Rosie Beat produces wonderful natural dyes

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Anyone wishing to experiment with natural dyes could begin with the kitchen cupboard for a source of colour! 


Turmeric,  tea and coffee are worth trying, and in the kitchen garden, you probably have a number of potential dye plants already growing – the dye is often extracted from the part of the plant you’d normally compost, so you can have your dye plant and eat it!


In recent years, I’ve noticed more and more people taking an interest in natural dyeing, possibly as the wider uses of herbs and other plants are aired on TV gardening programmes and in magazines, and also perhaps as a result of a growing demand for organic clothing, which naturally leads to an organic approach to colour.

Dyeing naturally however, doesn’t always preclude the use of chemicals, as many natural pigments require a fixative to achieve a reasonable degree of light fastness. This process, known as mordanting, is extremely important to the finished result, especially if the dye plant itself contains no natural mordant such as tannin in addition to the dye pigment.

So, certain plants contain a natural fixative, and the alternative is to use a metallic salt that will fix the pigment. Both types of  mordant may affect the finished colour. There are a number of metallic salts for mordanting: probably the best-known is alum (aluminium potassium sulphate). This is certainly the mordant I’d recommend to anyone starting out with natural dyeing.

The mordanting process is dealt with in more detail later.


What is a dye plant?

The answer is really any plant that will yield enough pigment (the colouring matter) to transfer to fibres and colour them to a reasonable degree.

Natural dyes can be arranged into two basic groups: those that already contain a fixative as discussed above are known as substantive or direct dyes, while those that produce a pigment requiring a separate mordanting process are known as adjective or mordant  dyes. An example of a substantive dye plant is tea, which as we all know is high in tannin, a natural fixative.

Equipment needed for dyeing

First, it’s very important not to use items from the kitchen for dyeing – buy some old saucepans from charity shops to start you off. Rusty vessels will affect the final colour (see later section on modifying with iron) so avoid chipped enamel vessels unless you intend to produce subdued colours. Aluminium saucepans are readily available second hand and are ideal, especially if you intend to pre-mordant your fibres with alum. Best of all are stainless steel vessels that don’t affect the finished colour in any way.

You will also need some old spoons for stirring, scales for weighing, a heat source, and an old sieve for separating the plant matter from the liquid. Scissors are useful for snipping up plant material and a notebook is recommended for recording your results, just in case you want to repeat the colour at a later date. Rubber gloves are absolutely essential to protect the hands and it’s advisable to work in an airy space or open a window, especially when mordanting.

What to dye with

Anyone wishing to experiment with natural dyes could begin with the kitchen cupboard for a source of colour! Turmeric, the ground root of a plant from India, is a well-known spice used as a colour (and flavour) for curries and chutneys. It will dye wool direct, a vibrant deep yellow, though the colour isn’t particularly fast and will fade in time. Tea and coffee are worth trying too, no mordant required.

Moving from the kitchen cupboard into the kitchen garden, you probably have a number of potential dye plants already growing, and the good news is that the dye is often extracted from the part of the plant you’d normally compost – so you can have your dye plant and eat it! 

The most well-known dye plant from the vegetable garden is undoubtedly the onion, either the usual brown or the increasingly popular red skins of which give a range of yellows and rusts if you use fibres that have been prepared with mordants. Unmordanted fibres result in a browner colour that fades after a while. Warning – if you take up natural dyeing, you will never put onion skins in the compost bin again!

Carrot tops are another part of a vegetable plant that we don’t eat and can be used to good effect in the dye pot. This plant does require fixing with a mordant and will give soft greens when used fresh. The carrot roots themselves also give a colour (the carotine pigment found in natural food dyes) so if you end up with some old woody carrots (we never seem to grow enough to get to this stage) it would be worth trying them out.

Beetroot is rather disappointing as a dye – it makes a wonderful pink stain on tablecloths and clothing, as I am sure you all know, but in fact, yields a soft grey colour when applied to wool as a dye.

Rhubarb is an extremely useful addition to the dye garden. The leaves and roots are a source of oxalic acid (which is why they’re poisonous to eat) and can be used as a natural mordant. I remember once asking for oxalic acid in a chemist shop and receiving some very suspicious looks! The roots of my rhubarb plants yield a pale yellow direct dye, though recently I bought some ground rhubarb root from a dye supplier that produced a deep ochre yellow direct onto fibres (see end for details of suppliers).

You will probably have noticed already that different parts of plants are used for dyeing – sometimes the root, sometimes the leaves, and in fact, sometimes the whole plant may be a source of dye pigment.

Dye plants  in the flower garden

Coreopsis Coreopsis grandiflora

This is a perennial plant with large single yellow flowers.  There are, in fact, a number of varieties including an annual – Coreopsis tinctoria. Coreopsis flowers give a range of bright colours from the flowers and seeds: yellow, green and rust according to the mordant used.


