Natural Dyes From Your Flower Garden
If you're a gardener who enjoys crafting, then a garden devoted to dye plants just might be your next project.
We plant gardens for food, health, and beauty. But did you know that many plants yield natural dyes for yarn, fiber, and
fabric as well? The truth is that humans have been borrowing nature's colors for thousands of years. This concept is back in
vogue as it opens up a whole new world for many – especially those who value organic practices.
Botanical dyes are earth-friendly, biodegradable renewable resources. Crafters are also drawn to them because natural plant
dyes produce hues that are much more complex than their synthetic counterparts.
In fact, you might already have annuals, perennials, shrubs, or trees growing in your garden or yard right now that will yield
natural colors for the dye pot. Do you have coreopsis or cosmos blooming in your cottage garden? Both offer shades of orange
and rusty brown. Marigolds or calendulas by the front porch? Then you have access to bright yellow dye. Color doesn't stop at
flower petals. Depending on the species, it can also be found in other parts of the plant, such as leaves, stems, roots, and
Easy Garden Plants for Natural Dyes
Below is a list of common, easy-to-grow dye plants and the colors that each plant produces. Don't forget that you can alter
or change the color entirely if you use a mordant or modifier in or after the dyebath.
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Lemon yellow.
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.): Gold, yellow, and orange.
- Daffodil (Narcissus spp.): Green-yellow.
- Dahlia (Dahlia spp.): Yellow, gold, and orange.
- Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.): Yellow and reddish orange. (Use the spent, not fresh, daylily flower heads.)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): Bright yellow and gold.
- Hollyhock (Alcea rosea): Light hollyhocks will bring orange-yellow; dark red or purple flowers will
yield purple and maroon shades.
- Marigold (Tagetes spp.): Bright yellow.
- Onion skins (Allium cepa): Deep yellow, orange, and red-orange. (Use red and yellow skins.)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Yellow.
- Yellow Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus): Yellow and gold.
Best Textiles for Botanical Dyes
Specific characteristics of yarns, fibers, or fabric will affect both the final color as well as how well the color takes.
In other words, silk dyed in an onion skin dyebath will end up a slightly different shade than yarn made of 100 percent
Not surprisingly, the fibers that take well to botanical dyes are natural fibers. Natural dyes have a difficult time adhering
to man-made (synthetic) fibers. Use protein fibers that are produced by animals such as sheep's wool, angora (rabbit wool),
mohair (Angora goat), cashmere (goat), alpaca, llama, silk (worms), and felt (sheep's wool), which take to plant dyes
brilliantly. Cellulose (plant) fibers such as bamboo, ramie, cotton, wood, reeds, muslin, and linen will also absorb natural
dyes readily, although they do take longer to absorb. My strategy is to simply leave them in the dyebath for
longer – sometimes overnight.
Mordants & Modifiers
Many botanical dyes need a mordant such as alum to bond the color to the fibers. The simplest way to do this is to soak
the fibers in a mordant bath before adding them to the colored dyebath. Some dyers will use copper, tin, or chrome as a
mordant. However, alum and iron are considered the safest for both the dyer and the environment. That said, even these
"less harmful" materials should be handled with care (a little research goes a long way).
Adding a modifier to the dyebath (or as an afterbath) can manipulate colors by making them brighter, darker, or change
entirely depending on what is used. They are a constant source of entertainment and well worth a little experimentation.
- White vinegar
- Lemon juice
- Baking soda
- Iron (also acts as a mordant)
Adjective, Substantive, Vat, and Fugitive Natural Dyes
Natural dyes fall into various categories depending on the treatment (or lack thereof) that's necessary for the
color to adhere to the textile. Sometimes dyes will cross over into two categories. For example, indigo is both a
substantive as well as a vat dye.
Adjective dyes are those that need a mordant to adhere the colors to the fabric, yarn, or fiber. Many natural
dyes fall into this category.
Substantive dyes contain a built-in mordant called tannins. Color derived from this group, such as the deep brown derived
from walnut husks, has big-time sticking power and doesn’t require a separate mordant.
Natural color obtained from plants such as indigo requires a special fermenting process which is referred to as vat dye.
Here's where some dyes can cross over into two categories. Indigo, for instance, is a substantive dye; therefore, fibers
don't need a separate mordant to hold the color. However, it does need to be processed in a vat and is more complicated
than a simple dyebath.
Dyes obtained from purple cabbages and beets start out as gorgeous color. However, they simply don't hold up to washing or
sunlight very well (or at all) and tend to disappear from fabric and fibers quickly. They are referred to as fugitive dyes
and are best used for items that don't need to hold their color for long periods of time, such as Easter eggs, modeling
compound, and temporary paints. Fugitive dyes aren't useful for yarns that will be made into garments.
Who Wants to Plant a Dye Garden?
Natural dyes are useful to those who handspin, weave fabric, knit, crochet, weave baskets, and sew. Garden hues are also
used to color scarves, play silks, T-shirts, linens, curtains, and even paper. Producing botanical dyes doesn't require
extensive knowledge of the arts or a chemistry degree, but rather a healthy curiosity and an experimenter's heart. If you're
interested in learning more about how to use botanical dyes, check out my book, A Garden to Dye For (St. Lynn's Press).