School of Hard Knots

Experimenting with Natural Plant Dyes

Laura TaylorComment

This week I've been playing around with some natural dyeing techniques, and I had to share some of the process because it's not only beautiful but also kind of addictive. I'll be doing more of this for sure, and you'll be able to see how my methods develop.

 Flowers collected from my garden. Red, yellow and orange nasturtiums, yellow poppies, calendula, red bottlebrush, pink camelias, lilac flossflower, morning glory, borage flowers, and purple perilla leaves. 

Flowers collected from my garden. Red, yellow and orange nasturtiums, yellow poppies, calendula, red bottlebrush, pink camelias, lilac flossflower, morning glory, borage flowers, and purple perilla leaves. 

One of my favourite parts of learning skills like crochet, knitting, sewing and other home crafts is that you have more choice about the materials you use. When you buy an item of clothing you aren't usually even provided any information about how your fibres were made or grown, where they came from, who spun them, dyed them and made them into fabric. All you get is a little tag that says which country the item was made in. When you knit a sweater, or crochet a scarf yourself, you can choose what fibre you want and it's up to you how eco friendly or sustainable your yarn is. If sustainability is not something that concerns you, then that's ok, but if it is you get the opportunity to choose something more eco friendly. If you are vegan you can choose to only use plant based or synthetic yarns like cotton, hemp, jute, linen, bamboo and acrylic. It's all up to you! When you slow things down and make something yourself from scratch, seeing the whole process, you become more aware of how fast and cheap the manufacturing process of textiles has become, and how we don't often think about fibre production when buying clothes.

Don't get me wrong though - I myself do not always buy the best quality materials, nor do I only use natural or eco friendly yarns, however it is definitely something I consider when adding to my stash, and I try and buy the best I can afford. 

Natural dyeing is another step to add to your making process that is safer for you and the planet, and also very rewarding. You get to walk around and collect beautiful plants, cook them up or ferment them and save their incredible colours for years to come. My first experiments made me feel a bit like a mad scientist, with all the bubbling pots of plants boiling down, mixing mordants and fibres and conducting experiments whilst making little notes in my book. I had done some fabric dyeing about 8 or 9 years ago in high school, as part of my Textiles elective, however I couldn't remember a whole lot, so I have been doing some reading online about the processes of natural dyeing, and what kinds of plants to use. 

The first dyes that I made used the boiling/immersion method, where the dye is created by cooking the plants in boiling water for some time, and then adding pre-mordanted fabric to the dye vat, and leaving to soak before washing and drying. Mordants are substances that fix the colour to the fibre, and also brighten or change the colours by reacting with the dye. For my first experiments I used vinegar, as I was mostly using flower petals, and vinegar or lemon juice seems to brighten the pinks in some flowers.

Instead of isolating one kind of plant, I got a bit excited and just put grouped all the yellow and orange flowers together, then pinks and reds followed by blues and purples. The yellows worked very well, the reds and blues ended up both making pink. 

I also experimented with adding iron as a post-dye mordant, which is well known as a way to darken colours. I just used one of my iron supplement tablets and it worked a treat! It turned my yellow into brown, my light pinks into dark purple greys which is my favourite result so far, and it also seems to be the most colourfast of my dyes. I also made some dye from mustard leaves that didn't really come out great, the fabric was still almost white, so I wrapped the fabric (while it was still wet) around some rusty metal on my clothes line and left it for a couple of days and I got a great greenish-brown tie-dye look. 

Vinegar method:

Make the mordant with 4 units water: 1 unit vinegar. Bring to the boil, then simmer fabric/yarn in mordant for 1 hour. Other safe and natural pre-dye mordants that produce good results with boiled plant dyes are alum, soda ash, salt or lemon. 

Chop up flowers or plants and put in dye vat (stainless steel pot), for every cup of plants/flowers add 2 cups water. Bring to the boil, then simmer until desired colour develops. 

Add mordanted fabric/yarn (drain but don't rinse mordant off) to the dye vat, simmer for 10-15 mins, then take it off the heat and let the fabric/yarn soak in the dye for a few hours. You can transfer the dye and fabric/yarn to a large jar, but wait for it to cool a bit first so you don't shatter the glass. 

Take out the dyed fibres and squeeze out the dye. You can then rinse until the water runs clear and drip dry, or dry first then rinse, sometimes these methods produce slightly different results. You can also ring it out, let it dry without rinsing, iron the dry fabric to further set the colour, and then rinse. Don't drip dry your fabric or yarn on metal wire clotheslines as the metals can react with the dye. Tin, iron, aluminium and chrome all change dyes dramatically, and can be used as post- or pre-dye mordants. Use a non-metal clothesline for best results. 

I have some jars of fermenting leaves and petals in the shed now as my next dye experiment, and I can't wait to see the result. I've got the plants submerged in about 500ml water with a tablespoon of salt and plan to leave them for at least a week. We'll see what colours develop! I've also just collected a bunch of different eucalyptus leaves and other australian natives to try, I'm so excited!