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In ancient civilizations, dyeing was highly important craft.Specialists who knew how to produce the strongest, clearest, most beautiful colors were commercially in demand. With the arrival of the crafts guilds in the Medieval ages, dyeing became a profession, whose members received a certain degree of appreciation. Ancient China, India, Egypt, and parts of Great Britian developed great skill in dying with natural materials.
The techniques used were also known by tribesman worldwide for centuries, used to dye bodies, clothing, and woods.
The Romany gypsies at one time artificially dyed their faces with gipsywort.
Sadly, the techniques and skills are, for the most part, in disuse today,due to technical advances which have made such skills needless.
Dying with herbs and plants remains a pleasant craft, and a learned skill for a select few, however, and can be vastly enjoyable, even for the beginner, with the gathering of the plants and herbs a great part of the enjoyment.

The Natural Dyes

The colors obtained from natural dyes have a harmony, - a depth that is missing from synthetic ones. The "imperfections" in the colors produced with natural dyes create a depth that is marvelous. The colours seem almost to sing, and to reflect the light so much more deeply. And using natures materials is one more way to become closer to Mother Earth

Dyes are materials that give color to other substances, such as yarn, food, paper, and cloth. Although synthetic dyeing methods have taken over in the last century, dyeing materials still abound in the natural world today. Some weeds produce light tan or yellow coloring, which others may produce beautiful shades that become faded with exposure to light to take on even greater beauty in the fading.
Geraniums, dahlias, mulberries, are all popular dying plants, while the traditional plants such as woad are also worth cultivating.
. There are so many plants which produce multiple dyes, imbue the fibers with a unique blue green.

Mordants are chemicals that help improve the depth of color and the fastness of the dye. The most commonly used mordants are the metallic salts of alum, chrome, iron, and tin.

Natural dyes can be derived from almost anything...plants, minerals, and even some insects. The discovery of the Americas gave to Europe even more dyeing colours, mainly red and purple. The female Cochineal insect,in Mexico, contains a coloring agent of carmine, and can be used to produce reds, pinks and grays. Even common shrubbery can produice beautiful yellows and greens.

Natural dyeing materials are mainly plants, with the exception of certain insects and snails, which make reds and greys. Red is a difficult color to gain naturally, as most red materials are iron, which rusts to a dull brown when heated.

Most natural dye colors are found in the roots, bark, leaves, flowers, skins, and shells of plants. Some plants may have more than one color dependent upon which part of the plant one uses.. The hue or shade of the color a plant will produce will vary according to time of year it is picked, how it was grown, soil content and etc. Minerals in the water used in a dye bath can also alter the color. Dyes don't combine directly with the substance they are intended to color. A mordant is required to make the color hold. Mordants are materials that cause the natural dyes to bond chemically with the cloth, preventing the color from either fading with exposure to light or washing out.

What Cloth

If you use 100% natural cloth or yarn, or cloth that has not yet been dyed, (white or natural tan or grey), the dyes will not require mordants, although unmordanted dyes are not fast to washing. Over time, with exposure to light and soapy water, these colors will fade, but natural dyes fade more harmoniously than do synthetic ones. If you want to try using alum as a mordant, you will get better end results in terms of the fastness of the dye. Natural dyes work best with natural fibers such as cotton, linen, wool, silk, and others such as jute, ramie, and sisal, with wool being by far the easiest to take the dyes, followed by cotton, linen, silk, and then the more coarse fibers such as sisal and jute.
. Also use common sense and do not breathe the fumes or dump the dyes or mordants where children or animals may have access to it. Use an equal amount of dye and yarn - if you want to dye two ounces of material, add two ounces of plant material. The darkness of color will vary as dying is not an exact science and experimentation is fun. Add more of the dye substance if you find that your piece isn't the color you wanted.

