Wild Dyes for the Wildest Fibre Art

First thing’s first.  If you have your heart set on using a wild dye plant not listed below, please buy your wild dye plants from a native plant supplier.  For example, DO NOT harvest Wild Indigo for dye use from the wild.  There are many ways to cultivate and grow these wild crops.  You can still label them as native plant dyes, even though they were cultivated, and still fill a niche market.

There are so many available plant dyes in this Muskoka and Haliburton territory we call home.  The flowers, berries, nuts, bark, roots, stems, and leaves listed below are all useable and reasonably sustainable.  All we need to do is notice when these plants and their parts become available for use and respect each plant’s ability to reproduce the parts you are using.

Several of the dye plants that I’ve researched produce a great dye, but because of their nature, they are at risk for exhaustion from over harvesting, so I’m only going to discuss plants that are very commonly found, plants that can be classified as weeds, and some that are even invasive.

Fritillary on Milkweed Pete'sThe dark inks used in this Buwalda drawing on watercolour paper were created using the husk of Black Walnut and Purple Loosetrife pulled from a client’s wetland.

When you are gathering plant material for dyeing, the blossoms should be in full bloom, berries ripe, and nuts mature.  Remember, never gather more than 10% of a stand of anything in the wild when gathering plant stuff for dyeing.  If you are using tree bark, only harvest from plant parts that have separated from the living specimen, ie. Branches downed from a storm or bark from a fallen tree that is still sitting on the ground and separated from the heartwood and cambium that has long begun to rot.  You must take the opportunities as you happen upon these offerings rather than seeking them out.

When we gather plants to create a dye, we also need to remember how much bulk of the plant is actually required to dye a batch of fabric.  It is very important to keep in mind that if the chemical mixture you are creating will permeate a fibre and  will permanently change the colour, the liquid is a concentrate and should be treated as a toxin, even without the mordant.  All dye projects should be considered as a chemistry experiment and one needs to behave as they would in a lab.  Taking notes is a great habit that will improve future results.

Some will pre-treat a fabric with a mordant (colour fixative) and rinse it well before adding the fabric to the dye solution, while others will add the mordant to the dye solution.

Some will create a dye with plant material, strain it, and then add the fabric, while others will mix the fabric in with the plant material in layers, like a lasagna.  It really depends on how dark you want the dye and what process works with each mordant and each plant material.

One can also create differences in a specific plant dye by allowing the plant to decompose and almost ferment.  We’ve done this with Black Walnut.

To get the fibre or fabric ready for the dye bath you will have to soak the fabric in a color fixative before the dye process. This will assist the color set within the fabric.

The most common mordants are:

  • Cream of tartar, iron, tin, alum or chrome (these are available from dye supply shops, or your local pharmacy).
  • Salt Fixative (for berry dyes) 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups cold water
  • Plant Fixatives (for plant dyes) 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar

You could also try making natural mordants from plant material to have a completely plant-based product.

PLANT MORDANTS

  1. Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhinaR.K. Sumac Dwight Bay July 11 2017_RXB3801 wtm.jpg

The leaves of sumac are high in tannin which can be used in the process of mordanting plant fibres like hemp and cotton. Sumac is also used in treating leather.

Some people can have an allergic reaction to sumac so always wear gloves when prepping any plant-based solution concentrate.

Use 40 grams dry leaves and shoots (so about 40 complete compound leaves snapped off of the branch at the base of the petiole) or 80 grams (about 40) fresh leaves and shoots per 100 grams of cotton.

 

  1. Rhubarb (Rheum spp) as a mordant

The liquor from boiled rhubarb leaves is used in Tibet as natural mordant that works best with animal fibres.

How to turn Rhubarb leaves into a natural dye mordant

One pound of rhubarb leaves can mordant several pounds of fibre. Boil the leaves for an hour to extract the tannin. Make sure you boil the leaves in a well-ventilated area, as the fumes will be toxic.  Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is a poison, and should never be eaten.

 

  1. Juniper (Juniperus communis) as a mordant R.K. Juniper lil' bush July 19 2017 LOB_RXB3941 wtm.jpg

Gather green Juniper boughs and burn them clean, without any other materials.  This is best done above a grate, then you can gather the ashes from under the grate and use them as a mordant instead of alum. Ashes and water form a natural lye, which is alkaline and can cause burns if not used with care.

