Hits and misses of DIY projects, both big and small.

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Colored By Nature

12/9/2010 12:59:38 PM

Tags: question to readers, natural dyes,

prickly pearI’m originally from the northeast, so moving to the desert southwest was a startling experience. For the most part, it was the barren, hard, prickly nature of the landscape that challenged me. I was accustomed to soft, green, moist terrain. The only thing soft, green and moist was my little patch of grass next to the unfortunately sometimes-green pool in the backyard. 

But there is so much open territory to explore, I was seduced into the desert and before I knew it, I was captivated by the subtle colors and dramatic shapes. Many of the prickly desert plants offer hidden treasures — edible, starchy roots or green, juicy pads. The prickly pear cactus produces a fruit on the top of each pad that is a deep magenta color and quite sweet. 

I had read that Native Americans used the colorful fruit as a fabric dye, and I decided to give it a try. After splitting the pods in two, I steeped them for a half hour or so. The color was stunning. I immersed a white cotton handkerchief in the cooled liquid, wrung it out and let it dry. Even after numerous washes, the color has remained a lovely soft rose. 

Black walnut hulls are used for dark brown dye and yellow onion skins make a lovely yellow to gold color. Have you used any natural dyes to color wool or other cloth? If so, tell us about it in the comments section below. 

Heidi Hunt is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. She has been on the editorial staff since 2001 when Ogden Publications acquired the magazine. Heidi especially enjoys interacting with readers and answering the myriad of questions they throw her way. You can also follow Heidi on .

Photo by Istockphtoto/Metcalf Design, Inc.  



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Jean Hale
11/14/2012 6:56:40 PM
Martha for Blue...?? have you tried Poke Berries? as a child I used the juice of poke berries for ink worked great! ;-) For dark dark (brick) red use shumack seeds.

12/16/2010 9:18:49 AM
If you want to really learn about vegetable dyeing, check out Alma Lesch's book, Vegetable Dyeing, 151 Recipes for Dyeing Yarns and Fabrics with Natural Materials. Another great resource is Wild Color by Jenny Dean. I use the latter book, mostly. Alma Lesch is lauded as a pioneer who elevated textile work and vegetable dyeing to a recognized art form. She lived and taught in Kentucky, my home state. The Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, KY has some of her work. If you do an Internet search, you can find out more about her. Each year, the Kentucky State Fair gives the Alma Wallace Lesch Memorial Award to an artist, textile as well as media, who demonstrates great use of color and unique style. I was lucky to win the prize in 2004 for my hand-dyed and -knitted sweater. I must say that I used Kool-Aid for my dyes. I did not know about vegetable dyeing until I won the prestigious award. I purchased the above two books and learned how to harvest and render the dyes for my protein fibers. Pear tree bark yields a light pink, and there are many everyday sources for yellows, tans, yellowy greens, browns, , black, etc. I could go on, but check out the books. The only colors I had to purchase were indigo since there is no native source for blue, and Brazil wood for a vivid pink. Another online source of natural dyes & mordants is Dharma Trading Co. Be careful, the quest for color will have you jumping out of your car when you spy a dye plant ready for harvest!

12/15/2010 6:46:27 PM
I live in we dye with red clay! That lovely dirt that stains when you don't want it, will do the job when you do as well. I have also used sourwood leaves, onion skins (red onion skins give a bright green dye), curry powder ( a fav of mine), coffee sure to test a long soak and a short soak as they give different results. My mordant was alum right out of the grocery store. I did this on wool yarn, both homespun and some I bought with very reliable results. Oh...and poke berries, if you have them....or anything that stains usually do the trick. I have even dyed yarn with kool-aid for kids to have bright colors,,, if it stains, it dyes. Have fun!!

Sally L_2
12/15/2010 5:35:14 PM
I have been a dyer of plants and a weaver in the North East. Almost anything can be used as a dye but the main ingredient needed to make the dye set is called a "mordant" meaning "to bite"; it sets the color that won't wash out. It can be anything from iron, chromium, tin, copper and alum but each one brings out a different color of one plant. I've used blood root, nut hulls, lichen, moss, Black Eyed Susan's, golden rod,roots, almost anything can give a color. I used to collect lichen from a person's property and then dye wool and weave it into a throw for them. I used to teach it at our historical society and tell people that you could identify where someone was from based on the dyes used in their cloths. One example would be people who lived near the coast could use sea weed which would create a beautiful green. It's a lot of fun especially if you're interested in nature and want to learn about all the plants that grow in your area.

12/15/2010 5:01:17 PM
When my mother and sister visited Peru, they brought me back an alpaca wool sweater with a pattern that used natural dyes. Most of the dyes were from berries. Also, when fabrics are of a natural material and have been dyed with natural dyes, they should be washed and not dry cleaned. Native women washed these sweaters in a clean river and dried them on large rocks in direct sunlight.

12/15/2010 3:40:05 PM
You can use beet juice. After cooking beets, concentrate the juice a bit by boiling.

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