Magic Bottles


Making Natural Dyes From Plants

Making Natural Dyes From Plants

Did you know that a great source for natural dyes can be found right in your own back yard! Roots, nuts and flowers are just a few common natural ways to get many colors. Yellow, orange, blue, red, green, brown and grey are available. Go ahead, experiment!

Gathering plant material for dyeing: Blossoms should be in full bloom, berries ripe and nuts mature. Remember, never gather more than 2/3 of a stand of anything in the wild when gathering plant stuff for dying.

To make the dye solution: Chop plant material into small pieces and place in a pot. Double the amount of water to plant material. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about an hour. Strain. Now you can add your fabric to be dyed. For a stronger shade, allow material to soak in the dye overnight.

Getting the fabric ready for the dye bath: You will have to soak the fabric in a color fixative before the dye process. This will make the color set in the fabric.

Color Fixatives:

Salt Fixative (for berry dyes) 1/2 cup salt to 8 cups cold water

Plant Fixatives (for plant dyes) 4 parts cold water to 1 part vinegar

Add fabric to the fixative and simmer for an hour. Rinse the material and squeeze out excess. Rinse in cool water until water runs clear.

Dye Bath: Place wet fabric in dye bath. Simmer together until desired color is obtained. The color of the fabric will be lighter when its dry. Also note that all dyed fabric should be laundered in cold water and separately.

Muslin, silk, cotton and wool work best for natural dyes and the lighter the fabric in color, the better. White or pastel colors work the best.

NOTE: It's best to use an old large pot as your dye vessel. Wear rubber gloves to handle the fabric that has been dyed, the dye can stain your hands. It's also important to note, some plant dyes may be toxic, check with the Poison Control Center if unsure.


Bloodroot will give a good orange to reddish orange color.

Sassafras (leaves)

Onion skin

Lichen (gold)

Barberry (mahonia sp.) yellow orange (with alum) very strong & permanent. Any part of the plant will work.

Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) Yields bright permanent orange with alum. (alum = хим. Стипца)

Turmeric dyed cloth will turn orange or red if it is dipped in lye. (lye = пепелива вода, луга)


Wild plum root will give a reddish or rusty brown.

Oak bark will give a tan or oak color.

Sumac (leaves)

Walnut (hulls) (deep brown)(wear gloves)

Tea Bags (light brown)

Juniper berries

Coffee grinds

Acorns (boiled)

Yellow dock (produces shades of brown on wool)

Beetroot (Dark Brown With FeSO4)

Shades Of Pink



Raspberries (red)

Roses and Lavender, with a little mint and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids can make both a brilliant pink dye and a very tasty pink lemonade.

Lichens - A pink, brown, or wine colored dye can be produced from a lichen known as British soldiers.


Woad (first year leaves). Woad gives a pale to mid blue colour depending on the type of fabric and the amount of woad used.

Mulberries (royal purple)

Red cabbage

Elderberries (lavender)

Grapes (purple)


Cherry (roots)

Blackberry (strong purple)

Japanese indigo (deep blue)

Red Cedar Root (purple)

Red Maple Tree (purple)(inner bark)


Red leaves will give a reddish brown color I use salt to set the dye.

Sumac (fruit) (light red)

Dandelion (root)

Beets (deep red)

Rose (hips)



Hibiscus Flowers (dried)



Iris (roots)

Sumac (leaves) (Black)

Carob pod (boiled) will give a gray to cotton


Pokeweed (berries)

Hibiscus (flowers)(dark red or purple ones) make a red-purple dye.

Daylilies (old blooms)


Broom Flower

Virginia Creeper (all parts); alum mordant; Peach.

Achiote powder (annatto seed

Plum tree (roots) (salmon color on wool with alum)


Artemisia species provide a range of greens from baby's breath to nettle green.

Spinach (leaves)

Black-Eyed Susans

Grass (yellow green)


Plantain Roots

Lily-of-the-valley (light green) be careful what you do with the spent dye bath. The plant is toxic so try to avoid pouring it down the drain into the water supply.

