Start a dye garden

Set up a dye garden: Dye plants for gardens and containers

My garden is a Berlin allotment, with very limited space, no greenhouse, and besides dye plants I also want to grow vegetables and fruit. These dye plants here are my staples. I grow them each year, despite constantly struggling for space... I like to dye with them, they do well in my garden and also attract pollinators, because the garden isn't just for me.
When I first started, it was helpful for me to grow quite a few different plants to get to know them - but only a small number of each.
If you have even less space, only garden in pots and containers, or want to focus on just a few plants, this article will help you decide.

Die meisten Pflanzen ziehe ich in der Wohnung vor, anfangs nur auf den Fensterbrettern. Inzwischen habe ich noch ein Regal mit Pflanzenleuchten, weil der Platz sonst nicht für all das Gemüse und Färbepflanzen reicht. Noch ausführlicher über’s Vorziehen und die Ansprüche der Färberpflanzen habe ich im E-Book Farbe ernten geschrieben.

Plants to dye yellow

Weld (Reseda luteola)

Usually Weld is a biannual , forming only a basal leaf rosette in the first year - a rather unimpressive dye plant. But while many plants dye yellow, weld historically was considered special among these, in europe.
The dye it contains, luteolin, is more lightfast than many other yellow shades. The yellow is intense, sometimes almost neon-bright, with a tendency towards a green tinge. If you want to mitigate this, mix weld with other dye plants.
In the second year, the plant then forms a stem with many small flowers - traditionally it is harvested around that time. So you should reserve a spot for weld for two years.

Dyer's s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria)

Dyer's chamomile is (supposedly) perennial, but I I find often the plants only bloom for one or two years. I had dyer's chamomile in the garden that kept coming back for four years - in between I cut it back hard when it wasn't looking good. But I also sow a few new seedlings every year, as not all of the plants are so long-lived.

I regularly pick the flower heads to harvest, and pruning back once a year can rejuvenate the plant. Blooms long into winter.
Their shade of yellow is softer and warmer than that of the weld.

Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Perhaps you already have this plant in your garden, or are surprised that I'm naming it here? Many gardener's here try to get rid of it, it is considered an invasive weed... Others value it as an important pollinator friendly plant, for infusions and as a medicinal plant. As if that wasn't enough, it's also a dye plant.
The goldenrod propagates not only through seeds, but also underground via rhizome, and is quite good at it. I like to leave them in the garden wherever there is space. In other places I dig them out. I enjoy watching the plants, visited by bumblebees, bees and other insects, enjoy the yellow flowers and some go into the dye pot.

And if you only have a small amount of weld or dyer's chamomile, you can fill up your dye pot with goldenrod! If you want to dry flowers for dyeing in winter, harvest them before they have fully opened. Otherwise the seeds will ripen and instead of yellow flowers you will have many fluffy seeds.

study of various fabrics dyed with goldenrod

Dye plants for apricot | orange | rust

Tickseed/Dyer's coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)

Dyer's tickseed is a filigree annual summer flowerand can grow quite tall. You could add them to a mixed flower planting, placed behind smaller plants. Or you fill a bed with only this plant, which I really love, too. I mostly interplant them in the vegetable garden wherever I can make space.
During summer I harvest flower heads regularly. I try to only pick about half of them at any time, and then the other half the next time I get there, so there are plenty of flowers still for pollinators.

Dyes apricot, the higher the weight of fiber ratio is, it yields a rusty orange or even almost reddish brown.

Orange cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)

The Orange cosmos wird nicht so hoch wie das Schmuckkörbchen (Cosmos bipinnatus), das du vielleicht aus Gärten kannst. Du könntest die beiden kombinieren, und die Schwefelkosmee vor die höheren Sorten pflanzen. Ich reserviere zwischen Gemüsebeeten gern einfach einen Streifen für die Schwefelkosmee, als kleinen Farbfleck. Sie ist einjährig, also belegt das Beet nur eine Saison lang.

Here, too, you can regularly harvest flowerheads, which are a bit larger but not as numerous as those of the tickseed. If you only use a few flowers for dyeing, you get delicate peach tones, similar to tickseed. If you use more of the flowers, the difference becomes apparent: you get intense, bright orange tones.

Dyer's Marigold (Tagetes erecta)

The Marigold wird besonders groß (bis etwa 80cm) und buschig – sie braucht im Färbergarten auf jeden Fall mehr Platz, als die niedrigen Tagetesvarianten, die man häufig aus Blumenbeeten an öffentlichen Plätzen kennt.
When conditions are good, these marigolds will become really magnificent and produce many of their large flowers. Tagetes in general are beneficial for soil health, but with this variety keep in mind they their space if interplanting with other plants. Marigolds then bloom continuously until the first frost.

Dyes various shades of yellow and orange. With particularly intense yellow flowers, I have also unexpectedly dyed a bright yellow-green.

Dyeing red with plants

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder contains dye in the roots, especially the red dye alizarin. If you want to plant it, note that it takes up its space in the dyer's garden longer than other plants. Madder is perennial, and in order for the roots to be thick and mature, harvesting is recommended after two, preferably three years. Madder can grow in beds, but I like to plant it in big tubs and containers. This will make root harvesting easier when the time's come. Madder grows quite tall, or rather long - even with support, the stems don't climb that high for me, they tend to fall over. These parts of the plants can then root again, which you can encourage by covering them with soil once they are long enough and reach the ground. Leaves and stems have small scartchy barbs. I wouldn't plant madder too close to a path or your sitting area.

Madder is part of the family of Ruubiaceae, along with other plants you may already be familiar with. Including Cleavers, Lady's bedstraw and Sweet woodruff. Another member of the family, lesser known, is Dyer's woodruff.
Their roots also contain some of the coveted dyes. But the roots are finer, not as strong as those of madder.

Once you harvested roots, you can of course dye with fresh roots. Traditionally, the roots were left to dry and stored after harvesting. In the process, substances in the root change over time and the dyes become more red.

Plants to dye blue

Dyer's knotweed (Polygonum tinctorum oder Persicaria tinctoria)

Dyer's knotweed wird auch Japanischer oder Chinesischer Indigo genannt. Die Pflanze ist einjährig, und wächst gut in Beeten und Gefäßen. Hauptsache, die Bedingungen stimmen: Sonnig und nährstoffreicher Boden. Wenn etwas nicht passt, bekommen die Blätter eine Rotfärbung. Das kann zum Beispiel zu intensive Sonne nach dem ersten Auspflanzen sein, besonders wenn die Pflanzen nicht abgehärtet wurden – das sollte aber wieder vorübergehen. Auch starke Winde und ausgetrocknete Böden können das verursachen. Der Farbstoffgehalt in den Blättern ist höher, wenn es den Pflanzen gut geht, und es viel Sonnenschein gibt.

As with woad, indigo dye is obtained from the leaves. The pigment can be extracted or a vat made directly with fresh leaves. Dyer's knotweed is ideal for dyeing with the salt rub method, the most simple way to dye with indigo.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Woad gehört zu den Kreuzblütlern, das solltest du bei der Gartenplanung bedenken. Und er gehört zu den zweijährigen Pflanzen. Zur Indigogewinnung erntet man die Blätter im ersten Jahr – im zweiten Jahr enthalten sie weniger Farbstoff. Im zweiten Jahr blüht der Waid, und bildet eine hohe Blütenkerze mit vielen leuchtend gelben Blüten. Ein Insektenmagnet, der nach den Obstbäumen aber vor den meisten Sommerblumen blüht. Schon deshalb lasse ich alle Waidpflanzen zur Blüte kommen, und ernte die Samen. Die besten Samen kommen wieder zur Aussaat, die anderen nehme ich zum Färben – die sind für Bundle Dye schön. Wenn du nicht möchtest, dass sich Waid wild versamt, ernte alle Samenstände, oder schneide gleich die verblühten Stängel zurück.

