Natural Dyes From the Garden
My house is, in the traditional mountain style, tucked on the western side of a steep mountain and nestled among some very large oak, sycamore, and pine trees. This means that while I do get beautiful sunsets that stream through the trees, I only get sunshine on the tiny patch of yard that isn’t completely covered in trees from 11AM, when the sun finally peeks over the mountain, and 2PM when we reach full shade again – absolutely terrible conditions for growing tomatoes. I eventually gave up gardening all together and steadfastly rely on the farmers market and my CSA for all local produce. It took several natural dye classes to realize that the seemingly barren woods around my house are actually an abundant garden full of natural dyes.
At the end of the summer we rush around collecting all the dye stuff from the woods and we also solicit neighbors with actual gardens for random plants that produce a myriad of color. Last summer it was black walnuts and marigolds, this summer it was black eyed susans and hopi amaranth. Both are native to North America, the hopi amaranth getting its name from its original cultivation by the southwestern Hopi. It produces the same amaranth that you might find at the grocery store, as well as a beautiful family of pink dyes.
I gathered up all the black eyes susans from my front yard and the amaranth from a friends garden, dusted off my dye pots, dusted off some old sweaters that desperately needed a new lease on life, and gave myself 2 nights to get the project done.
If you’re already proficient with natural dying at home, you’ll already know the process I am about to describe better than I do, I expect, but for everyone else I will go over it quickly to try to entice you into trying this yourself. If you are going to try this at home but you have no sweaters on hand, you can always check out Goodwill or make an investment in an Appalatch henley in natural – these shirts have have no dyes or chemicals added so they are perfect for dying!
- First, we mordanted our wool sweaters with alum. Mordants are mineral salts that help dyes bind to the fibers you are dying. There are many different kinds of mordants, but we used alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) because it is safe and easy to use.
- First we weighed the fiber while it was dry so that we knew how much alum to add.
- Wet the fiber in your first stainless steel dye pot (not to be used for cooking soup). You want the fibers to be completely wet in order to totally take up the mordant (you can even let them soak in water overnight). You’ll start the water out lukewarm and raise the temp gradually. Never bring the water to a boil and never stir too vigorously.
- Weigh out and dissolve the alum. Usually you will want 4 tablespoons of alum to 1 pound of fiber. Dissolve the alum in a little container of water, you can also add 1.5 tsp of cream of tartar to help the mordant absorb into the fiber.
- Add the mordant to the warm water with the sweaters in it and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for 1 hour and then let the dye bath cool down. You can let it sit overnight again.
- Once your mordanted fibers are ready to go, you’ll use a separate stainless steel pot to soak your plants in plenty of water and bring the temperature up to being quite warm but not boiling. We had one pot going with the black eyed susans and one going with the amaranth. Gently squeeze (don’t twist) the sweaters so that the extra water drains out and then add them to the pot with the dye plants.
- Check your fibers after 15 minutes and add more dye plants if you need to.
- After they have been sitting for a bit and have reached a good color, take the sweaters out and rinse them in water that starts out cool and moves to hot.
- Lay the sweater out on a towel and gently reshape. Roll this towel up like a yoga mat and use your hands of knees to push out extra water into the towel. Unroll the towel and transfer the sweater to a fresh dry towel to reshape and then leave it flat to dry.
This process is meant for protein fibers only. This means any yarn or sweater that is made from an animal fiber like wool, silk, cashmere, angora, alpaca, llama, camel.. you name it. If it can breathe and you can extract a fiber from it, its a protein. This process will not work for synthetics such as polyester or any cellulose yarn or fabric, so don’t bother throwing in any cotton, modal, tencel, linen… basically any fibers that come from plants.
Other great plants you might find useful for dying and that may also grow in your area are wode, madder, chamomile, dandelion, goldenrod, coriopsis, rhododendron, weld, carrot tops, queen annes lace, corn stalks, onion skins, black walnuts, lemon balm, and marigolds. This handful of plants is a fraction of what’s available to dye with, but are those that I pay attention to because a lot of this stuff seems to be growing everywhere around here! There are so many natural dye practices that are about 100 times more advanced than the ones I have described here, but this isn’t a bad place to start.
This labor intensive process reminds us of how hard it is to introduce a natural dye practice into a commercial setting, though we find that the inspiration from the beautiful colors that can be achieved are enough to encourage us to keep trying.
Let me know your own experiences with natural dyes or any suggestions to help me up my game next year! I look forward to hearing from you, firstname.lastname@example.org.