Vegetable or plant dyeing is an art which belongs to the botanist and gardener as well as the spinner, weaver, and leather craftsman. A knowledge of field botany can help the dyer identify many useful dyeplants which grow in the countryside. Many dyeplants which are not native to the United States can be successfully cultivated in the garden.

Transferring the colors of the plants to fabrics of his clothing and home gives the dyer a personal relationship with his environment. Imparting color to fibers and hides was practiced long before the oldest written records. After fashioning clothing, rugs, and other woven fabrics, man’s next step was to add color. His first and most obvious source for dyes were plants and earthly deposits that stained his skin and clothes. The earliest dyes were made solely from the juices of raw plants, with a few animal kingdom exceptions such as shellfish and insects. Clay, blood and urine also played an important role in the tanning of leather and dyeing of wool.

At first, color fastness was determined only by the inherent quality of the plant juices to produce a dye which could retain its color. Some plant dyes are fairly color fast, but many others produce brilliant, beautiful, yet non-fast hues. With the discovery of mordants, about 1000 years after the discovery of plant dyes, dyes could be made resistant to fading caused by exposure to sunlight and water.

Excavations at Pompeii and elsewhere reveal amazingly complete dye workshops, while the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans describe the highly developed and complicated methods of dyeing with native as well as imported dyestuffs. Even with their primitive utensils, early dyers obtained colors that we can hardly improve upon.

The most ancient dyes are still used today to impart soft, subtle vibrant colors. The use of the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria), still considered the best source of blue, dates back before 3000 B.C. Several species of Indigofera are distributed throughout the tropics. Ancient cultures of China, the East Indies, Mexico and South America made use of native forms of indigo to produce the most beautiful shades of blue obtainable from plant dyes. Madder (Rubia tinctorium), a native of Southern Europe, and the Mediterranean region, is another dye of ancient usage. It remains the best and most permanent plant source of true red. Saffron (Crocus sativus) was imported to Europe from the East many centuries ago. It played an important role in the medieval dye trade, and was cultivated extensively in Essex, England, for its lovely golden color. Wild forms of saffron grow in Italy, Greece, and Persia, while the cultivated forms come from China, Burma, and Persia. In the Far East, the golden color of saffron was considered the perfection of beauty. Greek gods and goddesses were said to have worn robes of saffron yellow. Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), also called American or dyer’s saffron, replaced Crocus sativus as a yellow dye due to the high price of true saffron. Fortunately, the color can be obtained from many plants; in fact, yellow is the most common of plant-derived colors.

The pomegranate played an important role in Greek mythology as well as the dye trade of the Mediterranean and Southern European countries. Leather tanners of Morocco and Turkey can still be seen dyeing leather with a mixture of pomegranate skins and dung. In Cordova, a city long famed for its beautiful red leather, pomegranate was used in the leather tanning process. The hard skins of the pomegranate fruit are dried in the sun and used to dye fabrics, as well as leather.

As for mythology, the story goes that Persephone, daughter of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, was kidnapped by Hades, the cold god of the Underworld. Unhappy with the thought of living in the dark and gloomy kingdom of the dead, and distraught at the prospect of being the icy king’s bride, Persephone refused all food offered to her in the Underworld. Eventually, hunger overtook her and she ate some pomegranate seeds. Demeter appealed to Zeus, who forced Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Unwilling to let go of his new bride, Hades struck a hard bargain. For each seed that the young goddess had eaten, she had to stay a month in the Underworld. So, for six months every year, Persephone lives with Hades in the Underworld, and during those six months, Demeter mourns the absence of her daughter. In this way, Greek mythology explains winter.

Ancient dyes that are native to the United States include: oak leaves, ivy, walnut hulls, barberry, pine, alder, and poke. The ancient Greeks dyed leather with the bark of the date plum tree, a close relative of our well known persimmon.

The practice of plant dyeing flourished as an industry from its beginning up until the discovery of aniline dyes in the mid-1800s. With the discovery of dye substances that were color fast and standardized, plant dyeing as an industry gave way to mass production and large factories. Individual craftsmen who were dedicated to quality work continued to use natural plant dyes. The use of flowers, fruits, roots, leaves, and bark as dyestuffs gave man then, as it does today, an appreciation of the pigments in his landscape. A field of asters becomes a gold mine of dye. Those pokeberries aren’t edible, but they dye a lovely rusty red.

Plant dyeing usually requires two processes: mordanting and dyeing. The word mordant comes from the Latin word mordre, which means to bite. Mordanting ensures that the dye will take. The most frequently used mordants today are the metallic salts of alum, chrome, iron, and tin. Other mordants include ammonia (present in urine), blue vitriol or copper sulfate, acidic acid (found in vinegar), tannic acid (found in vinegar), and tartaric acid.

Some mordants can be found at pharmacies and grocery stores, while others can be purchased from chemical supply houses, where they are generally sold in bulk. The chemistry departments of colleges and universities are also a good source.

Mordanting is usually the first step in plant dyeing. When it is done first it is called pre-mordanting. One can also mordant during or after dyeing for different effects. Some plant dyes require no mordant, but most are benefitted by some sort of mordanting. It enriches the color and ensures fastness.

Before you begin dyeing, there are certain utensils which you will need to have on hand. If your water is hard it will affect the color of the dyed fabric. Rain water is best because it is naturally soft. If, like most dyers, you use well or city water you can have it tested for hardness. To soften hard water, you can either use a packaged water softener, or make your own using one teaspoon of borax per gallon of water.

The dyepot should be made of copper, enamelware, or stainless steel. Copper is used by professional dyers for special effects. Enamelware and stainless steel are used most commonly since they do not affect the chemical make-up of the dyebath. I use a five gallon enamel canner. Other utensils needed include: a postal-type scale for weighing mordants, a candy thermometer to check the temperature of the dye bath, at least two pyrex measuring cups and some plastic measuring spoons. Several wood or glass rods are needed for stirring.