Woad is resilient to cool temperatures. When I aI m running out of space indoors, I prefer not to start woad indoors, but sow in beds or in containers in the garden.
In my growing conditions, I find woad to be more hardy than Dyer's knotweed. It also thrives largely left to its own, as long as it's placed in nutrient-rich soil and I make sure it is not overgrown by taller plants. In summer hot spells I have to water it less often than most plants. Which makes sense, woad has been cultivated in Europe for a very long time and suits our climatic conditions well. (…until now? I wonder as I type.)

Plants to dye violet | grey | teal

These plants contain anthocyanins, which dye a range of colours depending on fiber type and dye ratio. They are also sensitive to pH changes and are among the more fugitive colors.

Sunflower Hopi Black Dye (Helianthus annuus)

This variant of Sonnenblume wird sehr hoch, und wird im Laufe des Sommers am besten abgestützt, damit sie bei Wind nicht umknickt. Sie ist also nicht gut für kleine Pflanzgefäße geeignet.
It usually has one large main flower and many smaller secondary flowers. It is a traditional dye plant of Hopi people and the dark seed (hulls) are harvested for dyeing. I like to use the seeds for bundle dye. I don't harvest all the flower heads, I also leave some in the garden for the birds to feed on. The only chaffinch I ever saw in our alotment was nibbling at the sunflower buffet.

Black hollyhock (Alcea rosea ’nigra“)

Hollyhock (also called mallow) is biennial or perennial. In the first year they only form a rosette of leaves, in the second year they grow up to 2m high flower stalks. So you can only start harvesting flowers in the second year. I pluck off the blossoms and dry them after they have closed again. So the flowers can still set seed. If all flowers are cut back before seeds are ripe, hollyhock may sprout again for another year.

Much like sunflowesr, I wouldn't recommend growing hollyhock in containers, it has a long taproot and does better when given decent space to root.
Do not space hollyhocks very close together. They are susceptible to mallow rust, a fungal disease. If they are not spaced airy and can dry off well, they are particularly at risk.

Dunkle Blueten von schwarzer Stockrose
Black hollyhock

There are other flowers that dye similar: For example deep dark varieties of dahlia and scabiosa or Black or chocolate cosmos. If you want to use those for dyeing, look out for varieties with the darkest, almost black flowers.

Dye plants for containers and planters

Are you looking for dye plants that are suited for a balcony garden? The first choices that come to mind are Tickseed and Orange Cosmos. In large pots (from about 18 liters) I have also grown beautiful tall Dyer's marigold.
Dyer's marigold and Tickseed grow quite tall. If that doesn't go well with your location: There are more compact, short varieties of Tickseed - and also different types of marigolds. Dyer's marigolds are particularly good for the dye pot because they have such large double flowers, but they also grow quite tall. Smaller varieties with smaller buds aren't as productive, but still yield dye, and great for bundle dye. I especially like Tagetes tenuifolia – they smell wonderful, maybe you like them in tea too. And the small filigree blossoms are beautiful in bundle dyeing.

Of course, you can also plant Dyer’s chamomile, weld and woad, in sufficiently large pots or raised beds. The last two have taproots, so they need more space underground than a small pot or balcony flower box would provide. And madder is also good for planting in containers. Do not choose a container that is too small (I would choose from 20L, preferably bigger), then madder plants should get through the winter alright in it. These also don't dry out so quickly in summer.

In general: Plants in pots need a little more attention. They dry out faster and will probably need more fertilizing. The smaller the container/amount of soil, the more attention is required.

And when is a good time to sow?

Information about a good time to sow usually can be found on seed packages, and here are my sowing recommendations. But of course this is depending on where you are gardening! With my garden in Berlin I can stick to these general recommendations. But there are also areas in Germany where it is milder and where sowing and planting is possible earlier. Elsewhere, for example at high altitudes, both are recommended later.

How to not sow too early: count back from the last frost date

If you are new to growing plants from seeds and there's noone local with gardening experience you can ask: The most important date I look out for is when the last frost (or nights below six degrees C, for sensitive plants) can be expected. If you don't have a greenhouse or lots of cool temperature indoor space with grow lights, then this date is important. You can also look at the number of hours of daylight, but as an amateur gardener, the temperature has been a helpful guideline for me so far.

For me, that's usually mid-May (in 2021 it was a little later, which meant it was getting very crowded in may growing area). Plants that grow rather slowly like weld I sow up to eight weeks before this date, most others closer to six to four weeks.
Sunflowers grow quickly, and I sow them at most two to three weeks before expected planting-out-date. If they have to stay indoors for too long, they lack light and the plants cannot grow strong and robust.

So, if you don't have a (heated) greenhouse or similar, or grow in a very mild climate: Better not sow too early, no matter if you sow directly outside or prefer starting seeds indoors like me.
For me it's sufficient to seed dye plants in April, and sunflowers in early May.

Do you have any recommendations for the dye garden, or a question? A favorite plant? Do you prefer plants like me or do you sow directly outside?

Seeds for the dye garden

Kitchen dyes: Dyeing with pomegranate

Stoffe faerben mit Granatapfel

Pomegranate as a dye? There are quite a few fugitive plants found in our kitchens. That are so inviting especially for first dye experiments, like red cabbage or beet root – yet not colourfast. But pomegranate peels are a trustworthy and traditional source of dye.

I dislike using vegetables or fruit for dyeing, but I love finding a use for scraps like pomegranate peels. First into the dye pot, than to the compost! I love "zero waste" dyes like that.

Pomegranate trees (Punica granatumare not native where I live. Their home is West/Central Asia but they have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for a very long time. Today they are grown pretty much around the globe wherever climate allows for it. The trees can stand light frost. In Germany they need some protection to overwinter, unless your garden is in an especially mild growing location.

Pomegranate peels as dye plants have a long history in the Mediterranean and West Asia, and can yield pale beige, bright or golden yellow, ocher and greys to blacks. There are some very old instructions for dyeing with pomegranate peels, dating to the neo-Babylonian period (626 to 539 BC), more on that can be found in Dominique Cardon’s Natural Dyes.

Bark and roots were also used for dyeing. In addition, they were also used medicinally. Humans and pomegranate trees have a long and multifaceted history.

Möchtest du mehr über Pigmente aus Pflanzenfarben? Und hier findest du den Workshop zum Drucken mit Pflanzenfarben.

Zero waste: Compost colours, even in winter

Because I was curious about dyeing with the peels, I once asked at a juice stall at the weekly market if I could have some pomegranate peels. And after some explanations I was allowed to get some in my bag. You will most likely find a vendor offering orange and pomegranate juice, too! Just kindly ask them for the peels. It is also one of the few dye plants that can be found here in winter, although not in the wild.

Drying pomegranate peels for dyeing

Recipes usually refer to dried pomegranate peels. To thatend I scrape the skins thoroughly with a spoon to remove flesh and seeds, and then dry them with as little pulp as possible. So if you eat one pomegranate from time to time and only have a few peels and not a whole bag like I do, that's no problem either. Simply dry your peels one at a time and keep collecting until you have enough. Dried dye plants are easy to store. Best protected from sunlight, but airy so nothing gets damp and moldy. I use brown paper bags and cardboard boxes to store them.

Tannin rich dye plant

Pomegranate peels are a special dye plant because they contain a high proportion of tannins. In many plants that dye yellow, flavonoids are responsible for this, but not here.
Tannins have a dual function in dyeing. Not only as a dye, but often they are also used in the pre-mordanting process. They can deepen colors and make them more colourfast.
And in pomegranate peels they are the reason why you can also use it to dye unmordanted fibers and still get fast colours: a rather delicate yellow or beige-yellow. With aluminum mordants it turns a stronger golden yellow and with iron the tannins react to shades of gray to black.

Dyeing with pomegranate peels

Most recipes I saw recommend equal weight of fiber and dyestuff.
I mostly dyed with dried peel, sometimes with a higher WOF percentage - the colors didn't get much more intense, I found them a bit duller perhaps. If the peels were dry but still quite "new", I got somewhat cleaner yellow tones. With peels that had been stored for a few years, I found the tones to be less bright, a little more towards ocher. If you noticed this too, or if you can't confirm it at all, please write me a comment. I'm very interested to know if others have made this observation too!

