Throughout history, gardeners have harvested plants for many reasons other than their herbal or culinary uses. In times when mankind had to rely on only what Mother Nature provided for them, plant parts were used to make necessary fibers, stuffing materials, textiles, paper, rope, and natural dyes. One plant could be harvested and its different parts used for a variety of purposes. Today, many gardeners are turning back to this “waste not, want not” concept of gardening and experimenting with different plant crafts.
Making natural dyes from plants is one such plant craft that is gaining popularity. Natural dyes are made from various plant parts, such as fruits and berries, flower heads, foliage and roots. Different parts of one plant can sometimes yield very different colored dyes. For example, the roots of a plant may produce a very red to pink colored dye, while the same plant’s blooms may produce a bright yellow dye. In the dyeing process, mordants (like baking soda, salt, lemon juice, cream of tar tar, alum, and vinegar) are used to set and develop the dye color. Different mordants can result in different dye shades. Different fabrics can also alter the end results of the color. For instance, it may turn out brighter on cotton or silk than on wool fabrics.
To make natural dyes, plant materials are crushed, finely ground or chopped and then boiled. The amount of plant material used and the length of boiling can also affect the dye color. While the dye is being made, the fabric is soaked in the selected mordant for about an hour, then rinsed with cold water and wrung out. The fabric to be dyed is then placed to soak in the strained dye mixture. Below are listed the top 5 plants for making natural dyes:
1. Dandelion – The blooms of dandelion produce a bright yellow dye. The roots are used with mordants to create a magenta to reddish colored dye, while the entire plant can be used to make orange to red to brown dyes.
2. St. John’s Wort – The flowers of St. John’s wort will make a yellow to orange dye that can develop to a more orange to red color with certain mordants. The fresh stems and roots of this plant are used to make a reddish brown dye.
3. Hollyhock – The blooms of hollyhocks of almost all colors will produce a dye of that particular color. The exception is black hollyhock flowers, which will produce a purple colored dye. Hollyhock leaves and stems can be used to make green dye.
4. Elderberry – The berries of elderberry are used to create blue, purple and gray dyes. Mordants such as vinegar, alum and cream of tar tar affect this color. Interestingly, the elderberry was used in Ancient Rome to make a black hair dye.
5. Sumac – Sumac berries will produce different shades of purple dye when used with different mordants. Their leaves and flowers produce a yellow-green dye, while their roots will produce a red to orange colored dye.
There are many types of plants, probably growing right in your backyard, that can be used to make different colored dyes. Trying new natural dye recipes can be a fun and rewarding craft.