Growing Herbs For Natural Fabric Dyes

Learn how to use the herbs you grow in your garden to make natural dyes for yarn and fabric.

Imagine the rich tones of the autumn woods. Or the bright hues of a spring walk. Every flower and leaf is a little different from the next. If you want to enjoy these beautiful hues year round, consider using herbal dyes to color wool and cloth for your craft projects. Every plant will yield some sort of dye. Different hues and colors are achieved by using blossoms, leaves, stems and roots alone or in combination.

Some of the colors made from plants are:

Black: black walnut and yarrow.

Blue: elder, indigo, woad.

Brown: burdock, fennel, onion, poplar.

Gold: goldenrod, safflower, sunflower (petals), yarrow.

Gray: sunflower (leaves), yarrow.

Green: foxglove, rosemary, yarrow.

Orange: Bloodroot, Golden Marguerite, sunflower.

Pink: Pokeweed, sorrel.

Purple: Geranium, lady's bedstraw.

Red: Dandelion, potentilla, St. John's wort.

Yellow: broom, goldenrod, sage, tansy, yarrow.

Home dying is labor intensive and it can be very messy. So, before you invest your time, resources, and precious garden space in a full fledged operation, try harvesting plants you already have growing or can find easily. Marigolds and yarrow thrive almost everywhere. Rosemary is readily available in warm climates while onions and their skins are available worldwide. If you find dying becomes a favorite hobby you can begin cultivating herbs just for your dyes and obtaining those you can't grow from dye suppliers.

Before you beginning a dying project, make sure you have all your supplies on hand. You will need:

1. Pots for dying, rinsing and washing. You'll want to use stainless steel or enamel pots and bigger is better when dying. You're less apt to spill dyes and it's easier to wash and rinse your project in a larger pot. Consider making a trip to a second hand store or rummage sale for dying pots.

2. Measuring cups and spoons.

3. A thermometer that reads up to at least 215F.

4. Sticks or rods for stirring. Plastic won't absorb the colors. If you use wood, you'll need to have a separate stirring rod for each color.

5. A kitchen or postal scale.

6. Rubber gloves. Since herbal dyes aren't dangerous, you don't have to wear gloves but, if you don't, your hands and especially your cuticles will absorb the dye.

The next step is choosing a fiber to dye. Wool accepts natural dyes more readily than any other fiber. Cotton is the second best choice. Linen is best left for those with dying experience while synthetics almost never yield satisfactory results.

You can use either yarn or cloth for your project but beginners may want to try yarn first since it is easier to achieve consistent results. Make sure your wool or cotton are natural and free of chemical sizing before you begin dying. Clean the fibers by soaking them in a bath of soft water heated to about 140 degrees. Mix six ounces of ammonia and three ounces of soft soap in every ten gallons of water and soak the fibers for at least an hour. Drain off the water and squeeze out any excess and put the material in a second bath mixed only with soap and heated to about 120 degrees. After another hour rinse the material well and set it somewhere to dry away from direct heat.

You will need to wet the wool or cotton before dying in a bath of warm water. Add 1/3 ounce of washing soda per pound of material to the water to help the material absorb the water. After soaking for about an hour remove the material to a mordanting bath. Mordanting helps the material accept the color and keeps it from fading during later cleaning. While a number of chemicals, including chrome and tin, can be used successfully for mordanting, the most reliable and is alum, which can be found at most local pharmacies.

For every pound of wool or cotton mix four ounces of alum and one once of cream of tartar with four gallons of water. You may find it helpful to mix the chemicals with a small amount of boiling water to help dissolve them before mixing into the mordanting bath, which should be lukewarm.

The material is ready to dye when the mordanting bath is cool to the touch but you can leave the material soaking overnight.

Now you're ready to begin dying.

As a general rule you need about twice as many flower heads by weight as you have yarn. So to dye one pound of wool, you will need two pounds of flower heads. Harvest them when they have reached their peak of color but before they begin to fade.

In a pan large enough for the wool to move freely, layer half the flowers, the wool and the remaining flowers. Just cover with soft water and bring the mixture very slowly to a boil over low heat. This should take about an hour and you should continue simmering the dye bath for another hour. Keep some water simmering in another pot nearby to add to the dye bath if too much evaporates.

To prevent shrinkage and felting, it's important not to change the temperature of the wool too quickly. So, you will need to rinse the wool first in a pail of very hot water. Don't stir or agitate the wool. Rather push it around gently in the rinse water for a minute or two before lifting it and repeating with a warm and them a cold rinse.

After the final rinse, gently squeeze the wool. It's important not to wring or twist it because you will leave more dye in some parts than others and end up with striped material.

When you've removed as much water as possible, hang the material to dry in a cool, shady place. Store your material out of direct sunlight until you're ready to use it.

As you experiment with herbal dyes, you will realize you may never achieve exactly the same result twice. So it's best to dye all the material you need for a project in one batch.

If you're a serious textile crafter, you will love the unique results you achieve with herbal dyes. But don't stop with craft projects. Herbal dyes can give new life to older linens and things like handmade napkins.

Whatever you choose to dye, remember the unique character of your project will be made all the more special by the one of a kind colors of an herbal dye.

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