Natural Dyes

Different herbs, mosses, lichens, barks, berries, twigs and leaves can be gathered at different times of the year to make natural dyes. Dyeing with plant materials in an ancient and rewarding craft; it is full of surprises as you never quite know what colour you are going to get- it all depends on the freshness and concentration of the plant materials, the type of fabric you use, and the mordant (fixative) you use. The colours are softer and more subtle than chemical dyes, and can help you feel like part of the landscape.

For the ancient Celts, dyeing was a magical process, a women’s craft with strict taboos on dyeing fabric in the presence of men.

Mordants

Most natural dyes need a mordant to make them fast. The word derives from a French term meaning ‘to bite’ and it refers to a chemical applied to the fabric before dying that helps the dye adhere to the cloth and fixes it so that it doesn’t wash straight out again. Some are poisonous and should be handled carefully. Always wear rubber gloves and work in a well-ventilated space. Mordants can be obtained from pharmacies, specialist craft and dye suppliers.

Alum (aluminium potassium chloride/ potassium aluminium sulphate)

This is probably the most popular mordant, and works with a wide variety of dyestuffs. In the past it was obtained from stale urine, wood ash, oak galls, oak and alder chips and burnt seaweed. Alum brightens the colour of the dye. It is often combined with tartaric acid to produce fresher, clearer colours. Use 1 oz for every 1 lb. of dry fabric weight. And add 1 oz cream of tartar. Dissolve, add 2 gallons water, bring slowly to the boil, add the fabric and simmer 1 hour. Remove the fabric and drip fairy dry, now begin the dying process.

Iron (ferrous sulphate) or copperas

The ancients obtained this from bogs and iron ore. It makes colours more muted, or ‘saddened’ to use the correct term. Use 1/8 oz for every 1 lb. of dry fabric weight. Otherwise, boil the fabric first with the dye for 30 minutes. Lift it out. Ass ½ oz ferrous sulphate and 1 oz cream of tartar, ready dissolved, to the dye pot. Replace the fabric and boil for another 30 minutes.

Copper (copper sulphate) or verdigris

This is used to give a blue-green tint to a colour. Use ½ oz with ½ pint of vinegar for every 1 lb. of dry fabric weight. NB: Poisonous, handle with care!

Tin (stannous chloride)

For each 1 lb fabric add 1 oz cream of tartar and ½ oz of tin crystals. Dissolve them together in water and add to 2 ½ gallons of water. Heat and add the wet fabric. Bring slowly to the boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Take out the wool and let it drip fairly dry. You can now begin the dying process. Tin will brighten colours. Use ½ oz for every 1 lb. of dry fabric weight. NB: Poisonous, handle with care.

Chrome (potassium dichromate)

For each 1 lb fabric add ½ oz potassium dichromate. Dissolve them together in water and add to 2 ½ gallons of water. Heat and add the wet fabric. Bring slowly to the boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Begin the dying process straight away.  NB Highly poisonous, handle with care. Use with the lid on the pot as the fumes are highly toxic. Always use rubber gloves when handling the material.

Substitutes

Simple household substances as vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, and wood ash can provide a practicable and greener alternative. They will not produce a completely permanent dye but will greatly reduce fading.

Preparing the Fabric

Natural dyes work best on natural materials such as cotton, silk, and wool. Although a natural fabric, linen takes dye less readily than other materials. Rayon is the only synthetic fabric with which natural dyes can be used successfully.

It is best to keep your dyeing utensils separate from your cooking ware, as some of the substances you will use are poisonous. Copper or brass kettles are reckoned best, though enamel is fine and obtainable from second hand shops- never use aluminium- clean them afterwards with white vinegar and a little sand for scouring. You will also need a plastic bucket to rinse the fabric, muslin for straining out the plant material, stirring sticks, measuring jugs and scales, a stove for heating the liquids, the dye plant material and mordant. 

The fabric should be thoroughly washed and soaked overnight if necessary to remove residues of grease, preferably in rainwater. Give it a final rinse in warm water to which a tablespoon of vinegar has been added.

