Indigo: How to extract pigment from plants

Indigoblaue Fluessigkeit in einem Schraubglas, daneben ein kleineres Glas mit Indigoblättern, und Stoffe in blau und tuerkis

Precious blue in green leaves

Are you growing Dyer's knotweed or woad ? Here's a how-to for indigo pigment extraction. It's suitable for small to medium sized extractions. Some equipment/process might not be reasonable for large scale growers.

Indigo, or indigo precursors to be precise, can be found in a variety of plants. At least two of these can be cultivated well here (that is Germany/and most of Europe). It's not visible from the outside though. Both Dyer's knotweed Polygonum tinctorium and woad Isatis tinctoria contain indigo precursors in their lush green leaves. When these leaves are bruised or dry it starts to show, they turn a bluish colour.

This indigo precursor can be extracted from the leaves, turning into indigo. You end up with a blue paste, or blue powder, if you let it dry and then grind the pigment. In dyer's knotweed the precursor is called indican, in woad it is also called isatan. The process mostly the same for both of these despite of the different names. While the 'mechanism' may be the same, there are very different ways to obtain blue around the world. Just as there are a variety of indigo-bearing plants.

Traditionally woad was the blue dye cultivated in Europe, before other forms of indigo reached Europe cheaper and in larger quantities. Which were enabled by transatlantic trade, colonization and not least the work and knowledge of enslaved people in the “New World”. Woad was often first formed into so-called woad balls, fermented and dried. In this form woad was then ready to be stored, traded or dyed. But you can also extract indigo from woad using the method described here.

Another method is the Japanese sukumo. It is mostly done with larger quantities of Dyer's knotweed, which is composted and transformed through heat and fermentation. Just as woad balls, the resulting product can then be used to create indigo vats, omitting the step of separating the pure pigment.

Side note: Vatting indigo

To dye with indigo it is not necessary to extract the pure pigment from the leaves. But once transformed the pigment is very stable when kept dry and is also suitable for other applications. It can be used like any other pigment, with a binder for painting, you can use it to make your own crayons or watercolors.
The actual indigo dyeing happens in a vat. This describes a specific dye process, and is not a general term describing all dye baths. Why? Indigo as a dye is not water soluble. The dyeing process therefore works differently than with most other dye plants. An indigo vat creates very specific conditions for the blue to appear. For one thing, it needs a fairly alkaline pH, plus a reducing agent that pulls oxygen out of the indigo molecule—then it's finally ready to bond. In the vat, the indigo molecule has a new name, leoco-indigo or white indigo. Despite the name, the vat is not white, but (usually) yellowish. In this form, indigo finally combines with (for example) the textile fiber. When the dyed yarns or fabrics appear from the vat, they are yellow at first, and then slowly change to shades of blue via green in the air!

When I extract pigment from knotweed, I prefer to dry the pigment after extracting it from plants, but you can also refrigerate the paste for quite a while. Powder or paste, both can be used to prepare vats.

Equipment to extract indigo

Unless you're processing large quantities of the leaves, you don't need a lot of equipment to extract indigo, you probably already have most of it.
You'll need a bucket or a tub that can contain all the leaves you want to process. I mostly use a mortar bucket and a bowl that can cover all of the leaves to submerge them. Later I use a colander and cheesecloth or a fine mesh bag to drain the liquid and remove the leaves.
A whisk, (or a second bucket instead) is handy, for larger quantities you might want to use a mixer or drill with mixing attachment.
The only actual ingredient besides plant and water is slaked lime (please read how to work with slaked lime safely below, before jumping into the adventure), and I like to have ph strips on hand. For testing if your solution is ready a small lidded jar is handy. As are a mask, gloves, goggles.
To filter the pigment later on, you can use coffee filters, very densly woven fine fabric, screen-printing mesh, etc. For the last step, I like to use large jars (like mason jars or empty pickle jars).

Extract Indigo: Harvest leaves

Für Hobby-Indigogärtner*innen ist vermutlich die Extraktion mit Wasser am einfachsten, wenn man nicht direkt mit frischen Blättern in der salt rub method färben möchte.

