An ode to natural dyes

We have invited Louise Young of South Range, Wisconsin, to share her vivid essay about the magic, frustrations, and joys of natural dyes.


Louise Young enjoying a crisp autumn day.

Louise: On a clear autumn morning, a strong wind blows from the north, and the sky glows with the blue worshipped by long-ago druids. Summer's haze has been replaced by a crystalline landscape as precise as any Edward Hopper painting. Today, deadlines will go unmet. I pull on a sweatshirt and my old duck boots, and slam the screen door as I leave.

Black walnut trees in the hollow have been dropping fruit for over a week. Fresh from the tree, the walnuts are green, resembling limes in size, shape, and color. They even boast a citrus scent, although more lemon than lime. In less than five minutes, I fill a sack with dense fruit. At home, I'll use a knife to peel the fleshy hull from the walnuts—we'll eat these later—and deposit the hulls in a 5-gallon bucket. When I fill the bucket with water, ink-dark dye leaks from the bruised flesh. I leave the solution to soak for a few hours, and head back to the woods.

A sweater (with detail below) that Louise knitted with yarn spun from a naturally colored fleece that was overdyed with walnut, cochineal, indigo, and goldenrod.

Wind dances through leaves, exposing a flash of sunlike color. An early witch hazel blooms, its spider-leg petals incongruous in this season of fruit. The brilliant yellow of this flower is the color that I seek. Among the many native plants that yield yellow dye, my favorite is goldenrod. Not only is this plant abundant but the blossoms are lovely even when crammed in a plastic grocery bag.

This year, most of the fleeces I spun were colored: tan, brown, or gray. A bath in goldenrod gives these yarns a warm glow but doesn't produce the sunshine yellow that I love. I decide to concentrate on stronger colors.

Cochineal was the first agricultural export of the Americas, its source not a plant but tiny insects that live on cactuses. I grind the mauve-colored, dried bugs into a powder that becomes bloodred when mixed with water. Cochineal is a rapid dye: ten minutes of boiling yields a vivid scarlet. I place gray and tan skeins in the dyebath but the cochineal is so intense that the two yarns emerge identical.

The final color in my palette is blue. Of all natural dyes, indigo is the most universal, the most ancient, and the most loved. Indigo in some form has been cultivated on every continent except Australia. This fact amazes me since dyeing with indigo is a tricky process: unlike most dyes, its color isn't readily released but must undergo a series of chemical reactions.

Naturally dyed fleece, naturally colored handspun, and handspun that was naturally dyed (along with a few autumn leaves).

The ancient secret to indigo dyeing is a substance that's cheap, easily collected, and universally available: urine. For my indigo dyeing today, I use prepared chemicalsless odorous than the old-fashioned urine method. Indigo in its raw state is dark blue, but when mixed with chemicals, the dyebath turns a sickly yellow-green color topped by an iridescent purple film. It doesn't seem a promising start, but dyeing with indigo is truly magical: while immersed in that unpretentious liquid, fibers absorb indigo particles. These particles remain pale green while underwater, but when the fiber is waved in the air, the green is transformed into a blue as clear as a grandmother's eyes.

It's nearly dark when I rinse my last skein and scour the dyepot. In a handful of hours, I've harvested the colors of this fall day and preserved them forever in fiber— and in my soul.

—Louise Young

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