Make Your Own Natural Dyes by Growing a Dye Garden

Growing a dye garden will allow you to create natural dyes for coloring textile fibers, fabric or yarn at home.
By Owyn Ruck and Visnja Popovic
December 2013
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Use “The Textile Artist’s Studio Handbook” by Owyn Ruck and Visnja Popovic as your guide to textile art and natural dyes.
Cover courtesy Quarry Books
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Textile art surrounds you on windows and floors, furniture and the clothes that you wear. In The Textile Artist’s Studio Handbook (Quarry Books, 2012) by Owyn Ruck and Visnja Popovic, you will learn to design and create this art by yourself. By mastering the basic techniques, you can apply these new skills to create original projects of your own. Learn how to set up your textile workspace to fit your needs, then get inspiration and guidance to create your own pieces. The following excerpt from Chapter 7, guides you through starting your own dye garden and using both plants and seeds to create natural dyes for your future textile projects.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Textile Artist’s Studio Handbook.

Growing a Dye Garden

Plants, flowers and even roots are a great source of natural dyes, and you can grow many of them in your garden or even on your fire escape or windowsill. However, before you start sourcing out seeds and making big dyeing plans, there are a few things you should consider when setting up your own dye garden.

One good rule is to choose native plants, including ones that you’ve seen growing in your area. This way, you’ll be sure to start with plants that are suitable for your environment and climate, because the dye content in plants is significantly influenced by temperature, humidity and solar exposure.

Another important thing to consider is the part of the plant from which the dye will be extracted and the sustainability of actually growing and using the plant. For instance, marigolds have their greater dye content in their flowers, and they will keep blooming throughout the season if you keep picking the flowers. Madder, on the other hand, has its red dye in the roots, so you’ll have to pick the whole plant to extract the dye.

In addition to the location of the dye, consider how much dye a species will yield. Using madder as an example again, the minimum age for harvesting the madder roots is three years; as the plant ages, the dye content in the roots increases. And from one madder plant, you’ll probably harvest enough dye for only a couple of yards of fabric and a few skeins of yarn.

Starting From Seeds

You won’t find most of the traditional dye-source plants in a nursery, so if you want to grow them, you’ll have to start from seed. A wide selection of the good dye-plant seeds are available online at natural dyes suppliers.

Most seeds should be planted a couple of months before your last anticipated frost, but we strongly recommend that you refer to the instructions that are normally included in the seed packet. Generally, you’ll put two to three seeds in a small container filled with seed-starting soil (a soil rich in nutrients).

Place the container in a box with a transparent lid in a sunny, indoor location, and water regularly. You can find special boxes for seed starting in most gardening stores.

After the last frost (unless your seeds have other special instructions), move your seedlings outdoors as long as they seem big and resilient enough to handle weather conditions.

Tip: Cover small seeds with a tiny layer of soil, or even just rest them on the surface of the soil. Bigger seeds should be sown deeper. A good rule of thumb is to cover the seeds with only as much soil as the actual seed size.

Starting From Plants

Whether you buy plants or grow seedlings inside, the best time to plant outside is after the last frost. By this time the weather conditions should be mild.

When you plant your dye garden, give consideration to the space certain plants will occupy after they are fully grown. Ask advice at your nursery or research specific dye plants to better plan an arrangement for your garden. Usually a full-grown plant will occupy between 1 and 3 feet of space, but this can vary. Don’t position the plants too close to each other or they’ll compete for sun, nutrients and water. Also, if you’re planting a species of plant known for expanding, you should probably put it in a container to prevent it from taking over the whole garden. Also consider the amount of sun that shines on your garden; most dye plants prefer full sun, but some might be more tolerant of shade, so plan accordingly.

Before you plant, prepare the soil with a mixture of pot soil and compost. Dig and mix the soil well and wet it. If any of the plants are big enough, open up the roots. Dig a hole for each plant a couple of inches deep, place the plant in it, adjust the soil around it, and water generously.

Dye Garden Maintenance and Planning the Next Season

Monitor and keep notes about the growth of your dye plants throughout the season; check their reaction to the climate, soil, water, etc. Some plants may need to be trimmed if they grow too much. At the end of the season, review your notes and make a garden log. Note which plants did well and which ones didn’t. In some cases, you’ll be able to improve their growing conditions for the next season, or you might just conclude that a certain plant just won’t grow well in your climate.

Throughout the season, keep these harvesting tips in mind:

• If the flowers are the dye source, pick them throughout the season, whenever they’re at full bloom.

• Pick berries whenever they’re ripe.

• If you harvest an entire plant or the leaves, pick them at the end of the season when the dye content is at the peak.

• Most of the plants that contain dyes in their roots are perennial, so they will only have developed enough dye in them after two or three years.

• Keep the roots of biennial and perennial plants in the soil so they come back the next season.

• The parts of annual plants that weren’t harvested for dyeing can be composted.

FYI: An annual plant is a plant that lives for only one year/season, a biennial plant takes two years to complete its life cycle, and a perennial plant lives for more than two years.


Extracting and Preparing the Dye

The first step in using natural dyes is extraction, followed by preparing a dye bath. Extract the dye from the materials in a pot or kettle large enough to fit your fibers or materials.

Extracting the Dye

The extraction steps below apply to all kinds of natural dye sources, not just the ones listed.

Dried Materials, Including Roots and Hardwood Chips

1. Cut the materials into small pieces and/or pulverize them if needed. Soak the cut-up bits in warm water overnight or at least 12 hours.

2. Add more water and bring the solution to a simmering temperature (or refer to the packaging instructions). Let it simmer for at least half an hour.

3. Strain the dye materials, saving the extracted liquid solution. This is the dye. The simmered dye materials can be saved and reused in future extractions.

Fresh Materials

1. Chop the materials into small pieces and cover them with water. Bring the bath to a simmering temperature and let it simmer for at least half an hour.

2. Strain the dye material, saving the extract liquid solution. You can do a second extraction using the same dye material, but it won’t be possible to dry it for future use.

Dye Lab Safety Rules

• Use adequate protective material (gloves, aprons, goggles, respirator masks).

• Never leave a hot plate on unattended. Make sure you turn off the hot plates when you leave the room.

• Immediately clean any spill, especially if you are using a potentially harmful reagent (such as soda ash, urea water, etc.).

• Don’t use the same measuring spoon or instrument in different reagent containers to avoid contamination.

• When throwing away large quantities of dye, mordant, fixative solution, etc., allow the water to run for an extended time.

• Label any dye/mordant/fixative solution that you are storing with your name, the date and a description of the solution.

• Make sure to carefully read the safety sheets and/or packaging that come with the materials and reagents that you’re using, and keep them in a binder in the dye lab for reference.

Preparing the Dye Bath

After the dyes have been extracted from the materials, the dye bath is ready. Simply add your fibers or yardage to the kettle or pot. Typically, you’ll simmer the fibers for about 30 minutes or until they are the desired color. The longer you leave them in the dye bath, the deeper the color. The colors do tend to lighten after the fibers have dried, so to let the fibers soak longer if you want deeper colors. Dye baths can remain in the pot, or you can store them in plastic containers in the refrigerator for future use. Throw them away when they get moldy.

Want to learn the more about natural dyes? Check out Types of Natural Dyes and the plants they come from (Chart).


Reprinted with permission from The Textile Artist’s Studio Handbook: Learn Traditional and Contemporary Techniques for Working with Fiber, Including Weaving, Knitting, Dyeing, Painting, and More (Quarry Books, 2012) by Owyn Ruck and Visnja Popovic. Buy this book from our store: The Textile Artist’s Studio Handbook.


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