry ingredients. By weight, you’ll need 12 percent that amount of alum and 6 percent that weight of cream of tartar. Make sure to wear gloves and a mask when working with alum. Next, place the wool in a stainless steel or aluminum pan and add enough lukewarm water to cover it. Leave it for an hour.
After that time is up, place the alum and cream of tartar in a cup and add enough boiling water to dissolve them. Stir well, then pour the liquid into the pot with the water and wool. Bring to a simmer, 180°F(82°C), and hold it there, gently stirring every few minutes. After an hour, turn the heat off and leave the wool to cool in the pot overnight.
The next day, you can pour the alum water down the sink if you’re connected to municipal waterworks; if you have a septic tank or plumbing that empties into a water source, pour it outside around acid-loving plants. Now, gently wash the wool in fresh lukewarm water with a squirt of dish soap. Rinse thoroughly and either dry outside on the line for future use or set it aside for the dye bath.

Preparing Dye Plants

You can use dried material or fresh plants from the garden, but make sure that it’s in excellent condition. Depending on what you’re using, you’ll create a dye bath by either simmering the plant material, infusing it in hot water like a tea, or soaking it in water for an extended period—days or sometimes weeks. In some cases, as in St. John’s wort flowers, it’s best to use fresh plant material, but generally you can use fresh or dried.
natural dye plants

Credit: Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group

Natural dye plants include eucalyptus, ivy, onion, avocado, elderberries, calendula, weld, and madder.
dyeing fabric on a rack

Credit: Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group

Drying wool, silk, and hemp fabric dyed with madder root (deep pink), avocado (soft pink), and red onion skins (green).
How much you need varies, but as a general rule, use equal weights of dye plant to fibers to get good color. You can use more or less for richer or lighter colors.
Keep in mind that the amount of dye potential in a plant will vary from year to year and from season to season. That’s the beauty of natural dyeing—you never really know what color you’ll get until the very end.
After you prepare the bath, introduce the fibers to it. There are three main methods: the cool, all-in-one, and hot dyeing methods. The latter, in which you simmer the fibers in the dye bath for around an hour, is the one you can use with most plants. When you’re happy with the material’s color, you take it out, rinse, and dry it. See the hot dyeing method at work in the next project.
skeins mordanted with different materials

Credit: Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group

The skein on the left has been mordanted with alum and the one on the right with copper.
wool yarn simmering in dye baths

Credit: Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group

Wool yarn simmering in eucalyptus and madder dye baths.
hanks dyed together but using separate mordants

Credit: Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission from Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group

Both of these hanks were dyed together in a madder vat after being separately mordanted with alum and copper.
If you enjoy knitting, embroidery, or sewing, then natural dyeing using plants will add another element to your creations.