Category: Dyeing with plants

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?

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.
Save to Pinterest

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!

Eier faerben mit Pflanzen - bei Pinterest merken
Save to Pinterest

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!

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.

Faerbebuecher bei Pinterest merken
Save to Pinterest

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.

Dyeing yellow with goldenrod

Gelbe Stoffe gefaerbt mit Goldrute und Faerbetopf

Ab dem späten Sommer ist sie kaum zu übersehen, steht in voller Blüte: Dann ist der Zeitpunkt gekommen zum Gelb färben mit Goldrute. Wenn ich meinen Garten heute, am 1. September 2020, mit Bildern aus den Vorjahren vergleiche, begann ihre Blütezeit wohl dieses Jahr schon früher als in den Vorjahren. Aber es ist trotzdem noch Zeit zu Färben!

Goldenrod is one of the Dye plantsin my garden that just grow without any of my doing. This perennial reproduces through seeds, but also through rhizomes (i.e. underground) and has come to us from our neighboring garden. I harvest it abundantly, and wherever it threatens to take over beds, I dig it up.

Canadian goldenrod is the most common variant here now, Solidago canadensis. Sie gilt als sogenannter Neophyt, wurde also nach 1492 in Europa eingeführt. Der Name lässt es anklingen, sie ist in Nordamerika heimisch. „Neophyt“, eingeschleppte invasive Art, beides klingt erstmal nicht so gut. Aber die Kanadische Goldrute ist nicht in böser Absicht eingewandert, sondern als wurde von Menschen gezielt als Zierpflanze nach Europa gebracht und später auch als Bienenweide gepflanzt. In Deutschland wird sie tatsächlich nur in begrenzten Gebieten als ökologisch problematisch eingeordnet. Auch wenn sie sich schnell etabliert hat und auch weiter verbreitet, in den meisten Gebieten hat sie laut dem Bundesamt für Naturschutz small impact on endangered species.. Also Entwarnung. (Anders sieht es in Teilen Österreichs aus. Und in der Schweiz steht sie auf der Schwarzen Liste der Neophyten.) Und nicht nur das, die Goldrute ist durchaus wertvoll, in vieler Hinsicht. Sie blüht spät und wird von Insekten umschwirrt, gilt als Heilpflanze – und sie färbt!

Dyeing with goldenrod

I love to dry and store goldenrod to use in winter, as it is so abundant here. But I have heard from several dyers they don't get as clear yellow tones from dried goldenrod.

Edit: Vielleicht haben durchwachsene Farbergebnisse mit trockener Goldrute auch etwas mit der Wasserqualität zu tun. Mein Berliner Leitungswasser ist einerseits sehr hart, und hat dabei einen neutralen bis minimal alkalischen pH-Wert. Ist dein Wasser sehr weich/sauer, und du hast keinen Erfolg mit dieser Färbepflanze, probiere doch mal Kreide (Calciumcarbonat) zuzusetzen. Hier hat Catherine Ellis über den Zusammenhang von the effect of pH on yellow dyes, I highly suggest to take a look.

Einfach und direkt tolle, leuchtende Gelbtöne färbst du am besten mit frischer Goldrute. Im Vergleich mit anderen gelben Pflanzenfarbstoffen, wie der Färberkamille und dem Färberwau, nehme ich bei der Goldrute eher mehr Pflanzenmaterial für intensive Farbergebnisse. Aber weil sie ja oft eben gleich ziemlich geballt auftritt, ist das kein Problem, solange der Färbetopf groß genug ist!
You can use flowers, flowers and leaves, for dyeing. The former dyes somewhat cleaner tones. When heating the plant matter and when dyeing, I make sure that it doesn't get too hot. If the dye is boiling for a longer period of time, the colour sometimes tends to have a brownish tinge instead of a rich yellow.

As always when dyeing with plants: it's well worth taking your time with it. That begins with preparing fabric or woolen yarn. Pre-mordanting is particularly important on plant fibres such as cotton fabric (it is in general, but especially so with this dye plant). Goldenrod dye takes definitely better to wool and silk - which does not mean that it is not worth experimenting with cotton fabrics!

Here I used as much goldenrod as I could fit in my pot. I didn't weigh any plants or fabric samples - but all fabrics were mordanted beforehand. And again and again I find it exciting to see how different mordants affect the color! I poured water on the flowers and slowly warmed them up and simmered for about two hours. For dyeing I poured everything through a cloth, squeezed out the flowers, and then put fabrics and woolen thread in it. And after the first round, I dyed other fabrics to exhaust the dye bath.