Dyer’s Chamomile

Anthemis tinctoria This is a well-known cottage plant – an attractive daisy with finely cut foliage. The bright yellow flowers give a clear yellow dye with an alum mordant. There are a number of varieties available from garden centres: Sauce Hollandaise is one. Related to Dyer’s Chamomile and giving a similar range of colours from the flowers are:


Yarrow Achillea millefolium

Definitely a wild one, this. If it doesn’t grow as a weed in the garden, then you probably have it somewhere on the smallholding! There are however, some garden worthy varieties such as Cerise Queen with red flowers instead of the usual white. In fact, there are many beautiful shades of Achilleas available including paprika and soft pinks. The colour of the flowers doesn’t have any effect on the range of colours you will achieve from the dye pot – the results will be similar to the wild variety. 


Sneezewort Achillea ptarmica

This is another native plant, which enjoys damp meadows, and we have plenty of those here in Devon! The wild Sneezewort is a small single white daisy, the flowers of which were supposedly once used in the making of snuff, hence the common name. In the garden I grow a double variety, a cottage favourite known as Bridal Bouquet because country girls would gather this pure white flower for their wedding bouquets. Sneezewort tends to creep about the border rather, but is easily controlled. It likes to lean on other plants for support.


Tansy Tanacetum vulgare

This is a very useful plant, being culinary and medicinal as well as a dye plant, and dries well for storage. Plant it in a wild place on your holding as it spreads rather and is difficult to remove – I once broke a fork trying to dig some up!
There is a golden-leaved variety that I do allow in the garden as it’s not as invasive as the wild one, and also an attractive crispy leaved variety that looks a bit like parsley. Use the flowers for the dye pot to achieve a range of yellow and rust shades.

More native dye plants

St John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum

A perennial in the same family as Rose of Sharon, it has been cultivated from mediaeval times as a wound healing herb, hence the common name. The Latin name refers to the perforations seen in the leaf when held up to the light. The yellow, star-shaped flowers yield an interesting range of colours including yellow, green, maroon and black, depending on the dyeing technique used. St John’s wort is a popular remedy for depression and is also used homoeopathically. Care should be taken with this plant as the red dye pigment it contains has been known to photosensitize animals that have grazed it.

Madder Rubia tinctorum

The root of this plant contains the pigment alizarin. Care must be taken when dyeing with madder root as the pigment is destroyed at temperatures above 60ºC.

Madder is in the bedstraw family and there are native British representatives of this family capable of giving a similar red dye.  We find the wild madder, Rubia peregrina on the cliffs of the north Devon coast.

Rubia tinctorum is native to much of Europe and the Far East but will survive our British climate and is a better dye plant than its close relatives.

Madder needs plenty of room in the garden. Alternatively, sink a vessel into the ground to contain the roots.
Two closely related plants also in the same family as madder are:


Lady’s bedstraw Galium verum

As the country name suggests, this plant was once used for stuffing into mattresses, as the bright yellow flowers, when dried, smell of new-mown hay. A sprawling plant, it looks attractive growing up through other plants
for support. This plant was also used as rennet for cheese making. A red dye can be extracted from the roots.


Dyer’s woodruff Asperula tinctoria

Another plant related to madder, also producing a red dye from the roots. It has small white flowers and like Lady’s bedstraw, prefers to grow with support from other plants.

Sawort Serratula tinctoria

This perennial species is named after the shape of the leaves, which have toothed edges like a saw blade. It’s a member of the Compositae family, with flowers not unlike knapweed. It’s these purple flowers that are used for dyeing. Surprisingly, they give a good yellow which is similar to that obtained from weld (see below). Sawort is a native species to Britain and grows well in moist conditions.


Dyer’s greenweed Genista tinctoria

Also known as dyer’s broom, this is a neat, low-growing shrubby perennial related to the common broom. Another native plant and one that gives, not green as the name suggests, but a good clear yellow from the flowering tops. This yellow was traditionally over-dyed with the blue of woad (see below) to obtain a bright green, hence ‘greenweed’. The flowers of other brooms and gorse give a similar result.


Woad Isatis tinctoria

This is the famous blue dye plant that the ancient Britons were supposed to have tattooed themselves with. It’s a biennial (flowers in its second year, sets seed and then dies) and a member of the Cruciferae, or cabbage family. Woad was once a widely grown plant, introduced very early on from Europe and naturalised in Britain. The blue pigment is present in the leaves of the first year plant and is extracted by quite a complicated process using stale urine or ammonia. The general dye instructions (see below) don’t apply when dyeing with woad. One plant left to flower will produce hundreds of seeds. Sow them in rich soil in rows, or start them off in trays and plant out into their final position.


