Natural dyes appeal to those with a passion for color. “With natural dyes, it is as if the colors breathe like the plants from which they bloomed,” natural-dye enthusiast Meghan Sayres says. James Liles, a natural-dye expert, believes natural dyes attract our eye because they originate in living things. “I sometimes feel that some of that life is still there,” he says in his book The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing (University of Tennessee Press, 1990).
People have an intrinsic love for color. Although the earliest use of natural dyes remains lost in prehistory, perhaps the first dyes were simple stains from plants or rusty iron. Some cave images painted with mineral colors date to 15,000 b.c. It is tempting to imagine that early humans also used natural dyes for the first woven and felted textiles, although we have no proof of them doing so. However, archaeologists in India have found fragments of dyed cotton textiles more than 2,000 years old.
All dyes were “natural” until 1856, when the English chemist William Henry Perkin developed the first synthetic dye. By 1915, synthetic dyes — brilliantly colored and inexpensive — had replaced natural dyes in the textile industry. Crafts revival movements in the 1920s and 1970s spurred the renewed interest in natural dyes enjoyed by crafters and fiber artists today.
The Dyeing Process
Natural dyes are organic particles derived from animals, vegetables or minerals that can impart color to fiber. Dyes are distinct from pigments, as they diffuse from a water solution into the substance of a fiber. Pigments, on the other hand, consist of larger, water-insoluble particles held on the surface of a fiber.
Three elements that play critical roles in natural dyeing are dye, mordant and type of fiber. Natural dye particles from different plants, animals or minerals produce different colors. The earliest natural dyes were probably substantive dyes. That is, they were dyes that could not bond with textiles without mordants, chemicals that help dye particles combine with fiber to form insoluble colors.
Mordants not only help fibers absorb dye more readily, they often change the colors a dye produces. I have used three mordants — alum, iron and ammonia. Alum deepens colors, iron dulls or mutes colors and ammonia brightens colors.
The type of fiber being dyed also affects color. Dyes and mordants tend to work with specific types of fiber. Wool proved the best fiber for dyeing with rosemary. Cotton and silk turned only a pale yellow, and synthetic fibers, predictably, did not react with rosemary.
Rosemary for Dyeing
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has earned a favored place in many herb gardens and contains particles that function as natural dyes.
This exemplary dye plant thrives outdoors as a tall shrub that produces aromatic sprigs year-round in Zone 8 gardens. If you don’t have it growing in the garden, purchase rosemary as a culinary herb from grocery stores or a farmer’s market.
While many dye plants alone produce only yellow dyes, mordants extend these color possibilities. The following four steps will create a range of six harmonious shades from buttery cream to golden yellow to olive green — all from rosemary. You may try your hand with other herbs in the process, as well.
Colors may vary depending on the season and condition of the rosemary when harvested.
Fresh rosemary (about five 6-inch sprigs or more, depending on quantity of fabric or yarn)
Wool yarn or fabric (single ball of yarn wound into small skeins or 1 yard of fabric)
Alum (aluminum sulfate)
Iron nails (preferably horseshoe nails available at farm and ranch supply stores or from a farrier) or iron pot designated for dye use only
Scale (weight in ounces and/or grams)
Stainless-steel pan (designate this pan for dyeing only)
Culinary thermometer (for dye use only)
Paper tags with strings
Garden pruning shears
Stainless-steel or plastic strainer (for dye use only)
Paper towels/drying rack or flat surface
Stainless-steel bowl (for dye use only)
Paper and pencil to record weights and measures
Wooden spoon or tongs (for dye use only)
Canning jars for free-form method (for dye use only)
Free-form dyeing is quick, simple and the perfect way to experiment with natural dyeing.
Read the instructions before you begin to understand the time and materials required for each step of the dyeing process.
Scouring removes from commercial yarn and fabric any grease or chemical residue that can interfere with the dyeing process. First, heat distilled water to 110 degrees in a stainless-steel pan. Stir in a pinch of powder detergent. Immerse fabric or yarn in the warm water and stir gently. Before immersing wool yarn, wind it into small skeins to prevent tangling. Remove fiber and rinse in room-temperature distilled water. At this stage, you can either allow the fiber to dry or you can continue to Step 2.
2. Mordanting with alum
Mordanting encourages wool fiber to take up more color from the dye bath. You can use different substances as mordants, but I used the common mordant, alum (alumininum sulfate), available in any grocer’s spice department.
