Pokeberry Dye Recipe

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The red color from Pokeberry can be described as Victorian Christmas.
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Pokeberry can be a frustrating plant to work with, but Carol Leigh spent 18 years experimenting with the plant to find a way to work with it.
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“A Garden to Dye For” by Chris McLaughlin walks you through how to create your own colorful dyes with plants from your garden.

In A Garden to Dye For (St. Lynn’s, 2014), Chris McLaughlin teaches you how to make the most of your garden by harvesting different plants to create your own clothing dyes. She walks you through each type of plant, explaining where the color comes from and how best to get it for yourself. In the following excerpt, McLaughlin explains how to extract color from Pokeberry with her favorite Pokeberry recipe.

Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana)

aka Pokeweed, Poke bush, Pokeroot, Inkberry

Even the most avid gardener probably isn’t growing pokeberry this year. But if you get your hands on some by foraging or a perhaps from a friend, I’m willing to bet they’ll be in next year’s garden. Pokeberry’s color is irresistibly gorgeous. It’s also fugitive… maybe.

Perennial pokeberry grows wild throughout the United States, so take a drive through a foresty area and look along the roadside to see if you can forage some for yourself. Or make friends with other dyers and they just might share some of their stash with you.

Color from pokeberries has long been considered frustratingly fugitive until a weaver named Carol Leigh – who had been experimenting with pokeberry for 18 years – made it a university research project as part of her master’s program and found a way to make it colorfast. The term “colorfast” is subjective, which makes sense because even “permanent” synthetic dyes fade eventually. But I’m talking impressively darn colorfast here.

Carol has generously contributed her pokeberry recipe to our book (crafters are big-hearted!). She says, “Pokeberry color will last for several years by following my recipe. Three factors seem to greatly affect the color and color retention: the concentration of dyestuff to fiber, the degree of acidity of the mordant and dye baths, and the length of time fibers remain in each step of the process.”

Where the Color Is

It’s all about the berries (surprise!). Pokeberry’s colors are described as cranberry, raspberry, fuchsia…think Victorian Christmas. Got your attention now, don’t I?

Carol Leigh’s Pokeberry Recipe

Carol says: “I don’t take accurate measurements when dyeing with native plants, but I’ll estimate for you. The proportion of dyestuff to fiber is critical. I find the higher the ratio of pokeberries to fibers, the more colorfast.

I never weigh pokeberries, so don’t know what a bucket of pokeberries weighs, but would estimate 1 to 2 gallons of berries to 8 ounces of fiber would be good.”

What you’ll need:

  • In one pot: 1-2 gallons berries (removed from stems and crushed)
  • In another pot: 56 percent acetic acid (in a ratio of 4 ounces to about 1 1/2-2 gallons of water, or enough water to comfortably float the fibers.)

What to do:

  1. Thoroughly wash and rinse the fibers; while damp, enter fibers into acid water pot.
  2. Bring to a high simmer (180-190 degrees Fahrenheit) for two hours and leave overnight to cool in bath.
  3. Meanwhile, add acid water to the crushed pokeberries pot, heat to a low simmer, and steep for 30 minutes (don’t get temp too high or you may lose the brilliant red), then let cool overnight.
  4. The next day, strain the seeds from the dyebath. Remove the fibers from the acid bath. Combine the dyebath and the leftover acid bath and put the fibers back in.
  5. Then cook at a medium-high temp (160-180 degrees Fahrenheit) for two hours. Leave fibers in the bath for several hours or overnight.
  6. Remove fibers, squeeze and lay out on screens in shade for a couple of hours to oxidize. Then thoroughly rinse off excess dye (do not use soap or anything alkaline), and dry.

“While doing two-day historic dye demonstrations, I always noted that the pokeberry colors, even with post-mordant mineral salts, which were left in the dye baths overnight, were always darker and more colorfast than colors allowed in the bath for only the usual hour or so.”

More from: A Garden to Dye For


Reprinted with permission fromA Garden to Dye For, by Chris McLaughlin and published by St. Lynn’s, 2015.