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Herbs for Dying

Growing and Using Herbs for Dying


The definition of an herb is a useful plant and for most of us these days, that means cooking. But for centuries, herbs have been even more popular as dye plants. The most fascinating thing to me about using plants to dye other materials is that the resulting color is often not what you’d expect. Pink heather results in a golden color, while yellow Gallium can create tones from brick red to coral.

Because herb plants are natural dyes, the colors will be more variable than dyes produced from a chemical formula. But the richness and depth of color is unmatched and the surprise results are often part of the pleasure of using natural dyes.

All plants will result in some coloring. You’ll find a wide range of plants that will produce colors in yellow, yellow-brown and gray-brown tones. Deeper golds, russets and reds are a bit harder to come by and blue and purple were down-right challenging. That’s why purple was considered a royal color for so long. Cloth dyed these colors was rare and expensive.

Many common dye herbs can be grown easily in the garden; plants like broom, dandelion, fennel, goldenrod,, hops and marigolds. Experiment and see what works for you.

How to Dye

In a nutshell, you create a dye by boiling or simmering the plant parts. The tougher and woodier the plant part, the longer it needs to boil. A great deal of plant material is necessary to achieve an intense color. A general rule of thumb is to start with equal weights of plants and material. You may need to increase the plant portion or even double it, to get the desired result.
  1. Prepare the plants.
    • Chop and crush tougher plants. Extremely fibrous plants can be softened by soaking in water overnight, before chopping.

    • Flowers and tender leaves can be chopped slightly to expose more surface area.

  2. Scour the Fabric

    Creating the dye is the fun part of the process. The tedious part is preparing the material to be dyed. Cloth and yarn need to be scoured (cleaned) and treated with a mordant (fixative) before you even get around to dying, but doing so will result in better color that won’t wash out.

    Scouring cleans the material and leaves it free of any grease and dirt that might mare the dye job. Scouring is done in 2 steps:

    • First wash the cloth or yarn in the washing machine, in hot water with washing soda (soda ash - sodium carbonate). You can find washing soda at some grocery stones and at hardware stores and pool supply shops. Do not use fabric softener.

    • Second, fill a large stainless steel or enamel pot half full of water and an ounce of washing soda per pound of fabric. Add the fabric or yarn and bring the mixture to a boil.

      Reduce slightly to a rolling boil and allow to process for another 2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so.

      Turn off the stove, allow the water to cool, remove the fabric and rinse in clean, cool water.

  3. Create the Dye Fill a stainless steel or enamel pot with enough water to thoroughly submerge the cloth or yarn, with amble room to stir and swirl. Add the herbs and bring to a boil. Let the herbs boil for about 1-3 hours, until most of the color is drained from the plants. Strain the plant pieces out of the water and allow it to cool completely.

  4. Finish Preparing the Cloth or Yarn So that the material being dyed can take in and retain as much color as possible, it is usually treated with a mordant or fixative, a substance that reacts as a bond with the dye. There are many different materials used as mordants and they will each effect the color of the dye in some way. Finding the right mordant for a particular dye is a matter of taste.

    You should be able to find mordants at craft stores and yarn supply shops. Follow the package directions, but in general, you will bring the mordant to a simmer and then add the thoroughly wet cloth or yarn. Allow the mixture to simmer for another hour before moving the cloth or yarn to the dye bath.

  5. Dying Once the dye mixture has cooled and the cloth or yarn has simmered an hour with the mordant, transfer the still wet cloth or yarn into the pot of dyed water and slowly bring it back up to a simmer. Allow to continue simmering for another hour and begin checking to see if you’ve got the color your want. You’ll want the color a little darker than the finished product, since some will wash out in the rinse.

  6. Final Rinse Once you have enough color, rinse first in a bucket of hot water. Then move to a bucket of warm water and rinse some more. Finally, rinse in a bucket of clear cold water. Now you can hang it out to dry and admire the results.

Dyeing Tips

  • Pans - Stainless steel works best. Enamel or galvanized iron will work. (Iron, copper and aluminum can affect the color of the dye.) Use a wooden spoon or glass rod for stirring

  • Water - Soft water or rain water has the least effect on color.

Since I am not an expert on dye plants, I’ll refer you to this excellent list compiled by the Herb Society of America’s New England Unit.

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