How to Make Natural Dyes

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Make beautiful natural dyes from plants with the help of “Harvesting Color.”
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Start the dye making early to ensure that the strongest sunlight of the day will be captured.
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The solar oven always cooks the flowers and fiber within one day.
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Leaving the fibers in overnight or over a period of two days will strengthen the color.

Harvesting Color (Artisan Books, 2011) is the essential guide to natural dyeing and creating gorgeous color from plants. Author and master dyer Rebecca Burgess presents over thirty plants which yield stunning natural shades and illustrates just how easy the dyes are to make. In this excerpt taken from part one, “Getting Started,” learn how to make natural dyes.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Harvesting Color.

Summer Dye Starter

This is a wonderful activity for children and parents to do together — a blend of art, science, and the garden. However, if you do not have a garden, bouquets of coreopsis can often be purchased at a farmers’ market and enjoyed for several days in the home before being used for dye. Just before the foliage wilts, the flowers can be cut and placed in your dye jar.

I recommend the use of tickseed coreopsis because varieties of this plant are native to most regions of the United States, and while you may not find the variety that is endemic to your region, the commonly sold cultivar that you purchase at your local nursery will make a perfect dye. If you would like to plant a native variety, I recommend you seek out a seed purveyor in your area. Growing the local seed variety has its benefits — these plants thrive in the garden without the need for extensive attention.

How to Make Natural Dyes

I use a solar oven for all coreopsis dye making; the process of using the sun’s energy, and negating the carbon footprint produced with a traditional heat source, is a gratifying one. The solar dye-vat method can be used as a strategy to experiment with other species; flowers tend to yield the fastest results, compared with barks, twigs, and leaves. The sun-oven always cooks the flowers and fiber within one day; it is a reliable, simple, and efficient tool.

Ratio of 1:1, fresh flower weight to fiber weight (for more specific dyestuffs refer to Harvesting Color)

Fibers premordanted in alum

Start the dye making early, before 10:00 a.m., to ensure that the strongest sunlight of the day will be captured. Add fresh flowers to a glass jar and cover them generously with hot tap water. You will begin to see the clear water change to yellow in the first five minutes. Place your jar in direct sunlight in an outdoor environment. As the light changes throughout the day, make sure to move the jar accordingly. Fiber, yarn, or bits of fabric can be added to the dye bath once the color of the solution has turned orange (this can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours in direct sunlight).

Keep your fibers in the jar, with the lid on, for the rest of the day. The outdoor temperature determines the speed at which the dye will set — the warmer the air, the faster the processing time. Check the color periodically throughout the afternoon and remove the fibers when you observe a strong orange or yellow/orange color, based on your preference.

Once removed, hang the yarns until they are room temperature. Then, gently rinse them in warm or cool water and hang them to dry completely. Leaving the fibers in overnight or over a period of two days will strengthen the color.

Read more from Harvesting Color:

How to Make Mordants for Natural Dyes
Master Dye Bath Recipe
Fiber Preparation for Dyeing Yarn
Enhance Dye Colors With Afterbaths

Excerpted from Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2011. Photographs by Paige Green. Buy this book from our store:Harvesting Color.