Friday, May 20, 2011

10 tips to get the most from your natural dye garden

Natural dyes are a sustainable and magical way to colour your own creative textiles.  Since textile dyeing is a major water pollutant, switching to natural dyes that you grow yourself is one step you can take to walk softly on the earth and lessen your carbon footprint.  Further when you dye your clothing with natural colour that you grow yourself, you develop a beautiful bioregional colour palette that is vibrant, distinctive and evokes pleasure whenever you see it.

One roadblock to realizing the full potential of a natural dye garden is timing the harvest of the plants so that their dye potential is optimal and the fiber and fabric at hand when the dye pot is ready.  I hear so many friends who planted a dye garden, only to miss the enjoyment of the colour because they weren't ready to dye when the plants were ready to harvest.

Here are some tips that I use to get the most from my natural dye garden:

1.  Create an outdoor dye studio.  

It can be a temporary shelter or a permanent fixture to your outdoor area, but having a well ventilated place outside, near a source of heat and water, is a must for getting the most out of your dye garden.  A 10 x 10 canopy for shade and protection from inclement weather, well anchored, would suffice.  A gazebo or outdoor workshop would be even better.  There should be a source of heat -- a wood stove, a hot plate or gas burner or even a barbecue.  The heat should be at counter level, so that you don't have to stoop to use it.  There should be water at hand -- even a garden hose with a spigot control will work, or a rain barrel.  Other minimal equipment -- a table or counter that is heat proof, tongs, sticks, measuring spoons, shelves to hold pots, jars, mordants and assists or a secure cupboard if there are children or pets around. 

The aroma of some natural dyes can be overpowering so you don't want to simmer them in your kitchen.  Also some require prolonged simmering that can really cramp your space if you need to cook in your kitchen as well.  So having a dedicated outdoor area for dyeing will mean that you will have more space and time to dye.

Some natural dyes require long steeping or a fermentation time and you don't want to be kicking them around your kitchen.  Having a dedicated dye area will allow you to give them the time that they need to give up their treasured colours.

2.  Have a large store of dedicated dye containers and use them.

Coaxing the colours from natural dye plants is a slow process, often requiring premordanting, fermentation, or long soaking.  Some colours require body temperature water and some high heat.  Some natural dyes, like walnut, need a year long steeping to yield their optimal strength to the dye bath.  Having lots of dye pots, jars, and plastic containers, well organized in your dye area, will allow you to have several vats on the go, to get the most from your dye garden.

Solar dye with St. John's Wort

Fermentation with Goldrod flowers

Garage sales, ice cream parlours, bakeries and restaurants are all good sources of large, lidded containers that can be repurposed for your dye playground.  Any container with a lid that you can lift when full of water, is a viable container to keep for natural dyeing.  Stainless steel pots are most often recommended for natural dyeing because they don't add to the mordant effect of the dye process.  However, copper, iron, tin  and aluminum pots will add their own nuances to your colour palette and should be exploited to their maximum potential.  Plastic ice cream pails with lids are perfect for those plants that require a long steeping (walnut, madder) or a fermentation (indigo).

In addition to containers, keep a store of rusty nails, copper pipes, old rail spikes, tin cans to wrap into textiles for flower pounding experiments.  Buttons, smooth stones and elastic bands will be useful as resists for your indigo dyeing as well.

3.  Recycle water

 Water should be reused when ever possible.  The water from your mordant bath can be reused for the next textile to be mordanted, over and over again, until it is too cloudy to see the pot bottom.  Water from your dye bath can be reused for paler shades and then brought to pH 7 with the addition of vinegar or baking soda, as appropriate, and used to water plants.  Plant residues can be composted.  Rainwater can be used for natural dyeing but hard water from a well or natural spring may add its own nuance to your natural dye palette.  Calcium rich water yields especially bright yellows and greens.

