Dyeing Fibers and Fabrics with Plants

Portions of this post originally appeared as a guest blog post on Crochet Addict UK.

We've learned that ancient people's were processing fibers and spinning and weaving them into everything from clothing to funeral cloths. The archaeological record shows us that they used the natural colors of these fibers as well as a whole collection of beautiful dyes they made from our plant allies.

Beautiful, natural dyes are all around us. Just take a walk in your back yard or local park and you’ll find lots of plants which you can use to safely dye fabrics and fibers.

A simple google search will give you a number of lists of familiar plants you can use for dyeing such as: Avocado pit, Bloodroot, Black Eyed Susan, California Poppy, Coreopsis, Calendula, Dahlia, Dandelion, Goldenrod, Heather, Hollyhock, Indigo, Lavender, Marigold, Purple Basil, Russian Sage, Safflower, Sunflower, Tansy, Walnut, Weld, Yarrow and Zinnia to name a few. Roots, seeds, flower, leaves, and/or stems are used depending on the plant.

The same plants can yield different colors depending on the type of material being dyed (whether the material is a cellulose fiber like cotton, or a protein fiber like wool or silk), and the type of mordant used to prepare the material. A mordant is an inorganic substance, generally an oxide, that combines with a dye to fix it to the fabric or fiber. I usually use Alum salts but you can even use a rusty nail or a dye kettle with some rust on it. The type of mordant has an affect on how the color turns out.

 Center For Book Arts: Mordants, October, 2012

Center For Book Arts: Mordants, October, 2012

Why dye with natural dyes? The colors are more alive. They glow in ways that pictures cannot do justice. They have beautiful natural variations and are not flat but multidimensional. Dyeing with natural dyes is a great way to get back in touch with nature and for me, it feels wonderful doing something with so much deep history. I especially like when I can use plants native to my area.

The plants I have learned to use for dyeing are: Lavender, Geranium, Calendula, Dahlia, Madder, Weld, Alkanet and Indigo. The first four I get from my own garden and that list is expanding every time I dye, (and every gardening season). The other plants I purchase in powdered or root form. 

Plants do not always yield the color you might expect and ironically, green is the hardest color to get from plants.

 Calendula and Weld both yield a bright sunny yellow with an alum mordant.  I have also top dyed this beautiful color with indigo to get a fabulous yarn with greens, blues, and purples.

Calendula and Weld both yield a bright sunny yellow with an alum mordant.  I have also top dyed this beautiful color with indigo to get a fabulous yarn with greens, blues, and purples.

Calendula and Weld both yield a bright sunny yellow with an alum mordant.  I have also top dyed this beautiful color with indigo to get a fabulous yarn with greens, blues, and purples.

 One of my dye cards with Madder, Weld, Fustic, Marigolds and Quebracho Red.

One of my dye cards with Madder, Weld, Fustic, Marigolds and Quebracho Red.

Madder and Geranium have given me very pretty reds and pink and orange hues.

Alkanet, a plant related to Borage, yields beautiful purples as you can see here.

 Marshfield School of Weaving, In Pursuit of Purple: Learning from Alkanet, November 2010.

Marshfield School of Weaving, In Pursuit of Purple: Learning from Alkanet, November 2010.

 Roving I dyed with Alkanet, drying in my yard.

Roving I dyed with Alkanet, drying in my yard.

Indigo dyeing can be a trying chemical process but I’ve discovered instant indigo crystals which are super easy to use and make dyeing with indigo fun. I’ve had success dyeing directly onto mordanted fibers and top dyeing, dipping pre-dyed fibers into the vat for a blend of color as shown in the multi-colored yarn previously.

 Cutch overdyed with Indigo.

Cutch overdyed with Indigo.

The archaeological evidence for dyed fibers is fairly rare. As discussed previously, fibers don't last as long as frescoes (even the Maya created frescoes in their temples). But here are some examples:

 Swatch of indigo dyed wool from the Dead Sea. Bible History Daily 2014

Swatch of indigo dyed wool from the Dead Sea. Bible History Daily 2014

 Fiber dyed with extract from the Murex Snail. http://israelaa.ca/three-rare-2000-years-old-fabrics-dyed-with-an-extract-from-the-murex-snail-uncovered/

Fiber dyed with extract from the Murex Snail. http://israelaa.ca/three-rare-2000-years-old-fabrics-dyed-with-an-extract-from-the-murex-snail-uncovered/

Based on murals such as the ones below, we can interpret what colors people were wearing even if we don't have the physical evidence. This mural is from the Mayan site of Bonampak in Central America.

 Mural at Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.

Mural at Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.

 Murals from the tomb of Nebamun, British Museum, London

Murals from the tomb of Nebamun, British Museum, London

In our next post, we'll dive right into our own project experimenting with natural dyes. 

To learn more about plant based dyes there are some fabulous resources out there. Check out Wild Color by Jenny Dean, Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess, The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr, A Weaver’s Garden by Rita Buchanan, and The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar to name just a few.