Category Archives: Natural Dyes

Growing the Color Blue


This is my second year growing Japanese Indigo from seed originally purchased from FIBERSHED Marketplace.  It is easy to grow from seed and seems to love my garden.  You can save your own seed from year to year.  Start it in the Spring and harvest it in the Summer.  When I went out to harvest it yesterday I noticed that the honeybees were loving the beautiful pink Indigo flowers.  I try planting for the bees and birds and us so this made me quite happy.

IMG_0396Yesterday, Lily and I used the “one-day” recipe out of Rebecca Burgess’ wonderful book HARVESTING COLOR.  We harvested the Indigo and removed the leaves from the stalks.  We put 3/4 pound of leaves in a 2 1/2 quart jar of warm rainwater.  I use rainwater because we catch it here but you could use filtered water.  You just don’t want the chlorine in city water going in your dye bath.


The jar was placed in a big pot of water we heated to 170 degrees.  We used a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature.  The water immediately turned blue!  The leaves heated in that jar for three hours.  We have an outdoor stove so we didn’t have to heat up the house in the process.  After the three hours of heating I put a colander over a stainless steel pot and strained the solution.  The leaves were then squeezed over the pot to get the rest of the liquid out.  They were then thrown into the compost and the work began!

A tablespoon of baking soda was then added and for the next 10 minutes Lily and I poured the solution from one pot to another to oxygenate it.  It changed color before our eyes (which this dye bath did many times throughout the day!).  As it was poured back and forth it got darker and darker and turned a very dark bluish green color.  At that point we added a tablespoon of Spectralite I got from Dharma Trading Company (thank you Julie!).  Lily very gently stirred this into the dye bath trying her best not to make any bubbles.  The Spectralite removes oxygen from the dye bath.  We kept the liquid at 100 degrees by putting the dye pot on top of the pot we heated the jars in since the water was already hot.  After 8 to 10 minutes it was supposed to turn yellow.  Our dye bath stayed blue-green so we were worried that it wasn’t going to work.


We forged ahead anyway by putting in Lily’s pre-wetted wool yarn and my silk scarf.  They had been soaking in the warm water pot.  We put them in the dye bath gently so we would not make any bubble and add oxygen.  The yarn was immediately blue so we were still concerned since they were supposed to come out yellowish and turn blue when they hit the air.  We left it all in the pot for 10 minutes or so and when we pulled it out it was a yellowish light blue.  Like a magic trick it turned a gorgeous deep blue right in front of our eyes!  The neighbors probably thought we had lost our minds were so excited!

IMG_0427Last Summer the kids and I used the Indigo leaves fresh by putting them in a blender with rainwater and making a raw liquid dye.  We used some raw silk shirt scraps from a thrift shop purchase and they made little bags.  They made their own cordage handles with Japanese Iris leaves from the backyard and were quite happy with themselves!


Why use natural dyes?  As Rebecca Burgess point out on her website, “The textile industry is the number one polluter of fresh water resources on the planet, as well as having an immense carbon footprint.  The average CO2 emitted for the production of one t-shirt is up to 40 times the weight of that shirt.”

We can use locally grown fibers for clothes and locally grown plants for dyes.  Since I am not a knitter (yet) but I am a thrift shopper I buy used clothes and dye them with plants grown in my yard or gathered in my neighborhood.  Just about every color is available from plants.  Now, I’ve got blue!

Decorating Eggs with Berries and Flowers

What a lovely morning spent in the garden with six 1st graders! They happily gathered eggs from the chicken coop and the duck house and were delighted to find that the chickens laid colored eggs. We talked about how we didn’t really need to dye them but we could decorate them… They loved the idea! I cut up some paper egg carton into four-egg sections with the tops off. Each child got their own egg carton and ran to the garden to fill them with grass. When they returned I laid out bowls of frozen blueberries with which to draw and paint on their eggs. They each got one pink and one blue egg to decorate. The eggs all looked darling in their little grass-filled cartons but they needed a little something…. hats! We ran out to the front yard to find the perfect flowers for this purpose. I had mixed up some flour paste the night before and set it out for them to use with with craft sticks. A dab of that on top of each egg and the ‘hats’ stayed on just fine. Each child created their own variation of this idea. I am ALWAYS astounded at the beauty created by children when they really SEE what surrounds them in the natural world.

Natural Dyes and Paints Camp!

