NATURAL DYES AND COLORATION.
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
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
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
. 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
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
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
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
|Pink/Rose/Lavender- Elderberries, Blackberries, Pokeberries,Rose
||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
|Gray/Green - Dandelions,Red Onion Skins
||Boil varied amounts to achieve different shades.|
|Greens,-Shrubbery clippings,Privet, Bracken, Lily of the Valley,
||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
||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
||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
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.
LINKS TO DYE SITES.The Urban Eagle
Making dyes naturally
BOOKS TO FIND
Ancient Dyes for
Modern Weavers Weigle, Palmy New York, NY: Watson-Guptill Publications,
©Wintergrove Covenant 1999-2001
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.