Pink/Rose/Lavender- Elderberries, Blackberries, Pokeberries,Rose hips, Sorrel berries are not colorfast. Adding a alum as a mordant will help them to stay true . Cook the berries with materials - if color is too blue, add white vinegar, a tbp. at a time, to make color more red.
Golden Yellow - Tumeric Powder, Saffron(although it is highly expensive) Field Mustard Saffron and turmeric is found in the grocery store. One tbp. per oz. of yarn, dissolve in water and boil with yarn.
Sunshine Yellow - Golden rod, Apple and Pear Tree Bark Scrape bark from trees or branches,( bark needs to be moist)and boil with materials. Need 3 times as much bark as yarn. Try other barks - cherry gives a light pink or a tan , Experiementation is the key.
Yellow/Oranges- Onion Skins, beetroot,privet leaves, dahlias, goldenrod, heather, marigolds,pear leaves Use 3-4 handfuls of outer skin, preferably dry per oz. of yarn. Boil with yarn.
Gray/Green - Dandelions,Red Onion Skins Boil varied amounts to achieve different shades.
Greens,-Shrubbery clippings,Privet, Bracken, Lily of the Valley, Nettles,Weld, Boil varied amounts, a good rule of thumb use about the amount in weight as the fiber to be dyed
Deep Brown - Gipsywort, Sassafras, Walnut Hulls,Hawthorn berries Use the outer hull of nut, not just shells. Soak overnight in water,boil,using the same water, adding as necessary to assure it covers the hulls and materials.
Blues - blackberries, blueberries, dandelion root, wood, woad, indigo plant, Soak overnight in water,boil,using the same water.


    You will need: an enamel or stainless steel pot,(DO NOT use it for cooking ), 5 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, measuring spoons, wooden spoons to remove the materials from the dyebath.

    Wash the materials in warm soapy water and keep them wet.

    Mordanting the yarn is important if you want your dyes to become colorfast. DO NOT BREATHE THE MORDANT FUMES!!! Put about a half teaspoon of alum mordant for every 2 ounces of material. Put the mordant in your pot with one cup of water. Heat and stir gently until dissolved. Do not boil! Add 2 quarts water and stir well to mix. Place your saturated yarn into bath and bring to a slow simmer. Turn heat down as water begins to boil, allow material to simmer for one hour. Stir occassionally.

    Next, turn off the heat. Allow the material to cool. Once it is cooled, squeeze the excess water from it and rinse in warm water to remove the alum.

    When dyeing, always make sure that the yarn is completely covered with water.

    The longer you leave the yarn in the dyebath, the deeper or richer the color will be. Different dye materials, will dye the yarn at different speeds. For paler colors, check the yarn 15 minutes after the dyebath has come to a simmer. remember that wet materials look darker than they will appear dry.

    For a richer colour leave it in the dye overnight.


The Urban Eagle
Natural Dying
Making dyes naturally


Ancient Dyes for Modern Weavers Weigle, Palmy New York, NY: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974
This book lists 125 recipes using natural dye materials and different mordants. The only color photos are on the inside front and back cover but the information is extensive.
Dyeing with Natural Materials Las Aranas Spinners and Weavers Guild Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1987
This booklet was prepared to be used in a workshop and has recipes for a number of plants.
Nature's Dyepot: A Resource Guide for Spinners, Weavers & Dyers McRae, Bobbi A Austin, Texas: Fiberworks Publications, 1991 ISBN 0-944577-02-4
This is a book of resources. Full of good sources for : Plants and Seeds, Dried Dyestuffs and Miscellaneous Supplies and a bibliography of Select Books and Articles plus an A to Z chart of potential dye plants.
Navajo Native Dyes: Their Preparation and Use Bryan, Nonabh G Palmer Lake, Colorado The Filter Press, 1978 ISBN 0-910584-57-5
Dyeing the Navajo way with a description of the traditional Navajo dyeing techniques as well as a complete description of the plants used and the colors they give. Very enlightening from a historical perspective.
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