Tuesday, 17 December 2013

6 months of playing with natural dyes …

As I've been playing about with natural dyes for the last six months, playing being the operative word, it’s probably about time that I share a few of my tentative findings.  Six months is not nearly enough time to learn such a complicated ancient craft, but there are a few things that I am now certain of:   

-          Plant fibres (cotton and linen) are much harder to dye than animal fibres (silk and wool) which is a bit of a pest as a maker of books.
-          A mordant is essential when trying to dye plant fibres. I have been using Aluminium acetate, which is fabulously straight forward, but I have been advised to have a go at using the more traditional method (yet to be researched enough to explain here).
-          Scouring linens (removing any dirt or grease) is also essential.
-          Make notes … lots of notes.

One of the best bits of advice given to me, by Claire Wellesley Smith at her workshop, was to place samples of dyed cloth on a windowsill for a few weeks and then compare them to samples kept in the dark (I keep them in my notebook).

As anticipated all of my naturally dyed fabrics have faded to a certain degree, but some were more resistant to fading than others.  A lot of natural dyes are “Fugitive” i.e. they run for the hills as soon as daylight hits them or when they are washed, leaving behind a lovely soft grey or off white. So here is a list of the least light fast dyes in order of their fading speed:

-          Red cabbage: fantastic fun and a brilliant way to understand how acids and alkalis change the colour of a dye. However, the colour fades whilst drying and can be washed out instantly.
-          Black beans: create the most gorgeous blue black dye which fades back to the original fabric colour over a few days.
-          Rhubarb stalks: smell gorgeous and produce the most beautiful soft pink which fades back to off white over a few weeks.
-          Berries: I’ve tried Elderberry, Mahonia, Sloes, Bilberries, Blackberries and Black Currants … all fade to grey. It’s a lovely soft grey … but I did mourn a little for those vibrant purples and blues.
      I am not sure how hard and fast this rule is, but I think I can summarise: “the easier a plant gives up its dye, the faster the colour fades away” …

      I’ve also learnt that:

-  Woad seedlings are a blackbird’s delicacy.
-   Iron oxide changes the colour of a dye dramatically, but be warned … it rots the fabric, which can be a bit of challenge if you, like me, are using vintage linens.
-  A forgotten dye bath is the ideal growing culture for mould … I have grown a lot of mould!

I’ve had a few successes along the way:

-  Onion skins: I love onion dye! Onions skins are marvellous things which create reasonably light fast dyes ranging from olive green to yellow then through to orange. Next step I’ve got to work out how I got russet orange when I was aiming for yellow.
- Avocado skins: Antique pinks through to orange then deep browns and pretty light fast too.
- Golden Rod: Bright yellows through to golden yellow and then to pale green.  Also, shouting “Oi Claire! … wanna see my Golden Rod?!” is a pretty effective way to silence a busy makers’ market.
-  Walnuts: rich chocolates through to soft beiges as the dye bath becomes exhausted.
- Plant bashing: leaves and stalks bashed between two pieces of fabric to release their stain then darkened with a dunk in an iron bath.
- Freezing petals is a great way to release the dye without damaging it. I haven’t quite mastered getting a pretty pink, but I have obtained a few subtle beiges and the most gorgeous bright yellow from Golden Rod.

Colouring fabrics with natural dyes is the most fascinating process and I have plans to explore it much more. So many books to read and methods to try out.  I have a bag full of Bowles Black violas waiting in the freezer (it had to be done) and some Jet black Hollyhock seeds ready to be planted ... only two years to wait until they flower …. Now there’s commitment for you.


  1. I am in a similar state of experimentation with natural dyes (except with yarns and fiber arts) and your methods are very helpful to me. Thank you for posting this. Your work is beautiful, btw.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Tammy. Hope you are having fun with natural dyes! K x