Basic Plant Dyeing Process for Wild Dye Plants

I dye yarn using wild, local New York dye plants and I am lucky enough to live in an area where dye plants are plentiful.  Wherever you live there are bound to be many different local dye plants you can harvest and use to dye yarn, even if you live in the desert!  There are many different techniques you can use to dye with plants, but these are my personal instructions for dyeing protein fibers (i.e. wool & silk) with almost any wild dye plant.  (Dyeing with indigo or woad is completely different.)  Dyeing on cotton and other cellulose fibers is a little more complicated unless you are using black walnut hulls or acorns.  If using walnut or acorn on cotton, omit the alum but follow these same steps (the tannins in walnut & acorn is sufficient to fix the color onto the cotton).

A few local New York dye plants that yield good color with this process are:

  • Goldenrod flowers (bright yellow)
  • Buckthorn berries (sap green)
  • Black walnut hulls (deep browns to light tans)
  • Acorns (brown) (black if post-mordanted with iron: see last section)

There are many, many resources on the internet which can tell you about dye plants local to your region.  Some are found all over the US and others are region-specific so part of the fun is learning about your local wild dye sources!  If you don’t want to or can’t collect local plants, you can grow your own dye garden or purchase natural dyes online (Dharma Trading has a good selection).  If you buy natural dye extracts or powders then follow the manufacturer’s instructions.  If you want to grow a dye garden, A Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan is an excellent resource.

***Please be mindful when gathering wild dye plants.  Make sure to leave plenty of flowers for pollinators, nuts for squirrels and berries for birds.  Be careful to not pull up the roots of a plant from which you only need the flowers, berries or leaves.  A general rule of thumb is to gather no more than 10-15% of the dye source available in one spot- this ensures wild animals and insects have access to food sources and that plants can re-seed themselves and not be wiped out by overzealous gatherers.  Also, follow your local state and federal regulations- don’t harvest species that are protected and don’t harvest on state or federal land that prohibits it. Always ask permission to harvest on someone else’s land.***

Almost any plant will yield color, so have fun experimenting with different local plants that you think might work.  Most plants will dye shades of beige & brown and many will yield yellows (mullein leaves, marigold flowers and alder leaves in the fall, for instance).  Any yellow or orange flowers will usually yield yellow or orange.

Whatever plant you choose to dye with, gather a roughly 1:1 ratio of dye plant to fiber (i.e. if you have 1 lb. of yarn, gather 1 lb. of dye plant).  More dyestuff will make a darker/richer color while less will make a lighter color.  Do a little research on each plant you are using as some will need more or less dye plant to fiber.  I think that the 1:1 ratio is a good starting point for virtually any plant.

I recommend keeping notes of what plant you are using, where and when you gathered it, what ratio of plant to fiber you are using, how long you simmered and soaked, etc.  I like to cut a yard or so from each skein I dye and tape it to the page of notes I took so I have a record of the color from that session.  It is virtually impossible to exactly replicate colors from one dye bath to another but keeping detailed notes is very useful if you make a habit of dyeing with plants.  

Materials needed:

  • Dye plant of your choice
  • Yarn of your choice – wool, silk, alpaca, angora or any other protein fiber will work.
  • Large pot
  • Alum (can be found in the spice section at the grocery store, or buy it online for cheaper. Dharma Trading is where I get mine.)
  • Measuring spoons & cups
  • Water
  • Spoon for stirring
  • Thick rubber gloves
  • Wool or silk yarn of your choice, wound into a hank.
  • Plastic tub or large bowl
  • Colander & cheesecloth
  • Mild, plain dish soap (no enzymes) or wool wash
  • Notebook

NOTE: Do not use pots or utensils that will be used for cooking for your dyeing.  While naturally dyeing is eco-friendly and less toxic than chemical dyes, some plants can be toxic to humans and too much alum can cause health problems.  Always dye with a window open or the hood fan of your stove going to ventilate the area.  The pigments can also stain your utensils, even your stainless steel pots!  I got all the basic tools I needed at the dollar store/thrift store for about $20.  

1: Prepare Your Yarn

If your fiber is not already wound into a hank, wind it into one.  If you have a niddy-noddy, great.  If not, put two chairs back to back & wind the yarn in a circle around the backs.  Secure in 3 or 4 places with pieces of scrap yarn twisted in figure 8’s through the yarn.

Your fiber should be pre-washed. Fill a small bucket or basin with cold water & a small squirt of dish soap or wool wash if you have it.  Let yarn soak for at least an hour, then rinse and either hang to dry or proceed to dyeing.  If it is especially oily or dirty, wash it twice before dyeing.

At least ½ hour before fiber will be dyed let it soak in water.  This ensures the dye will saturate evenly.  If you pre-washed right before dyeing you can skip this step.

2: Extract the Color

Put your dye plant in the pot and fill it ¾ of the way with water.  Bring to a boil, let simmer for an hour, let cool overnight, then use your colander and cheesecloth to strain the dyestuff out of the dye bath.  This will prevent small bits of vegetable matter sticking in your yarn.  

Add alum.  The amount you use depends on the weight of your fiber.  You should use about 15% weight of fiber.  If your fiber weighs 1 pound, use 2.4 ounces alum.  Stir to dissolve (undissolved alum will leave your fiber spotty).

Alum is a mordant, which means it helps the color bind to the fibers more permanently.  There are other mordants that can be used but most are made with metals which are harmful to the body, environment and waterways such as chrome, copper and tin.  Iron is another mordant which is generally safe.  Each different mordant changes the color of the fiber.  Alum makes colors brighter and more clear while iron darkens or “saddens” the color.  See below for mordanting with iron.

3: Add Your Fiber

Add your wet fiber slowly to the pot and gently stir it around to ensure there are no air bubbles.  

Turn heat down to the lowest setting and barely simmer for about an hour.  Turn off heat and let the fiber cool in the pot overnight to ensure maximum color absorption.  (If you want a lighter shade, you can take it out now or just leave it in for an hour or two.

4: The Big Reveal!

Take your fiber out of the dye pot and give it a good rinse in cool water in a basin or bucket. You will have to repeat the rinsing process until the water runs clear- it takes a while.

Once your fiber is sufficiently rinsed, squeeze as much water as you can out of it without wringing it.  You can hang it up to drip dry at this point but that will take a while.  I like to throw mine in the washer on a quick spin cycle to remove excess water.  If you use the washer’s spin cycle, make sure to tie the skein in at least 4 places to help avoid tangles.  You can also use a salad spinner to spin out water or roll the yarn up in a towel and squeeze it to get the water out.  Hang to dry in a shady place.

Caring for your naturally dyed fibers

Most fibers dyed this way have good light-fastness and will not fade significantly in the sun during normal use but don’t let them sit in direct sunlight for an extended period of time.  Some are more lightfast than others- if you’re curious, do a lightfastness test by sticking a small amount of yarn to the brightest window in your house for a week to see how much it fades in the sun.

Use a pH neutral soap or wool wash and cool water to wash your finished projects.  Roll in a towel to remove excess water and lay flat to dry in a shady place.  Some dye will probably bleed in your first wash or two.  This is completely normal and very common for plant dyed yarns.  Less and less will bleed in subsequent washings.  Unlike acid dyes which are made up of just the specific dye pigments, natural dyes have tons of “stuff” in them other than pure pigment.  This extra “stuff” doesn’t completely stick to the fibers and will wash out.

Ideas for further experimentation

One of my favorite things about dyeing with plants is the experimentation that is possible and the different results you can get by changing part of the process.  Here are a few ideas you can play around with:

  • Longer or shorter dye baths, dye plants from different locations/climates/seasons and using different fibers will all yield different results.  Superwash yarn will generally take up much more color, as will silk with some dyes.
  • You can re-use the same dye bath a few times to get progressively lighter colors (just make sure you add a little more alum each time you re-use it).
  • Over-dyeing one color with another will create a whole new palette (i.e. indigo over goldenrod will make an amazing green).  
  • Mordant with iron. Iron will usually darken the color.  With yellows it usually shifts the color to olive greens.  With browns, it usually shifts towards black.  Soak rusty nails, steel wool or any random rusty objects in vinegar for a few weeks in a warm place until the vinegar is rust colored.  If you mix a cup of this rusty vinegar in a pot of water you can dip your already dyed, wet fibers into it & let it soak for a few minutes to change the color.   (This is called post-mordanting.)  Acorns make an especially good black dye with iron.  You can go here for a great tutorial to dye cotton fabrics black with acorns and iron.  Be aware that iron mordants will roughen wool and silk, so it may not be the best idea to use an iron mordant on a super soft, luxurious yarn.  If you are unsure, start with less iron solution or a shorter iron bath soak to avoid making the fiber feel too rough.  You can always add more later.
  • Make an ombre skein by dipping part of the skein in the dye bath, then slowly lowering more and more of the skein into the bath (10 minute increments usually works fine).  The part that spends the most time in the dye bath with be darkest, resulting in a lovely tonal ombre skein.
  • There is, obviously, tons and tons of information on natural dyeing online- the rabbit hole is there if you want to go down it.

There are also many, many books on natural dyeing.  I recommend Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess and The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar.  If you want to get REALLY specific and historically accurate The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing by J. N. Liles is an amazingly informative resource for many of the most common natural dyes that have been used throughout history.

Happy dyeing!

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