Barberry root (wool was dyed a greenish bronze-gold)

Red onion (skin) (a medium green, lighter than

forest green)


Saffron (yellow)

Syrian Rue (glows under black light)

Red Clover (whole blossom, leaves and stem); alum mordant; Gold.

Yellow cone flower (whole flower head); chrome mordant; Brass to Greeney-Brass.

Onion (skins)

Marigold (blossoms)

Willow (leaves)

Queen Anne's Lace


Celery (leaves)

Golden Rod (flowers)

Sumac (bark)

Weld (bright yellow)

Cameleon plant (golden)

Dandelion flower

Osage Orange also known as Bois d'arc or hedgeapple (heartwood, inner bark, wood, shavings or sawdust) (pale yellow)

Daffodil flower heads (after they have died); alum mordant

Mullen (leaf and root) pale yellow. *careful, because the little fuzzy hairs can make one itchy!

Hickory leaves (yellow) if plenty of leaves are boiled and salt added.

Tea ( ecru color)

Yellow, Curly, Bitter, or Butter Dock (despite various leaf shapes, all have a bright yellow taproot) gives you a yellow/flesh color.

White mulberry tree (bark) Cream color onto white or off-white wool. Alum mordant.

Paprika ( shade of pale yellow - light orange)

Beetroot (yellow) (alum & K2Cr2O7)



You have a really interesting list of plant dyes. Some dyes you may want to add:

Syrian rue is a great yellow dye, and actually glows under a black light!

Roses and lavender, with a little mint and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids can make both a brilliant pink dye and a very tasty pink lemonade.

Turmeric and cumin will permanently color anything bright yellow with only a little acidic fixative. Saffron will do the same to a lesser amount.

Mulberries provide a royal purple color.

Artemisia species provide a range of greens from baby's breath to nettle green.

Sumac fruit provide a light red (but not pink). However, these are already acidic, so their use may require a stronger acid than most or simply be ready to use straight off the plant.

Osage orange is hedgeapple/boit d'arc


Ocherous red clay (i.e. dirt) can be used to make a nice red-orange color. I don't know how well it binds to cloth, but it can be mixed with egg yolk to make great paint. (egg tempera technique)

Malachite and turquoise can be ground up and used the same way to make similar paints, but green and turquoise colored, respectively.

Just some stuff I've seen around. I have used all but the sumac, and they all work wonderfully. - S. HOFFMAN

Any color of fall leaves will yield the color of the leaves or a color close to the color of the leaves. For example hickory leaves gives a good yellow if plenty of leaves are boiled and salt added. Red leaves will give a reddish brown color I use salt to set the dye. I use this in my Cherokee Baskets. Bloodroot will give a good orange to reddish orange color. It grows on branches and creeks here in Eastern Oklahoma. It is a traditional dye used by the Cherokee to dye with. Oak bark will give a tan or oak color. - B.FORD Mullen, leaf and root, makes a nice shade of pale yellow. I've heard that adding dilute sulfuric acid makes it green, though I've not tried it. Also, be careful, because the little fuzzy hairs can make one itchy! - PIXIEPHREAK Wild plum root will give a reddish or rusty brown. - B.FORD

Make the dye bath as you describe on your web page. Use alum for mordant. On wool these will give you an intense bright red (or pink if you have used too much water. Other mordants give different colors. This was the

red dye used in the blankets that were produced by the Indians in the California Missions. The plant became widespread in California because it was cultivated to produce this dye material. The color is safe, it has also

been used as a food coloring.

Do you know about barberry (mahonia sp.) -- it makes a wonderful yellow orange (with alum) very strong and permanent. It too was grown at the missions for this purposed. Any part of the plant will work.

Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea -- a threatened species endemic to the islands off the coast of Santa Barbara California) Yields bright permanent orange with alum. Any part of the plant will work. The color of spaghetti sauce. (I got some of this when our local botanic garden was pruning their specimens.) I'm going to be trying this with the garden variety soon as I have heard this also works.

