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, or alum (these are available from dye supply shops, or your local pharmacy).

Fixatives are not mordants, they simply create stains:

  • 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.


  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 staining 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)

The liquor from simmered 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.


Purple loosestrife (an invasive plant, so harvest away BUT don’t spread the seeds!) 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





Black Walnut (husks) – black

Queen of the Prairie makes an amazing black dye.

Sumac (leaves) – black



Purple Loosestrife – black


Blackberry (fruit) strong purple


Cherry (roots)

Dogwood (bark) – blue

Dogwood (fruit)  – greenish-blue

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) – lavender

(fresh berries) – mordant: alum – violet

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

Indigo (leaves) – blue

Queen Anne’s Lace

Red Maple Tree (inner bark) – purple



Acorns (simmered) 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


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


Birch Leaves


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


Purple Loosestrife – gold


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



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


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)


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





Canadian Hemlock (inner bark)  – reddish brown

Beets – deep red


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) – red

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)


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


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)  – gold

R.K. Dock seedheads IMG_1232 wtm

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

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.) (fresh leaves) – deep yellow

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

Goldenrod flowers – fresh – 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) – 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) – 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)  – 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)


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 simmer for about an hour and do not boil.  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 ‘rough up’ the fabric and soak in a color fixative before the dye process. This will make the color set in the fabric.

Most Common Color Fixatives:

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

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

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

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.


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


  1. I just stumbled on your blog after reading Wendy Feldman’s for over a year. I am so sorry about your divorce. Many people have been sidelined for less.
    Since I’m in Montreal, I thought I would connect with you as there are so few dyers around these parts.


  2. I don’t see your reply here to my comment, just in my email box! However, yes, please do reference me, And note too that most of your blue, pink, purple and red “dye materials” are false, either old wive’s tales–dandilion has never and will never give any colour but grey, yellow or brown(was this list from that horrible “Pioneer Thinking” site?), rhubarb leaves have no tannins, only oxalic acid which is at best another Ph adjuster. You also need to mention that ALL fabrics of natural material, whether vintage or brand new MUST Be scoured properly first so that there are no dirts, oils, pectins, grease, manufacturing products, cleaners etc or the dye will not uptake properly. Cellulose fibres like cotton, linen, hemp etc need premordanting with either alum acetate and a dip in a wheat bran enzyme, or potassium alum preceded by a tannin treatment. Since you are in Ontario (i was born there and still have family, just seen end of June :), you might also be interested in Spectrum: Dye Plants of Ontario available through The Fibre Garden in Jordan Ontario. (Not *entirely* accurate but much better than a lot of online sites!)


  3. Thank you for your great input! I hope to work on blogs again this winter so I will edit thoroughly and I will look for those books. Though I cross reference, my dye books in my reference library are pretty old. May I reference you?


  4. This article is very useful and comprehensive to the natural dyer! Please be aware that the use of chrome as a mordant should be discouraged as it is a known carcinogen. Many dye recipes in the past recommend it’s use but we now know what a health risk it represents. No one needs to expose themselves to such dangerous toxins.


  5. While i’m very glad to see actual mordants listed, salt and vinegar are not mordant materials. Salt has no use in natural dyeing, and vinegar is merely a Ph adjuster to change colours.
    Coffee, cabbage, spinach, berries and turmeric are merely stains, not dyes, and will not fix, even if the fibre is mordanted to type. You also NEVER “boil” plant materials as it can destroy the colour compounds: better to let simmer for an hour, remove the plant materials and add premordanted fibres. I also see no mention of scouring, the first and most crucial step in natural dyeing.
    I recommend any of Jenny Dean’s natural dye books, and Boutrup/Ellis’s “The Art and Science of natural Dyes” for correct, well researched information.


  6. Hello, I really enjoyed reading through this page, thank you for generously sharing your knowledge and experience. We are an organization called “AlgomaTrad” – we exist on the north shore of Lake Huron. We are developing an environmentally sustainable year-round centre for Traditional Arts. Our goal is to create a permaculture landscape at the site – we have started the dye garden and programming related to it through community fibre arts. One day we will come to visit, and hopefully we can get you up here to do workshops too.


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