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Using Natural Botanical Dyes

The art of using natural dyes has been nearly dead since the middle of the Victorian age as the industrial age started taking over; gradually the old ways were left behind. What started in the early settler’s home as a necessity has since been forgotten by many. Recently efforts have been made to teach the heritage skills to all who are interested so they are not lost forever in our high tech world.

Nature creates plants that are capable of creating beautiful dyes. They are easy to use for dying cloth, wool and other natural fibers. Colors can come from things all around us if we care to take notice of them. Common flowers, tree leaves, bark and berries, herbs, nuts, shells and minerals all produce colors that vary in hue and vibrancy. If you have never used natural dyes put it on your “to do list” but be warned it can become an addictive enjoyable past-time.

To create the color of choice depends on several things, the first being the plant or mineral used and the hue you are trying to achieve. Some colors require a mordant to fix the dye or achieve the hue desired.

What is a mordant?

A mordant is a substance used to fix color to the material or to change the color through chemical reaction. Mordant commonly used are alum, tannin, tartaric acid and iron.

How do you know what plants to use to achieve the color you desire?

The only plant that will not give a wonderful color dye is the one you don’t plant; all plants are capable of producing dye. You will learn over time which plants will closely achieve the color desired, but until then this list should help you to choose plants, parts of plants or minerals to give you a starting point. You will have to determine which are the most readily available to your location.

Red

Beet Root (deep red)
Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit (soft rose)
Rose Hips
Chokecherries
Madder Root (true red)
Dried Red Hibiscus Flowers
Sumac Fruit (light red)
Sycamore Bark
Bamboo
Poke Berries (reddish purple)
Canadian Hemlock Bark ( reddish brown)
Bedstraw Root
Moss Rose Dried Flower (using salt or vinegar as a mordant) can produce strong colors)

Yellow

Alfalfa Seeds
Red Clover Blossoms, Leaves and Stems (using alum as a mordant)
Onion Skins (using alum as a mordant)
Marigold Blossoms
Willow Leaves
Queen Anne ’s Lace
Heather
Sassafras Bark
Syrian Rue (reacts to ultra violet lighting)
Burdock
Celery
Golden Rod Flowers
Daffodil Dried Flowers (using alum as a mordant)
Mullein Leaf and Root

Blue-Purple

Maple Wood
Red Cabbage (purple)
Mulberries (royal blue)
Elderberries (lavender)
Blueberries (blue)
Blackberry Fruit (strong purple)
Hyacinth Flowers (blue)
Indigo leaves (blue)
Raspberry Fruit (purple/blue)
Red Maple Inner Bark (purple)
Dogwood Fruit (greenish blue)
Sweet-gum Bark (purple/black)
Red Cedar Root (purple)

Green

Grass (yellow-green)
Nettle
Snapdragon Flowers
Purple Milkweed Flowers and Leaves
Sorrel Roots (dark green)
Peppermint (dark khaki green)
Black Eyed Susan (bright olive green)
Chamomile Leaves

Orange
Marigolds Flowers (yellow/orange)
Jewel-weed
Broom Flower

Brown

Black Walnut Hulls and Bark
Coffee Grounds
Fennel Flowers or Leaves (yellow brown)
Ivy Twigs
Juniper Berries
Tea Bags
Maple Dried Red Leaf Buds (reddish brown)

How to make a dye solution :

Example: Goldenrod-yellow dye

1) Collect a paper grocery sack of the goldenrod flowers in bloom. Make sure you don’t get any leaves but only the flower heads.

2) Place flower heads in a large pot and cover with water.

3) Bring to a boil and cook until the dye bath is a rich golden yellow color.

4) Strain out the flowers.

5) Weigh the item you wish to dye.

6) Add the mordant alum at 10% the weight of your item and tartaric acid at 5% of the weight of your item.

7) Wet the item you wish to dye thoroughly with plain water.

8) Place the item in the dye bath and bring back to a boil. Simmer for at least one hour.

9) Stir very gently as it is simmering.

10)Remove from heat and allow the dye to cool completely leaving the object in the dye bath.

11)Remove and rinse the item thoroughly.

12)Hang it outside in the sun to dry.


The above recipe will work for most any type of plant material. Use the part of the plant specified in the list above adding enough plant material to give you the color intensity you are looking for. Remember that the dyed item will lighten as it dries somewhat. You may reuse the dye bath with the addition of the required amount of mordant for each additional piece that is dyed.

Variations

You can also use the mordant in the water used to wet the item to be dyed initially and not place the mordant in the dye bath at all. There seems to be no absolute right or wrong way to use botanical dyes so I would encourage you to experiment and find which gives you the best results.


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