Natural dyeing is a fun way to add color to your craft projects. Most plant dyes require you to prepare your yarn by mordanting. Mordanting is the process of soaking the yarn in a prepared metallic bath. This opens up the fibers of the yarn and allows the dye to absorb and stick. The books in the reference section at the bottom can provide more information on the actual process of using the natural dyes.
Before you get to dyeing with plants, you have to have the plants! Here is a list by color families to give you an idea of what you may already have, or what you may want to add to your yard to have a few dye plants to choose from at home.
Reds and Pinks Hollyhocks for pinks, Blackberry vines for a reddish tan. Madder root is famed for its rich, vibrant red dye. Madder plants are viny and sticky, so plant these where they will not tangle up other plants.
Oranges and Golds Red Onion skins on animal fibers produce gold.
Bloodroot, found wild throughout much of North America, produces oranges. Pokeweed berries produce orange.
Greens There are very few plants that produce a green dye. Sunflower heads are one of these rare few. Many dyers will dye their yarn either yellow or blue and then overdye it in the other color to produce green yarn or fabric.
Blues Indigo, False Indigo, Japanese Indigo and Woad all produce lovely shades of blue. There is a special process for dyeing with these plants. These plants do not use a mordant, but rather go through an oxidation-reduction reaction. Before you let that chemical term scare you off, check out a non-toxic version you can do at home in the book “A Dyer’s Garden”, listed in references a the bottom of this article.
Woad has become an invasive plant in certain parts of North America. This means you will be doing everyone a favor if you harvest the plant. You should also take care to not let it spread too much in or out of your yard.
For blue that is mordanted like most plant dyes, try Logwood. On some fibers, Logwood will produce a black or gray rather than the blue.
Tans and Browns Black Walnut Hulls, Pecan Hulls and Burley Tobacco all can give rich browns. Other shades of brown come from Floribunda Rose canes and leaves and Hickory twigs.
A weed common through North America is Queen Anne’s Lace, also called Wild Carrot. This plant produces tans and light browns.
You can also use your coffee grounds to get shades of brown. Even if you have used the grounds to make coffee, the leftover grounds can still provide color.
Red Onion skins produce brown on vegetable fibers.
Experimenting with natural dyes can add a whole new dimension to your knitting and other fiber projects. There are many factors that lead to a particular outcome with a natural dye, such as: different parts of plants, harvested at different times of the season, used with different mordants, and different types of fibers. All of these possibilities add to the excitement to see what results you will get from your plants.
Lesch, A. (1970). Vegetable dyeing: 151 color recipes for dyeing yarns and fabrics with natural materials. Watson-Guptill Pubns.
Buchanan, R. (1995). A Dyer's Garden: From plant to pot. Interweave Press.
Duerr, S. (2012). The handbook of natural plant dyes, personalize your craft with organic colors from acorns, blackberries, coffee, and other everyday ingredients. portland: Timber Pr.