Growing plants for dyeing is an age-old practice but with the growth in the interest in home made and traditional arts and crafts like knitting and sewing, it’s making a comeback and so makes sense to grow your own colours.
You don’t even need to have garden to get started as natural dyes can be made from waste ground weeds like nettles and dandelions as well as raw mushrooms, onion skins, carrot tops, coffee grinds and even avocado peel from your kitchen recycling bin.
Nettles produce a gorgeous chartreuse green dye
And if you get serious, you can raid your veg patch for beetroots, artichokes and rhubarab or grow just half a dozen dye plants in your flowerbeds including some of your granny’s garden favourites like hollyhocks, anchusa, which is also known as the summer forget-me-knot, yarrow, cornflowers, lavender and flag iris to produce the most amazing rainbow colour palette to play with. Start with pot marigolds or calendulas, as these are easy to grow from seed and will flower non stop until the spring in as little as 12 weeks from an April sowing. The dye they produce can be any shade from golden yellow and orange or greens.
Home dyeing is a gamble but great fun so always start with a small amount of clean wool and progress to large amounts and maybe different fabrics as you gain experience. Be adventurous and experiment, for example, adding cream or tartar will assist the amount of alum absorbed by the wool, so more magic happens!
It’s easier to dye natural wool as yarns wound in skeins or hanks. After the wool is dyed, you will have to untwist it and wind it around a helpful pair of outstretched arms to check that the ties are secure before winding it into balls ready for use.
Bear in mind that you will need about 10 litres of dye liquid for 100g of wool, so you will need a very large container to tackle a jumper, so you might prefer to practice with a pair of socks.
When gathering plant material for dyeing, choose flowers when they are in full bloom and ripe berries. As when picking flowers for the vase, don’t decimate the plant but leave at least two-thirds behind to keep the plant productive.
Ideally, cook your plant dyes outside and keep your dye pots separate from your cooking pots
To make the dye solution begin by chopping the plant material into small pieces and place in a large pan with double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil then simmer gently for about an hour – note that if you ‘cook’ the plants for too long the resulting colours may be muddy.
Strain and after, add your wool to be dyed. You’ll achieve a stronger shade if you allow the wool to soak in the dye overnight, but note that the colour will be lighter when it’s dry
It helps to add a mordant, or fixing agent, like Alum, which is a naturally occurring, water-soluble metallic salt that bonds the dye to the fibre and acts as a binder to ensure the colour holds to the wool. You can dye without it, but your colour will usually be stronger and more saturated if you use it. The type of mordant you use may also change the colour.
Add your mordant to a dye pan of boiling water and stir until it dissolves. The type and amount of mordant you add depends on you and your recipe but 4 tablespoons of alum plus 4 tablespoons of cream of tartar for 500g of dry yarn is a good start.
For berry dyes, you can use Dylon Dye Salt at a ratio of ½ cup of salt to 8 cups of water and for plant dyes 4 parts cold water to 1 part white vinegar.
Soak the wool in cold water for at least an hour then add to the fixative and simmer and occasionally stir for an hour.
When you turn off the heat, let your wool sit in the dye pot until it has cooled, stirring it occasionally. Rinse it well with cold water until water runs clear, squeeze out the excess and hang to dry until ready for use. And afterwards, launder your dyed home knits separately in cold water until you are sure the garment is colour fast.
Dye colour may differ from the colour of the plant it’s derived from, so be prepared to experiment before committing yourself to using it as those lovely pink and red flowers picked from your garden might produce yellow or brown dye. It’s therefore a good idea to keep a diary and write details of the plants and mordant used.
Roses and Lavender, with a little mint and some lemon juice can make both a brilliant pink dye and very tasty pink lemonade! Rosehips will also give a reliable pink dye, so use these with confidence.
Pot marigold flowers give the most potent luminescent green coloured dye
Golden rod and yarrow all produce delicious shades of yellow. Golden rod especially gives a lovely sunshine yellow and is surprisingly colourfast in the wash. The cheery Coreopsis tinctoria, also known as dyer’s coreopsis, has a small yellow flower with a purple center and produces a range of colors from intense yellow to deep orange to brown.
The tough heart of red cabbage, gives gorgeous lilac purples or blue-greys and the outer leaves of an ordinary green variety produces the most beautiful soft greens. Alum is a great mordant to use with cabbage as it will help the dye stick to the fabric and will intensify the colour produced.
The roots of Rubia tinctorus, known as madder root, are rich in red pigment and are the source of the strongest red dye. The uniforms of the British Red Coats were dyed with madder root. Madder plants need to grow for around five years to develop sufficiently thick roots to produce a strong die and it will produce a better red in hard water areas. The roots will also produce more alizarin or red pigment if the soil is well limed in the winter. If you add a bit of cream of tartar to the water when dyeing, you will get shades of orange and hues of yellow and green.
The weed, cleavers is another plant that has red dye in the roots and before the discovery of cochineal by the Spanish conquistadores, the Scottish tartans were died with it, so give it a try.
The best blue is produced with woad, Isatis tinctoria, which is a member of the brassica family (photo Mike Roberts, www.woad.org.uk)
Woads neon yellow flowers appear in May and have a wonderful fragrance that attracts plenty of bees. Its black seeds will produce an olive coloured dye but its the leaves that you want for making its indigo dye or shades of purple, grey, and brown. The plant is a biennial so leaves are best harvested in their second year. Be careful not to let woad self-seed though, as it can be an invasive plant.
Become an expert by reading up all you can about the subject
Red onion skins produce rich and warm browns, while brown onion skins produce yellows
Good advice is written by expert Belinda Sheekey at www.milkwood.net/2004/06/23/experiments-in-colour-diy-plant-dyes
Visit the Dye Garden at Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill, London for inspiration www.horniman.ac.uk
Grow your own dye plants with Dyer’s seeds from www.etsy.co
Read about dyeing
In the book The Wild Dyer, Abigail Booth demystifies the ‘magic’ of natural dyeing and focuses on how to grow or gather your own dyeing materials, as well as scouring, mordanting (using fixative) and setting up a dye vat. Abigail also shows how to use the results to stunning effect in 15 exquisite patchwork and stitch projects
In her book, Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, Rebecca Burgess identifies 36 plants that will yield beautiful natural dyes. She includes ones that can be grown in your back garden and the best time and way to harvest them. For dyeing itself, Burgess describes the simple equipment needed and provides a master dye recipe
If you’re looking for ideas for planting a dye garden, check out Rita Buchanan’s excellent A Dyer’s Garden
For courses, wool, plants and other resources visit:
www.wildcolours.co.uk and www.busybeesfarm.co.uk
The Woad Kit from www.woad.org.uk, £29.95, contains woad, wool, assistants and full instructions
You can also knit, help the planet and feel good. Wool and the Gang have created ‘Heal the Wool’, a luxurious yarn made completely from recycled wool that would otherwise end up in landfill. The yarn comes from 100 per cent recycled Peruvian wool fibre. It is a 2 ply twisted, soft and chunky yarn that’s super-easy to knit with – perfect for winter woollies and accessories. And for every kit you buy, 30per cent is donated to Friends of the Earth.