For comparison I also dyed with fresh peels that had only dried overnight. The colors were more delicate, a beautiful clear yellow. (When using fresh plants for dyeing, remember to use a higher WOF % than with dry plants. They contain a lot of water, which makes them heavier.)

For dyeing, break or crush the dry peel into smaller pieces. I like to soak them overnight before gently heating them the next day and then dyeing as usual.
The author Eberhard Prinz (recommended herealso mentions that flowers and peels of unripe fruit dye red tones. I could not test that so far, but maybe you have that opportunity.

I was also interested whether a cold extraction would shift colours. To test this I cut up fresh peels and soaked them in water for a few days. This dye bath looked indeed redder than the hot extraction. But from all the fibers I dyed, only the wool yarn looked different, a bit more reddish. Of course, the hot extraction is quicker and yields more dye in the process.

Reading further about pomegranates

I looked up the pomegranate in the book 'Natural Dyes. Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science' by Dominique Cardon. Three pages are dedicated to the tree. If you are interested in the history of dye plants, dyeing methods and the "behind the scenes" chemistry of dyeing, this is a really exciting book. I read it very slowly (it's over 700 pages), and otherwise use it as a reference book. The original is French and it has been translated into English but not into German as far as I know. If you're looking for a comparable tome, but in German, maybe Helmut Schweppe's 'Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe' (see here) is what you're looking for.

Above all, I came across another title in the bibliography of Cardon's book that made me curious. The pomegranate has a rich cultural history, is a symbol of fertility and life, among other things, and now 'Der Granatapfel. Symbol des Lebens in der alten Welt' by Friedrich Muthmann, 1982, is on my reading list – which hasn't been translated, I think.

Have you dyed with pomegranate yet? Or do you maybe have another pomegranate reading suggestion for me?


DIY: Make ink from plants

Tinte aus Pflanzen selbergemacht

Just like before easter I also got creative again this festive season: I wanted to make ink from plants that to draw christmas cards and gift tags. Preferably from plants that are easily available. A few days after thinking about this, an avocado appeared in our kitchen, and that's when I knew what to do.* Make ink with waste from avocado!

Of course I just had to do this while I was busy with christmas preparations. But maybe you too can use a little creative project to slow down!

For my inks I used the fresh seed and skin of one avocado. As with dyeing, you could use dried or frozen seeds instead. And you don't have to use booth seed and peel together. I just used both fresh shortly after the avocado was eaten. And you can definitely yield quite a bit of ink using just one avocado (or its waste to be precise).

*If you don’t like to buy avocados, or if you just don’t like to eat them, you can ask in a restaurant or café if they can save some seeds for you. Just make sure to pick them up quickly so they don't start to get moldy.

What you need to make ink from plants

  • skin and seed from one avocado
  • washing soda is nice to have but you can do without
  • a small pot (not necessarily a dedicated dye pot if you use just avocado waste)
  • a small sieve or similar
  • a jar with a lid for storage
  • paint brush or pen

Ink from avocados No. 1: Basic recipe

Ink No. 1 was gently heated over a few days and then heated to reduce the liquid. Top: Just the ink Bottom: Ink with some gum arabic

Für meinen ersten Versuch habe ich den Kern der Avocado in kleine Würfel geschnitten, und auch die Schale in kleinere Stücke gerissen. Zusammen habe ich sie dann im Topf mit wenig Wasser bedeckt, kurz erhitzt und dann ohne weitere Hitze ziehen lassen. Ich wollte nicht viel Energie dafür verbrauchen, und hatte auch Geduld. Deswegen habe ich in den nächsten zwei Tagen die Hitze oben auf dem Herd vom Backen im Ofen benutzt, um die Farbe der Tinte zu intensiveren. Wenn du deine Tinte stark erhitzt, weil es schneller gehen soll, achte auf den Wasserstand. Wenn viel Wasser verdunstet, gieße etwas nach. Aber nicht zuviel, damit deine Tinte nicht verwässert.

Once you're satisfied with your colour intensity, strain your ink with a fine sieve, or a cheesecloth.

You can now try drawing with your ink, or carefully heat it to reduce the liquid further. I did heat it briefly because the color wasn't as strong as I desired.

Schneller + dunkler, Tinte aus Avocadokernen Nr. 2: Mit Waschsoda

Ink No. 2 using washing soda. Even before heated this ink was quite strong.

For my second attempt, I used the same seed and peel again. Aside from water I also added a small amount of washing soda. Although I had used the plant matter before, the ink here got darker then before, and much faster.

Washing soda has an alkaline pH and you will only need a very small amount of it. You will see its effect quickly! The dye in avocado seeds and peel are among those that do well with an "alkaline extraction". The alkaline pH not only influences what the ink looks like, but also helps to quickly coax more dye from the plant matter.

So if you have washing soda at hand, I would highly recommend it!* I also like the stronger color very much, but above all it is faster. You might only need to heat this ink very briefly.

It amazes me how much dye is in the seed + skin of just one fruit! If you need more ink, just repeat the process. I let this ink soak for three days, during which time I only used the excess heat from baking bread for the pot to heat it.

Washing soda is sodium carbonate, and you can find it in drug stores next to detergents or washing powders. When you use it, follow the instructions on the packaging and avoid getting it in your eyes.

*Perhaps you have other alkaline additives in the house to subsstitue. You could also try baking powder or baking soda. (Not sure it works as well, I always use washing soda).

Thickening your plant ink

Ink thickened with gum arabic to make the stamp. The organic structure of the paper is emphasized.

Ink from avocado seeds will probably quickly thicken a little anyway if you reduce them on low heat.

But there are also various natural thickeners that have long been used for inks. They can also prevent solids in the ink from settling on the bottom quickly.
I used ground gum arabic for this. I wanted a slightly thicker ink to use with my stamps - I didn't have a good ink pad for it, just kitchen towel. If you want to make stamping ink, you should look for a suitable material for an ink pad first. That should definitely improve your results, I just was too impatient.

You could also experiment with other resins, starch, honey, gelatin ...

Storing botanical ink

The ink can be kept cool and tightly sealed in the refrigerator for days to weeks. That also depends on the plants used and on whether and which ingredients were added.

Some essential oils, like clove oil, also help prevent mold. You can put a drop or two of it in your jar with ink. Please dose sparingly and also observe the safety instructions on the packaging of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely concentrated and should therefore be used very carefully.

Dyes in compost: Other plants to make ink with

For further ink adventures with home ingredients, consider using yellow or red onion peels. Or pomegranate peels, black tea grounds and the green husks of walnuts again next autumn.

All of these plants are rather easily accessible at least here, and end up in the compost anyway. Before that happens, you can still use them to dye! Or, in our case, make ink.

I would collect a little more of the black tea that has already been used for the project, because unlike the other ingredients, it has already been infused once before.

You may notice that I don't like to use whole foods to dye, but rather their waste, even if it's just to make a little bit of ink.

Colourfastness of plant dyes

But the plants (or their waste) listed here are not only a good choice from a zero waste perspective. They all contain certain types of dyes that naturally have a fairly good fastness. Onion peel and walnut shell have special dyes that are able to combine with fibers even without stain (substantive dyes). And avocado skin/stones, pomegranate peel and black tea contain tannins. Plants can contain various types of tannins and these can make dyes more colourfast.
This ink sure doesn't last forever, but it won't fade in a very short time either.

Fugitive dyes – not all plants are dye plants

There are some plants in the kitchen that are quite colourful but don't have these characteristics that make a good dye. Things like spinach, beet root, red cabbage, various pink and blue berries contain fugitive types of dye. The are colourful when we look at them, but just don't contain proper dyes. Personally I'd rather eat these as dyeing with them feels too wasteful when the colours don't stand washing or sun light. But for a small project, perhaps with young children, they might still be worthwhile!

