View Full Version : Making & Using Natural Dyes From Plants

Tuesday, January 17th, 2006, 02:08 AM
Making Natural Dyes From Plants

Creating and using plant-based-dyes is a wonderful way to gain an understanding of the biology and the chemistry at work in the plants around us.

Sources of natural dyes are everywhere. Dyes can be extracted from roots, foliage, nuts, berries and flowers. Until the mid-19th century plants were the primary source of dye. The process of natural dyeing became obsolete with the discovery that dye pigments could be produced through modern chemistry. Dyes produced by chemical means are more easily transferred to fibers, do not require as much time in preparation, and stand up better to repeated washing and exposure to sunlight.

Today, natural sources of dyes are used by artisans and crafters. Natural dyes are desirable mainly because of the quality of color that can be created with them. Dyes extracted from plants contain many different pigments, and thus are not the "pure" forms of pigment used in today's chemical dyes. These impurities create rich and sometimes unexpected color, that can never be duplicated. For many the process of extracting the dyes from their natural sources connects them to their work, and gives them control over each step of creation.

There are many methods used to extract dyes from plants and use them to color fibers, but the following information will specifically describe the mordant method used to dye wool fibers.

Gathering plant material for dyeing:

Blossoms should be in full bloom, berries ripe and nuts mature. Remember, never gather more than 2/3 of a stand of anything in the wild when gathering plant stuff for dying.


The water you use for dyeing should be soft. Most tap water is too hard, and you should add a softener to it. If you are able to collect rain water that would be ideal.

The following items are useful for dyeing, do not use them also for cooking.

stainless steel pot - I like to use a medium-sized stock pot
stirrer, wooden spoon
measuring utensils, like cups and spoons
kitchen scale
rubber gloves

Getting the fabric ready for the dye bath:

Using natural dyes is not difficult, but takes some preparation. Any fiber that you dye must be clean, or you will be dyeing the wool grease and not the fiber. So scour it well, in hot, soapy water. And rinse out the yarn.

With most natural dyes, it requires a 2 step process. The mordanting (http://www.housedragonor.org/A&S/Mordanting.html) (a process used to set dyes) of the yarn and then the application of the dye. Many of the natural dyes also need some time to soak (overnight). It's usually best to do this over a 2 day period. Mordant the yarns on the first day, prepare the dye solutions and then dye on the second day. Natural dyes usually require the fiber to be soaked in a pre-mordant bath. The mordant prepares the fiber to receive the dyestuff, deepening, or changing the colour and making it more colourfast.

There are many different kinds of mordants. The following are some of the most common: alum, chrome, vinegar, copper sulfate, iron, tin, and ammonia, to name a small few.

For 1 lb (.45kg) of Wool, the following 3 examples would be the proper ammount of mordant needed to treat the fiber:

You can choose which mordant you feel most comfortable using.

Alum is most the frequently used, and versatile type fo mordant. Solution: 4 oz. (112g) and 1 oz. (28g) cream of tartar for 1lb of wool.

Chrome is used for warm colors. It enhances yellows, reds, and mutes greens. Solution: 1/2 oz. (14g) and 3/4 oz. (21.3g) cream of tartar for 1lb of wool.

Iron is used to gray colors. Do not make as a mordant solution, but add to the dye bath at the end of the dyeing process and simmer 20-40 minutes - 1/2 oz. (14g) and 1 oz. (28g) of tartar.

To mordant the fibers:

Dissolve the mordant in a small amount of hot water. Add 4-5 more gallons (14.53 - 18.16 liters) of water, enough to cover 1lb (.45kg) of wool, and heat to luke warm. Add the wool and simmer 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Cool and rinse.

To make the dye solution:

Chop plant material into small pieces and place in a pot. Double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Strain. Now you can add your mordanted fabric to be dyed. For a stronger shade, allow material to soak in the dye overnight.

Dye Bath:

Place wet fabric in dye bath. Simmer together until desired color is obtained (simmering time depends of strength of dye). The color of the fabric will be lighter when its dry. Also note that all dyed fabric should be laundered in cold water and separately for the first couple of washings.

Muslin, cotton and wool work best for natural dyes and the lighter the fabric in color, the better. White or pastel colors work the best.

NOTE: It's best to use an old pot for dyeing and wear gloves when handling the fabric that has been dyed. It will stain your hands. It's also important to note, some plant dyes (and mordants) may be toxic, so use care with handling these substances.

Here's a list of some of the plant material available for dyes; this is just a small assortment, and really, most any kind of plant material can be used for creating dyes:

Shades of ORANGE -

Bloodroot will give a good orange to reddish orange color.

Sassafras (leaves)

Onion peels

Lichen (gold)

Barberry (mahonia sp.) yellow orange (with alum) very strong & permanent. Any part of the plant will work.

Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) Yields bright permanent orange with alum.

Annato Seed will give an orange shade, it is a good dye for cotton.

Shades of BROWN -

Wild plum root will give a reddish or rusty brown.

Oak bark will give a tan or oak color.

Sumac (leaves)

Walnut (hulls) (deep brown)

Tea Bags (light brown)

Juniper berries

Coffee grinds

Acorns (boiled)

Shades of PINK -



Raspberries (red)

Roses and lavender, with a little mint and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids can make both a brilliant pink dye and a very tasty pink lemonade ;)

Really, any plant that yields a red-colored dye can be used to create shades of pink... less time in the dye bath makes for a lighter color

Shades of RED -

Red leaves will give a reddish brown color; use salt to set the dye.

Sumac (fruit) (light red)

Dandelion (root)

Beets (deep red)

Rose (hips)

Red onion (skins)



Shades of GREEN -


Rhododendron leaves

Artemisia species provide a range of greens from baby's breath to nettle green.

Spinach Leaves

Black-Eyed Susans

Grass (yellow green)


Plantain Roots

Shades of BLUE/PURPLE -

Mulberries (royal purple)

Red cabbage

Elderberries (lavender)



Cherry (roots)

Blackberry (strong purple)

Japanese indigo (deep blue)

Red Cedar Root (purple)

Red Maple Tree (purple)(inner bark)

Shades of RED/PURPLE -
Pokeweed (berries)

Loqwood Concentrate

Alkanet Root

Cutsch Extract

Shades of YELLOW -

Turmeric (bright yellow)

Saffron (yellow)

Cumin (bright yellow)

Syrian Rue (glows under black light)

Red Clover (whole blossom, leaves and stem); alum mordant; Gold.

Yellow cone flower (whole flower head); chrome mordant; Brass to Greeney-Brass.

Onion (skins)

Marigold (blossoms)

Willow (leaves)

Queen Anne's Lace


Celery (leaves)

Golden Rod (flowers)

Sumac (bark)

Weld (bright yellow)

Cameleon plant (golden)

Dandelion flower

Osage orange also known as Bois d'arc or hedgeapple (pale yellow)(wood and inner bark)

Daffodil flower heads (after they have died); alum mordant

Mullen (leaf and root) pale yellow. *careful, because the little fuzzy hairs can make one itchy!

Hickory leaves (yellow) if plenty of leaves are boiled and salt added.

Shades of PEACH -

Broom Flower

Virginia Creeper (all parts); alum mordant yields peach tones.

Achiote powder (annatto seed)

Shades of BLACK -

Iris (roots)

Sumac (leaves)

Source (http://www.joyofhandspinning.com/natural-dyeing-tips.html#wool)