History of Dyeing
​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.  

Natural Dyes
Dyes can be derived from nature through herbs and plants, flowers, seeds, barks, and roots.  The plant materials and techniques discussed and used in this information are readily and easily obtainable from your own gardens, the grocery store, the roadsides, and from mail order sources.  Natural dyes give subtle, rich, warm colors that are unique.  They have a mystery and life that fascinates and satisfies.   Rita Buchanan, author of A Weaver’s Garden, writes that the natural dyes are so satisfying because they all blend together. 

Coloring a fiber can be accomplished by three basic methods: staining, pigmentation or dyeing.  Staining is a temporary coloring where the color is simply rubbed or soaked into the fiber without any fixative to retain the color.   Pigmentation is when the color is fixed to the fiber by an adhesive medium.  Dyeing is when the color is deposited on the fiber in an insoluble form from a solution containing the colorant.

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.  

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)
·  Timer
​·  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.”   

The Day Before You Begin to Dye

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.

 A.   Decide how many portions you want  to divide your fibers.  You want to divide your fibers before you wet them because they are much more cooperative.  Bundle the skeins as loosely as possible. (You can use warp thread for tying the skein-lets.) If you get the bundle thread too tight, the mordants and dyes won’t be able to get to your fiber.

B.  Wash the fibers

  The fibers must be clean. Unless you purchase ready-to-dye yards or fabrics, you will need to wash them in Dawn dish detergent or Ivory Flakes (or any mild, neutral soap) before you can begin the mordant process.


  Wool - 1 to 2 gallons of water and ½ ounce of washing soap - Add the fiber to the water and heat to 110 - 120°F
  degrees. Maintain this temperature for 30-60 minutes.

  Cotton - 1 to 2 gallons of water and ½ ounce of washing soap - Wash in 140°F degrees water. You can wash the
  cotton in your washing machine and use the spin cycle to draw out the excess water.

  Silk - 1 quart of water and 1 Tablespoon of washing soap. To de-gun the silk, place the silk in the pan of
  water with the washing soap and bring to a boil. Then simmer for 30 minutes. Repeat this process twice.

C. Mordant the fibers

  The word “mordant” is derived from the Latin word mordere which means to bite. Mordants are the mineral salts added to the fibers to help the dyes adhere.  Many dyes will adhere to the fibers without mordants, but you limit your range of colors and the fastness of your dyes. 

  Historically, dyers used everything from a copper or aluminum pot to stale urine (yuck!) to mordant their fibers. Today, we prefer to use more reliable and consistent mordants that come in the pure form. The mordants you will use will vary the range of colors you get from any one dye stuff.
  There are many options for mordanting your fibers.  The most frequently and easily used are alum or tin mordants.  Even these less toxic mordants should be kept sealed and in a locked place away from children and pets. For the majority of your projects you can pre-mordant your fibers (as opposed to dyebath or postmordanting methods).  Reserve some of your fibers to dye without the addition of the mordant.  After-baths with tin, vinegar, or baking soda may also be desirable to achieve a broader degree of colors.  An afterbath is done after the fibers are rinsed.

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.

To mordant your fiber - 

·        Wool - Dissolve 2 Tablespoons of alum and 1 Tablespoon of cream of tartar in a cup of warm water.  Add the dissolved mordants to 2 gallons of warm water. Soak the wool in some slightly warm water. Add the wool to the mordant pot. Heat the water to simmering (180-200°F). Simmer for one hour without boiling. Turn off the heat and allow to cool overnight. Remove the wool from the mordant solution. Rinse. Wool may be dried in a dark shady place or stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or you can dye the wool immediately.

·        Cotton - Dissolve 1-½ Tablespoons of alum in approximately one cup of boiling water.  Add this to 2 gallons of warm water. Dissolve ½ Tablespoon of tannic acid in another cup of boiling water. Add this to the 2 gallons of water. Add the thoroughly wetted fiber to the 2 gallons of water. Bring the water to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat source. Allow the fiber to cool overnight. Remove fiber from the mordant solution,  Rinse. The fiber may be dried in a dark shady place or stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, or you may dye the fiber now.

·        Silk - Dissolve 3/4 teaspoons of alum in roughly one cup of boiling water. Add this to 1 gallon of warm water (no more than 100°F). Add the thoroughly wetted silk to the warm water. Remove rom the heat and allow the silk to cool overnight. Remove from the mordant solution and rinse. Silk dyes best if you can begin dyeing immediately after removing from the mordant bath. Do not allow the silk to dry before dyeing.

D. Prepare the fresh and dried materials
  The fibers can be dyed right in the pot with the dye stuff or you can make the baths ahead of time. To avoid confusion, it is best to make the dye bath ahead of time.


  Add the plant material to a pot of water, just enough to cover the plant matter. Simmer the plant matter for one hour until most of the color has been bleached out. Strain out the plant matter. Reserve the liquid for the next day.

E. Prepare the sawdust and seeds

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. 

The Day the Dyeing Begins
  It’s time for color!

  Dyeing - Now for the most rewarding and the easiest part of the process You can add your fibers to the dye-bath and you can mix non-mordanted, pre-mordanted, or various combinations of mordanted fibers in the dye pot. For most dyes, you will want to simmer your fibers in the dye-bath for approximately 30 minutes, or until you reach the color you wish to achieve. Obviously, the longer you leave the fiber in the dye, the deeper or more intense the color will become. Keep in
  mind when you remove your dyed fibers from the dye-bath, that after they are rinsed, the color will lighten. For this reason, you may want to leave the fibers in the dye-bath for a while longer to absorb more of the color.
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. Many other variations of color are obtainable by using a wide variety of other after-baths or rinses. Refer to the reading sources for further information.

Indigo Preparation

·        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.


Mail Order Sources for Plant Matter, Mordants and Fiber

1.       Earthguild

         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

        930 Massachusetts

        Lawrence, KS  66044



Best source for Henry’s Attic Yarns, natural fibers ready to dye.

6.  Richters

     Box 26

     Goodwood, Ontario

     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. 

Reading Sources/Reference

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

Natural Dyed Fibers