First, weigh your fiber. Then divide fiber into two equal groups. (Remember to keep a sample of each fabric or yarn for comparison after you finish dyeing.) You will mordant one half of the fiber, so weigh the fiber that will be mordanted. Dyers refer to this as the weight of goods or wog. The wog will be used to calculate the quantity of mordant. Use an amount of alum that equals 10 percent of the wog of the fiber to be mordanted. For example: The wog for the fiber I mordanted was 2.2 ounces; 10 percent of 2.2 = 0.2 ounces of alum needed to mordant this amount of fabric.
Place alum and a pinch of powder detergent into a stainless-steel pan. Add enough distilled water (I used 1.5 gallons) to cover the fiber. Stir to dissolve the powders. Wet your fiber in room temperature distilled water before adding it to the pan. Heat over a medium burner to 140 degrees, cover with a lid, and simmer for 30 minutes. Turn off the burner, and allow water and fiber to reach room temperature. Depending on the amount of fiber, cooling takes at least 1 hour. You can speed the cooling process if you remove the lid, stir and gently lift the fiber every few minutes. After the water has cooled, remove the fiber and place it on paper toweling on a flat surface or a drying rack. You can either let the fiber dry or proceed to the dye bath while the fiber is wet.
This is a good time to mark each of the alum-mordanted pieces of fiber. I cut a small notch from the corner of each piece of fabric or tie a knot in the end of skeins of yarn to mark them as mordanted fabric and yarn.
3. Preparing the Dye Bath
First, use garden pruning shears to cut rosemary sprigs into quarter-inch pieces. I purchased three 0.75-ounce packages of rosemary for my small dye project. Add distilled water to cover the rosemary pieces. Heat over a medium burner to 140 degrees, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes. Check the temperature every 10 minutes or so and adjust heat as necessary. The rosemary sprigs will impart a pale, transparent, yellow-green hue to the water. Turn off the burner and allow the dye bath to reach room temperature. This will take at least 45 minutes. Again, you can speed the cooling process if you remove the lid and stir the dye bath. Pour the dye bath through a stainless-steel or plastic strainer into a glass, stainless-steel or plastic container. If not using the dye bath immediately, cover and refrigerate the container. Discard or compost the rosemary sprigs.
The free-form method of dyeing is simple and quick, but you will have a difficult time if you decide to replicate similar colors later. (For a more detailed approach, see “Precision Dyeing” on Page 27). To keep track of how you created a color, label paper tags to pin or tie onto each set of fabric pieces or yarn skeins after the final step in the dye process.
Place your dye bath into at least three quart-size canning jars. Add a pinch of powder detergent to each jar. (Detergent assists the dye process by attracting the dye to the fiber surface.) Add six horseshoe nails to one jar. Immerse fiber in the dye bath in all the jars. Then submerse the jars in water in a canning pot and heat over a medium burner to 140 degrees for at least one hour. Agitate the jars every 10 minutes or so to encourage even dyeing — be very gentle because wool will felt when agitated in warm water.
With a wooden spoon or tongs, gently remove and set aside the fiber from one jar on paper toweling. Calculate and measure 1 to 2 teaspoons ammonia, add to that jar and stir. This amount is not critical; see if this amount brightens the color sufficiently. Replace the fiber and continue to simmer 10 minutes longer.
Gently remove fiber and rinse in tap water, progressing from very warm to room temperature water, until no color runs from the fiber. Lay flat on paper toweling or drape on a drying rack until dry. Pin or tie labels onto each piece of fabric or yarn.
Using your Naturally Dyed Fabric or Yarn
I dyed small skeins of wool yarn to knit into socks with various patterns and fine stripes. You can use dyed wool fabric to piece a quilted wall hanging. Or dye fine yarn for embroidery. Experiment with tie-dye or other resist techniques to create surface designs on fabric. Similarly, tie skeins with rubber bands or in tight knots before dyeing to achieve space-dyed effects. Try dipping portions of fabric or yarn into the ammonia dye bath for additional variations. You also can over-dye fabric or yarn that has been commercially dyed. Whatever you choose, the colors will harmonize naturally because all are derived from a single source of dye, rosemary.
The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing (The University of Tennessee Press, 1990) by J.N. Liles
Dye Plants and Dyeing (see Bookshelf, Page 54) by John and Margaret Cannon
Indigo, Madder & Marigold (Interweave Press, 1993) by T. Van Stralen
The Thames and Hudson Manual of Dyes and Fabrics (Thames and Hudson, 1992) by J. Storey
Wild Color (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999) by Jenny Dean
Susan Strawn dyes her wool in Ames, Iowa, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in textiles and clothing at Iowa State University. She studies and writes about historic and ethnographic textiles. Before returning for graduate studies, she was an artist for Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado.