No one really knows how or when people first learned that colors could be taken from natural materials to be transferred onto stone, wood, clay, skin, or cloth. Many early discoveries were probably accidental: a section of cloth stained brown by someone sitting on iron-rich soil; a cook’s hands absorbed color from food during preparation. From dated artifacts and early manuscripts we know that long before the Christian era many civilizations in various parts of the world were using dyes and pigments for many purposes.
The Middle Ages and early years of the Renaissance saw the dye industry spread from the eastern Mediterranean toward the west and northward into Europe. It is said that there were some 200 dye enterprises in Jerusalem during the 12th century. In 1160 A.D, Jewish dyers gained influence westward and took control of most of the Italian dye industry. Florence, Italy in the 14th century was famous for their dye works. As the Renaissance progressed and Europe began importing indigo and other dyes, controversy arose concerning the handling and control of foreign dyestuffs.
Once the explorers finally reached the American shores, the exchange of goods and the dye possibilities were even greater. The colonization of America led to a new era in European dyeing. New materials, such as cochineal insects, brazilwood and annatto became regular trade goods. European dyers had previously developed a color system that was dependent primarily on woad or indigo blue, madder or kermes red, and weld or various locally available yellows.
Up to the middle of the 19th century, only natural dyes were available. In 1856, W. H. Perkins accidentally discovered aniline dye, and synthetic dyes slowly began replacing natural dyes. From Perkin’s discovery of mauviene in 1856 to the turn of the century, hardly a year passed without the issue of a new patent for a synthetic dye.
However, today, many enthusiasts of herbs and native plants have kept the use of natural dyes alive. Many historical villages such as Williamsburg, Plymouth Colony, the George Ranch, and the Ozark Folk Center, keep the old ways of dyeing alive with their historical presentations. Many individual enthusiasts and keepers of the old ways remain today. Dyeing with herbs and native plants lends itself to many areas of study. One could spend a lifetime studying techniques of the American Indian tribes, the Colonists, the peoples of Appalachia, the Ozark Mountain Folk, as well as our own grandmothers’ recipes. We come from a diverse cultural backgrounds and bring with our heritages the history of dyeing from Europe, China, India, South America and Mexico. There are literally hundreds of plants to study in their various forms and growth times. Your study could also focus on either plant fibers or animal fibers. Back to Top
Natural dyes can be categorized as either substantive or adjective. Substantive dyes (also known as direct) dyes such as indigo, lichens or walnut hulls affix to the fiber without the aid of another chemical or additive. Adjective (also known as mordant dyes) require a fixative, generally a metal salt, to prevent the color from washing or bleaching out. Most adjective dyes are also considered reactive because they form a chemical bond with the fiber and do not easily wear off.
Different fibers absorb color differently. Protein fibers like wool and silk readily take dyes. Bast fibers like linen, hemp, and cotton are more resistant to taking dyes. Proper mordanting, however, assure that the dye will hold fast.The basics of any chemical reaction hold true for dyeing. Time, temperature and concentration all affect your results. Longer time, higher temperatures and greater concentrations will generally result in more intense colors. Back to Top
Ready to Dye?
