Kelly Smith Trimble

Dyeing with beets
Clockwise from left: This cotton cardigan and linen scarf were dyed using turmeric. Red cabbage makes a nice natural dye that yields a gray-blue tone. Beet dye works well on animal-based textiles, such as this alpaca yarn, but it doesn't yield great results on plant-based materials, like this cotton fabric.

The same values that motivate the local food movement have also led crafters to look into the origins of their materials and try to find healthier, more local sources. One of the most exciting and accessible of these local materials, especially for gardeners, is natural dye.

Once I started looking at the world with a dyer’s eyes, I began to see the boundless potential of plants to make glorious, beautiful color. Some natural sources originate from plants but can be found in your kitchen, including spices like turmeric and paprika and beverages like coffee and tea. Some can be spotted in the woods or on roadsides, like black walnut and pokeberry (yes, that was me clipping the sumac berries on the side of the highway). Still more natural dyes can be found in the flower or vegetable garden, including zinnias, red cabbages and beets.

The two main concerns about natural color that I hear are: (1) the colors are too muted and (2) the colors won’t last. While there’s validity in these claims, there are also exceptions and workarounds. If you’re concerned about brightness, your mind will be changed by turmeric, which produces a yellow so vivid and rich that friends will think your fabric came directly from India.

It is true, though, that some colors are brighter than others, and steadfastness is a concern. But preparing your fabric with a mordant before dyeing helps you get a more saturated, long-lasting color. While there are several options for natural mordants, the most often used is alum, a nontoxic, naturally occurring mineral also known as potassium aluminum sulfate. (Vegetable gardeners and preservers may be familiar with alum as an ingredient in pickling.) After yarns or fabrics are prepared in an alum bath, the cooled alum water can be used around acid-loving garden plants.

The color outcome depends on your textile origin, too. A plant-based textile like cotton or linen will dye differently from an animal-based fabric like wool or silk. This is especially true when using vegetable dyes such as beet or red cabbage, which work well on animal-based textiles but not on plant-based ones.

No matter the dye source, the process of making the natural dye is similar and involves boiling the solids in a vat of water, then simmering for an hour or more before removing the solids. You then reheat the dye bath and simmer fabrics in the dye for at least an hour. I typically let mine sit in the cooling bath for several more hours or overnight to let the color really set in.

A few sources have helped fuel my interest in natural dyeing. The book Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess, a Northern California resident and an avid educator on the topic, has been immensely helpful. I also recommend The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr, as well as the blog Plants People by Deepa Preeti Natarajan, who is active with the Permacouture Institute based in San Francisco. (On a side note, why do so many awesome things happen in California?)

No matter where you live and garden, there are plants all around you that would make great natural dyes. You just need to start looking.

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