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Garden Ideas: Grow Herbs for Natural Dyes

| 7/6/2011 1:41:33 PM

L.HoltI really like the idea of a garden full of useful plants, whether they’re food, medicine, or useful for aromatherapy and beauty products. The other day I ran across a new idea (well, new for me): a dyers garden, for crafting your own plant dyes for yarn, thread or cloth. I took a few textiles classes in high school and the fascination with color and texture that I developed there is still with me; one of the many things I want to learn to do in the next few years is to make my own clothes, either by sewing them or knitting them. I think it’d be pretty great if I could combine that plan with my adventures in gardening by growing plants for homemade dye projects, and some of the recommended herbs even fit in with medicinal uses as well.

The information here is from a Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan. The book is a primer for choosing, growing and processing plants and making dyes, but I’m only going to talk about the very surface elements here: Herbs that produce strong dyes in a variety of colors.

First off, plants can’t produce all the colors of the rainbow (though most colors are available via other natural means such as minerals and insects), and the color of a flower or leaf isn’t always an indication of how the dye will look. The easiest colors to find in plant dyes are yellows (from pale to gold), light browns (light tan to bronze), orange, brown and dull greens. Reds are generally tinted brown or orange, and there are very few plants that produce blue (thus the high value placed on indigo in some ancient cultures).

A wide range of natural dyes can be produced by herbs you grow yourself.
Photo by knitting iris/ courtesy Flickr

According to the book, many dye-producing plants are annuals or fast-growing perennials. Essentials for a dyer’s garden include plants that produce strong reds (madder and yellow bedstraw) and blues (Japanese indigo and woad). Beyond that, the best advice is to grow things you would want to keep in your garden anyway (like useful, attractive, fragrant herbs).

Herbs for dyeing: Chamomile, yarrow and garland chrysanthemum can produce a variety of yellow tones, with St. John’s wort ranging from yellow through deep red. Sunflowers lend pale to bright greens and hibiscus can produce anything from pink to black. Purple basil can produce lilac, green, yellow, brown or black depending on the method used, while marjoram and bronze fennel produce a range from yellow through tan and olive green. Most of these herbs serve other purposes as well, including culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses. The range of colors is achieved through different dye treatments, such as metallic mordants, and the type of fiber you are dying (wool, silk and cotton will all take different shades, for example).

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