 

QUICK AND RELIABLE WILD PLANT DYE LIST

Purple loosestrife (an invasive plant, so harvest away) for gold, brown and black

Saint John’s wort for gold, maroon and green

Lichen – gold, purple, red…

R.K. Rock tripe.jpg

… and a couple of cultivars:

Sunflowers that have escaped from the garden for deep olive greens

Hollyhock blooms and foliage for yellow, mahogany and reddish black

 

NATIVE PLANTS and NATURALIZED ‘WEEDS’ LISTED BY DYE COLOUR

 

BLACK/ GREY

Alder

Blackberry

Black Walnut (husks) – black

Queen of the Prairie makes an amazing black dye.

Sumac (leaves) – black

Sunflower

Yarrow

Purple Loosestrife – black

 

BLUES/ PURPLES

Blackberry (fruit) strong purple

Blueberries

Cherry (roots)

Dogwood (bark) – blue

Dogwood (fruit)  – greenish-blue

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) – lavender

(fresh berries) – mordant: alum – violet

(fresh berries) – mordant: tin- blue/gray

(fresh berries) – mordant: chrome – blue

 

Indigo (leaves) – blue

Queen Anne’s Lace

Red Maple Tree (inner bark) – purple

 

BROWNS

Acorns (boiled) I like using the acorns that have been compromised by insects for dyes and we leave the good acorns for wildlife and regeneration. Field test: The good acorns for wildlife sink, and the ruined acorns float.  Use the floaters, as it is the husk that holds the dye.

Pine Tree Bark – light medium brown. Needs no mordant.

Birch (bark) – Light brown/ buff – Alum to set

Coneflower (flowers) – brownish green ; leaves and stems – gold

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) (leaves) – mordant: iron – brown

Burdock

R.K. Burdock LOB August 6 2017_RXB5262 wrm.jpg

Dandelion (roots) brown

Oregano – (Dried stalk) – Deep brown- Black

Goldenrod (shoots) – deep brown

Purple Loosestrife

 

CHARTREUSE – YELLOW/GREEN

Birch Leaves

Fireweed

Goldenrod  (Solidago spp.)(all plant – fresh) – mordant: iron – yellow/green

R.K. Goldenrod Harvest August 14 2017_RXB5549 wtm.jpg

Nettle (Uritca dioica) )(all plant – fresh) – mordant: alum- yellowish green

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) (fresh young leaves) mordant: alum – yellowish green

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) (fresh flowers) mordant: alum – greenish/yellow

Lupine

Purple Loosestrife – gold

 

GREENS

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – bright olive/apple green

Chamomile (leaves) – green

Coneflower (flowers) – green

Dock (Rumex spp.)(fresh leaves) – mordant: iron – dark green

Foxglove – (flowers) apple green TOXIC

Grass (yellow green)

Peppermint – dark kakhi green color

Pigweed (entire plant) yellow green

Plantain Roots

Queen Anne’s Lace – pale green

Red Pine (needles) green

R.K. Pine flowers June 18 2017 LOB_RXB3023 wtm.jpg

 

Sorrel (roots) – dark green

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) (fresh tops) mordant: iron – dark green

White Ash – (bark) – yellow

Yarrow – (flowers) yellow & green shades

Yarrow ( Achillea Millefolium) (Fresh, all plant ) mordant: iron- olive green

 

ORANGES

Speckled Alder (Alnus rugosa) (Bark).  This makes sense!  Our watersheds in Muskoka and Haliburton tend to be ‘tea coloured’ as they are often moving through and settling around the roots and stems of Speckled Alder as they move through our many bogs (among other reasons).

Balsam Fir branch tips.

R.K. Balsam Fir Tips July 14 2017 041 iPhone wtm.jpg

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – (fresh flowers) – mordant: tin – orange/red

 

PEACH

Jewelweed – orange/peach

Virginia Creeper – (fruit) – pink (all parts); alum mordant; Peach.

Weeping Willow (wood & bark) makes a peachy brown (the tannin acts as a mordant)

 

PINKS

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) (all plant – fresh) – magenta

Lichens – A pink, brown, or wine colored dye can be produced from British soldiers, but colonies are often small and sporadic.

Raspberries (red)

 

Roses with some acidic Sumac-ade (see Wild Edibles blog) to activate the alkaloids can make a bright pink dye

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) (fresh fruit) mordant: alum – pink

Sorrel

StrawberrieS

 

REDS

Burdock

Canadian Hemlock (inner bark)  – reddish brown

Beets – deep red

Chokecherries

Comfrey ( Symphytum officinale)

Crab Apple (bark) – red/yellow

R.K. Ottawa crabapples before frost John Crosby Ottawa weekend October 2016 009 wtm.jpg

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) (root)

Dock (Rumex spp.) (fresh young leaves) -mordant: chrome – red

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)

Poplar

St Johnswort whole plant soaked in Vodka – red.   or just fresh leaves – reddish brown color

salt is all that is needed to set this dye.

