Natural dyes, anyone?

MaryRowe Posts: 736 ✭✭✭✭

I love working with natural plant dyes and the fibers I spin and weave--animal fibers (sheep, alpaca, cat, dog, whatever), cotton, linen and silk. I was wondering if there are any other dyers who would like to share recipes, experiments and such, or folks who are just interested in plant dyes and would like to discuss them. Do you have favorite dye plants? An easy way to get a true red? Just wondering where to start?


  • Ferg
    Ferg Posts: 285 ✭✭✭
    edited September 2020

    I have a friend who does exactly this in Iceland. She has beautiful naturally dyed wool, using various plants and lichens. I don't think she has a red, though; the things that you think would make red end up more blue/purple or brownish.

    Here is an article written by a yarn seller about Hespa, my friend's business, in English (-:

    and here is her instagram page:

    She has a book as well, I will write to her and ask if it is available for sale outside of Iceland. I do not see it on her etsy page.

  • MaryRowe
    MaryRowe Posts: 736 ✭✭✭✭

    What a cool lady--and what gorgeous colors! That's a great article too--a good place to start for someone who is just wondering what natural dying with plants is all about; she explains the basics well.

    I always envy the dyers in Iceland, the Scottish Highlands, and other northerly places who have access to all those lichens--they can easily get some of those "holy grail" colors, purples especially, that I struggle to get from the plants around here. True, as she says, we have many more different plants to work with, but there's not nearly as much variety in the range of colors you can get from them.

  • silvertipgrizz
    silvertipgrizz Posts: 1,990 ✭✭✭✭✭


    Here is an article on blood root, a plant the Cherokee people use to dye baskets..etc red...

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,218 admin

    I have a chart in one of my herbal books (The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism, by B. Mitchell, edited by Malcolm Stuart, 1987 ed., W. H. Smith (Canada) Ltd.). I post to a couple pictures of the dye chart.

    Sorry that the one picture is sideways.

  • Marjory Wildcraft
    Marjory Wildcraft Posts: 1,541 admin

    I liked using Phytolacca americana also known as Pokeweed. The berries are this rich purple. The kids and I did ty dye on white cotton t-shirts. We just mushed the berries up in water and dunked the shirts - no cooking or anything. We did not use a mordant and the color stayed a long time. It did eventually fade. It was a beautfiul color.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,408 admin

    Have you tried St. John's Wort for red @MaryRowe? I know the infused oil goes a bright red but my fingers are more of a purple colour when picking.

    @silvertipgrizz's suggestion of bloodroot is a good one. But I am not familiar with any others.

  • Wendy
    Wendy Posts: 138 ✭✭✭

    To make natural dyes fade less, you will need a good mordant to start with.

    I've dyed yarn with onion skins for pale orange, avacado skins and pits for pink, and dandelion flowers for yellow.

    St. John's wort makes a yellow-orange dye.

  • Love this topic! Using plant dyes is another item on my To Do know the one...that has 3,462 items and growing? 🤣

  • MaryRowe
    MaryRowe Posts: 736 ✭✭✭✭

    @LaurieLovesLearning --Love dye charts, and hadn't seen this one before. Thanks for posting it! You always have to take dye charts with grains of salt--the compiler is often getting the information from some other source and hasn't actually done the dying him/herself; also, the same plant growing in different places will give different colors. But I always see something new to try on good charts like this one, and that inspires another round of experiments and discoveries, which is the great fun of this craft.

    @silvertipgrizz --good bloodroot article, thanks! Bloodroot is one of my very favorite dye plants, but I don't often have enough of it to do much with. You can get a glorious range of colors from it, but I have never gotten a good red from the bloodroot around here. I once got seven different colors out of one batch--golden yellow, a deep pink , a couple very different oranges and greens, and a deep brown, and I wove the yarn into a sash. Now some 20 years later, the pink has faded a bit, but the other colors are still true--love that bloodroot!

    @Marjory Wildcraft --poke berries are fantastic too--gorgeous colors and so abundant around here that it's one of the dye plants I use the most. You must have extra good pokeweed, for the color to last without heating or a mordant! By using lots of vinegar to set the color and not washing the fabric too often--and then only in gentle home-made laundry soap (commercial detergents can ruin natural dyes)--I've been able to keep the color true for about 5 years on wool, but that's the best I've done. From rummaging around in 19th-century diaries I get the idea that some old Missouri farm wives just dyed their favorite dress or shawl over again in pokeberries each fall to keep the color true.

    @torey @Wendy --yup, like Wendy I can get a deep yellow-orange from St. Johns wort. The dye charts say you can get red from it--just like they say you can get red and purple from dandelion roots, though I don't know of anyone who has actually been able to do that. I did get a screaming pink and then a pretty fair red from safflower once, but it was just a heck of a lot of work.

    @monica197 --madder is my go-to for red. Trouble is, I have to buy it--haven't been able to get it to grow here--and it takes a LOT of root to get a good, deep, permanent red. I have a shawl woven of angora rabbit wool that I got to my dream red with madder and alum about seven years ago now. The color is still true, but I had to use a ratio of almost double the weight of madder to fiber to get the color I wanted. And while dying animal fiber with madder is fairly easy, it takes a complicated process to get a good red on cotton or linen,

    Probably should have made clear in my original post that this question can be kind of a joke among dyers. True red and blue are the hardest colors to get from natural dyes. Indigo will give you a reliable blue, and woad a fairly reliable one, but it's a complicated process. Red is just a problem. Madder is generally your best bet, but I, and probably most dyers, are always on the lookout hoping to find something better.