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.
The 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.
- Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
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.
- 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.
- Juniper (Juniperus communis) as a mordant
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 BUT don’t spread the seeds!) for gold, brown and black
Saint John’s wort for gold, maroon and green
Lichen – gold, purple, red…
… 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 Walnut (husks) – black
Queen of the Prairie makes an amazing black dye.
Sumac (leaves) – black
Purple Loosestrife – black
Blackberry (fruit) strong purple
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
Dandelion (roots) brown
Oregano – (Dried stalk) – Deep brown- Black
Goldenrod (shoots) – deep brown
CHARTREUSE – YELLOW/GREEN
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)(all plant – fresh) – mordant: iron – yellow/green
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
Queen Anne’s Lace – pale green
Red Pine (needles) green
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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)
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.