After working with fiber-reactive dyes for more than ten years, I began to think about the use of natural materials for dying fabric. In the spirit of reuse, reduce and recycle I wanted to know if there were any readily available locally grown plants that I could use to put color on cloth. Of course, this simple question was hardly that. The art and craft of applying color to surfaces has been with humanity since the time we began to seek shelter and wear clothing.I discovered an overwhelming amount of information about the history dyes and pigments as well as numerous resources for the contemporary textile artisan to explore and experiment with.
History of Natural Dye
Using dyes, whether synthetic or natural, requires adherence to recipes and rules that can seem vague and esoteric to the beginner. The correct part of the plant must be harvested in the correct way and the dyestuff extracted and concentrated. The dye extracts themselves must be paired with the appropriate mordants, modifiers and fibers (silk, linen, cotton or wool) to achieve desired results. Dye recipes in the middle-ages were family secrets passed down through families and the guild system. In our modern era of mass produced textiles, we have forgotten how cloth and clothing was incredibly labor and time intensive to produce.
My own dyeing practice has always been experimental. I enjoy happy accidents and look forward to unexpected results. I’m not interested in mass producing or repeating exactly a specific color or pattern. It is important, however, to take notes about what you used and the amounts, the processing time, and the results of your experiments. These notes are important to learn from as you develop your own recipes. They become essential if you want to achieve a specific result for your own creative vision
Local dye plants
I decided to limit my experimentation to plants that I could grow, harvest, or collect in my own neighborhood. This severely limited my color choices, but limitations can be overcome with persistence and experimentation. These are the plants that I had access to in my garden, kitchen and neighborhood:
Eucalyptus Ivy Berry Elderberry Onion
Dandelion Fennel Red Cabbage
Fabrics to use:
I used plain white silk, wool, silk and rayon, and silk and wool blend fabrics and pre-made scarves (blanks) for my experiments. Cotton and linen are more resistant to the absorption of natural dye so I did not use them in my experiments. I set up a “dye lab” in my back yard with two electric burners for the dye pots plus spoons for stirring, tongs for lifting, strainers, 5 gallon buckets and a drying rack.
All though there are many more resources available, the books listed at the bottom of this post gave me the most specific methods and recipes that I could work with as I conducted my own experiments. In my lab I discovered that I did not always get the results described by the books. Natural dying processes are affected by the soil the plant was grown in, sun exposure, time of harvest, the alkalinity of the water, and the interactions of mordants and modifiers. In the spirit of experimentation, note your own results and remember that you can always re-dye your fabric or fibers and note any new results.
Experiment one: flower pounding variation:
Part one of my natural dyeing journey began in March 2016. I started with a variation on “flower pounding”. The color is extracted from flowers and flower petals by pressing or pounding them into fabric that has been treated with alum and soda ash.
My variation rolled the petals into a bundle that was soaked and pressed in the mordant solution. All though I used pink, yellow and purple flowers, the color that fixed to the fabric was primarily pale green and pale yellow, with a bit of blue. A second try was mostly yellow with a few golden and greenish highlights.
My next experiment: Ivy Berries:
Resources for methods and materials:
Burgess, Rebecca. Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes. 2011.
Dean, Jenny. Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes. 1999.
Duerr, Sasha. The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes. 2010.