I know there are some mushrooms that yield nice blues. I'd like to know more about that. - S. REINHART

Hi, My partner and I added a new fragrance to our soap line and wanted a peachy color to complement it. For a 36 bar batch we used about 4 pinches of achiote powder (annatto seed) and were pleased with the color. It has minute flecks of a dark red in it also. We use only additives that are non-toxic and edible. Hope this helps.


You can add daffodil flower heads (after they have died). They make a lovely shade of gold/yellow. We used alum as a mordant. - JOY Blackberry season is nearly upon us at harvest time so go picking and make beautiful strong purple dyes! - EMMA, WEST SUSEX Hi, what about dandelion flower for yellow. - NANCY I just thought you might want to know that onion peels make a great orange or yellow mattering on how long you leave it in the dye bath and whether you are using cotton or wool. I usually dye gray wools so I am usually just looking for a tint and not looking for a super bright color. - LIBBY H For a pale yellow the wood and inner bark of Bois d'arc or hedgeapple. (Maclura pomifera) - R. BRODSKY, FT WORTH, TEXAS Onion skins and lichen makes a gorgeous gold colour. - GEM STONE

The inner bark of the Red Maple tree when combined with an iron mordant yields shades of Purple.

Shavings or sawdust from the heartwood of the Osage Orange tree yields shades of yellow.

These were done on wool. I'm not sure how they would react with other fibers.


When preparing acorns, the byproduct of making them edible can be used as a natural dye. I cracked open the acorns with a large stone. To make the nutmeats edible you boil them in hot water and strain, then boil again with new water, until the water runs clear. When boiling them the water will turn brown (natural tannins boiling away from the acorns.) This brown liquid (natural tannic acid solution) can be used with a vinegar-based fixative for a very dark brown color to cloth. The brown color was thrown away on my first try. As I said, it is a byproduct of boiling hulled acorns, for eating. Thought this might be useful to you. - BY M. LANGENFELD Goldenrod makes a beautiful yellow. The color ranges from a deep golden to pale yellow depending on how much goldenrod you use and how well the material takes the dye. Also, elderberries make a lovely deep lavender color! These both are colorfast and will not fade. - BY K. BRATCHER

Two new dyes for your "Yellow" list:

(1) Red Clover (whole blossom, leaves and stem); alum mordant; Gold.

(2) Yellow cone flower (whole flower head); chrome mordant; Brass to Greeney-Brass.

One new dye for your "Peach" list:

(1) Virginia Creeper (all parts); alum mordant; Peach.


Grass makes a nice shade of green. Just boil it in water, remove grass and use the remaining as dye. - BY D.BOYLE Don't forget tea. Any style of tea bag you can buy from the store or homemade tea if you live in an area where growing that is possible makes a very light nice brown. - BY DERRICK

Madder, weld, and Japanese indigo are the three very best natural dyes for temperate areas. Madder makes shades of red, weld yields a bright yellow, and Japanese indigo gives deep blues. They are all quite colorfast. - BY CAITLIN

Red Cedar root = Purple dye (Alum mordant.) Cameleon plant gives you a beautiful golden color (Alum mordant.) - BY LANEKNIT

Hi, I'll be trying a bunch of different stuff for dyes pretty soon (waiting for wool and cocoons).

I'm going to try different dried herbs from the health food store, and Mexican market :). First on the list is annato. It's been mentioned though.

I'm pretty sure dried hibiscus flowers will make a shade of red. I've drank hibiscus tea and a single tea bag makes an intensely tart, deep red tea. It's high in vitamin C too (not sure how that would affect dye, unless ascorbic acid affects dye). I'll just dump a box of it in my microwave safe bowl and start to microwave slow cooking :P. (I bought those disposable microwaveable bowls with lids just for crafting to be safe, and they're both good and cheap). My stove's electric so I can't go full-on pioneer no matter what.

Plain old tea makes a nice ecru like color. It's what they use in movies to prematurely age fabrics.

Oh, nearly forgot, Henna should make for a lovely color (I just need to experiment with mordants and curing time, will get back to you).

Dollars to doughnuts, using a copper pot changes results(chemical reaction).