Plant inks and mordants

Ich wollte meine Tinte erstmal einfach und auch „kindgerecht“ halten. Wenn du dich mit dem Färben schon auskennst, und Beizsalze hast, kannst du aber auch damit experimentieren. Die Kombination aus Beize und Farbstoff kann wie beim Färben auch bei der Tinte die Farbechtheit verbessern.

All of my avocado inks - second from left with iron, all of them mixed on the left.

I have also added some homemade iron solution to my avocado ink. As expected, the color becomes much darker immediately. But the iron avocado ink also tends more to settle on the bottom. If that bothers you, do without the iron or add some gum arabic.

Ink from walnut husks, the darker drawings had some iron added.

I liked drawing with the ink so much that I've already started the next one! This time with walnut husks that I always have in the studio for dyeing – switch for black walnuts if these are local to you.

I used to draw a lot and also used acrylic paints. Because I didn't like the materials, over time I just stopped painting and drawing. Instead, I worked with colour only through dying with plants. This simple DIY ink certainly doesn't have the durability of many purchased colors. But I love that I know all of its ingredients, and that it feels less "anonymous", like a more intimate type of material to be creative with. For me, this feels like coming full circle, and these were definitely not my last attempts at ink!

auf Pinterest merken

November dye plants: Dyeing with leaves

Seide, Baumwolle und Wolle gefaebrt mit Eicheln

Autumn has arrived, the summer plants have faded and the trees are shedding their leaves. All beings are preparing for winter. We withdraw and enjoy the harvest of the previous months.

While summer is abundant and the time to forage, winter is for being cosy indoors, crafting and sure, also dye pots. But are you wondering if you could still find dye plants now?

That certainly depends on the weather in your region, but I would say yes. (Even though I have already collected and dried some things for the cold season over the summer.)

On my walk today, in early November, I found walnut leaves. Treasures can still be discovered now, especially when trees are growing a protected location.
I remember last year in November I also collected some cones from alder trees and caramel-coloured leaves from beech trees. If I collect something this time of year, it will mainly be what I can find on the ground, rather than picking from trees.

Dyeing with walnut leaves

Last year I prepared two dye baths to compare: one with walnut leaves that I collected green earlier in the year and then dried, and some that had already turned bright yellow on the tree. I wondered which would yield more dye, or if there'd even be a difference.
My conclusion was that the discoloured autumn leaves still dyed intensely. So there is still dyestuff to be found late in the year!
While the microseason of fresh green walnut hulls is already passed, fortunately, walnut leaves can be found for a longer period.

Purple leaf plum

In my favourite park I often walk by a fabulous purple leaf plum. Here I always find plenty of leaves on the ground after windy days, and sometimes only take a handful of leaves with me. There is a tree like that in your neighbourhood, but you only can gather a small amount of leaves at a time? Then try drying the leaves and keep gathering until you have enough for a small dye pot. Or try bundle dyeing or eco printing - then a small amount of leaves will be sufficient!

After a violent storm a few days ago, "my" blood plum unfortunately lost a large branch. So, for once, I was able to completely fill my small bag with the leaves. (If you want to go gather leaves after a storm, be careful. Branches could fall down later if the tree was damaged.)

fabrics dyed with purple leaf plum

Responsible foraging

Some trees, such as young beeches, keep their leaves on the tree in winter, while all other deciduous trees are bare. This probably protects the young trees throughout the winter. So we shouldn't defoliate them for our dye pot!
When gathering cones, acorns or other wild fruits and seeds, always pay attention to your surroundings. Is there only little of them in your area, or is it a year with only a small number of acorns, for example? In that case I'd leave the fruits for birds and other animals. They depend on these food sources, and in some years they can be sparse. Maybe they'll be plenty again the year after, and you can gather some for your dye pot with no harm.

Dyeing with discoloured autumn leaves

So I like to collect leaves from the ground, like I did with the blood plum... Either after a storm, when whole branches with still green leaves lie on the ground and I can simply pick them up from the paths on a walk. Or in autumn, when the trees shed their leaves.

I dyed beautiful tones not only with the discoloured autumn leaves of the walnut, but also with leaves of oak and beech that had turned reddish brown.
If you collect leaves from the ground, however, they should still be as fresh and intact as possible, not mushy or already very fragile. Leaves that have been lying on the ground for a long time or soaked in puddles for days, I would no longer spend time on to collect. If they are still in good condition (the leaf structure still feels like leaves on a tree) then experimenting with them is should be worthwhile.

Do you have any ideas on the topic? Or do you prefer not to collect anything in autumn?

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Interessieren dich außer den Pflanzen auch Färbepilze? Dann ist dieses Buch vielleicht genau das Richtige:

Foraging for dye plants

Wiese mit Faerberpflanzen, bluehender Wilder Moehre

Summer is abundant with plants and flowers! An invitation to smell blooms on walks, to stare dreamily into the canopy while lying on a meadow – or to forage and dye.
If you are not familiar to gathering wild plants, I would like to introduce you to some things to consider. And at the end of this post you'll see three plants that you are sure to find if you're not located too far from here.

Plants take care of us - plants grow food, medicine, fibers that clothe and warm us, can be a roof over our heads when it rains, and they also contain dyes. Anything one could really ask for. When I remind myself of that, I feel so very grateful. And I want to return this generosity with consideration and respect.

With all the abundance, the forest, the meadow, are not a supermarket - not everything is always available in reliable quantities, and the shelves are not regularly replenished once there empty. In no way does this mean that we should only gaze at wild plants from afar, and look at nature as something we're no part of. Quite the contrary - I recommend to get familiar and immerse oneself.

Kennst du deinen Ort?

Location is important to consider for foagering. Where are you? You should not collect in protected areas. Different rules may apply in parks and gardens. Especially in places that are frequented by many people, such as inner-city parks, I collect leaves or acorns only when they have fallen to the ground (or after cutting). Are there only a few flowers in one place, or have the very first early blooms awakened? Then insects that collect pollen or nectar have priority.
A nice side effect of getting to know your place, becoming familiar, might be a growing sense of home and groundedness. I feel rooted when observing my surroundings, when I get to know the plants I visit again and again throughout the year.

Get to know the plants

... that you want to pick. There are some poisonous plants, some of which are lookalikes of non-poisonous plants. There are plenty of dye plants, usually you can find good alternatives to poisonous plants.

If you are unsure, take a photo of the plant, then you can have it identified (or try your luck with an identification app). Photos of the location and of the leaves, the stalk, the flower and/or fruit are even better to identify a plant than a branch or a single picked leaf. And the plant can stay put. Field guide books can be helpful, and I'd recommend to join foraging tours or guided walks in your location. Or visit local botanical gardens or herb gardens. Especially smaller, community led ones, often showcase local flora.

But back to foraging: only take it with you if you recognize the plant. And only cut whatever you want to take it with you. Maybe you also know this rule from unenthusiastically mushroom picking as a child?

Of course, there are also rare, protected plants - maybe the probability is (unfortunately) not that great that you will find one. But that's another reason we shouldn't pick any unknown plants.

Are you out and about in the forest or on pristine meadows? From April and throughout summer you should stick to the trails while foraging, especially if you are not that familiar with the place and the wildlife. In order to not disturb ground-breeding birds and other animals. The good news is that there are often remarkably diverse plants along paths and trails anyway!

Some practical foraging guidelines

So, you are not in a protected area, the plants in front of you are not rare. How to proceed now?
Regulations on that topic may differ, but to my surprise the German legal take on foraging is quite clear and easy to understand. There is the so-calledHandstraußregelung“:
Which could be translated as bouquet regulation. "Everyone is allowed to carefully remove and acquire small quantities of wild flowers (...) and branches of wild plants from nature in places that are not subject to entry restrictions for personal use."

Other guidelines by herbalists are: don't take more than you need, and only when there is plenty.

