Nature's subtle palette

by Rosemarie Smith
All Things Natural

Blackberries make good dyes as well as pies, I will show how experiments with plant materials can be great fun and produce rich subtle shades.

naturally dyed wools
naturally dyed wools

History of natural dyes

The ancient Britons who greeted the first Romans to land on these shores before the birth of Christ had painted themselves bright blue by extracting the dye from a plant called woad. Greek and Roman ladies used plant-based dyes to make rouge and hair colouring, and the Chinese had dye workshops as early as 3000BC. Dyeing with natural materials is a very old craft. Through trial and experimentation, ranges of beautiful colours were produced by every ancient civilisation, from the subtle colours of Persian carpets to the rich robes of kings and emperors.

The trade in exotic dye stuffs took off at the same time as the trade in spices during the age of exploration, when routes to the East and West Indies enabled dyes to be brought in, derived from tropical plants and trees. Those who have a long tradition of spinning and weaving, such as the islanders of the Hebrides, also have long experience of using natural dyestuffs to dye their yarn and cloth, producing the fine, subtle and muted shades so well known in Scottish tweeds.

Countries such as India, South America, China, Indonesia still do use natural dyes, but chemical dyes introduced about 150 years ago enable fabrics to be dyed more cheaply and faster, so the craft is in danger of dying out.

For the home dyer the range of natural shades obtainable from just a few common plants is a surprisingly easy and very satisfying introduction to the craft.

Principles of natural dyeing

  1. Most natural dyes need both a plant extract and a mineral mordant to make a permanent colour. A mordant helps the dye to take. Ancient dyers used urine, wood ash or oak galls but the easiest method today is to use chemicals, which can be bought cheaply, such as alum, chrome, copper and iron. Some you will have in the house already, such as vinegar, salt, soda, and cream of tartar. Remember that any chemical needs care with using and disposing of, but be assured these are safe to use.
  2. The stronger the dye extract, the more plant used, the deeper the colour.
  3. Mineral [metal salts] are always used in the same proportion, one can use less for a paler colour but never more as too much metal can harm the fibre.
  4. All recipes are given in proportions, typically for one pound [450gms] of fibre. If you are dyeing more, increase the amounts proportionally; if less, decrease.
  5. Time, temperature, concentration are the variables in any chemical reaction. Higher temperature means less time needed for dyeing, as does higher concentration of dyestuffs.
  6. Preparation of your textile material for the rigours of the dye bath: put fibre in a mesh bag, tie the yarn in skeins, using thin ties, pre-wash fabrics to remove any sizing.
  7. No rush. Work time is not that much, but the process time can be several days.

Plants to try, remembering the mordant will decide the colour

  • Agrimony leaves and stalks for yellow
  • Sloes rose pink to deep pink
  • Oak bark yellows and browns
  • Heather tips yellows greens
  • Nettle tops yellow/ greeny greys
  • Silver birch bark purplish grey
  • Bracken tips yellowy greens
  • Privet leaves yellow to dark green
  • Meadow sweet yellowy greens
  • Privet berries greeny greys
  • Ragwort flowers greens to golds
  • Elderberries violet
  • Dahlias yellow, orange, red
  • Madder root pink to red
  • Onion skins orange, yellow, brown
  • Marigolds yellow to orange
  • Blackberries pinky mauve to blue
  • Blackcurrants mauve, blue, purple, brown
  • Cochineal reds, pinks
  • Larch needles tan, browns
  • Woad blues

Equipment and Materials

Use big pots and plenty of room for the material to move freely, otherwise the colour will dye unevenly.

Preparing your material and dye

Mordanting your fibre material

Weigh your textile material, e.g. one pound. All recipes are proportional as in cooking.
Alum: divide the weight of the material by four. Weigh out that much alum mordant. Add alum to the pot and almost fill with warm water. Stir until dissolved.
Other mordants: tin, copper, chrome, iron: 1/2 oz per pound.
Wet out textile in warm water, add the wet textile, and gently stir so that it is opened up in the solution.
Heat up until the pot is hot, stirring occasionally for evenness of colour.
Keep it hot for about an hour [180-200 degrees F]
Let it cool overnight.

Meanwhile extract the dye

In plenty of water [enough to loosely cover by several inches], boil up your chosen dyestuff, eg onion skins.
Flowers: boil 20 minutes, strain of water for the dye bath.
Barks, roots, dyewoods: soak overnight, boil 1/2 hour, pour off and save the extract, add more water and boil again. Do this boiling and saving three times to make the dye bath, or as long as dye continues to extract.
Cochineal: if ground, boil 20 minutes, if whole proceed as for barks.

Dyeing the fibres

Add enough additional water to the dye solution so that the textile fibres can move freely in the dye bath.
Add the fibres and heat to hot. Heat for 1 hour or until the colour is the desired depth. Remember, the colour will lighten after it is rinsed and dried.
If the colour is too light add more dyestuff [but do not use more mordant].
Now is the time to modify the colour, if desired, with the additional mordant of iron, which will sadden colours.
Cool the fibres and rinse, handling the fibres gently in several changes of water.
Hang to dry.

These are just a few tips, why not have a go? Every time you dye the results will astound you, rarely the same results but always exciting. Try as many different plant materials as you can, using different mordants. The range of shades is enormous and can only be understood by actually doing it, and experimenting by also over-dyeing one colour onto another. Keep a note of what you do.

Notes

Mordants are available from FibreCrafts & CraftyNotions.com
Books - there are lots available, I recommend Jenny Dean's: The Craft of Natural Dyeing, and Wild Color: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes.

Gallery

naturally dyed wools
Rosemarie wearing naturally dyed jacket, spinning fleece for another

textile by Rosemarie Smith
Book covers, naturally dyed fabrics and threads

textile by Rosemarie Smith
Mine Stack embroidery done with naturally dyed fabrics and threads

naturally dyed garments
naturally dyed garments
Some handspun and naturally dyed garments

Workshops and courses

Rosemarie Smith offers a range of day workshops to Embroidery Groups, W.I, schools, etc in the South West. Find out more about these and her longer courses leading to City & Guilds qualifications, which are available through KERSBROOK TRAINING open and distance learning.