· Large non-reactive kettle (stainless or enamel)
· Scales (for weighing ounces and pounds)
· Measuring spoons
· Rubber gloves
· Glass jars with lids
· Plastic pails (like laundry detergent comes in)
· Thermometer (candy or scientific variety)
· Wooden dowels or glass rods for stirring
· Hangers or clothesline for drying
· Strainer or Colander (non-reactive)
· Tea bags, cheese cloth, muslin bags, old nylon hosiery
· Heat source (stove or hot plate)
· Tags (old milk jugs make good ones)
· Permanent marker
· Natural (undyed & unbleached) wool yarn
· Unbleached 100% cotton muslin
· 100% cotton embroidery floss or yarn
· Silk fabric or yarn
· Alum (potassium aluminum sulfate)
· Tin (stannous chloride)
Afterbaths & Additives
· Baking soda
· Cream of Tartar (tartaric acid)
· Tannin (tannic acid)
· Vinegar (acetic acid)
· Washing soda (boraxo)
· Sodium hydrosulfite (Rit color remover or spectralite)
From a mail order source
Alkanet root, annatto seed, brazilwood sawdust, cochineal, indigo, logwood sawdust, madder root, weld and Osage orange (Bois d’arc) sawdust
From the backyard garden, nearby field, or grocery store
· Red cabbage leaves, carrot tops, cranberries, curry power, fresh dandelion flowers, fennel leaves and flowers, fresh goldenrod flowers, hop flowers, mugwort leaves, red, yellow and white onion skins, rosemary needles, sorrel leaves, tansy leaves and flowers, turmeric powder, and yarrow leaves and flowers. Many berries and vegetable matter like cabbage and beets are considered stains more than dyes because the bright colors quickly fade to yellow or brown shades.
· Plant leaves are best gathered in the pre-bloom or blooming stage. Flowers are best picked as they are coming into bloom. Berries are best harvested when fully ripened and roots should be dug in late summer or in autumn when the plant is past its peak flowering period. Bark gives its best colors picked in the spring, although bark from trees cut in autumn will also give you good color.
· Anne Bliss, author of North American Dye Plants, gives this advise for determining what colors you can expect from plants: “Yellow-flowering plants most often produce yellow-cast dye, as do most white bloomed species. However, some white-flowering plants yield tans. Plants with purple blossoms usually give tans, golds and greens. Red berries generally produce yellow or golds.” Back to Top
A. Bundle skeins and divide cloth
B. Wash the fibers
C. Mordant the fibers
D. Prepare the fresh and dried materials
E. Prepare the sawdust and seeds.
C. Mordant the fibers
Mordants Briefly Described
Aluminum - Commonly called alum. Alum is a white powder that is safe to had and easy to use. Alum produces bright shades and gives relatively good light-fastness. If used in excess, alum will make wool feel sticky, so it is recommended that you measure accurately. If you use an aluminum pan it will contribute to the brightness of the color, but will not guarantee the colors fastness.
Iron - Ferrous sulfate is a greenish powder that dissolves to make a rusty-colored liquid. You can also simmer dyes in a cast-iron pot or use rusty nails or iron shavings. Iron produces dark, dull colors that are fast. Iron used in excess on wool will weaken the fibers and causes yarns and fabrics to wear out prematurely.
Copper - Use copper sulfate, a beautiful blue color when dissolved in water. Copper darkens colors and gives a greenish cast. It provides good color-fastness and is not as hard on fibers as iron. A solid copper pot (if affordable) will make an excellent cooper mordant.
Tin - Stannous Chloride is a white powder that will dissolve into a clear solution. It brightens colors, sometimes producing a remarkable "unnatural" effect. Tin provides good fastness, but can make wool feel brittle and rough. It is best to use alum as the primary mordant and just a pinch of tin for brightness. Caution!: Tin is mildly poisonous and it reacts with human skin to give off a nasty smell (use rubber gloves to protect your skin.).
Chrome - Bright orange crystals known as potassium dichromate make a bright orange solution. If exposed to light, this solution becomes unstable, so it should be kept with a lid on the container and not exposed to light. Caution!: Chrome in any form is toxic, so treat this mordant with respect and caution. Chrome gives good bright colors that are very fast and is give wools a soft texture.
