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Experiments in Colour: DIY Plant Dyes

June 23, 2014 | Appropriate Technology | 19 comments | Author:

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Allow us to point out the overwhelmingly obvious here, but how damn awesome are plants? They’re satisfying to grow, super delicious to eat, and of course also perform a whole host of tasks that keep our planet humming.

But wait, there’s more. Another side of their beauty really shines when you use them for dyeing fabrics. 

Bel - a lady of many talents, from leek raising to plant dyeing
Bel – a lady of many talents, from leek raising to plant dyeing

Belinda Sheekey, an ex-intern of ours, is currently an intern at Transition Farm in Victoria. She’s spent the last few years skilling up on this magical process, and we’ve enjoyed watching her dye sessions at the farm over an open coal fire.

“Looking through my instagram feed, it probably looks like I’m doing a dyeing internship, but I’m actually learning how to farm organically and bio-dynamically, and the dyeing just goes on during the weekends!” Bel says.

Belinda’s obsession started with a job in a craft store, and snowballed from there. “During a late night dorky-craft internet binge, I stumbled across an amazing website that completely blew my mind – fibershed.com,” she says.

“At that time, the creator of the website Rebecca Burgess, was documenting her year-long experiment in clothing herself with textiles whose dyes, fibres and labor were sourced from a region no larger than 150 miles from the project’s headquarters in California.

Similar to the idea of eating locally and supporting local producers and farmers, Rebecca was clothing herself locally – while at the same time supporting local artisans and fibre producers – with very little negative impact on the environment.

I kept thinking about what we put into our bodies and what we put onto our bodies, and how important both of these concerns are.

Something clicked inside me, and it suddenly didn’t make sense to me to be eating clean and organic, while still wearing synthetic dyes and synthetic fabrics.”

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Belinda taught herself by scouring every page of ‘Harvesting Color’ by Rebecca Burgess, along with plenty of practice, internet tutorials and local workshops.

“It’s such a lovely feeling to get together with a bunch of other awesome folk (often women) and spend the day crafting and creating and sharing stories!

I took a couple of indigo dyeing courses with Karen and Pepa from Shibori which were incredible, and then last Autumn I attended a week-long natural dyeing workshop in the Blue Mountains which really pushed me to experiment more and more.”

She generally dyes wool or alpaca yarn, which go on to become beanies. Keep your eyes peeled for this lady later this year when she hopes to begin selling these along with naturally-dyed homewares and bags.plant dyes_04

Belinda’s current 10 fave plant Dyes

“The basic dye recipe for the following examples is: dye plant + gently simmering water + fibre of your choice (protein fibres such as silk or wool produce the strongest results) + time and patience = colourful fabrics and fibre!

Cook your plant dyes outside if possible, and keep your dye pots separate from your cooking pots.”

It helps to add a mordant, or fixing agent (like Alum) to some plant dyes to ensure the color holds to the fabric. But this process is basically the color version of wild fermentation – so experiment, and  build your knowledge. See here for more mordant info.

Tumeric

This is such a great dye to get started with, as it’s readily available (you’ve probably got some in your pantry right now!).

A little goes a long way, and it doesn’t need a mordant to help the dye adhere to the fibre (mordants are minerals such as alum, copper or iron which help bind dye colour to fibre). It produces a sunshine golden yellow.

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Red cabbage/red cabbage leaves

Use the head of the cabbage to produce gorgeous lilac purples or blue-greys. Also, the outer leaves of the cabbage (which you’ll have access to if you grow your own cabbage or intern on a farm!) produce the most beautiful soft greens.

Alum is a great mordant to use with cabbage – it will help the dye stick to the fabric and will intensify the colour produced.

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Red/brown onion skins

You can be a dork like me, and save up your onion skins for dyeing, or you could probably ask your local farmer if you could have some of theirs instead! Red onion skins produce rich and warm browns, while brown onion skins produce yellows.

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Purple Carrots

Packed full of colour, these carrots (Deep Purple variety) produce a stunning lilac purple or cornflower blue dye. Simply chop into chunks and gently bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmerand add your fibre of choice!

You could plant a row of these in your backyard and produce your own local colour!