Weld Reseda luteola

Two common names for weld are dyer’s rocket and dyer’s weed. This tall native plant has been widely used since ancient times for dyeing yellow. Weld is biennial, flowering in its second year and will seed itself happily in the right soil – its preference is alkaline, so on acid soil, add some garden lime to make it feel at home. The whole of the flowering plant above ground level is used for dyeing. I’ve found a wide variation in the results obtained from dried and fresh material, and the fresh gives a much brighter colour. However, weld keeps well if dried and stored for winter use. Overall, a good range of yellows and greens can be obtained.


The list of plants that yield a pigment for dyeing is extremely long and I don’t intend to mention them all! Those mentioned so far can all be grown in the open ground, unprotected in winter. There are, however, a number of foreign imported dye plants that add a wider range of colours to the home dyer: logwood (purples and black), indigo (good deep blue), henna (orange and brown), fustic (yellow and ochre) and sanderswood (browns) are just a few examples of the range available from specialist suppliers (address at the end).

The quantities and recipes for mordanting are the ones I use for dyeing fleece (wool) but would be similar for other animal fibres such as alpaca or mohair. They’re the recipes devised by Gill Dalby (see details of her book below). 

How much dye material  do you need?

Generally speaking, you will need to gather twice as much dyestuff as the weight of the fibres being dyed. For example, if the dyestuff you’re using is the flower of dyer’s chamomile, you will see that a number of plants will be required just to harvest enough flowers to dye a small quantity of wool.

If you use dried dyestuffs, however, then generally speaking, you will need equal quantities of dyestuff to fibres being dyed. There are exceptions: logwood (for purple shades) requires only 50%, onion skins even less, but most dye recipes in books will give you a guide of how much to use.

Preparation of fibres

An important thing to do before mordanting or dyeing is to thoroughly clean the fibres. Wool is very high in lanolin, a greasy substance that will prevent successful mordanting or dyeing, so wash the fibres in warm soapy water (I use washing-up liquid) a number of times before rinsing well.

Mordanting

There are quite a number of mordants (metallic salts). Alum (aluminium potassium sulphate) can sometimes be purchased from a chemist. It was used in early times and its fixing properties were understood even as far back as the ancient Egyptians. It’s safe to handle – worth considering if children are taking part in the dyeing process. Cream of tartar is used in conjunction with alum, and this is also widely available.

Dyeing

The method for dyeing with most dyestuffs is the same:

Weigh out the quantity of dyestuff (200% fresh 100% dry)

Make sure the wool to be dyed is thoroughly wet. Chop or shred plant material (and soak overnight if material is woody). Boil for 20 to 30 minutes to extract the pigment, strain, and then add cold water (enough to cover the fibres being dyed) to the liquor, cooling the bath down. Enter the wet wool and bring slowly to the boil over 30 to 40 minutes, then simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until a good colour is reached. Allow to cool.

Remove the wool, wash with soap then rinse. You may be able to boil the original dyestuff again in the spent dyebath (especially with wood dyes) to obtain lighter exhaust shades on another batch of fibres.

Modifying

Towards the end of the dyeing session, a little iron (ferrous sulphate) may be added to the dyebath as a modifier. The effect will be to sadden the colour – yellow, for example, will turn greenish. This effect can also be obtained by using chipped enamel vessels (see equipment for dyeing).

Other ways to modify or change your results are to place the fibres in an acid solution (vinegar) that makes tones yellower, or an alkaline solution (household ammonia) that makes tones pinker. To make up a solution, add a couple of teaspoons of vinegar to a pint of water. With ammonia, only a few drops are needed.

Special cases

Not all dyestuffs can be used as I’ve outlined here. Woad and indigo, for example, are vat dyes and need special treatment. Madder needs to be kept below 60ºC throughout the dyeing process or the red pigment is destroyed.
So why not try some home natural dyeing? Use some turmeric from the kitchen cupboard, onion skins from the garden and, if you become hooked, you could move on to mordanting and growing your own dye plants. n

Further reading

Natural Dyes Fast or Fugitive by Gill Dalby is small but comprehensive with different mordant
recipes for a wide range of colours.
ISBN 0 948020 00 8

Wild Colour by Jenny Dean contains detailed information on natural dyeing without the use of many chemicals.
ISBN 1 840000 084 8

Specialist suppliers of natural dyes, mordants and books:
P & M Woolcraft,
 Pindon End Cottage, Pindon End, Hanslope,
Milton Keynes MK19 7HN
Tel: 01908 510277 www.naturaldyes.co.uk


This article is from the August 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
<< To order back issues click the link to the left.

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