We started off by heading over to one of the kid’s houses to harvest walnut leaves. We pruned a sidewalk purple leafed plum tree on the way home. Then, we headed to the park to collect oak galls. I pre-mordanted all of the shirts and socks in an alum solution simmered for 30 minutes and then left in overnight. We experimented with a pair of shorts pre-mordanted in oak galls since they are so high in tannin. I’ve even seen fibers dyed in straight oak gall dye before. But, this time we were using it as a homemade mordant.

These two goof balls (also known as Ian and Kisho) did matching shiboried shirts in the walnut leaf dye.

We boiled up a purple cabbage, added some left over “paint’ we had made from blueberries, blackberries and raspberries (juice really). Marta did a design with rubber bands around marbles in a circle. We ended up calling it the “magic shirt” because it liked to change color. Some of the rubber bands she used had been used in a turmeric dye before and created a sunburst around the marbles. When she wore it and filled some water balloons at the park it turned blue where it got wet. Later, we picked 135 oranges from a neighborhood tree. When we juiced them some of the juice got on the shirt and turned it orange. She was quite pleased with herself!

Lucy decided to dye an entire outfit in different dyes. So, we have a shirt dyed in purple plum leaves in a rusty bucket. She wrapped rubber bands around marbles in a circle around her crow. We have shorts mordanted in oak galls and then dyed in the walnut leaves. They came out a beautiful golden color.

One of her socks was dyed in walnut leaves. The other was dyed in a yellow onion skin dye bath we had already used to dye our fancy eggs in the day before. She shiboried her socks using popsicle sticks and rubber bands.

Last but certainly not least we have Charlie in his amazing yellow onion skin dyed shirt. Talk about a happy guy. He wore it to camp for two days straight!

More fun to come. This week is HERBS FOR KIDS CAMP and we’ve been busy!

So, I asked my neighbor for a pot…

We have a neighborhood yahoo group that we use for everything from finding a lost cat to fighting the use of Round-up at our neighborhood park. Just this week I posted a request for honey bee swarms and a piano. I can’t say enough great things about the group or this neighborhood!

So, a while back I posted my need for a large stock pot in which to brew natural dyes. I got a response from a neighbor I had never met but I had certainly noticed her house before. She often puts out a pair of scissors on a string in the middle of her blooming front yard Lavender enticing passersby to cut some some flowers for themselves. The kids and I had gathered lavender with those scissors in the past and always looked forward to the next year when we could harvest more amongst the buzzing honey bees.

She said she had an old canning pot she wasn’t using anymore and that it might be just the thing for me. I walked down to her house to meet her and check out the pot. A couple of hours later I walked back home with my new pot in hand. She and I had gotten into a conversation about her travels around the world. She had recently returned from Uzbekistan where she had seen some beautiful work with natural dyes. She had purchased a few things that were just stunning. You can see the variation in color from one plant dye batch to the next. It was inspiring to say the least.

I had just pruned the Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) in the front yard and knew it was a dye plant (one of 25 here at the ol’ homestead). I had some undyed wool yarn and a couple of thrift shop shirts I had bought to wear in the garden. One was striped with pink and purple and the other was white. After mordanting them with alum I put them in a bath of Toyon leaves and twigs. I was pleased with the results. The striped shirt caught the eye of a friend who now wears it. The peach shirt I wear in the garden and the yarn awaits a project.

A couple of days ago I had decided to write about this and needed to call that neighbor with the pot to ask if it was Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan she told me about. Then, she appeared at the door bearing a bucket of snails. How nice!

Easter Eggs with Plant Dyes

Here is our latest round of Easter eggs dyed with plants. We made two dye baths of onion skins. One pot was with yellow onion skins and the other was with red onion skins. This time we used flowers AND leaves for our prints and were quite happy with this results! The flowers themselves gave off a color of their own.

One of the kids used the small white flower of his beloved Wild Onion (Allium triquetrum) which is white. The print it made was a gorgeous deep yellow. On the other side of his egg he used part of an Oxalis leaf to make a heart print. It also left some yellow color. Japanese Maple leaf leaves leave a color of their own as well as Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium).

For the actual process go to my April 2010 entry and you will find it there.

It’s fun to unwrap the eggs to see what chemical reaction the plant has made with the dye bath. Some leaves give color like this Buckeye leaf print while others just leave a resist print.