I like this idea that the place you foraged in should pretty much look like before once you're done – with plenty of fruit, seeds, flowers still in place! I only forage wild plants when they're abundant. I prefer to take a little from each plant (depending on the plant it might be a flower, a few twigs or leaves). I'd rather pick the tip and encourage more new growth instead of the entire plant. A friend recently told me, whenever she sees an insect or a bird on a plant she skips it, leaving it to them. On an event by Wildwärts I heard "one part for you, one for the plant, and one for the fairies", which I think is especially good for children to remember!

Give and take

In Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (now also available in German ) there is an entire chapter Honorable Harvest, which I'd recommend to read (as the entire book). The author highlights respect and reciprocity, kinship, as guidelines fo foraging, integral to her indigenous heritage. That means, among other things: never take the first and never the last thing you see (i.e. nothing under certain circumstances). The plants take care of us, how can we respectfully reciprocate? Nature is generous, giving - and wherever you are given to, you only take what you can use, you share, you don't steal. A forest, meadow, garden is not the place for greed because there is no shortage. It is also important to ask the plants for permission before harvesting. Which might sound the most unfamiliar as it is so opposed to how many of us are taught to view plants. But something to ponder, and things to un- and relearn?

Personally, I don't harvest roots for dyeing in the wild. So perennials can sprout again. I leave flowers so that they can form seeds. And for stubborn stems, it's good to have scissors or a knife with you to avoid accidentally uprooting entire plants. I collect in cloth bags or paper bags that used to contain fruit or vegetables, to easily transport the plants. And if I remember to, I'll also have a plastic bag with me to collect plastic trash lying around. For a bit of practical reciprocity between me and my environment.

Three dye plants that you can probably find

At the moment I at least see these three plants all the time, on walks in the country side and in the city.

Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris

... is a traditional medicinal plant that used to be used in a variety of ways. It was also used as a herb in greasy heavy foods to aid digestion. Today mugwort is rarely used for both, so why not test it for dyeing?

Mugwort rather easy to recognize by its pinnate leaves with the typical silver-gray underside.

I harvested it for dyeing just before it bloomed. But if you're allergic to mugwort, as many are, you might just leave this plant alone. I harvested my mugwort bouquet from the side of the road, on the way to our little garden. Road sides are where you can see it very often, also on fallow land, at construction sites and in parks that are not constantly mowed.

I walked down the street for a bit, with scissors the cut the firm stems, and harvested only a few tips from each plant along the way. And I already spied a lot of goldenrod, which will also soon bloom throughout the city.

Stoffe und Wolle gefaerbt in hellen Grüntönen, mit einem getrockneten Beifuß-Blatt

Canadian goldenrod, Solidago canadensis

You can read even more on this plant in a previous post. It is definitely one of the dye plants that grow abundantly here, and like mugwort goldenrod is also a medicinal plant. You can use both leaves and flowers for dyeing. I especially like to harvest the flower stalks with the upper leaves before the buds open.

If you look closely, you can spot goldenrod everywhere even now, in mid-July. But once it blooms in late summer, it really can't be missed with its bright yellow flowers!

In some areas there is even a recommendation to remove this plant, as it can spread a lot with its rhizomes. It can crowd out other plants in certain biotopes, and so Canadian goldenrod, once introduced as an ornamental plant, often does not have the best reputation.

In my alotment, goldenrod it is allowed to grow. I harvest some of it, and remove plants where they take over. I then dye with them, or even make myself a tea. And otherwise I enjoy the flowers, and the droves of insects that they attract.

So, maybe there are actions in your area to remove goldenrod in specially protected landscapes? There you could harvest to your heart's content. But unless this is specified: the same rules apply to goldenrod as to other wild plants. But you can surely fill a dye pot with this plant, as abundant as it tends to grow.

Wild carrot, Daucus carota

I love the delicate flowers of Wild carrot, or Queen Anne's Lace, and so usually I do not pick any of them. Instead I use the green tops of my garden carrots – with both you can dye beautiful yellows.
But this year I have seen them in such large quantities that I could have picked a bouquet after all.
And Wild carrot is well suited even for beginner foragers because, unlike many other umbellifers, it can be clearly identified. There are some poisonous plants in this family, and many umbellifers (or apiaceae) do look quite similar. For example, cow parsely, as a non-poisonous dye plant, is very easy to mix up with the poisonous rough chervil or the very poisonous hemlock.

So, Wild carrot can be identified by the shape of its inflorescences, which look like fine, dense nests or an inverted lace cap (hence the name Queen Anne's lace, I assume). And you can look for the biggest of it's flower stalks - it should have a red (sometimes pink) or almost black flower in the middle of all the tiny white flowers. None of the poisonous umbellifers in our area have a similar "dot" in the centre of their flower clusters. For dyeing you can harvest both inflorescence and leaves.

In the past months I have had quite a few conversations on this topic that eventually inspired me to write on it, too. For example with Julia from Berliner Zauberkraut, who manufactures biological cleaners, and Tash from Avantgarden.Life, who also offers foraging workshops, focussing on herbal medicine.

And here's a post by Julia on ethical foraging, with contributions by makers from the Hexenküche Community.

Noch zum Abschluss: Alle Angaben nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen. Du solltest keine unbekannten Pflanzen sammeln oder damit färben. Ich übernehme keine Haftung für etwaige negative Folgen.

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Außer Färbepflanzen gibt es auch noch Pilze, mit denen man färben kann!

Tools & equipment to get started with natural dyeing

Loeffel, Siebe, Tuecher, was brauchst du zum Faerben mit Pflanzen

What do you really need to dye with plants? A popular question in my workshops. And one that is easier to figure out with in-person workshops, hands on.
There are some things I do recommend to have at the ready, but it's really not necessary to get lots of equipment when you're only starting to explore natural dyeing. So if you have been wondering about this, I hope this post is a good starting point for you!

First things first: an important recommendation is that pots used for dyeing no longer belong in the kitchen. The same applies, of course, to spoons, measuring cups and the like. Equipment for plant dyeing should no longer be used to prepare food.

Even if plants and minerals are of natural origin, they may contain toxic, or irritant substances. Over time, residues accumulate and can then become problematic. I highly recommend to use a dedicated pot for dyeing, right from the start.

When you start with natural dyeing, you probably don't want to equip a complete dye kitchen right away - and you don't have to! One dedicated pot in a suitable size for your projects is a great starting point. Add some things you may already have at home or can find second hand, and you've got yourself a low budget set up.

Pots for dyeing with plants

I got most of my dye pots second hand. If you're not pressed for time, it's well worth to browse some charity shops or online marketplaces for used pots.

Pots made of non-reactive material are often recommended. That could be stainless steel or enamel pots (as long as the coating is not damaged). Those materials don't react with dye baths or mordant solutions, are easy to clean, and versatile. So they'd be my first choice to set up a dye kitchen.

Other pots, made of copper or iron, can also be used for dyeing. With them the dyer can take advantage of the fact that the metal reacts, and thus also affects the dye results. Traces of iron, for example, make colors darker, and somewhat duller. As you can imagine, this can make dyeing even more adventurous, with another factor that can affect the colours.

In addition to simple pots in various sizes that I use with hotplates, I have other pots in the studio: electric canning pots (not pressure canners!). These are available in Germany in sizes up to 25-30L. If you are looking for something in that size range, I really like working with them. They usually have a built-in thermostat (which is reasonably reliable), and often also a timer.

Other vessels: buckets and jars

In addition to dye pots, simple lidded buckets, are good to have at hand. Especially if you only have one dye pot for the time being. In lidded containers you can also soak plant material, store a dye bath, or save a mordant solution until you want to use them. I also have plastic tubs and large enamel bowls in the studio, but especially for starters, I would recommend sealable containers. They're just the most versatile.
Buckets like this can be found at hardware stores for a reasonable price. You can also ask in restaurants and cafés, they often have yogurt and the like in large buckets made of sturdy plastic, which you can get for free. Bonus: buckets that have a liter scale inside. I rarely need a measuring cup that's accurate to the milliliter - when it really comes down to accuracy, I simply weigh liquids.