Rose (hips)

Sumac (fruit) – light red

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratium) (fresh roots) mordant: alum – red

Wild ripe Blackberries

 

YELLOW/ WHEAT

Burdock – yellow

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)  (fresh flowers) – mordant: alum – soft yellow

Dandelion (fresh flowers) – mordant: tin – yellow

 

Dock (Rumex spp.)(fresh roots) – mordant: alum – deep yellow

Dock (Rumex spp.)(fresh leaves) – mordant: alum – yellow

Dock (Rumex spp.)(fresh late leaves) – mordant: chrome – gold

R.K. Dock seedheads IMG_1232 wtm

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) (fresh leaves) – mordant: alum – soft yellow

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) (fresh leaves) – mordant: chrome– deep yellow

Goldenrod  (Solidago spp.)(flowers – fresh) – mordant: alum – yellow

Goldenrod flowers – fresh – mordant: chrome – gold

Goldenrod flowers – fresh – mordant: tin – bright yellow

Mullein (leaf and root) pale yellow. (can cause dermatitis)

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) (flowers) bright yellow or light green.

Nettle (Uritca dioica) )(all plant – fresh) – mordant: chrome – tan

Old man’s beard lichen – yellow/brown/orange shades

R.K. Ol' Man Crosby May 10 2017 Marsh's Falls-01949 wtm.jpg

Oxallis (Yellow Wood Sorrel) (flowers) mordant: alum – fluorescent yellow

(Oxallis flowers fermented) – fluorescent orange.

Queen Anne’s Lace

 

Plaintain (Plantago major) (fresh, all plant) – mordant: alum – dull yellow

Plaintain (Plantago major) (fresh, all plant) – mordant: chrome – camel

 

Red Clover (whole blossom, leaves and stem) alum mordant – gold

 

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) (flowers & leaves) – gold/yellow

(fresh tops) – mordant: alum – medium yellow

(fresh tops) – mordant: chrome – bright yellow

 

Sumac (bark) – The inner pith of Sumac branches can produce a super bright yellow color.

Tansy (tops) – yellow

Willow (leaves)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (Fresh flowers) mordant: alum – yellow and gold

Yellow, Curly, or Bitter Dock all have a bright yellow taproot and give you a yellow/flesh color.

 

Plant dyes from plants that aren’t wild, but common in the kitchen:

Coffee grounds – brown

Onion skins – shades of orange

Pomegranate (peel) – yellow

Pomegranate (skins) orange to khaki green -mordant – alum

Red cabbage – blue purple

Sage (Salvia officinalis) (fresh tops) – mordant: iron –  green gray

Spoiled spinach (leaves)

Turmeric

R.K. Turmeric 003 wtm.jpg

 

Basic How-to-Make a dye solution:

Chop plant material into small pieces and place in a pot. Double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Strain. Now you can add your fabric to be dyed. For a stronger shade, allow material to soak in the dye overnight.

Getting the fabric ready for the dye bath: You will have to soak the fabric in a color fixative before the dye process. This will make the color set in the fabric.

 

Most Common Color Fixatives (Mordants):

Salt Fixative (for berry dyes) 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups cold water

Plant Fixatives (for plant dyes) 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar (much easier than Rhubarb)

Other Mordant: Cream of tartar, iron, tin, alum or chrome

 

Add fabric to the fixative and simmer for an hour. Rinse the material and squeeze out excess. Rinse in cool water until water runs clear.

Dye Bath: Place wet fabric in dye bath. Simmer together until desired color is obtained (remember though that wool does not like to boil so keep it at 80 degrees). The color of the fabric will be lighter when its dry. Also note that all dyed fabric should be laundered in cold water and separately.

Muslin, silk, cotton and wool work best for natural dyes and the lighter the fabric in color, the better. White or pastel colors work the best.

 

SAFETY NOTES:

It’s best to use a retired large pot as your dye vessel.

Wear rubber gloves to handle the fabric that has been dyed, the dye can stain your hands.

When using mordants and concentrated solutions it is best to wear safety eyewear. Do not breathe in any of the steam.

It’s also important to note, some plant dyes may be toxic, check with the Poison Control Center if unsure. Again, make sure that the pots and other tools you use for mordanting and dyeing are only for dyeing not for cooking

You will be cooking plant concentrates and mixing plants with chemical compounds under hot to boiling conditions.  Work in a spotless and uncluttered workspace and keep away from children and pets.

 

Blog still in progress.  Thank you for your patience.

May the forest be with you.

 

 

R.K. Balsam Fir Tips July 14 2017 041 iPhone wtm.jpg


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