Consult a good dye recipe book such as Alma Lesche’s Vegetable Dyeing for mordanting and dyeing. Another excellent book is Dye Plants and Dyeing, published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing by Rita Adrosko contains many recipes as well as the history of plant dyeing. The Dye Pot is a small but informative book written and published by a native dyer of Tennessee. Mary Frances Davidson has written a recipe book which includes many recipes using native dye plants.

The general procedure for dyeing wool is as follows:

  1. Collect plant parts and prepare for the dyebath. About 4 gallons of dyebath is required to cover 1 pound of wool. Most recipes are based on 1 pound of wool. The amount of dyestuff used depends on the shade desired. Generally, 3 to 4 gallons of chopped plant parts are used. They are usually soaked and boiled to make the dyebath. Enough water is added to bring the dyebath up to 4 gallons after it has been strained.
  2. Add wet, pre-mordanted wool to the dyebath. The temperature of the dyebath should be very warm. Bring the dyebath gradually to a boil, then down to a gentle simmer. The length of time the wool is allowed to simmer determines the shade of the color produced. Glauber’s salts added to the dyebath exhaust the color of the dyebath so that the wool absorbs all the color in the dye.

    Let the wool sit in the dyebath until it has cooled; the wool will absorb more color and the danger of shrinkage is reduced.
  3. Rinse the wool in warm water several times until the water squeezed from it runs clear. A little vinegar added to the last rinse makes the wool soft and the color more vibrant.

No true source of blue can be obtained from any native North American plants, so indigo is used. Though not a native, indigo can be grown here in gardens. There are several different methods of dyeing with indigo. Each involves fermenting the indigo with an agent which dissolves it. Urine can be used, and is perhaps the safest method, as it requires no caustic acids. The procedure is a simple one. A pint of human urine is left in a covered glass jar to ferment. The fermentation takes about a week when left at room temperature. After a week, about 8 tablespoons of indigo powder are stirred into the by now foul-smelling urine. The jar is then closed again and allowed to sit in the sun for another week or so. It is shaken daily. The liquid produced from this procedure is indigo extract, and it is diluted to form the dyebath.

A more common method of indigo dyeing is the indigo vat method. To 1 gallon of warm water, add 4 tablespoons powdered sodium carbonate and 2 teaspoons powdered indigo. Be sure to use glass or enamel stirring rods, as the dyestuff will react with any metal. Use an enamel pot. While stirring constantly, slowly add 4 tablespoons sodium hydrosulfite. Allow the solution to stand in a warm place for half an hour. If, after about 5 minutes, the mixture does not turn a greeny-yellow, add a bit more hydrosulfite. Be careful not to add too much, or it will cause the dye not to take. About 2 quarts of this solution can be added to 3 ½ gallons of water to make the dyebath. Bottle the other half for later use. Enter the wet wool into the dyebath after you have begun heating the liquid. Heat the dyebath to 150 degrees and hold it there. Keep the wool under water at all times and stir constantly. After about 30 minutes, remove wool from the dyebath for at least 15 minutes. Once it is exposed to the air, the indigo will oxidize and turn the wool blue. Re-dip if a darker shade is desired. If the dyebath turns blue, add more dye solution. Repeat the dipping and airing process until the desired shade of blue is obtained. Rinse once in mild soapy water, and several times after that until the rinse water runs clear.

Poke — Red

The ripened berries should be picked at the end of the summer when they have turned a deep red. Native to North America, poke has been used for centuries. Although the berries do not produce a very fast dye, the color retains its charm and character even when faded.

Wool can be pre-mordanted with either alum or vinegar. To pre-mordant with vinegar, add ½ gallon of vinegar to 3 ½ gallons of water. Add wet wool and simmer for 20 minutes.

To make the dyebath, chop and crush 4 gallons of pokeberries on their red stems and add to the canner. Pour enough water to cover them. Boil this mixture for about an hour. Cool and strain. The resulting liquid is the dyebath. Add enough water to make 4 gallons. Add wet wool and simmer for 30 minutes or as long as you wish. Rinse with water to which vinegar has been added.

Marigolds — Yellow

Almost any gardener grows marigolds. They produce beautiful, sunny shades of yellow. Gather the flower heads when in full bloom. They can be used fresh or dried. Use three to four gallons of flowers, depending on how deep a yellow you want. Cook the flower heads in 4 gallons of water for 15 minutes. Strain and use as the dyebath. Pre-mordant the wool with alum. Simmer wool until the desired shade is produced. Rinse until the water is clear.

Black Walnuts — Brown

Gather black walnuts while they are still green. Cover about 4 gallons of the hulls with water, cover and let sit for at least 24 hours. The longer it sits, the darker it will become. When you are ready to dye, boil the hulls for about 2 hours, or longer, depending on how dark a brown you want. Cool, strain, and add water to make 4 gallons. Add 1 tablespoon to the dyebath to prevent oxidation. Add wet wool, pre-mordanted with alum for a yellowy brown, chrome for a darker shade. Simmer for about 30 minutes or until the desired color is produced. Rinse until the water runs clear and hang in the shade. Sunlight will slightly affect the shade of brown, usually darkening it.

Marigolds and Indigo — Green

Green is a hard color to obtain. By mordanting with blue vitriol, barberry as well as sunflower seeds will give different shades of green. By dyeing wool first with marigolds, and then with the indigo-vat solution, you can obtain satisfactory shades of green. The wool should be pre-mordanted with alum. This method of dyeing is called top-dyeing, indigo being the top dye.