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Indigo

Traditionally, Indigo blue is produced through a process of fermentation, so it’s a little bit more complicated than some other dye plants. But the dreamy sky and sea blues that Indigo produces are worth the effort.

So far, I’ve only experimented with Indigo in powdered form (which you can purchase online), but I dream of a day where I can grow and harvest my own Indigo for dyeing!

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Marigolds

This year, the first frost hit Transition Farm in late April. Soon after, the Marigolds started to turn brown – but just before they did, we ran out and grabbed a whole heap of these beauties to dye with!

Marigolds are another great dye to start experimenting with, and they produce golden yellows, oranges and greens.

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Eucalyptus cinerea

This is a favourite of mine. An absolute stunner in plant form, Eucalyptus cinerea has silvery rounded-shaped leaves (and are often for sale at florists).

The silver-green leaves smell absolutely amazing as they are being heated (always a bonus), and they produce an electric orange colour. Crazy!

You’ll feel like a witch the first time you use this plant dye.

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Sunflower seed hulls

When dyeing with plants, there are many factors which can effect the colour you will produce.

Depending on when you harvested the plant, what the conditions were like, how the plant was stored after harvest, how much you used, which mordants you added, how long you heated the plant material for etc, your results can vary greatly!

This means that from just one plant, you can achieve a pretty lovely range of colours and tones. On separate occasions, simply by altering a few of these factors, Robin and I have produced rich, deep purples and soft, smoky greys from sunflower seed hulls.

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Pomegranates

You only need the skins to achieve a beautiful soft and creamy yellow or grey dye, so you can eat your pomegranate and dye with it too!

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Mysterious gum trees

Which I have dyed with but have no idea what their exact names are! – One of my favourite ways to collect dye materials is to walk around my neighbourhood after a storm and look out for tree branches that have fallen.

I drag them home or ask a friend to help me carrying them. This is an excellent low-impact way of harvesting plant materials for dyeing.

Other great dyes you could find in your kitchen/backyard: fennel tops, avocado pips, blackberry leaves, purple basil, elderberry, purple congo potatoes, mulberry, carrot tops, stinging nettle and New Zealand spinach.”

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Inspired yet? Need an excuse to fire up a steaming pot out the back and stir it slowly this weekend? We can’t wait to try these out. Thanks so much Bel.

You can follow Belinda’s dyeing escapades on her blog and Instagram. Robin, co-owner of Transition Farms has also been posting plenty of dye pics at their Instagram also.

Have you dabbled in plant dyeing? What did you use?

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Images mostly by Belinda Sheekey, and some from Robin.

Words by Emma Bowen – grower of good things including GreenUpTop + Slowpoke Journal



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19 COMMENTS


  • Nancy June 23, 2014 at 6:41 am | Reply

    t of plant dyes for Easter eggs. of course using only food plants beetroot,onion skin red cabbage and turmeric. The turmeric ones were great for chopping up later for serving with curries. And of course teas eggs. Hard boil crack slightly and then steep in strong tea.When you peal to serve the eggs you have a dainty spider web design on the eggs. A favorite for ladies teas in the past.


  • Mari June 23, 2014 at 7:15 am | Reply

    A beautiful post, thank you! I especially love the purples and the oranges in these photos — and the whole idea of using edible plants and veggies for dyeing, which I haven’t done much of myself (except for fennel, onion skins and black beans). Got to try red cabbage next! I also fell in love with natural dyeing by reading Rebecca Burgess’s book and have documented my experiments here: http://gatherandgrow.org/tag/natural-dyeing


    1. Belinda June 23, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Reply

      wowza mari, just checked out your beautiful blog! gorgeous dyeing!


      1. Mari June 25, 2014 at 12:56 am | Reply

        Thank you Belinda! So nice to come across others who have been bitten by the dyeing bug & document it so beautifully. P.S. I checked out your blog too!


  • ronnie June 23, 2014 at 7:30 am | Reply

    eco dyeing is a fascinating and amazing process — anyone interested should check out the work of india flint ( http://www.indiaflint.com/http://prophet-of-bloom.blogspot.com.au/) india is an aussie — her book ‘eco colour’ is widely considered the bible of eco dye world


    1. Kirsten June 23, 2014 at 9:12 am | Reply

      Yes! India Flint is the bomb.


