Natural Dyeing: Finding the Color Growing Around You

For centuries people dyed cloth with whatever they could find in nature, whether that be plants, metals, or even bugs. Natural dyeing drastically decreased when chemical dyes came on the market, but fortunately for us, it never truly went away. In her Endnotes for the January/February 2018 Handwoven , Nancy Taylor writes about her experiences with local dyeing. —Christina


Most modern weavers enjoy nearly unlimited access to colorful yarn, and for many of us our color choices are an important part of our creative identity. In response to this unlimited palette of yarn, I recently began working with local, wild-growing plants as sources of natural dyes, trying to answer the question: If I could only use the plants that grow wild around me in east-central Indiana, what would my color palette be?

My students from Earlham College and I, with the help of my plant ecologist husband (who never met a wild plant he couldn’t identify), experimented exten¬sively with native and non-native plants (including invasive species). We only used those we could collect sustainably, without damaging plant populations.

Natural dyeing with the goal of achieving specific colors is a complex process requiring lots of knowledge, experience, and patience. The sheer amount of information available about natural dyeing can be overwhelming to many of us. However, local dyeing can be quite successful with a few techniques, an attitude of exploration and adventure, and a willingness to work with whatever colors you get. The only thing that can go really wrong is getting no color at all—this happens quite frequently! When it does happen, just put the yarn into a different pot of dye and try again.

Protein fibers take natural dyes easily. Fairly coarse wool takes color well and is great for experimenting. The depth and shine of natural dyes on silk is particularly rewarding. The first step in dyeing is treating the fiber with a mordant to bind the color. Excellent instructions and supplies for mordanting are available from sources such as Earth Guild, Dharma Trading, and Maiwa.

You can prepare skeins with several different mordants, such as alum, copper, or iron. If you put three skeins from three different mordants in the dyepot together, you can create three distinct colors at the same time.

Natural Dyeing

Nancy gets a veritable rainbow of colors using local natural dyes.

In one semester alone, we tried over fifty local plant species, using the stems, leaves, bark, seeds, or flowers. (Note that it gen¬erally takes a lot of fresh plant material to produce a strong dye.) Of those, about thirty resulted in interesting color. For each dye, we used between fifteen and thirty sample skeins, testing five mordants, three fibers, and two afterbaths. We estimate that we dyed about two thousand skeins. We also tested some plants multiple times, get¬ting different colors at different times in the growing season.

So what is our local color? We produced many shades of yellow, green, brown, and tan. To our joy, they seem to work beautifully together. We see the subtleties of contrast and delight in the steely gray that is almost blue (blackberry leaves/iron), and the warm brown that is almost red (beech leaves/copper). One of our worst invasive plants, honeysuckle, gives a range of colors from soft yellow to dark green. The invasive garlic mustard, which is choking out native spring ephemeral flowers, offers a soft sage green early in the spring (but smells worse than any other when the plant material is boiling!).

As a weaver, I find my work transformed by the local dyes. Process is extremely important to me: the fun of gathering plants, the often-unexpected result, and the endless variations within our limited range of colors. Occasionally, I need a quick synthetic dye dose of bright red or blue, but the next project always takes me back to my cache of local color.

—Nancy Taylor

Featured Image: Natural colors on the loom. Photos by Nancy Taylor.


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