Drying goldenrod for the winter

To store goldenrod, I cut the flowering shoots so that I mainly harvest flowers and a few leaves. If there are already small side shoots, I cut above them so they flower again soon. It is best to harvest the flowers before they have fully opened, otherwise they ripen into fluffy seeds that spread everywhere like tiny parachutes.
To dry them, I hang goldenrod bouquets upside down, or lay them on paper or a lattice. In a dry and shady place, in my case in our garden shed. Once dry, I put them in large paper bags or cloth bags. To save space, you can strip the dry leaves and flowers off the almost woody stems before packing them.

To dye with the stored goldenrod, I first soak the dried plant in cold water overnight before carefully heating them to extract the dye.

Natural blue: Salt and fresh indigo leaves

Frische Blaetter von Japanischem Indigo zum Faerben

Diese Methode zum blau färben mit Indigo ist mir inzwischen besonders lieb, weil sie so zugänglich ist. Ohne viel Zubehör kann ich direkt von den Pflanzen im Garten das Indigoblau aus frisch gepflückten Blättern kneten. Am besten funktioniert es mit den frischen Blättern vom Dyer's knotweed (auch Japanischer Indigo), Polygonum tinctorum,. Aber auch mit woad, Isatis tinctoria, and achieved beautiful colors, albeit lighter and more greenish. All it takes is a small amount of salt and the fabric. Compared to the various indigo vats that are used to dye blue, this is a lot simpler.

(Möchtest du lieber das blaue Pigment aus Pflanzen zu gewinnen? Das geht auch, und ist etwas komplexer.)

A Japanese craft, travelling the world

I think the first time I saw this method was in one of my favourite online spaces – a Facebook group of all things! „Indigo pigment extraction methods“ I highly recommend to join the group if you want to grow any indigo plant. A global community sharing experiments, learning, questions. The group is brillant! Whether you are gardening in pots or in a large field, here you will find others who are trying the same, helpful documents and a place for questions that might arise. The group was founded by Brit Boles, also known as seaspellfiber on Instagram.
So that's where I first saw this video, of a Japanese indigo dyer, and her demonstrating this "salt rub method". The dyery, Ohara Koubou, is located north of Kyoto.

How to dye blue with indigo and salt

This method works best on animal fibers such as silk and wool. You can pre-treat vegetable fibers with soy milk if you want to dye them using this method.
Pick the leaves - for a strong color it should be at least twice the weight of the fabric in leaves. Work as quick as possible. This method works thanks to enzymes in the leaves, which are broken down by heat over time.
I tear the leaves once and start adding a tablespoon of salt. Now the leaf mass is kneaded with the salt until more and more liquid comes out - depending on the amount of leaves add a little more salt. Then add the fabric (previously soaked in water and squeezed out) into the mass and massage the liquid into the fabric. When you're dyeing wool, rubbing it can felt the fibers. In that case, just gently knead the liquid into the fiber.

Depending on the time of harvest and the fiber, the hues vary from blue to more turquoise-green tones. My dye results with woad leaves were particularly variable - I only got real shades of blue with the dye knotweed. If you want to dye a more "typical" indigo blue, I'd recommend vatting your indigo.
But you can also use the salt method for deeper shades. To do this, overdye several times. However, you will need fresh indigo leaves for this, unlike a vat, in which you can dip your fibers repeatedly.
I hope give this method a try! I look forward to the time the plants are ready for it every year.

Local colour, global context

I think it's great and important to experience dye plants in a very local and accessible manner. Gardens and even overlooked backyards are so valuable to enable that. And it's so very empowering to be able to dye textiles ourselves with means that are understandable and tangible. For me, this is a very important part of a sustainable clothing culture. At the same time I ask myself more and more – where is the line between appreciation and cultural appropriation is. In this case, too. (There are many interesting thoughts on this tagged with #decolonisethegarden on Instagram.)

The spreading of plants to other places is “natural” and part of their survival strategy. There is also a long history of people who cherished, cultivated and took plants with them and thus spread them. But I want to look closely: How easily is the reality of colonization re-told and made invisible. Like the rest of our world, our gardens would look very different without the extraction of anything deemed valuable by colonizers. Who not only trafficked enslaved people, goods, wealth, foreign plants, but also the idea that the world is their (or our, as I am a white woman) garden, in which they can help themselves to anything. Unjustly, in this image, only some are allowed to help themselves, and others have to to plow, to tend the garden. Cultur, craft, religious practices are part of the self-service buffet. This self image is deeply rooted and practically wears a magic hat to be invisible - that's why I didn't even notice it for a long time. All the more reason to take a closer look now. Do you have any thoughts on that?

To conclude, I want to recommend a book. This is for you if you want to work with fresh indigo: ohn Marshall's „Soulful Dyeing for All Eternity. Singing the Blues“. It's a fantastic ressource.