I'm just going to use what's close at hand, and when I think about it, that's what the pioneers did too. So I'm adding kool-aid to the list, even if they didn't have red dye # 33 in the 19th century :)

- Nolita W.

Your site has an excellent list of natural dye plants and thought these few may be useful to you.

Yellow, Curly, Bitter, or Butter Dock (despite various leaf shapes, all have a bright yellow taproot) -yellow/flesh color. I have only experimented on lengths of cotton cording I had lying around, so results on wool may be drastically different. I read that this plant can produce a fairly clear yellow. Unfortunately I could only find a small plant with thin roots. It would have been difficult for me to peel all the roots of their thin bark/skin, so I decided to boil them with it still on. This produced a "wheat" shade on the cotton cord, a few shades yellower than a flesh tone. Alum seems to help the dye stick better, but is by no means necessary. Forget iron on the cotton cloth. It comes out a horrible dingy gray-brown. If I attain a true yellow with peeled roots I will send another e-mail.

When dyeing with turmeric, whose color stands up next to artificially dyed clothes, make sure you wear gloves and be careful not to splash. Otherwise your hands will be bright yellow for a week and whatever you splashed the dye on will be yellow almost forever. I learned the hard way.

If using lily-of-the-valley (light green) be careful what you do with the spent dye bath. The plant is toxic so try to avoid pouring it down the drain into the water supply. As long as there are no toxic mordants in the bath, I suggest you dump it outside.

Pokeberry is an easily accessible dye in my area, but it needs to be mordanted with alum or it will wash right out. It still is not very lightfast.

Regards, Eric

Domestic plum tree's roots also work with the same method described for the wild plum roots. I have never been able to work with the wild variety, but the dye bath seemed fairly weak for the amount of domestic plum root bark that I used. Perhaps hybridization has thinned down the dye content or the soil on the east coast doesn't have high enough levels of the minerals needed for strong dye production. In any case, the dilute bath made a wonderful peach, almost salmon color on wool with alum.

Despite some sites' reports that yellow dock can be used as a yellow dye, yellow dock can only be used to produce shades of brown on wool. The yellow constituent disappears upon drying the root, and dissipates while boiling.

When I used barberry root, I left the dark layer of the root under the bark on. I have never heard anyone say to remove it, but it probably should be taken off. Instead of the yellow-orange I've read so much about, the wool was dyed a greenish bronze-gold. In sunlight it "shines" a lovely gold color as opposed to the green tone with indoor lighting. It's a great color but looks pitiful when placed next to the atomic yellow of a skein of wool dyed in turmeric.

The bark of the white mulberry tree, which is a terrible weed, at least on my property, will not dye a very dark shade, but does impart a great cream color onto white or off-white wool. I used alum as a mordant and the bark was very fresh. Since the mulberry does contain tannins, an iron mordant would probably have produced deeper browns or grays.

Best Regards, Eric

I noticed that your web page said red onions give a red dye. In the past when I have used red onion skin as a dye, I have gotten a medium green, lighter than forest green, but very nice. You also might want to add paprika, which gives an ever so slightly orange shade of pale yellow and is hard to wash out.

- Alma S.

Cumin, listed for yellow on your dye list does not provide color at all. All you get is water scented like Mexican or Indian food, which smells great, but isn't what I wanted. Perhaps the writer had meant curry powder, which contains a high percentage of turmeric, which is already listed for yellow. Turmeric dyed cloth will turn orange or red if it is dipped in lye. Pour water through wood ash in a coffee filter to make lye, then pour this over the dyed cloth and allow to sit. The color changes very rapidly, so be prepared to pull the cloth out and wash it quickly, or thin down the lye before use.


Dark red or purple hibiscus flowers make a red-purple dye. If it happens to be winter and you are dying to dye (pun totally intended) buy some hibiscus flower tea (I used pompadour brand hibiscus flower and rose hip tea) and simmer a bunch of bags in water to make a strong dye bath.