Dafür wird erstmal geerntet. Dabei lasse ich von den Indigopflanzen knapp zwei Handbreit hoch stehen, so treiben die Pflanzen rasch wieder aus. Ich ernte zwei bis dreimal pro Sommer, bevor ich dann im Herbst die Pflanzen blühen lasse, um Samen zu ernten. Für gute Ernten braucht der Färberknöterich einen nahrhaften Boden, ich geb ihm auch regelmäßig Nachschub z.B. in Form von Brennnesseljauche. Ich habe öfter die Empfehlung gelesen, nach einigen sonnigen Tagen zu ernten, für einen idealen Farbstoffgehalt.

Weil es später im Prozess hilfreich* ist, entferne ich gern die Blätter vom Stängel. Das ist aber ziemlich viel Arbeit, du kannst die Stängel auch einfach mit fermentieren, auch wenn sie keinen Farbstoff enthalten. Die Stängel lassen sich einfach wieder bewurzeln, wenn du noch mehr Indigopflanzen haben möchtest, dafür stelle sie einfach in Wasser.
*Das Ausdrücken nach dem Fermentieren fällt mir ohne eine Presse so leichter. Manchmal entferne ich die Stängel auch, damit alles noch in meinen Eimer hineinpasst.

Blätter einweichen und fermentieren

Die Blätter kommen nun in einen Eimer oder eine Wanne, und sollten am besten beschwert werden. Sie werden mit Wasser aufgegossen, so dass alle Blätter richtig mit Wasser bedeckt sind. Ich nehme im Garten dafür kaltes Wasser, und warte dann einige Tage. Den Eimer mit den Blättern stelle ich in die Laube, aber er könnte sicher auch draußen stehen, wenn du ihn mit einem Netz abdeckst.

Die Blätter fermentieren nun im Wasser – das solltest du beobachten, denn die Dauer kann variieren. Ich bevorzuge die eher kühle und langsamere Variante (vor allem weil ich nicht immer täglich im Garten nachschauen kann), aber du kannst Wärme nutzen um den Prozess zu beschleunigen.
Du kannst zum Aufgießen warmes oder heißes (nicht kochend) Wasser verwenden, damit kürzt du die Sache ab. Oder du benutzt einen schwarzen Eimer, den du sonnig stellst. Dann solltest du deine Indigoblätter und die Flüssigkeit aber wirklich gut beobachten, denn so kann es sehr schnell gehen!

Der nächste Schritt braucht etwas Erfahrung. Wenn du also die Zeit hast, würde ich für den Anfang eher mehrere kleine Ernten empfehlen. Mit denen kannst du deine Erfahrungen machen, und für’s nächste Mal den Ablauf verbessern.

Je nach Temperatur dauert es nun einige Tage. Langsam kommt eine Fermentation in Gang, und die Indigovorstufe wird aus den Blättern gelöst. Die Blätter werden beim fermentieren blasser und etwas schleimig. Interessant ist vor allem die Farbe vom Wasser, und der Geruch – beides ist leider schwer zu beschreiben.

Zeichen, dass die Blätter fermentiert sind

Die Flüssigkeit wird mit der Zeit türkis bis aqua, changiert zwischen grün und blau, eine wirklich besondere Farbe. An der Oberfläche bildet sich ein schimmernder Film, aber der kann sehr dezent ausfallen, einige Bläschen steigen auf. An der Oberfläche gibt es kleine blaue Stellen – ich erkenne die gut an der Unterseite der weißen Schüssel, die ich zum Beschweren nehme. Die Blätter sind nicht mehr leuchtend grün. Und du solltest unbedingt auch die Nase einsetzen. Der Geruch wird mit der Zeit fruchtig, süßlich und ferment-ig, und vor allem wenn das ganze etwas zu lange fermentiert auch unangenehm faulig.

Überfermentiertes Indigopigment wird am Ende weniger blau, eher grünlich sein. Wenn du unsicher bist, geh zum nächsten Schritt über, und setze dann die Blätter nochmal mit frischem Wasser an. Diese Zweitfermentation mache ich inzwischen immer, um noch den letzten Rest Farbe zu bekommen.

Es ist lehrreich, mal absichtlich eine kleine Portion überfermentieren zu lassen, und das genau zu beobachten. Das habe ich anfangs (unabsichtlich) gemacht, und kenne den typischen Geruch vom Überfermentieren daher jetzt ziemlich gut.