Adding the Mordant

If you are using a mordant it should be added at this stage. The mordant should be dissolved in a small quantity of hot water, and a further four gallons of water gradually added. Totally immerse the fabric in the liquid and gradually bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. An alternative method is to soak the cloth in the mordant mixture for twenty-four hours (though if using alum, it will need to be boiled). Remove the fabric from the solution and dye it immediately.

Dyeing the fabric

Use approximately 2 oz of the plant material for every 1 oz of fabric. The plant should be chopped or crushed place it in a large pan and bring to the boil. Simmer ½ -2 hours depending on the material- flowers will give up their colours quickly, while woods take longer. Turn off the heat and leave to cool a little, then add the fabric, bring back to the boil and simmer, stirring, until the fabric takes on a good colour. Wearing rubber gloves, rinse the fabric several times, gradually decreasing the temperature of the rinsing water. Hang up the fabric to dry naturally. You can repeat the dyeing process two or three times to increase the colour density of the fabric and improve its resistance to fading.

Plants to Use

Most plants will produce some kind of dye, but ‘tinctorum’ or ‘tinctoria’ in their Latin name indicates a plant that is long established as a dyestuff. Various parts of the plant can be used- bark, berries, flowers, juice, leaves, shoots, or roots, depending on the particular plant. See the dye table.

Dye chart

Plant                                       colour                                                 mordant

Alder bark                               red-brown                                           alum

Alder flowers                          green                                                   alum

Alder twigs                             brown                                                  iron

Alkanet                                   beige                                                   alum

Apple bark                              green                                                   iron

Bilberries                                 blue                                                     iron

Bilberries                                 purple                                                  alum

Bilberries                                blue                                                     iron

Privet leaves                            blue                                                     alum & salt

Birch bark                               purple                                                  iron

Blackberries                            light grey                                             alum

Blackberry shoots                   black                                                   iron

Bayberry leaves                      yellow- brown                                     alum

Parsley                                    green-yellow                                       alum

Birch leaves                            green-yellow                                       alum

Apple bark                              red-yellow                                           alum

Madder                                    dark red                                               alum & tartar

Bed straw roots                       red                                                       alum & tartar

Walnut leaves                         brown                                                  alum

Iceland moss                           light brown                                          none

Elder bark                               black                                                   iron

Blackthorn                              orange                                                 alum

Elderberries                             purple                                                  alum

St John’s wort flowers            purple                                                  none

Agrimony                                yellow                                                 alum

Ash inner bark                        yellow                                                 alum

Birch                                       yellow                                                 alum

Bog myrtle                              yellow                                                 alum

Broom                                     yellow                                                 alum

Marsh marigold                      yellow                                                 alum

Meadowsweet                         yellow                                                 alum

Nettle                                      yellow                                                 alum

Crab apple bark                       yellow                                                 alum

Bracken                                   yellow                                                 alum

Flag iris                                   blue                                                     iron

Dock                                       beige                                                   alum

Dyer’s weld                            green                                                   chrome

Elder berries                            pink-purple                                          alum

Elder leaves                            yellow                                                 alum

Elder shoots                            green                                                   chrome

Golden rod                              yellow                                                 alum

Gorse                                       yellow                                                 alum

Heather                                   beige                                                   alum

Horsetail                                 green                                                   alum

Indigo                                      blue                                                     none needed

Lichen                                     yellow to purple                                  none needed

Lily of the Valley leaves         green-yellow                                       alum

Madder root                            orange-red                                           alum or iron

Marigold                                 brown                                                  alum

Oak bark                                 brown                                                  alum

Oak bark                                 yellow                                                 tin or zinc       

Oak bark                                 black                                                   iron

Onion skins                             yellow                                                 alum

Pine                                         red-yellow                                           alum

Pine cones                               beige                                                   alum

Sloes                                       purple                                                  alum

Sorrel leaves                           yellow                                                 alum

Sorrel root                               red                                                       alum

Sunflower petals                     yellow                                                 alum

Walnut shells                          brown                                                  alum

Woad                                      green-blue                                           none needed   

© Anna Franklin, Hearth Witch, Lear Books, 2005

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

One thought on “Natural Dyes”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: