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
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
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
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.