Nach dem Fermentieren: Löschkalk

Für den nächsten Schritt braucht es jetzt noch eine weitere Zutat. Meist wird Löschkalk (Calciumhydroxid) verwendet. Wenn du damit das erste Mal arbeitest, lies dir genau die Gefahrenhinweise durch! Trage dabei Handschuhe und eine Atemschutzmaske, am besten auch eine Schutzbrille. Der feine Staub sollte nie in Augen und Atemwege gelangen. Gelöst in Wasser ist Löschkalk alkalisch (was man sich im Prozess hier zunutze macht), und kann ätzend sein. Zum Mischen von Löschkalk und Wasser immer den Kalk zum Wasser geben, nicht andersherum. Sonst staubt er sehr stark, und das solltest du unbedingt vermeiden.

Warum benutzt man hier Löschkalk, der ja wirklich nur mit Bedacht benutzt werden sollte? Zum einen brauchen wir den alkalischen pH-Wert, den man damit erreicht. Es gäbe dafür auch andere, weniger bedenkliche Mittel wie Waschsoda. Soda ist aber nicht so stark basisch und kann folgendes nicht: Denn zweitens wirkt der Löschkalk als ein ‘Flockungsmittel’ – er bindet Indigo an sich, das damit aus der Flüssigkeit ausfällt, sich absetzt und abgefiltert werden kann.

Flüssigkeit abgießen und belüften

So kannst du Testen, ob du schon Blau bekommst

Füll ein kleines Schraubglas mit der Flüssigkeit. Gib eine kleine Löffelspitze vom Löschkalk dazu. Schließe das Glas richtig – denn jetzt musst du es gründlich schütteln. Lass es kurz stehen. Wenn du nach einigen Minuten noch kein Blau siehst, ist deine Flüssigkeit noch nicht so weit. Ansonsten geht es jetzt los! (Diesen Tipp habe ich, wenn ich mich richtig erinnere, von Iris von dreambird studio gelernt.)

Wenn du bereit bist für den nächsten Schritt, werden die Blätter aus der Flüssigkeit entfernt. Gieße sie durch ein mit einem Tuch ausgelegtes Sieb, im Tuch kannst du sie dann gut ausdrücken. Wenn du ein passendes Netz (zum Beispiel ein feines Wäschenetz) für deine Blätter hast, kannst du sie auch direkt darin fermentieren lassen. Die Blätter kommen auf den Kompost, oder wenn ein Teil davon noch gut grün aussieht/nicht alles schon sehr schleimig ist, kannst du sie ein zweites Mal fermentieren.

Mit der Flüssigkeit müssen jetzt zwei Dinge passieren: Der Löschkalk kommt dazu, bis ein ausreichender pH-Wert erreicht ist. Und die Flüssigkeit muss ‘belüftet’ werden. Ich finde es am besten, mit dem Kalk zu beginnen. Aber ich weiß, dass manche auch die umgekehrte Reihenfolge bevorzugen, also vielleicht probierst du auch beides mal aus.

Löschkalk und Luft dazu

Unter Einhaltung der Schutzregeln (nochmal, mit Löschkalk ist nicht zu spaßen) gebe ich kleine Mengen Löschkalk dazu. Ich beginne meist mit einem halben Esslöffel und rühre, bis er sich aufgelöst hat. Das hängt natürlich auch von der Wassermenge ab – auf zehn Liter würde ich 1 bis 1,5 Esslöffel Kalk geben. Mit dem Löschkalk verändert sich (oft, nicht immer) die Farbe der Flüssigkeit, sie wird gelblich oder cognacfarben. Mit einem pH-Streifen messe ich den pH-Wert, er sollte bei 10 oder 11 liegen. Zuviel vom Löschkalk schadet nicht direkt, aber verunreinigt am Ende das Pigment, es wird heller.
Wenn ich das erreicht habe, belüfte ich die Flüssigkeit. Entweder mit dem Schneebesen einige Minuten kräftig rühren, oder die Flüssigkeit zwischen zwei Eimern hin und her schütten, um Luft ‘einzuarbeiten’. (Wenn beides nicht da ist, kann auch mit einem Blumentopf der unten Löcher hat immer wieder Flüssigkeit geschöpft werden zum Belüften.) Das mache ich für zehn bis fünfzehn Minuten. Dabei verändert sich die Farbe der Flüssigkeit und vom Schaum, der dabei entsteht. Der wird zunächst dunkelblau, später wieder heller, fast weiß.