Almost all of the sawdust and seeds must be soaked overnight before they can be used. With the exception of alkanet root and Brazilwood sawdust, a teaspoon of the plant matter can be soaked in one to two cups of water in a closed jar overnight. A teaspoon of alkanet root or Brazilwood needs to be soaked in ¼ cup of rubbing alcohol to release the color. It is helpful to the put the teaspoon of plant matter in a paper, iron-fusing teabag. This will eliminate having to strain the material out of the dyebath later. A cotton muslin bouquet garnis bag works equally as well. Indigo should be prepared ahead, as described below. Back to Top
Rinsing the Fiber - When you remove the fiber from the dye-bath you will need to rinse it in water so as not to "shock" your fiber (wool is especially sensitive), your rinse water should be approximately the same temperature as your dye-bath. Continue rinsing the fiber/fabric in progressively cooler rinse water until your rinse water is completely clear. At this point you should gently squeeze your fiber/fabric dry or blot it gently in a towel. Do not wring or mash wool as it will distort the fibers or produce felt.
After-Baths - Dyers can achieve an even broader range of colors by applying an after-bath. Rinsing in baking soda will give the color a bluish cast, while an after-bath in vinegar will cause blues and purples to brighten and turn redder. Using tin as an after-bath will "bloom" and brighten certain colors. Best results using a tin after-bath are obtained by simmering the dyed fibers in a pinch of tin in warm water for approximately 15 minutes.
· You will need two quart jars with lids, two pint jars with lids, and a mortar and pestle.
· Add ½ ounce washing soda (Boraxo) to 1 pint of warm water.
· Crush 1/4 ounce indigo powder/chunks to a fine power, and add to 1 cup of warm water in the second pint jar. Agitate until all the powder is dissolved into the water
· Pour the soda water and the indigo solution together in one of the quart jars.
· Finish filling the jar mostly full with hot (102-130°F) water. Cap tightly and agitate.
· Pour half of this stock solution into the other quart jar, and reserve for later projects.
· Fill one of the pint jars with warm water. Add ½ ounce sodium sulfite in the jar. Agitate until all is dissolved.
· Pour half of the sodium sulfite solution into one of the quart jars of indigo, taking care not to splash the solution while pouring. Reserve the other half for later projects.
· Let the indigo solution stand for 30 minutes. It will turn a deep yellow-green color.
· The solution is ready for dyeing. Keep the jar closed except when briefly swishing the fiber in the jar. When fabric is first pulled from the jar, it will be green. The dye works when it is exposed to air. As it sits in the air, it will turn bluer and bluer. If the dye water turns back to blue, add some of the sodium sulfite solution, stir gently, and allow to sit , covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. As the dye water becomes exhausted, add more sodium sulfite, some of the indigo/soda water, heat over very gentle heat until solution turns the deep yellow-green color again.
33 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Best source for mordants and dye material. Have a mordanting starter set and a natural dye starter set that should last you for quite some time.
2. The Mannings
P.O. Box 687
East Berlin, PA 17316
Have a good selection of sawdusts, barks, dried seeds and roots. Sell in quantities that the casual home dyer works with.
3. Aurora Silk
5806 N. Vancouver Ave
Portland, OR 97217 USA
Good resource for fibers, dyes, books.
4. Earthsong Fibers
5115 Excelsior Blvd. #428
Minneapolis, MN 55416
Good source for dyes and mordants.
5. The Yarn Barn of Kansas
Lawrence, KS 66044
Best source for Henry’s Attic Yarns, natural fibers ready to dye.
Canada, LOC 1AO
Have the best selection of dyer’s plants and seeds. Need to prepare well ahead of time; they don’t ship plants until April. Back to Top
Adrosko, Rita J., Natural Dyes and Home Dyeing. Dover Publications, 1971
Birrel, Verla, The Textile Arts, Schocken, 1973
Bliss, Anne, North American Dye Plants, Interweave Press, 1993
Bremmes, Lesley, The Complete Book of Herbs, A Dorling Kindersely Book, 1987
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Record Handbooks, Dyes from Natures, Plants & Garden, 1990
Buchanan, Rita, A Weaver’s Garden, Interweave Press, 1987
McRae, Bobbi A., Colors from Nature: Growing, Collecting & Using Natural Dyes, Storey Communications, 1993
Van Strelen, Trudy, Indigo, Madder, and Marigold: A Portfolio of Colors from Natural Dyes