Dyeing with plants, a natural way of coloring

Colors from your garden

DIY: Dyeing with plants, a natural way of coloring

Generally, when thinking of gardening, one will think of flowers for beauty and vegetables to eat.
But wouldn’t it be fantastic to see vegetation as a way to make your own colors?

As a ceramicist I am interested in the way colors are produced. I have been making my own colored slibs for years now, but writing my article about the coloring of clay aroused my interest in natural coloring in general once again.

I can’t garden myself anymore because of a back problem, but we have a public garden in my village with a tremendous explanation about all the features of plants.

Textile coloring

Dye it yourself

natural colors

Until 1850 the only way to dye fabric was using plants. The old textile workers didn’t write their recipes down because of the competition, which is a pity of course. But nowadays renewed attention for handmade and old-fashioned crafts creates a revival and reinventing of the tested recipes.

If you want to use your own garden for dyeing plants you can make two choices:

  1. You chose only plants that will give the colors you are after;
  2. You plant flowers that will give you joy the whole summer because of their flowers and can be used as coloring plants as a bonus gift.

You can make almost every color with plants, except the really bright ‘plastic’ ones. The colors will always have a natural character.

Tip: Plants that are for human consumption, generally don’t give long lasting colors

Birch
Bark

birch
Amount: 100% – Mordant: 5% potassium dichromate, 7% tartaric acid – Color: red/brown

Parts of the plants you can use

They all give either a different shade or a different color

The useable parts of plants for dyeing are the roots, leaves, flowers or bark. These will color your fabric in a different shade or even a different color. Not all parts give colors that last long.
Also you can use wood, lichens or fungi.

Some plants will give you a clue up front what color to expect from them. For instance berries or beets provide a red tone. But for a lot of plants you’ll have to experiment to find out the color.

In the old ‘Dye it Yourself’-books a general tip is not to pick plants that grow near highways, because of the lead. Most petrol doesn’t have lead anymore, but it might still be a good advice.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Leaves

tansy
Amount: 200% – Mordant: 15% ardum – Color: lemon yellow

Several conditions will have their influence on the color

  1. Kind of plants
  2. Parts of plants
  3. Percentage used in regard to the fabric
  4. Gathering place
  5. Fresh or dried plants
  6. Soaked or not
  7. Boiled or not
  8. Time of dyeing
  9. Season of gathering
  10. Mordant
  11. Developer
  12. Temperature
  13. Cooling down in the dye bath or out of it

Woad (Isatis Tinctoris)
Whole plant

woad dyeing with plants
Amount: 200% – Mordant: 6% Oxalic acid – Color: blue/purple

A direction
Not a manual

What I share here are just a few guidelines. I am a strong supporter of experiment, so I won’t give you a lot of recipes. Well, not only because of the experiment, but also because I haven’t done this enough to be precise about the outcome.

  1. Cut the material in the smallest pieces possible
  2. If the material is soft (like leaves), soaking a night in cold water will suffice
  3. Firmer material, like birch, is best soaked first and then boiled for an hour
  4. Don’t wrap the dyeing material, but be sure it’s loose in the cauldron

Onions
Peeling

onions
Amount: 100% – Mordant: 5% iron sulphate, 7% tartaric acid – Color: yellow/brown

To keep in mind
Natural coloring is mainly for animal products like wool and silk. You can color vegetal products like coton, but the colors will look faded.

A recipe for yellow
Just an example

Ingredients:

  • 100 % Fabric (this can be a t-shirt, a pillowcase or sheep wool)
  • 400% Onionskins (400 grams on each 100 gram of fabric)
  • 20% Alum mordant (ask your drugstore or craft store)

Use enough water – the fabric must be able to ‘swim’.

Preparation of the mordant:

  • Use a kettle or pan of stainless steel or enamel
  • Solve the alum in hot water (20 gram on each 100 gram of fabric)
  • Put it in water of 80 to 90 degrees C
  • Wet the fabric and stir it in the mordant bath for half an hour on 90 degrees C (don’t let it boil)

Preparation of the dyeing plants:

  • Put it in a pan and boil it like a soup
  • Either let it simmer on the fire for an hour or put it to rest for a night
  • Sift it

Dyeing:

  • Mix the dye and the fabric and heat up to 90 degrees C
  • Let it brew for 45 to 60 minutes

Finishing:

  • Cool the material down either in or out of the kettle
  • Rinse two times in lukewarm water with vinegar to fix the color
  • Rinse more until the material no longer sends off color
  • Dry

Beautiful blue

Pigments are also pretty on the wall

pigment

Little Big Bang, a poster I saw somewhere.

In comments:

Addition from someone on another platform:
I like them but if you use metal salts as a mordant they can be hazardous to your health (if you don’t take precautions) and aren’t really that great for the environment if you dump it down the drain (it depends on what you use). I love indigo dyes but keeping a dye vat going can be very tricky.

1 thought on “Dyeing with plants, a natural way of coloring”

  1. Addition from someone on another platform:
    I like them but if you use metal salts as a mordant they can be hazardous to your health (if you don’t take precautions) and aren’t really that great for the environment if you dump it down the drain (it depends on what you use). I love indigo dyes but keeping a dye vat going can be very tricky.

    Reply

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