For smaller quantities, of course, simple jars are handy. I have more screw top and canning jars then I'd like to admit, they're just too practical! And virtually for free when reusing food containers. Dried dye plants can also be stored in them, but should not be kept in constant sunlight.

Tools to weigh, measure, stir

If you work with mineral mordants I'd recommend a scale to measure by weight. It does not have to be accurate to the decimal point. A simple kitchen scale is usually sufficient. I only use a precision scale when I make printing pastes - if you don't intend to do that, then you'll be fine with a low budget kitchen scale.

You should probably have at least one spoon for measuring in your dye kitchen. I made sure I (and everyone else in the studio) can recognize the "non-food" spoons at a glance: For dyeing, and only for that, I have long-handled teaspoons.
Especially now that I dye more often at home again during the lockdown, instead of in the studio, I find this spoon situation very convenient! No matter what kind of spoon(s) you choose, I find it really handy to have it stand out in shape or colour, especially if you dye in your kitchen.

To carefully stir the dye baths I now actually prefer to use smoothly carved branches from the garden. So a super low-budget solution. You can find stirring paddles (at artist supplies or hardware stores), or long-handled wooden spoons. Both are often inexpensive, but usually a bit rough. They are not great for delicate fabrics, but can probably be sanded for a smoother surface.

Tools to strain and filter

There are nice and sturdy stainless steel strainers, but the simplest and cheapest option are cloths like cheesecloth or muslin. They're also great because you can really squeeze out all dye liquid from the plant matter when straining with them.

And they're very handy to wipe up all the splashes, too.

If I use sieves, it's mostly those that actually came with some of my second hand finds like pasta and asparagus pots.

Health and safety

For mordanting and dyeing you should get thick rubber gloves. If you are working with finely ground powders, or large quantities of dried plants (which also crumble/dust when weighed), wear a well-fitting (dust) mask.

Depending on where you are working, you can also use thick foil or newspaper to cover your work surface. If you are dyeing in the kitchen, you should put away edibles and clean the surface well after dyeing.

Bonus tool

Perhaps my favourite tool: A thermometer for mordanting and dyeing - very practical, but certainly not something that is indispensable at the beginning. I love it and it makes some things easier, like monitoring a mordant or madder dye bath that should not exceed a certain temperature.
But I don't think it's essential when beginning. If you're willing to watch your dye pot a bit closer and heat it gently (a good idea anyways) you can absolutely do without. But it also works without, if you keep a good eye on the dye pot, and rather carefully heated.

Do you have any other ideas for a quick and inexpensive dye kitchen set up? Or a "bonus tool" that is dear to you, and you wouldn't want to miss when dyeing?

Foto von Faerbetoepfen aus Edelstahl, Text: Was brauchst du zum Pflanzenfaerben? Faerbekueche fuer's kleine  Budget.
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Dyeing easter eggs with plants

Eier faerben mit Blueten, Tee und Zwiebeln

Dyeing Easter eggs with plants can be a simple and exciting project with kids - or you something you do just by yourself (perhaps for your inner child) as I did.

We're approaching the second Easter in this pandemic. And while I haven't been out searching for Easter eggs in a long time, as a child it was my very favourite family celebration. Returning to this childhood ritual (on my own terms, with plants!) feels like being around family when gathering all of us isn't possible right now.

There are many different ways to plant dye your eggs, and there are really only two things you need to be aware of: don't break your eggshells and make sure to use food-safe plants.

I decided to contact dye or eco print my easter eggs in tiny Bundle-Dyepackages. I wrapped the eggs with dye plants into small pieces of fabric. If you want to do this project with kids, pre-boil the eggs to prevent accidents – I just handled to eggs very gently. To wrap the bundle I chose fabric scraps I wanted to over dye anyway. You could also use an elastic material – like jersey, or stockings. In that case the plant matter will be pressed gently onto the egg shell for clearer prints.


Once you gathered your egg bundles – off they go onto your stovetop. To make them safe to store for a little while, make sure to boil until the eggs are hard. In my case about 10 minutes, you may have to adjust depending on the size of your eggs. Eggs with cracked shell need to be stored in the fridge and should be consumed soon.
Allow the eggs to cool for a bit before you unwrap. I used a brush and also a damp sponge to carefully remove any plant matter sticking to the shells. Your dyed eggs will shine and look especially nice if you rub them with a small drop of oil!


If you'd like clear colour nuances and prints, use white eggs for this. I had two very light and three dark eggs. If you use different plants in your bundles and don't want the colours to mix, you should steam the eggs instead of putting them together in a pot of water like me.

Plants to dye eggs

I rummaged through the pantry for plants to use and opted for yellow and red onion skins, hibiscus flower tea, and a few (food safe) dried flowers from the garden - orange cosmos, tickseed, dyer's chamomile, hollyhock.
The chamomile flowers are quite bulky and I would not really recommend them, but everything else went well. My favorites: the humble onion skin once more, and hibiscus flowers.

Other plants that would be fun: strips of red cabbage, beetroot, purple carrot. Right now I had the idea that black lentils would probably also make a cool pattern! The great thing about dyeing easter eggs is that the dyes can be fugitive. Most everything mentioned here in shades of purple and blue belongs to these more ephemeral colours (beetroot, red cabbage, purple flowers ...). In many cases I wouldn't use these plants to dye fabrics and clothing. But the easter eggs don't last for too long, anyway.


As always, just because something's natural doesn't mean it can't be poisonous. If you already have different dye plants at home - not all of them are food safe, please do some research before using them for edibles! Madder, for example, was previously used medicinally and as a food coloring, but is not and bushier.

For plain dyed eggs, you can also make dye baths instead: Cover the plants with enough water and simmer until the extraction looks strong. Ingredients from the kitchen could for example be yellow or red onion skins, turmeric, red cabbage, beetroot, hibiscus tea ...
Hope you enjoy, if you decide to give this a try!


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Books about dyeing with plants: A few favourites

Buecher zum Faerben mit Pflanzen

Dye books for everyone: for makers, botanists and historians

In my workshops, which are now on hold due to the pandemic, there is more than just dye pots and learning through making. I always share lots of dye samples to look at, and books about dyeing with plants for inspiration.
The plant dyeing workshops are more than just learning and discovering together. They can be s space for community and exchange (something that we probably all miss in this time of zoom conferences); trying something without having to buy a lot of tools or materials beforehand; rummaging through various dye books, and perhaps discovering exactly the book that suits you. And at least the latter might work quite well here too!

Are you looking for a book that you can immerse yourself in, perhaps during lockdown? I've already got a number of books on plant dyes on my shelves, and still quite a few on my all-time wish-list ... But I've also been a real bookworm ever since I was able to read. Choosing my top five picks wasn't easy, but here are the ones I keep going back to most often Some of them are unfortunately only available in German, but all five are great to browse for a variety of reasons.

Jenny Dean: Wild Color. The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes

There are several editions of this book (mine is from 2010 Watson-Guptill Publications) - as far as I know, they are largely the same in content. (Please let me know if I'm wrong.)

This is my big recommendation to start with plant dyeing. The book begins with a historical introduction, and then offers a really comprehensive overview of different fibers, plants, methods - it remains easy to understand even for beginners. But even with ten years of dyeing experience, I still go to this book to look some things up, so I think it is a great choice.
I especially like the second part, “The Dye Plants”. On one or two pages there is background information on plants, cultivation, harvest and dyeing. Also a photo and a small color index on the edge. With all the variables in plant coloring, it is clear that the index is more of an inspiration than the exact tone you will be coloring yourself. But I still find it very helpful and inspiring when leafing through.

Not entirely unimportant, the author is British and dyes primarily with the plants that surround her - but the plant part is still relevant for German readers. With the exception of a few historical dye plants from Central America, almost all of them can also be found here. Unlike, for example, some books with a focus on North American flora, which are beautiful and interesting, but work with plants that simply do not grow here and need to be imported.

A recommended book for everyone who wants to start dyeing with plants. And for those who already have experience but would like to have a good standard work on the subject, too!