Warten: Indigo-Pigment muss sich absetzen

Wenn es soweit ist, lässt man die Flüssigkeit stehen, bis sich das Pigment am Boden absetzt. Das kann mal länger dauern, meist ist es bei mir am nächsten Tag soweit. Die Flüssigkeit* kann dann vorsichtig abgeschöpft werden, solange das Pigment nicht aufgewirbelt wird. Wenn das passiert, warte wieder bis es sich setzt. Wenn nur noch wenig Flüssigkeit übrig ist, gieße ich die meist durch Kaffeefilter in verschiedene große Gläser. So kann ich gut erkennen, ob Pigment entwischt ist, und sich am Boden sammelt. In den Filtern lasse ich mein Pigment dann trocknen.
Manche nehmen zum Filtern feine Seide (muss sehr eng gewebt sein), Siebdrucknetze oder spezielle wiederverwendbare Filter.

[*Die Flüssigkeit ist alkalisch. Wenn man bald eine Küpe ansetzen möchte, könnte man sie dafür aufbewahren. Wenn du sie z.B. auf den Kompost gießen möchtest, sollte der pH-Wert neutralisiert werden. Das geht schnell z.B. mit Zugabe von Essigessenz.]

Indigopaste

Wenn du dein Indigo als Paste aufbewahren möchtest, brauchst du gar keinen Filter. Du kannst es auf mehrere flache Behälter aufteilen, die du mit einem Netz abdeckst, und warten bis das überschüssige Wasser verdampft. Gekühlt, in gut verschlossenen Behältern, am besten bis zum Rand gefüllt, hält es sich auch mindestens Monate. Um eine Küpe anzusetzen ist eine Paste von Vorteil, weil das Pigment dann schon nass ist, und man es nicht durch langes Mörsern o.ä. wieder rehydrieren muss.

Das Pigment waschen

Das Pigment zu waschen ist nicht notwendig, man bekommt aber ein reineres, konzentriertes Pigment. Damit kann man andere Pflanzenstoffe entfernen, oder auch einen Überschuss Kalk lösen. Für ersteres nehme ich mein Pigment im Filter und spüle es mit Wasser durch. Um den Löschkalk zu entfernen braucht es etwas Säure, zum Beispiel in Wasser gelöste Zitronensäure. Wenn man das Pigment damit mischt, wird es schäumen, und anschließend spüle ich mit klarem Wasser.

Habe ich noch etwas vergessen? Hast du selbst schon Indigo extrahiert und noch Tipps?

Mehr lesen: Meine Buchempfehlung zum Arbeiten mit frischem Indigo, wie auch schon an anderer Stelle, ist John Marshalls “Soulful Dyeing for All Eternity. Singing the Blues”. Eine super Anlaufstelle für Fragen (und auch Teilen von Erfolgserlebnissen) ist die Gruppe Indigo Pigment Extraction Methods, die hat mir auch schon bei den ersten Versuchen geholfen.

auf Pinterest merken

Start a dye garden

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

Ich gärtnere in einem Berliner Schrebergarten, mit begrenztem Platz, ohne Gewächshaus, und außer Färberpflanzen möchte ich auch Gemüse und Obst ernten. Diese Färberpflanzen hier sind meine “Grundausstattung”, und werden jedes Jahr wieder angebaut, auch wenn es eng ist… Ich färbe gerne mit ihnen, sie funktionieren in meinem Garten und bieten auch den Insekten was, denn der Garten ist ja nicht nur für mich.
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.

Und wenn du vielleicht von Wau oder Färberkamille nur wenig hast, kannst du deinen Färbetopf mit Goldrute auffüllen! Möchtest du Blüten trocknen zum Färben im Winter, solltest du sie ernten, bevor sie richtig aufgeblüht sind. Sonst reifen sie noch aus und statt gelber Blüten hast du dann viele Samen mit dem fluffigen ‘Pappus’.

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.

Schwarze Stockrose (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.

