Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Natural Dyes!

As we continue to talk about ways to sustain ourselves with what we can find in the environments around us, we learn how to add color into our lives! We got a taste of the process of creating natural dyes during Monday’s class.

The dye plants:

-madder root

-black walnut

-indigo (I do not believe that the indigo we used was sourced locally. Although it can grow in greenhouses in our climate)


-turmeric (Nope, turmeric does not grow around here. But we thought we’d experiment with a common kitchen spice just for fun.)

These are only a few of the MANY possibilities. Some other options up here in Vermont include: rhubarb, berries (and their leaves), carrot tops, lichen, onion skins, and the list goes on.

Here Ethan breaks apart the black walnut. The outer shell is used for dying. The inner nut is quite tasty. We indulged.

Dyes boiling

Most of the dyes we made went towards dying eggs. We also experimented with a bit of cotton and wool fibers. Jacob and Matt will be dying cotton shirts and Erica will be dying a cotton comforter. With this process, the cotton needs to be prepped for a couple days, first using a tannin bath and then an alum bath. They will let us know how it goes! Animal fibers only require an alum bath, not the additional tannin bath required by plant fibers.

For the egg dyes, all we have to do is boil the dye plant in water until the color of the water becomes vibrant, add vinegar, and boil the eggs into the dye. We drew on some of the eggs with our leftover salve from our previous class as a resist. The eggs did not take on color where we put the salve. We noticed that adding washing soda to the madder root made the color much more vibrant and beautiful. I will never buy easter egg dye in a box again!

Eggs dyed with black walnut (brown eggs), madder root (pink eggs), and turmeric (yellow eggs).

Ethan is very excited to see the change in color after the addition of washing soda to the madder root!

In order to create dyes that are more permanent, it is necessary to soak the fibers in a mordant beforehand. Some dyes, called substantive dyes, do not any additions in order to adhere to whatever is being dyed. Mordants can be made out of several things, including: copper, aluminum, iron, rhubarb leaves, and oak galls. We added oak gall powder to our dyes that we used for dying cotton fibers.

These are chemical mordants, iron and copper.

For the fiber dyes, we experimented with indigo and the black walnut. The indigo was made ready with the addition of washing soda and thiourea dioxide to convert it from blue indigo to white indigo. This makes it soluble. The cotton fiber did not dye as well as we had hoped, possibly because of a lack of the thiourea dioxide. The wool did not give us a great result either. The black walnut-dyed cotton, however, came out beautifully with a very rich brown color.

Although this was a very brief taste of natural dying possibilities, we have the basic knowledge to do some further learning on our own. I recommend taking a look at the book that we referenced in class for some good ideas! Wild Color by Jenny Dean.


  1. Nice post Hannah. I think for the eggs I like the black walnut coloring the best. It made them look like eggs carved out of wood. The tumeric gave a nice bright yellow color. It was interesting to see how much brighter the color got when washing soda was added. I am getting into blacksmithing and will eventually need to make sheaths for tools and knives. It would be neat to be able to use natural dyes to put some designs in the leather.

  2. I found the natural dye process to be really cool, especially the materials you can use to make dyes. I read up on it a bit, and i found some cool stuff about uses for tannic acid from tree bark. Elm bark gives you a color that ranges from pinkish to coral, which is why Slippery Elm fell victim to poachers who could fell the trees only for the bark. The same goes for hemlock, which has major amounts of tannic acid in the bark, and gives you a brown color. Massive trees were felled , the bark stripped from the trunks and stumps, and the wood was left to rot because it was not considered a high enough quality wood to waste so much time on..... which is foolish, seeing as hemlock is quite strong and can be used for timbers and all kinds of applications! Other bark dyes can come from oak, cherry, sumac, alder, and a bunch of other trees.