Eberhard Prinz: Färberpflanzen. Anleitung zum Färben, Verwendung in Kultur und Medizin

2009/2014 Schweizerbart

So far this book is only available in German. It is a great book for anyone who wants to forage for plants for dyeing themselves. It begins with chapters on the various natural dyes, dyeing and auxiliary substances. But the majority of the book is made up of the chapter “Dye Plants”. And that's also the part that I keep browsing.

There are plant portraits on 250 pages (in my 2014 edition). A full-page photo of each plant, a brief description of how it can be used for dyeing, often classifications on lightfastness, and information on other cultural or medical uses. If a plant is poisonous, it is always pointed out - a very important topic that's sometimes easy to forget in the excitement of discovering botanical dyes.

For each plant there is a short profile with the origin of the plant, the approximate colour range, more details on the most important dyes it contains and an overview of countries in which it was traditionally used.

A nice dye book for your (German) botany-obsessed friend!

Joy Boutrup, Catherine Ellis: The Art and Science of Natural Dyes. Principles, Experiments, and Results.

2018 Schiffer Publishing

I find this book outstanding. The authors bring together decades of experience and specialist knowledge from textile art, chemistry and textile technology and historical dyeing techniques.

I would rather recommend it to those who already have some experience with dyeing and want to deepen their understanding. Because in addition to practical instructions, this book explores the “mechanisms” in dyeing: why does something work this way, not another, and why only on some fibres? It also discusses printing with dyes, and indigo organic vats in detail.

All subjects are illustrated with photos and a few illustrations, but overall it is a very text-heavy coloring book.

Would you like to explore complex textile techniques with plant dyes, combine different colors and techniques, print, dye, discharge? Then you will find this book very helpful. Otherwise it is the ideal dyeing book for all chemistry enthusiasts (as myself).

Helmut Schweppe: Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe. Vorkommen, Verwendung, Nachweis

1993 Nikol Verlag

Another book that's only available in German: This book is only available to buy second-hand, but often at a reasonable price compared to other books that are out of print - and at 800 pages it is a real tome. I also wondered if that's why it should be on this list at all.

But I am sure it wasn't only me who – before the internet changes things so drastically – liked to browse lexicons, study illustrations and get to know previously unfamiliar words, places and people - and this manual is just perfect for that!

Today we can find almost anything online with a search engine, but leafing through a thick encyclopedia has a very special charm. The history of natural dyes from "very early" until the 19th century is dealt with with many tables of the plants used. It lists the different groups of dyes in nature, also with structural formulas (and that on about 400 pages). The last part deals in detail with the various ways in which these dyes can be detected. This is not so relevant for dyers in everyday life, but it is very exciting, because it allows historical fabrics or textile fragments uncovered by archaeologists to be examined and determined.

This book is the right one for those who like to browse and read across a long book, or who want to look up specific plants or regions from time to time.

Dominique Cardon, Iris Brémaud: Le Cahier de Couleurs d’Antoine Janot. Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours.

2020 CNRS Editions

Hopefully more will follow this little booklet about historical coloring with plants. It is a bilingual edition. In French and English there is an insight into the work and color palette of the French master dyer Antoine Janot from the first half of the 18th century.

With a lot of research, the authors have put pieces of the puzzle together and supplemented written recipes with preserved textile dye samples. When reproducing the colors, great importance was attached to being as close as possible to the original.
The book is intended more as an inspiration than a guide, some of the ingredients are no longer in use today. The wonderful colors and their names between pictorial, poetic and drastic (Dead leaf, Rotten olive green, Wine soup) are a pleasure. And the small glimpse into the precision with which the dyer Janot worked and figured out color recipes is really impressive.

This book is for you if you are interested in the history of this craft.

Keep reading and learning new perspectives

This list is of course not intended to be exhaustive or exhaustive. There are a few other books about dyeing with plants that I find very valuable, and some that I'm still very curious about! Maybe you have another book tip that you want to share? For the next year I have decided to look especially for books with a different perspective on the topic - for books on the topic by BIPoC authors - feel free to write to me if you have a recommendation!

PS:
Are you more interested in historical dyeing, but very practical? Jenny Dean’s "A Heritage of Color. Natural Dyes Past and Present" is also a booklet worth reading. Here the author approaches experimentally and practically, how (and which) natural dyes were uses on the British Isles historically.

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Plant dyeing 101: Choosing fibres to dye with plants

Brennprobe mit Naturfasern und Synthetikfaser-Mix

For dyeing with plants it's very helpful to not only know about dye plants, but also about the textiles you want to dye. Textiles, wovens or knitwear, surround us everyday. At the same time, we often don't know much about how they were made and their characteristics. While textiles are omnipresent, they're not a subject that's deemed important very often. Had I not happened to study fashion design, would I ever have learnt about the different fibres that clothe, warm, protect me? So if you feel like textiles are a bit of a mystery, then here is a brief overview for you!

When dyeing with plants, you will get the best results on fabrics made from natural fibers. This can be animal fibers such as silk, wool and other animal hair, or vegetable fibers such as cotton, linen or hemp.
You can also dye fabrics made of a mix of these natural fibers (for example a fabric made of cotton and wool) with plants. If you do, treat the textile as you would the most sensitive fiber in the mix: In the example it would be the wool, which could felt from too much heat/friction.

Do you have a fabric that contains synthetic fibers, such as polyester, in addition to natural fibers? How well it will fare in a natural dye bath, depends on how much of the synthetic component it contains. You can also dye whole items of clothing. The vast majority of these are however sewn with polyester thread - and in this case the seams take on the color only slightly or not at all.
Do you have fabrics that have been in your closet for a long time or that were given to you, and you don't even know what they are made of? Below I'll show you an easy way to find out.

Identify fibres with the burn test

Did you also have a subject in school or universtiy that in retrospect turned out to be a lot more exciting? That helps you unexpectedly in different life situations? After more than ten years: Textile science is this subject for me. I can remember it better than many things from my (fashion design) studies - I would never have believed that back then, and I didn't find it particularly exciting either.
And what's so interesting about it? I probably never used the magnifying glass for thread counting after the last exam, but I've used the burn testseveral times since then. Of course, the touch and appearance of fabrics already give clues about the composition, but the burn test reveals even more. Maybe this is an old hat for you? I had never heard of it before and I found it so very useful.

How to make a burn test

Please be careful with the burn test. Some fibres can melt and drop. Use tweezers and a fireproof surface. Cut a narrow strip of your fabric. If you suspect that the fabric is made up of different fibers, try testing them individually. To do this, you can unravel woven fabrics at the cut edge. Then you “pick” yarns from the weft and warp direction (which is parallel to the selvedge) and use them for the burn test.

In the video the order is from top to bottom: mix cotton-synthetic; Cotton; Silk; Wool; Mix of wool and synthetic.
If you look closely, you can already see some differences between the fibers - you should pay attention to the following in a burn test:

  • Is the substance highly flammable? How does the flame behave: lively, flickering, or does it go out quickly? Is it light, rather dark, bluish?
  • What does the smoke smell like?
  • What does the ash or residue look like? If a solid residue remains, can you crush it between your fingers?

Cotton, linen, hemp: If you take a closer look at fabrics made from these vegetable fibers, cotton threadss are usually smoother / more regular than the others. However, they cannot be distinguished so well by their burning behavior. Cotton burns quickly and with a bright flame, it continues to glow and is easy to blow out. The smoke smells like burning paper, the ash looks similar and is very fine.
Wool: The flame goes out quickly, compared to cotton it is more subdued. The smoke smells like burned hair. A blistered, black residue remains, but it is easy to crumble.
Silk: Flame, odor, residue are similar to wool - but can usually be easily distinguished from wool visually and by the touch.