Ich färbe nur ungern mit Essbarem – aber das Schöne ist ja, die Schale vom Granatapfel wird natürlich nicht gegessen, sondern landet auf dem Kompost. Oder im Färbetopf! Das ist also auch unter dem ‘Zero Waste’-Aspekt eine schöne Färberpflanze.

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.
Ich habe auch meist mit getrockneter Schale gefärbt, auch mal mit einem höheren %-Verhältnis – die Farben wurden nicht viel intensiver, eher etwas schmutziger, fand ich. Wenn die Schalen zwar trocken, aber noch recht “neu” waren, habe ich etwas reinere Gelbtöne bekommen. Bei Schalen, die schon einige Jahre getrocknet waren, fand ich die Töne weniger klar und leuchtend, etwas mehr Richtung Ocker. Falls dir das auch aufgefallen ist, oder du das gar nicht bestätigen kannst, schreib mir gern einen Kommentar dazu. Es interessiert mich sehr, ob andere auch diese Beobachtung gemacht haben!

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

Im Buch ‘Natural Dyes. Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science’ von Dominique Cardon habe ich jetzt nochmal zum Granatapfel nachgeschlagen. Darin sind dem Baum drei Seiten gewidmet. Wenn dich Geschichte von Färberpflanzen, Färbemethoden und das Chemische “hinter den Kulissen” vom Färben interessiert, ist das ein wirklich spannendes Buch. Ich lese es sehr langsam (es hat über 700 Seiten), und benutze es ansonsten als Nachschlagewerk. Das Original ist Französisch, und ins Englische wurde es zwar übersetzt, soweit ich weiß aber nicht ins Deutsche. Wenn du einen vergleichbaren Wälzer suchst, aber auf Deutsch, vielleicht ist dann Helmut Schweppe’s ‘Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe’ (see here) is what you're looking for.

Vor allem aber bin ich in der Bibliographie von Cardon’s Buch auf einen weiteren Titel gestoßen, der mich neugierig macht. Der Granatapfel hat eine reiche Kulturgeschichte, ist unter anderem Symbol für Fruchtbarkeit und das Leben, und nun steht ‘Der Granatapfel. Symbol des Lebens in der alten Welt’ von Friedrich Muthmann, 1982, auf meiner Leseliste.

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!

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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!

Nach einem heftigeren Sturm vor einigen Tagen hat “meine” Blutpflaume leider gleich einen großen Ast verloren. So konnte ich ausnahmsweise meinen Sammelbeutel mit den Blättern ganz füllen. (Wenn du dich auch nach einem Sturm auf die Suche machen möchtest, sei vorsichtig. Äste könnten auch später noch runterfallen, wenn der Baum beschädigt wurde.)

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.
Ein schöner Nebeneffekt vom “Ort kennenlernen” ist auch das Zuhause-Gefühl, das vielleicht mit der Zeit wächst, wenn du den Ort, die Pflanzen um dich herum eine Weile genauer beobachtest!

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.

Ernte so, dass es auch hinterher noch unberührt aussieht – für mich heißt das, ich ernte nur, wenn es viele Pflanzen gibt, und nehme von jeder einzelnen nur wenig (Blüten/Blätter…). Ich ernte zum Beispiel beim Beifuß die Spitzen, statt ganzer Pflanzen. Das regt sogar noch zum Wachstum an. Eine Freundin sagte vor kurzem „wenn ein Insekt auf der Blüte, ein Vogel auf einem Ast sitzt, haben sie Vorrang” und sie lässt ihnen die Pflanzen. Auf einer Veranstaltung von 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.

Hast du noch andere Ideen für eine schnell und günstig eingerichtete Färbeküche? Oder ein “Bonuswerkzeug”, das dir sehr lieb ist, wie mir das Thermometer?

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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

Nimm für die Brennprobe am besten eine Pinzette, und such dir eine feuerfeste Unterlage. Von deinem Stoff kannst du einen schmalen Streifen schneiden. Hast du den Verdacht, dass der Stoff aus verschiedenen Fasern besteht, versuche diese einzeln zu testen. Dafür kannst du besonders Webstoffe an der Schnittkante etwas aufribbeln. Dann “pflückst” du dir Garne aus der Schuss- und Kettrichtung (die ist parallel zur Webkante) und die für die Brennprobe nehmen.

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.