- Eric

I am a gardener and grow daylilies. One particular variety is quite tall and orange when blooming. When the bloom closes after one day of blooming, I have often been touched by the old bloom which bleeds a red/purplish juice from it and it will stain my clothing. I have just experimented with these blooms on a paper towel and pressed the juices with a rolling pin and the colors are really beautiful. Of course it is not all over as though you were in a liquid state, but maybe it could be used to do designs on paper. I tried it with an old handkerchief and the colors stained the fabric, but I didn't get quite the nice bleeding into the fabric with a little red and yellow from the bloom as it did on the paper towel.

If anyone has any other suggestions, I would be interested in the paper dye as well as the fabric dye with these particular plants. Thanks.

- A.S.

Woad (first year leaves). Woad gives a pale to mid blue colour depending on the type of fabric and the amount of woad used. The dye itself is indigotin, the same dye present in indigo; however indigo contains 10 times more indigotin, hence the deeper the colour.

Woad is a relatively easy plant to grow, however it will easily over-run your garden if you let it. the best way to prevent this is after its second year (its a biennial plant) when the yellow flowers are present prune the plant so just a couple of the yellow flower clusters are left as this will provide more than enough seeds for regrowth.

- Ian S.

Hi, I am Deepali G. from Indore, India & am doing a project on dyeing of cotton, P/C & Polyester with beetroot. I've successfully applied the dye on the cotton fabric. It gave different shades with different mordants.

Dark Brown With FeSO4.

Shades of yellow with alum & K2Cr2O7.

I'd suggest you try it sometime.

- Deepali

With so much mystery surrounding lichen dyes, I decided to do some experimenting of my own. A pink, brown, or wine colored dye can be produced from a lichen known as British soldiers. This is a very distinctive lichen, unlike some of the others used for dyeing so it is impossible to mistake. In order to extract the dye, place the lichen in a glass jar and cover with ammonia. The lichen will soak up a lot, so it may be necessary to add more to cover it completely. Put a lid on the jar or rubber band several layers of plastic wrap over it. Within a minute or two, the ammonia will turn very dark. If a light is shone through it, it will look ruby red, but this is deceiving; the majority of the dye color is brown. Allow this mixture to soak overnight. The next day, or anytime after that (time can't hurt) pour the ammonia out and through a coffee filter to remove debris. Don gloves and wring the remaining ammonia out of the lichens, which will now be very soft and spongy.

If you plan to make multiple batches, save this lichen, as a bit more dye can be leached out of it with further ammonia soaking, then that mixture is poured over fresh lichen to conserve all the dye possible. The ammonia should be extremely dark at this point. To make a dye bath, thin it out, 1 part ammonia to 2 parts water will produce a medium-light pink on wool, mohair, and most likely silk. It barely dyes cotton or linen at all.

Simmer prewashed and wet yarn in this mixture (Outside, please, the concentrated fumes would be very dangerous if done indoors) The dye will achieve its maximum shade rather quickly, some of which will go down the drain when washed, properly mordanted and pre-washed, or not. (this is because the dark dye bath liquid will cling to the fibers, making it seem darker than the final product) It will be shockingly light for the depth of color in the dye bath. If you want to push the pink toward wine (albeit a light wine color), add vinegar to the dye bath and simmer for a few more minutes. The acid will unlock the ability of the brown dye to color the cloth. In the basic ammonia solution is was bound up and therefore could not taint the pink. A little brown color will serve to darken the pink, making it seem like a stronger shade. Pull the cloth out immediately to prevent further darkening. If you let it go too long, however, the cloth will end up being unmistakably brown with a pink undertone. In order to get a pure brown, acidify the dye bath with vinegar after exhausting the pink dye (this is probably after only one batch of material has been dyed). Anything simmered in this dye bath will come out a medium-light brown, and the dye bath will be entirely exhausted. Be careful when using lichens as dyes as they grow very slowly and harvesting them in any great quantity will undo perhaps hundreds of years if growth. The lichen I used is growing in vast quantity on the old wood fence in my backyard. Since it is being torn down very soon and replaced, I figured I'd harvest all that I could and not let it go to waste. Good luck.

- Eric

I have found that carob pod, boiled, will give a gray to cotton. Being of high tannin content, it can be used alone: I guess that the same would work from carob powder or syrup.