Blends of natural and synthetic fibers

In the video I show two mixed fibers that we often come across in everyday life.
Cotton and polyester: The fabric burns quickly and brightly, produces soot and melts in the form of drops. The smoke doesn't smell of paper, but of burnt plastic. A shiny, black residue remains that cannot be rubbed on. (Do not touch it until it has cooled down!)
Wool and polyester: This knitting yarn could be mistaken for pure wool. The difference becomes visible in the burn test. The flame burns bright and lively. There is a slight smell of burned hair, but also the aromatic smell of plastic. The residue cannot be completely crumbled.

Interestingly, the German wikipedia has a complete article with descriptions of a number of different fibres and how to identify them with the burn test that does not exist in the English version. So maybe my love for the burn test is very German?

Tencel, Modal, Viscose - synthetic fibers made from natural raw materials

There are also synthetic cellulose fibers, which at first glance seem a little confusing: for example Tencel, Modal, Viscose. They are manufactured synthetically, but made from the same raw material as natural plant fibers, cellulose. If you want to read more about the production and sustainability of these fibers, this gives you an introduction to Tencel .
I dyed different samples of all of these fabrics. Not all fabrics have accepted the colors equally well. I suspect the differences have to do with the finishing of the fiber or the textile construction. But basically you can also dye these fabrics with plants!

And can you dye jersey with plants?

That's a common question in my workshops, and the answer is, yes! Whether your fabric is woven or knitted like jersey is not that important. What is important, so to speak, is the content, the fiber composition. Jersey is sometimes used almost synonymously for elastic synthetic mix fabrics. Jersey, as a knitted fabric, is already elastic due to its textile construction, even if it is made of pure cotton. If you look closely at Jersey, you can see that it's made of tiny stitches the same shape as in a knitted hat, only much smaller, and that's what makes it elastic.

Plant dyeing 101: What is mordanting?

Aluminiumbeizen fuer Pflanzenfarben

Have you already been wondering about mordants? If you have browsed instructions on how to dye with plants, you probably already know that mordanting is kind of important. Did you read about mordants but that did not go forward because the information seemed confusing? I hope to clarify some basic questions here!

Mordants form a compound with plant dyes, and thus help fixing them onto textile fibre. Mordanting improves colourfastness of plant dyes (with very few exceptions) a great deal. And while I love experimenting with plant dyes, mordanting is the one stage of the process that should be done with care and precision. But once you understand it, there is no reason why you couldn't do it at home.

Vinegar is not a mordant

I was told the following in a workshop several times: First attempts at dyeing did not work out at all, although instructions for dyeing were followed. And then it turned out, these instructions named vinegar as a mordant, for example, or baking powder, and one or both of these should have fixed the dye. Just to be safe: Please do not try at home!

How plant dyes attach to fibres

To start at the very beginning - lots of the natural dyes are so-called "adjective" dyes *. Simply put, this means that they cannot bond directly to the textile fiber (i.e. the fabric or yarn that you want to dye). You need something to “add”, so to speak, an "agent" that can bond with the fiber. This agent (figuratively I imagine it as a bridge) is the mordant: it bonds with both the textile and the dye. This is simplified – but it helps me to understand how it all works.

* In addition to these adjective mordant dyes, there are also some “substantive” dyes. They can also connect to a fiber without a mordant.

The function of the mordant

For one, pre-mordanted fibers, whether fabric or yarn, take to the dye better (or at all) when dyed with plants. Apart from that, the colour fastness of the dyes is better, especially in the long term. (Besides, the second important factor for colour fastness is the plant chosen, because different plant dyes have very different properties. But that's another topic.)

The function of the mordant is to enable a stable bond between textile and dye. The type of mordant you choose also has an impact on the resulting colour. It can make a big difference, between lemon yellow and dark gray!

Mordants are metal salts

When we speak of mordanting in plant dyeing , we refer to certain salts of different metals - but not the table salt from the kitchen, sodium chloride. Vinegar mentioned above is not a metal salt, so you can see why it won't work as a mordant. Vinegar (and baking soda f.ex.) can shift plant dyes (with some colors even very radically), but this is due to the change in the pH value and does not improve the color fastness of plant dyes.

For environmental and health reasons, salts of aluminum and iron are probably most relevant for you and me.

If you read in old(er) dye books, you will also find recipes with other metal salts, for example chrome or lead. Today they are not used at all in house dyeing (anymore). Even if you limit yourself to the two above-mentioned mordants, you can achieve a wide range of colors and don't miss out on colourfastness!

Safety in mordanting

Beizen im Sommer: im großen Topf an der frischen Luft.
I like to mordant larger quantities of fabric in advance, and in summer preferably outside.

I recommend that you stick to a few rules when dealing with mordants right from the start - so you and everyone in your household are always safe around them. By and large, stick to the same rules for dyeing with plants in general.

Pots and spoons that are used for mordanting are no longer to be used for food. If you're just starting out, a single pot will do. You might find one (made of stainless steel or enamel) at the flea market. And if you also have two 10 liter buckets to “park” liquids, that should be fine to get started.

If you are heating mordant baths, be sure to ventilate your work area well when you cannot work outside. Wear rubber gloves when measuring mordant salts or stirring your mordant bath. Not because the mordant would be "damaging" your skin right away, but because the skin can absorb substances - just suppose you want to continue mordanting and dyeing with plants for the next four decades, and hot mordants could possibly accumulate by not weearing gloves... Label the mordant/mordant baths clearly and do not leave them open and children or pets unattended with them.

Some mordants or additives are very fine powders - before you dissolve them in water, wear respiratory protection lika a dust mask during processing and, if necessary, protective goggles.

I don't intend to scare anyone or sound alarmist, but I go with better safe than sorry with mordants. The mask may be a nuisance at first - but in the end you only wear it when weighing and stirring in, so really only for a short while. (And by now we all are a lot more used to them, probably...)

Aluminum salts: Alum and "cold mordant"

There are mainly two or three different forms of aluminum that most dyers use here. Alum, the crystals of which look similar to sugar (potassium aluminum sulfate); Aluminum acetate, which as far as I know, cannot be bought in ready to use in Germany; and aluminum triformate, a very fine powder (wear a mask), often called "Kaltbeize" or "cold mordant".

Beizen: Alaun und Kaltbeize im Reagenzglas
left: alum, resembling grainy refined sugar; right: cold mordant, resembling powdered sugar

Which one you use is a bit of personal preference, or maybe one of the mordants is more easily available for you. In the studio, the aluminum triformate is my favorite mordant. But whenever I work from home, I mostly use alum. I like that it isn't as fine a powder and a bit easier to handle. There are different recipes for all these aluminum mordants, some of which are “optimized” for different fibers. Don't be confused when you get a recipe recommended and then find another. There are a number of ways to succesful mordanting. (As long as you avoid instructions indicating vinegar as a proper mordant...) Choose the method that best suits you and your workshop situation/apartment. I go through my favourite mordants all workshops and in the Online workshop.

Mordanting with iron

Iron can be bought as ferrous sulfate in crystal form, or you can make a home made iron solution (ferrous acetate). To make this, cover iron bits (such as rusty nails or steel wool), vinegar essence and a little water, and then wait until it changes - the solution will become rusty orange (sometimes blackish).

I prefer this home made version to ferrous sulphate. To use it as a mordant (I love to use it as a post-mordant), make sure to dilute (a lot) and soak your textile in it or add to dye baths.

Iron in particular can make fibers fragile and break down if you use too much of it. So make sure to not apply ferrous acetate undiluted. This property of iron is also the reason why I rarely use it as a pre-mordant, but rather carefully dosed after dyeing.

In general: If you buy a mordant somewhere, maybe one that is all new to you, pay attention to the safety instructions provided. They are a good reminder of what to look out for when handling the material.

The topic is so big that more articles are sure to follow. Do you have any questions or wishes for it?

For German readers I linked to a video about aluminum salts (in deodorants) by MaiLab, and whether or not they are safe to use.

PS. All information has been researched to the best of my knowledge and belief, but errors may occur. Please also inform yourself about the substances you use in dyeing. Pay attention to the correct handling of metal salts and do not work with substances you are unfamiliar with. I am not liable for any negative outcome.