Dying fabric with local plants

Did you know?

  • The cochineal beatle from Mexico gives bright red colour, which used to be used in make up
  • Murex shells give purple dye
  • You can even use camomile tea bags to dye fabric or wool bright yellow
  • Urine can be used to alkalie dye!
  • Elderberries give lavender grey dye, when dried and crushed

It is possible to create a rainbow from natural dyes from plants easy to grow in the UK and brew in your back garden (or in my case, tiny London balcony).  Dyeing is a really exciting process, and no matter how experienced you are, you never know exactly how it’ll turn out. Colours change as they emerge from the dye bath, again with overdying and again when drying etc. By the end of a weekend with Penny Walsh, dyer extraordinaire, we had a washing line of colour stretching across the studio and into the courtyard.

Dyeing Tips:

  • Colour bags (flowers or roots tied in muslin) stop bits but do tend to give uneven tone 
  • Always wet fabric before putting in the dye bath
  • Stronger 'dye soup' gives darker tone, weaker gives lighter
  • Soak for up to three days for best colour
  • Silk is quickest to dye, cotton next and wool takes longest
  • Natural dyes wont work on synthetic fabrics, but my ripped cotton Primark sundress worked a treat

The method of dying is quite simple:
  1. Soak fabric or wool in mordant
  2. Soak fabric or wool in dye
  3. Overdying
Mordanting is a pre dying process which enables molecules of dye to latch to the fibre. The type of mordant chosen will slightly change the tone of the colour of the dye. Many mordants can be made using household substances:
  • Soak iron nails in vinegar until they rust
  • Nettle gives a dull brownish tinge
  • Rhubarb gives slightly pinky tone
  • Copper pennies create pale green
  • Ash scraped from a bbq and soaked in water
  • Tea bags
  • Aluminium tin foil
  • If you want a colourless mordant, alum crystal can be bought online 

Madder gives red tones
  • Plant from the coffee family
  • Roots contain alizarin in orange red crystals which can be dried and crushed
  • Grind roots and soak overnight
  • Warm for an hour then sieve before dying 
  • Add vinegar for orange tones
  • Add sodium for crimson tones

Indigo gives blue
  • 40 species of plant contain indigo
  • Plant is left to ferment and then dry into a block in the sun 
  • Doesn't need a mordant
  • Add amonia which is alkalie, and sprinkle with surphur to remove oxygen
  • Scim the scum off the surface before introducing fabric
  • Should be left to oxygenate between dips (four times in total) - comes out of the bath green and turns blue
  • Avoid drips into the dye bath as this reintroduces oxygen to the solution
Woad gives turquoise
  • UK plant containing indigo 
  • Fresher the better, pick and chop the leaves and stalk, soak in water for 30 mins
  • Sieve then add a splash of ammonia
  • Pour between buckets until the foam turns from green to blue
  • Heat to 50 degrees in dye pans and aerate between dips
Other Dyes:
Weld - lemon yellow
  • 'Dyers greenwood' 
  • Grows easily in concrete and carparks
  • Overdyed with indigo gives green 
Safflower - peachy pink
  • Originates in Egypt
  • Rise out yellow colour of flowers first
  • Peachy pink leached out by acid and alkalie baths 
  • Used in rouge and cosmetics
Logwood - grey and purples
    Originates from Carribean
Persian berries / Buckthorn - gold / sap green
  • When berries are ripe give golden dye
  • When unripe give sap green - used in ink
Marigold - yellow
  • Gives colour of flowers (which is rare)
  • Use fresh heads soaked in cold water 
Saffron - Bright yellow
  • Originates in Marakesh and spain
  • One stamen per crocus - hence expensive
Sappan - magenta
  • Endangered tree in Brazil, but ok in Turkey
Over dying
Dyes cannot be mixed so to achieve tertiary colours (orange, green, purple), you must over dye
- Over dyed with Iron gives olive green
- Over dye with urine gives brilliant yellows
- Over dyed with copper gives mazareen blue 
- Over dyed with sodium gives pink 
- Over dyed with lime gives geranium red 
- Over dyed with citric acid or vinegar gives brick red 
You can also have alot of fun with tie dying:  
- Knotting fabric
- Tying round a pole
- Gathering with rubber bands 
- Running stitch and gathering the fabric
- Dip dyeing half the fabric in one colour and the other end in another