4.  Plant Perennial dye plants.
Many very generous dye plants are perennial and so can be root divided to expand your garden or shared with friends.  In my mountainous area, with frost any day of the year and a very short growing season, I appreciate perennial dye plants that start growing as soon as the Spring pushes back the snow.  These plants are faithful and can be divided in Spring or Fall to expand the choices.  Golden rod, madder, dyer's chamomile, bedstraw, yarrow, mint and st. john's wort are all perennial in my climate.  Your list might be expanded.

Golden Rod in August at Joybilee Farm

5.  Give more space to blues and reds. 

There are many plants that give various shades of yellow, but only a few plants that give reds and blues.  Reds are needed for purples and oranges.  Blues are needed for purples and greens.  The only blue yielding plant that I can grow in my climate is woad.  We are working to improve the indigo yields from woad, but for now, we grow a large patch so that there is lots to give us a full palette of blues and greens for our clothing.  Woad can be concentrated to yield dark blues like indigo or you can dye with the plants for paler shades.  If you can plant a higher yielding indigo plant in your climate -- do.  And allow as much as a third of your dye area to it.  Japanese indigo is a good choice in a temperate climate with good warmth in the summer.  If you are further south, go for indigofera tinctoria.

Isatis tinctoria gives softer blues than indigoferra tinctoria

Madder  requires a dedicated space for 3 to 4 years to grow strong, thick roots for dyeing reds.  It should be kept well weeded and fed some lime once in a while, ashes, and composted manure for good root development.  If you live in a warmer climate than I do, you will be able to mature seeds on your madder plants and have enough to share with friends.  You can expand the madder bed by dividing the roots in the fall and beginning a new bed.

Ideally you should have 4 madder beds growing, and plan to harvest 2/3rds of the roots of one bed each fall.  Madder can be dried for later use so dedicate 1/3 rd of your garden to madder and other red yielding plants.  Bedstraw and wild madder will yield less intense reds but are also good choices for expanding the red potential of your dye garden.  Like madder, you will use the roots to dye with.

Those further south might look into prickly pear and wild cochineal scale insects as part of their dye garden.

6.  Harvest the weeds, and windfalls too.  

 Many weeds, leaves and branches will yield colour and tannins, which are necessary for dyeing plant fibers.  Don't overlook the wild bounty, while you cultivate your own dye garden.  Don't use a plant that you can't identify -- so have a good botanical field guide handy when you go for a walk.  Many hedgerow trees are rich in tannins and windfall branches are a good source.  Some plants like mullein are also rich sources of tannins and yellow dyes (use an alkaline steep to get the most colour).

One rule of thumb is that if the plant has a strong scent it will probably yield a dye.  The aromas of natural dyes are one of the benefits of this craft.

Don't limit yourself to a boiling water dye bath -- try wrapping recycled fabrics in plant material, pounding it with a wooden mallet,sealing it up in a bag, and allowing it to ferment for days, even weeks.   India Flint has made this flower pounding technique famous in her book, "Eco Colour".

Or try solar dyeing in those jars that you recycled from the restaurant in town.  Water, and plant material, plus your textile and some rusty nails or a tin can.  Put it in the sunshine and forget about it for a week or more.  If you don't see colour immediately, try shifting the pH of the water slightly with the addition of ammonia, baking soda or citric acid.

7.  Interplant to encourage bees.

 Bees and pollinators will encourage your garden to yield its best.  Plant strongly scented flowers like marigolds, and calendula in with your woad, and madder.  The flower heads can be harvested for good yellows later in the summer, and the roots will discourage soil nematodes from harming your dye plants.

Other dye flowers that give good yellows can be planted in banks with the aim to provide bees with food through out the season and encourage them in your garden -- early spring woad flowers (don't plant if woad is noxious in your area) from just 2 plants will give you enough woad seed for a few years of planting and enough to share with friends.  Dyer's chamomile will bloom all season.  Marigolds, black eyed susans, will yield late summer flowers, along with goldenrod, with its sweet honey scent. 