    2. Belinda June 23, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Reply

      yes, thanks for mentioning her ronnie! India is incredible!


  • Alacoque June 23, 2014 at 9:28 am | Reply

    In high school I used to dye raffia and then make hats. Marigold and pomegranate were my favourites. I have been toying with the idea of dying fabric recently, in the India Flint style.


  • aglaefashionmalinche June 23, 2014 at 9:51 am | Reply

    Reblogged this on Aglaefashionmalinche and commented:
    THIS IS SO AWESOME!


  • The Zero-Waste Chef June 23, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply

    This looks like so much fun. I’ve also made natural dyes for Easter eggs, but never fabric. The colors are so vibrant and, well, natural looking, as one would expect. Thanks for the inspiring post.


  • jimmmycJim June 23, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Reply

    Apparently the 1788 settlers (read convicts) in Australia were guarded by red coat soldiers. The dye required for their coats came from cochineal, a scale insect, which lived on prickly pear. The bugs were squashed yielding the very red dye. To have a ready supply the first fleeters also brought the prickly pear with them to grow the cochineal. Now we have many varieties of prickly pear which are noxious weeds.


  • blahblahmagazine June 23, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Reply

    I think I need to try tumeric. I tried doing a yellow with steeped rosemary, but didn’t have any luck getting the colour to stick to cotton. Lovely post. Thanks x


  • wallflowerarts June 23, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Reply

    We’ve been dying yarn and fabric for a while using native plants and the results are stunning. The range of colours you can get from eucalypts and acacias is amazing. Native mistletoe is also meant to be a great dye but we haven’t been able to reach any to harvest it.

    You can get amazing, colourfast dyes from lichen but it’s a matter of contention as to whether you should harvest it because it takes so long to grow. Where we live in Hill End there’s a lot of lichen and very few people so it’s possibly more sustainable but I haven’t yet done any.
    I should at least see what I can get from the stuff that sometimes grows on the wood we get for the fire.

    There was a lady at the spinner’s and weaver’s group in Newcastle that had done a massive year long diary of what trees she could get colour from and samples of each dye on yarn and on fibre. It was mostly Eucalyptus from her local area.

    We are hoping to see what we can do about making a dye from the local red/yellow/almost purple clay soil colours here. I’m sure I’ve seen fabric dyed with ochres before.
    Just a matter of having the time and the health at the same time.


  • Rebecca June 24, 2014 at 3:21 am | Reply

    Great post! I haven’t tried out the purple carrots-that’ll be next on my list! Beautiful images as well! I’ll be pinning this post for reference :)


  • rsmrydunn June 24, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Reply

    India Flint’s book is interesting although a bit fristrating light on the process detail at times. She said that privet berries would make a blueish colour. Plenty of those around no one wants… a lesson in how individual the plant and the soil and everything else is to the outcome: nondescript pinkish beige on cotton and silk for me that day. Lost interest, the cloth kicked around the laundry for a few months and then one day the silk got swept up into a washing load done with a certain NP enzyme based wash powder and it emerged the most fabulous cocoa powder brown. The cotton piece did not react at all, no change. Love eucalyptus leaf dying with wool. The kids tell the neighbours mum’s “at her witch pots”. Love the unpredictability of it all, just magic. Thanks for these other links.


  • jenevievechapman June 24, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Reply

    This has whetted my appetite even more now. I found India Flint’s book when I stayed with a family near Byron and I found it totally fascinating. More than a year on and I still haven’t started experimenting with natural dyes! Thanks for kick starting my enthusiasm again. And the photography here is beautiful! :)


  • 1910bottlingcompany June 26, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Reply

    Reblogged this on The 1910 Bottling Company Blog and commented:
    Natural colours from plants have always fascinated me…


  • bsmercer July 9, 2014 at 5:13 am | Reply

    As a new gardener but a long time knitter/crocheter…mind blown! Those colors are so stunning!


  • […] you know if any of the plants you have can replace the more commonly purchased store dyes?  In a very comprehensive review of experimenting with natural dyes the author […]



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