Our favorite looks like a flower print in blue. The flower itself was white with a purple center. The leaf print is Wormwood.

More Fun with Plant Dyes

We’ve been having more fun with plant dyes! All of the materials were pre-mordanted with Alum and Creme of Tartar so the color won’t wash out. The most fun part of it all was seeing the different colors the same dye created on cotton and wool.

A neighbor lost her beloved Black Walnut tree to a demented arborist so we decided to put the leaves to work before they headed back into the earth. The results were beautiful!

On wool yarn tied with rubber bands:

On a cotton dish towel tied with marbles and rubber bands:

We walked over to another neighbors yard and volunteered to prune her purple-leafed plum tree. With those leaves in an old metal bucket heated on our rocket stove we got our biggest surprise. At first the dye was a gorgeous magenta and we thought we’d get a similar color.

Well, after simmering for a while we took a look at the dye bath to find it almost black. Cotton t-shirts became a lovely slate grey. Wool yarn we tied off with rubber bands to get a resist affect.

Here is the resulting color combination:

Tumeric (a little goes a long way), does a bang up job on everything. I did a dish towel wrapped with rubber bands and popsicle sticks (Shibori technique). Wow!

Here is a picture of the towel with some Calendula soap we made with color from the Tumeric dye too:

More to come. I’m teaching 5 weeks of classes for kids this Summer. NATURE CRAFTS, HERBS FOR KIDS, NATURAL DYES, COOKING FROM THE GARDEN, URBAN HOMESTEADING. I’ll post the highlights as we go along.

Dyes from Plants In Our Own Backyard

I’ve been obsessed with Ida Grae’s old book NATURE’S COLORS- Dyes from Plants. Lily and I found 25 dye plants just in our yard!

Beets- magenta
Cotoneaster berries- Rose tan
Daisy (Gloriosa)- bright olive to dark green
Dock root- gold
Dock blossoms- rose beige to terra cotta
Elderberries- mauve to grey blue
Grape leaves- intense yellow
Grapes- greenish blue to dark blue
Mallow- medium blue
Mullien- bright yellow or chartreuse
Olive leaves- bright yellow to olive green
Olives- deep purple
Oxalis flowers- deep orange brown
Pine needles- olive green
Plantain- brown
Plum leaves (green)- yellow green
Plum leaves (Dark)- purples
Privet leaves- yellow or dark khaki green
Privet berries- grass green
Redwood bark- tan, brown, terra cotta
Rosemary- various yellow green
Rudbeckia- bright chartreuse to dark green
Scabiosa- bright green to dark blue
Toyon- burnt orange
Walnut leaves- almost black to many browns
Walnut husks and shells- almost black to many browns
Yarrow- yellow to maize or dark green

And for us urban homesteaders in old neighborhoods there’s Iron buff (all of those rusty bits we keep digging up)- orange to rusty red.

The colors vary depending on the materials used, mordants used, and pots used in the process. I’ll post our findings when we get to dyeing next month. In the meantime check out Rebecca Burgess’ great FIBERSHED project. She has a fabulous website and is a great resource.

Fun With Plant Dyes

While sitting around the old homestead we decided to have some fun with plants. Easter had just passed and we got inspired to dye eggs. I took the kids out for a walk to gather ferns and other delicate leaves with which to make prints on the eggs. In three different pots we boiled yellow onion skins (reddish brown), beets (pink), and calendula flowers with powdered tumeric root (yellow). Lily added a dash of apple cider vinegar to each pot to help set the dye. We placed the leaf or leaves on our eggs and wrapped them tightly in gauze strips fastened with rubber bands. We hard boiled them in the dye for 10-15 minutes. It was fun to unwrap them and see what happened!

The onion skins were by far the most impressive with a gorgeous deep mottled reddish-brown. The calendula and tumeric gave a pale yellow. The beet dye reacted beautifully with the maple leaf but did not give much color to the egg.

The strips of gauze also got dyed so Lily helped the kids braid necklaces and bracelets out of them. The yellow was amazingly vibrant. The reddish-brown came out peach colored and the pink did not dye the fabric at all.

Then…. we HAD to make playdoh! Lily had the idea to use the beet water as the water in the playdoh recipe. So we did and WOW did it work! We made a second batch and I had the kids knead in tumeric for yellow after it was ready to work. Here is what one of them made.