By Chris McLaughlin
If you’re a gardener who enjoys crafting, then a garden, devoted to dye plants, just might be your next project. We plant gardens for food, health, and beauty. But did you know that many plants yield natural dyes for yarn, fiber, and fabric as well?
The truth is that humans have been borrowing nature’s colors for thousands of years. This concept is back in vogue as it opens up a whole new world for many – especially those who value organic practices.
Botanical dyes are earth-friendly, biodegradable renewable resources. Crafters are also drawn to them because natural plant dyes produce hues that are much more complex than their synthetic counterparts.
In fact, you might already have annuals, perennials, shrubs, or trees growing in your garden or yard right now that will yield natural colors for the dye pot. Do you have coreopsis or cosmos blooming in your cottage garden? Both offer shades of orange and rusty brown. Marigolds or calendulas by the front porch? Then you have access to bright yellow dye. Color doesn’t stop at flower petals. Depending on the species, it can also be found in other parts of the plant, such as leaves, stems, roots, and fruits.
Easy Garden Plants for Natural Dyes
Below is a list of common, easy-to-grow dye plants and the colors that each plant produces. Don’t forget that you can alter or change the color entirely if you use a mordant or modifier in or after the dyebath.
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Lemon yellow.
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.): Gold, yellow, and orange.
- Daffodil (Narcissus spp.): Green-yellow.
- Dahlia (Dahlia spp.): Yellow, gold, and orange.
- Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.): Yellow and reddish orange. (Use the spent, not fresh, daylily flower heads.)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): Bright yellow and gold.
- Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): Light hollyhocks will bring orange-yellow; dark red or purple flowers will yield purple and maroon shades.
- Marigold (Tagetes spp.): Bright yellow.
- Onion skins (Allium cepa): Deep yellow, orange, and red-orange. (Use red and yellow skins.)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Yellow.
- Yellow Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus): Yellow and gold.
Best Textiles for Botanical Dyes
Specific characteristics of yarns, fibers, or fabric will affect both the final color as well as how well the color takes. In other words, silk dyed in an onion skin dyebath will end up a slightly different shade than yarn made of 100 percent sheep’s wool.
Not surprisingly, the fibers that take well to botanical dyes are natural fibers. Natural dyes have a difficult time adhering to man-made (synthetic) fibers. Use protein fibers that are produced by animals such as sheep’s wool, angora (rabbit wool), mohair (Angora goat), cashmere (goat), alpaca, llama, silk (worms), and felt (sheep’s wool), which take to plant dyes brilliantly. Cellulose (plant) fibers such as bamboo, ramie, cotton, wood, reeds, muslin, and linen will also absorb natural dyes readily, although they do take longer to absorb. My strategy is to simply leave them in the dye-bath for longer – sometimes overnight.
Mordants and Modifiers
Many botanical dyes need a mordant such as alum to bond the color to the fibers. The simplest way to do this is to soak the fibers in a mordant bath before adding them to the colored dyebath. Some dyers will use copper, tin, or chrome as a mordant. However, alum and iron are considered the safest for both the dyer and the environment. That said, even these “less harmful” materials should be handled with care (a little research goes a long way).
Adding a modifier to the dyebath (or as an afterbath) can manipulate colors by making them brighter, darker, or change entirely depending on what is used. They are a constant source of entertainment and well worth a little experimentation.
- White vinegar
- Lemon juice
- Baking soda
- Iron (also acts as a mordant)
Adjective, Substantive, Vat, and Fugitive Natural Dyes
Natural dyes fall into various categories depending on the treatment (or lack thereof) that’s necessary for the color to adhere to the textile. Sometimes dyes will cross over into two categories. For example, indigo is both a substantive as well as a vat dye.
Adjective dyes are those that need a mordant to adhere the colors to the fabric, yarn, or fiber. Many natural dyes fall into this category.
Substantive dyes contain a built-in mordant called tannins. Color derived from this group, such as the deep brown derived from walnut husks, has big-time sticking power and doesn’t require a separate mordant.
Natural color obtained from plants such as indigo requires a special fermenting process which is referred to as vat dye. Here’s where some dyes can cross over into two categories. Indigo, for instance, is a substantive dye; therefore, fibers don’t need a separate mordant to hold the color. However, it does need to be processed in a vat and is more complicated than a simple dye-bath.
Dyes obtained from purple cabbages and beets start out as gorgeous color. However, they simply don’t hold up to washing or sunlight very well (or at all) and tend to disappear from fabric and fibers quickly. They are referred to as fugitive dyes and are best used for items that don’t need to hold their color for long periods of time, such as Easter eggs, modeling compound, and temporary paints. Fugitive dyes aren’t useful for yarns that will be made into garments.
Who Wants to Plant a Dye Garden?
Natural dyes are useful to those who hand-spin, weave fabric, knit, crochet, weave baskets, and sew. Garden hues are also used to color scarves, play silks, T-shirts, linens, curtains, and even paper.
Producing botanical dyes doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the arts or a chemistry degree, but rather a healthy curiosity and an experimenter’s heart. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use botanical dyes, check out my book, A Garden to Dye For (St. Lynn’s Press).
Chris is a gardening guru, with over 35 years of experience. When she is not busy tending to the family farm she can be found writing. She has written articles for a wide variety of publications, such as Hobby Farm Home Magazine, and Fine Gardening Magazine. She is the home agriculture editor for From Scratch Magazine, and a columnist for VegetableGardener.com. On top of all of that she has penned six books.