8.  Plant annuals and biennials that self seed generously 
Dyer's chamomile
Although some natural dye plants, like woad, should not be left to self seed -- or you will have a major noxious weed problem -- many natural dye plants can be allowed to self seed and their progeny moved in Spring to a new position in your dye garden.  Dyer's chamomile, dyer's chrysanthemum and weld fall into this category.  All three give strong, fast yellows and self seeded plants have the earliest possible growth for your climate, a good indication of when the soil is right to plant them.  This saves you work and gives you a head start on your dye harvests.  That will allow you to space your dyeing over the season, instead of having a crunch to get it all done in September, just before frost.

9.  Recycle worn out clothing and have a store prepared for the dye pot

One of the hinderances to fully exploiting the potential of your natural dye garden is running out of things to dye.  Unlike chemical dyes, natural dyes keep giving up their colour for several dye baths.  Yarns and wool fleeces are standard dye materials.  However, other textiles can also be renewed in the natural dye pot.  Silk blouses, worn t-shirts, worn cotton dress shirts, knitted sweaters can all be redyed with natural dyes to give a new purpose to an old garment.  Worn cloth can be dyed as is, or cut into strips for knitting and rag woven garments and accessories.  Knitted sweaters can be unravelled and the yarn skeined and tyed loosely for dyeing.You can overdye previous colours or use a colour remover to give a fresh base to the textile.

You may find it easier to premordant your textile before tearing into strips to ready it for the dye vat, or tear into strips and then skein to get it ready for mordanting or dyeing.  Don't worry about getting an even colour.  The mottled areas are part of the natural beauty of repurposing a textile.

A good stock of these prepared textiles can be kept in a lidded container in your outdoor dye studio, ready to take up the last dye molecules of your weld vat.  Shredded paper or linen tow, from your own linen fields, also makes a great dye take up to catch the last bit of dye from your pot.  Prepare a good stock ahead of time, premordanted, and store in plastic containers to be ready when you need them.

10.  Keep a dye garden journal with samples.

Don't forget to record the season in a dedicated dye garden journal.  Draw pictures, include photos and dye samples.  Your dye samples become a record of your bioregional colour palette.  Write your techniques and experiments down.  Record where you planted each item so that you can practice rotational planting and remember exactly how long that madder bed has until you can harvest it again.  In the cold, snowy winter, while your garden is buried and you are spinning by your fireside, you can revel in the sure knowledge of a coming summer, by flipping through your dye garden journal and seeing the solar energy in every dye sample.

What hinderances do you have that prevent you from fully exploring your bioregional colour palette in natural dyes?  

What colours have you found for your own bioregional colour scheme, so far in your explorations?

What's your favorite colour and do you know how to coax it from natural dyes?  

Have a look at my website.


  1. Wow!!! So inspiring... this is a really fantastic post Chris, your enthusiasm and vast knowledge really shine through.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments, Lara. I'm passionage about local colour. You guessed that, right? Chemical dyes are one of the biggest water and air polluters on the planet -- just as bad as factory farming and chemical agriculture for the harm it does to people and the ecosystem.

    I was thinking of you as I hucked rocks out of my garden yesterday. I remembered you told me to leave them in because they added warmth to the soil, so I put some of the bigger ones back on top to absorb the warmth of the sun.

    Have a great weekend.

  3. Chris, thank you for this posting. I have read it already many times, and it helped me in deciding what to do with my own dyeplants. And also to concentrate more on my own local plants, which I have done, but it is good to read that someone else has the same ideas.
    I have to grow blue most of all, just like you wrote, too, because that is the color that sells most:) And it is the only color I can't get from wild plants or mushrooms.

    1. Hi, Leena
      Thanks for leaving a comment. I'm doing a series about using natural dyes over on my other blog at right now. Most of it will probably be common sense for you, but there might be some new tips. I think you have the same cold climate challenges that I have. Last year was a test year for me. I didn't even manage to grow carrots, but the dye plants survived. Chris