Focus on natural dyes
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Featured species

Heuchera sanguinea

Coral bells,
Alum root

This Heuchera, commonly called Coral Bells, is grown in the garden for its late spring and early summer blossoms which dance on short stems above the pretty basal leaves.

Many species of Heuchera have traditionally been called Alum Root and are a source of alum which is used for mordanting purposes.  When applied to wool this hardener fixes the colors applied in the dyer's pot.

Focus on natural dyes

SEBASTOPOL.  Aug 1, 2003.  The traditional art of dyeing has been practiced for centuries.  Every good homemaker knew the basic principles of dyeing and most had a working knowledge of the local plants that could be used to create attractive colors on linen, silk and wool.

The search for superior plant dyes accounted for part of the lust for new trade routes in the 15th and 16th centuries.  When settlers arrived in the new world, they brought with them plants that they knew how to use as dyestuffs.  The lore of dyeing was richly varied -- each country discovering through experimentation new plant materials that could be used in the dye vat.

Brazilwood (Haematoxylum brasiletto and Caesalpinia brasiliensis) was so desirable for the rare bright red color that it could produce that the discovery of its abundance in the lower part of South America led to the naming of the country Brazil.  This is the world's only country named for a plant.

Indigo dye is obtained through the fermentation of the leaves of Indigofera tinctoria. The paste which settles to the bottom of the fermentation bath is formed into cakes, then finely ground into powder, which is used in the dyer's vat.  Even to this day indigo is renown for its true blue dyeing properties.  Only Dyer's woad (Isatis tinctoria) comes close to achieving the blue of indigo.

Many common dyer's plants can be found in the garden.  The leaves of Weld, which is sometimes called Dyer's Mignonette, (Reseda luteola) produce a range of brilliant yellows. The aerial parts of Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) yield a bright green.  The stems of Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica) impart a bluish-brown color.

The common colors green, yellow and brown are achievable in many different shades from the leaves, bark and roots of innumerable plants.  Nearly every plant part has been tried in the dyer's quest for color -- fruits, nuts, rind, skins, hulls, buds, blossoms, petals, stigmas, aril, seeds, gallnuts, inner bark, root bark, stems, twigs, wood chips, oil, juice, sap, milk, needles, rhizomes, . . . even the whole plant in some recipes.

Many plants impart different colors when used with different fabrics or different mordants.  Ladies' bedstraw (Galium verum) for example has been used for dull red, red, light orange-red, purple-red and bluish green.

Natural dyes and the craft of dyeing quickly fell out of favor in the mid 19th century when the industry discovered the brilliant new colors that could be obtained with their new techniques.  A brief revival in natural dyeing flourished in the 1950's only to abate again shortly afterwards.  Today the art of dyeing and the knowledge of the plant materials used in the dye pot are rapidly fading.

Enjoy these wonderful resources that celebrate the soft beauty of subtle colors on natural fibers.

Great Books
Dye plants and dyeing -- a handbook

A very rare out of print booklet surveying the natural dyeing techniques used around the world.  These first hand accounts provide a final glimpse of an almost extinct art.  Even the interviewees concede that their knowledge is poor when compared to the knowledge of their grandparents and beyond.

EthelJane McD. Schetky, editor, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn New York, 1964.

Colors from nature : growing, collecting & using natural dyes

A useful collection of recipes for achieving colors from plants.  The source plants are all obtainable in North America, either natives or common garden plants from around the world.

Bobbi A. McRae, Storey Communications Inc, Pownal Vermont, 1993.

The Complete Illustrated Book of Dyes from Natural Sources.

Arnold and Connie Krochmal, Doubleday & Co, New York, 1974.

Dyes & Fibers

Will Bearfoot, Oliver Press, Willits California, 1975.

On the Web
Although a sprinkling of small commercial efforts are on the Web, we've found no dedicated sites with the full range of plant materials and supplies needed for this craft.  Any takers?

The best sources for mordants and plant dyes can be found in the resource sections of the featured Great Books.

We've found no periodicals, journals, or magazines dedicated to the art of natural plant dyeing.  The best bet is to look for feature articles in the knitting and crocheting world.

Last reviewed October 31, 2004   


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