Regards and may God keep you well.

- C.W.Idris Ellis

Culinary Herb Goes Dye Crazy

Rosemary adds a natural flair to yarn and fabric.

By Susan M. Strawn

Natural dyes appeal to those with a passion for color. “With natural dyes, it is as if the colors breathe like the plants from which they bloomed,” natural-dye enthusiast Meghan Sayres says. James Liles, a natural-dye expert, believes natural dyes attract our eye because they originate in living things. “I sometimes feel that some of that life is still there,” he says in his book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing (University of Tennessee Press, 1990).

People have an intrinsic love for color. Although the earliest use of natural dyes remains lost in prehistory, perhaps the first dyes were simple stains from plants or rusty iron. Some cave images painted with mineral colors date to 15,000 b.c. It is tempting to imagine that early humans also used natural dyes for the first woven and felted textiles, although we have no proof of them doing so. However, archaeologists in India have found fragments of dyed cotton textiles more than 2,000 years old.

All dyes were “natural” until 1856, when the English chemist William Henry Perkin developed the first synthetic dye. By 1915, synthetic dyes — brilliantly colored and inexpensive — had replaced natural dyes in the textile industry. Crafts revival movements in the 1920s and 1970s spurred the renewed interest in natural dyes enjoyed by crafters and fiber artists today.

The Dyeing Process

Natural dyes are organic particles derived from animals, vegetables or minerals that can impart color to fiber. Dyes are distinct from pigments, as they diffuse from a water solution into the substance of a fiber. Pigments, on the other hand, consist of larger, water-insoluble particles held on the surface of a fiber.

Three elements that play critical roles in natural dyeing are dye, mordant and type of fiber. Natural dye particles from different plants, animals or minerals produce different colors. The earliest natural dyes were probably substantive dyes. That is, they were dyes that could not bond with textiles without mordants, chemicals that help dye particles combine with fiber to form insoluble colors.

Mordants not only help fibers absorb dye more readily, they often change the colors a dye produces. I have used three mordants — alum, iron and ammonia. Alum deepens colors, iron dulls or mutes colors and ammonia brightens colors.

Precision Dyeing

Precision dyeing requires that you keep careful records during the process. Measure and record the amount of dye bath made from rosemary. Pour dye bath into a stainless-steel pan and add enough distilled water to cover the fiber. Add all your fiber – mordanted and non-mordanted — and cover with a lid. Heat to 140 degrees and maintain heat for 30 to 60 minutes. Check temperature and stir gently every 10 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove fiber and place gently onto paper towels or into a stainless-steel bowl.

Pour half the dye bath into another container. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons ammonia into the dye bath and stir. Place one third of the mordanted and the non-mordanted fiber back into this dye bath. Simmer for 10 minutes to brighten the color.

There are two methods to tone down another third of the fiber.

Method 1: Pour half the dye bath without ammonia into an iron pan. Add one third of the mordanted and non-mordanted fiber to the pan. Simmer for 30 minutes or until you see the color shift to bronze green.

Method 2: Pour half the dye bath without ammonia into a stainless-steel pan; add iron nails (I used six nails) and one third of the mordanted and non-mordanted fiber. Simmer for 30 minutes or until the color of the fiber shifts to bronze green.

Gently remove fiber and rinse in tap water, progressing from very warm to room temperature, until no color runs from the fiber. Lay flat on paper towels or drape on a drying rack until dry. Pin or tie labels onto each piece of fabric or yarn. Now that you’ve written down all steps and amounts, you’ll have a natural dye recipe to replicate colors or explore further with different mordants.

The type of fiber being dyed also affects color. Dyes and mordants tend to work with specific types of fiber. Wool proved the best fiber for dyeing with rosemary. Cotton and silk turned only a pale yellow, and synthetic fibers, predictably, did not react with rosemary.

Rosemary for Dyeing

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has earned a favored place in many herb gardens and contains particles that function as natural dyes.

This exemplary dye plant thrives outdoors as a tall shrub that produces aromatic sprigs year-round in Zone 8 gardens. If you don’t have it growing in the garden, purchase rosemary as a culinary herb from grocery stores or a farmer’s market.

While many dye plants alone produce only yellow dyes, mordants extend these color possibilities. The following four steps will create a range of six harmonious shades from buttery cream to golden yellow to olive green — all from rosemary. You may try your hand with other herbs in the process, as well (see suggestions).]


Fresh rosemary (about five 6-inch sprigs or more, depending on quantity of fabric or yarn)

Wool yarn or fabric (single ball of yarn wound into small skeins or 1 yard of fabric)

Distilled water

Powder detergent

Alum (aluminum sulfate)

Household ammonia

Iron nails (preferably horseshoe nails available at farm and ranch supply stores or from a farrier) or iron pot designated for dye use only

Scale (weight in ounces and/or grams)

Stainless-steel pan (designate this pan for dyeing only)

Culinary thermometer (for dye use only)

Paper tags with strings

Garden pruning shears

Stainless-steel or plastic strainer (for dye use only)

Paper towels/drying rack or flat surface

Stainless-steel bowl (for dye use only)

Paper and pencil to record weights and measures

Kitchen timer

Wooden spoon or tongs (for dye use only)

Canning jars for free-form method (for dye use only)

Read the instructions before you begin to understand the time and materials required for each step of the dyeing process.

1. Scouring

Scouring removes from commercial yarn and fabric any grease or chemical residue that can interfere with the dyeing process. First, heat distilled water to 110 degrees in a stainless-steel pan. Stir in a pinch of powder detergent. Immerse fabric or yarn in the warm water and stir gently. Before immersing wool yarn, wind it into small skeins to prevent tangling. Remove fiber and rinse in room-temperature distilled water. At this stage, you can either allow the fiber to dry or you can continue to Step 2.

2. Mordanting with alum

Mordanting encourages wool fiber to take up more color from the dye bath. You can use different substances as mordants, but I used the common mordant, alum (alumininum sulfate), available in any grocer’s spice department.

First, weigh your fiber. Then divide fiber into two equal groups. (Remember to keep a sample of each fabric or yarn for comparison after you finish dyeing.) You will mordant one half of the fiber, so weigh the fiber that will be mordanted. Dyers refer to this as the weight of goods or wog. The wog will be used to calculate the quantity of mordant. Use an amount of alum that equals 10 percent of the wog of the fiber to be mordanted. For example: The wog for the fiber I mordanted was 2.2 ounces; 10 percent of 2.2 = 0.2 ounces of alum needed to mordant this amount of fabric.

Place alum and a pinch of powder detergent into a stainless-steel pan. Add enough distilled water (I used 1.5 gallons) to cover the fiber. Stir to dissolve the powders. Wet your fiber in room temperature distilled water before adding it to the pan. Heat over a medium burner to 140 degrees, cover with a lid, and simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off the burner, and allow water and fiber to reach room temperature. Depending on the amount of fiber, cooling takes at least 1 hour. You can speed the cooling process if you remove the lid, stir and gently lift the fiber every few minutes. After the water has cooled, remove the fiber and place it on paper toweling on a flat surface or a drying rack. You can either let the fiber dry or proceed to the dye bath while the fiber is wet.

This is a good time to mark each of the alum-mordanted pieces of fiber. I cut a small notch from the corner of each piece of fabric or tie a knot in the end of skeins of yarn to mark them as mordanted fabric and yarn. 3. Preparing the Dye Bath

First, use garden pruning shears to cut rosemary sprigs into quarter-inch pieces. I purchased three 0.75-ounce packages of rosemary for my small dye project. Add distilled water to cover the rosemary pieces. Heat over a medium burner to 140 degrees, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes. Check the temperature every 10 minutes or so and adjust heat as necessary. The rosemary sprigs will impart a pale, transparent, yellow-green hue to the water. Turn off the burner and allow the dye bath to reach room temperature. This will take at least 45 minutes. Again, you can speed the cooling process if you remove the lid and stir the dye bath. Pour the dye bath through a stainless-steel or plastic strainer into a glass, stainless-steel or plastic container. If not using the dye bath immediately, cover and refrigerate the container. Discard or compost the rosemary sprigs.

