There are several secrets to dyeing fabrics at home

April 11, 2012
The common weed called goldenrod creates a yellowish-tan color when used to dye fabrics.

Winters are almost by definition drab and colorless, so the colors of spring seem more vibrant and alive.

Humans being humans, we want things to be our favorite colors so we often dye them.  The word dye probably came to us from Germanic, meaning "secret, hidden, obscure."

But there is no secret to dyeing; rather there are several secrets.

First, there is the mordant.  Mordants are substances that help the dye enter the fiber so that it does not bleed or fade. Some mordants are iron, tin and alum, also known as potassium aluminum sulphate.  You can also use vinegar or other things to set the dye.  
Berries such as currants or gooseberries will act as mordants and keep your colors more permanent. Different mordants will alter the finished color of the cloth or yarn.

Most natural dyes will give you a soft color, so you can get deeper colors by simply using more dyes in each batch.

But what to grow to dye your cloth or yarn?  The list is endless, and many of the plants used for dyes are probably already in your garden posing as common flowers, herbs or even vegetables.

Common marigold (Tagetes) will give you a yellow-gold color; alum mordant gives lighter shades of marigold and iron gives darker shades.  The unrelated “pot marigold” or Calendula (Calendula officinalis) produces a pastel yellow dye.

The common weed goldenrod was once very popular as a dye. Goldenrod can dye cloth a yellowish tan when combined with alum.  The color deepens to gold with chrome mordant and turns a nice green with iron mordants. Use fresh, not dried, goldenrod flower heads.

Dahlia (Dahlia spp.) is a tender perennial whose flowers used with alum give a nice yellow to orange dye.

The common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual whose flower heads with the mordant alum yield a light yellow-green dye.

When choosing plants for dyeing use blossoms that are in full bloom and berries that are fully ripe.

To begin cloth or yarn dyeing, only use natural fiber.  Raw materials will dye easier and better than finished cloth, so much so that something “dyed in the wool” means it is innate rather than added on.

Chop your plant material into small pieces and put in a pot.  Avoid aluminum or copper pots, as they can interact with the dyes.

Cover the plant material with double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about an hour. Carefully strain the plant material out.

Add the wet fabric to the dye bath and simmer until you get the desired color. Bear in mind that the color will be lighter once it dries.

For deeper colors, you can let it soak overnight.

The next time you stroll through your garden or walk in the woods, keep an eye out for flowers and leaves to use for natural dyeing.  This ancient craft can be very relaxing.

Rose petals, lavender, fresh mint leaves and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids can make both a brilliant pink dye and a very tasty pink lemonade.

It will make you a “dyed in the wool” fan of creative gardening.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.