4. Dyeing

The free-form method of dyeing is simple and quick, but you will have a difficult time if you decide to replicate similar colors later. (For a more detailed approach, see “Precision Dyeing” ). To keep track of how you created a color, label paper tags to pin or tie onto each set of fabric pieces or yarn skeins after the final step in the dye process.

Further Reading

The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing (The University of Tennessee Press, 1990) by J.N. Liles

Dye Plants and Dyeing

(see Bookshelf) by John and Margaret Cannon

Indigo, Madder & Marigold (Interweave Press, 1993) by T. Van Stralen

The Thames and Hudson Manual of Dyes and Fabrics (Thames and Hudson, 1992) by J. Storey

Wild Color (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999) by Jenny Dean

Free-form Dyeing

Place your dye bath into at least three quart-size canning jars. Add a pinch of powder detergent to each jar. (Detergent assists the dye process by attracting the dye to the fiber surface.) Add six horseshoe nails to one jar. Immerse fiber in the dye bath in all the jars. Then submerse the jars in water in a canning pot and heat over a medium burner to 140 degrees for at least one hour. Agitate the jars every 10 minutes or so to encourage even dyeing — be very gentle because wool will felt when agitated in warm water.

With a wooden spoon or tongs, gently remove and set aside the fiber from one jar on paper toweling. Calculate and measure 1 to 2 teaspoons ammonia, add to that jar and stir. This amount is not critical; see if this amount brightens the color sufficiently. Replace the fiber and continue to simmer 10 minutes longer.

Gently remove fiber and rinse in tap water, progressing from very warm to room temperature water, until no color runs from the fiber. Lay flat on paper toweling or drape on a drying rack until dry. Pin or tie labels onto each piece of fabric or yarn.

Using Your Naturally Dyed Fabric or Yarn

I dyed small skeins of wool yarn to knit into socks with various patterns and fine stripes. You can use dyed wool fabric to piece a quilted wall hanging. Or dye fine yarn for embroidery. Experiment with tie-dye or other resist techniques to create surface designs on fabric. Similarly, tie skeins with rubber bands or in tight knots before dyeing to achieve space-dyed effects. Try dipping portions of fabric or yarn into the ammonia dye bath for additional variations. You also can over-dye fabric or yarn that has been commercially dyed. Whatever you choose, the colors will harmonize naturally because all are derived from a single source of dye, rosemary.


Susan Strawn dyes her wool in Ames, Iowa, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in textiles and clothing at Iowa State University. She studies and writes about historic and ethnographic textiles. Before returning for graduate studies, she was an artist for Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado.

Other Herbs for Dyeing

Plant Part used Colors produced*


(Calendula officinalis) Flowers, fresh or dried Shades of yellow, olive green, brown


(Sambucus nigra) Berries

Leaves Pink, violet, blue-gray

Pale green, gold, olive green


(Eucalyptus gunnii) Bark

Dried leaves

Fresh leaves Reddish-brown, tan, gray

Soft orange, brown, yellow-green

Orange, red


(Lawsonia inermis) Leaves, powdered Varying shades of brown


(Indigofera spp.) Leaves Varying shades of blue


(Urtica dioica) Plant tops Yellow, yellow-green, gray-green, gold


(Allium cepa) Outer skins Yellow, orange, brown, olive green

St. John’s wort

(Hypericum perforatum) Plant tops

Flowers Yellow, tan, brown

Olive, red, yellow


(Curcuma longa) Roots, fresh or powdered Gold, yellow, orange, dark olive green, brown


(Achillea millefolium) Plant tops Yellow, yellow-green, olive

*Colors produced may vary due to the weather conditions during growing, geographic variations and the season when harvested and used to make the dye bath.

Sources: Dye Plants and Dyeing (Timber Press, 2003) by John and Margaret Cannon

(see Bookshelf)

Wild Color (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999) by Jenny Dean