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Traditional Craft of Dye Making for Natural Fibers

written by: Cara Moore•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 9/13/2011

The traditional craft of dye making uses herbs and barks to make a stunning finished product. This useful skill that has been practiced for many centuries. Learn more about how to make your own dyes.

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    Traditional Craft of Dye Making

    Natural Dyes Making natural dyes from herbs and barks is a skill that is thousands of years old. The choice of material, wool, cotton or silk and the desired colour determines which herb and mordant, the substance that fixes the colour to the fabric is used. Herbs that don’t need a mordant include red alkanet root which produces a pink or red, walnut shells, roots and leaves for brown and bilberries, used for tweeds in the highlands of Scotland to make purple.

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    Preparing Herbs to Make Natural Dyes

    To prepare the herbs or bark for dye cut the vegetable matter into small pieces, eight ounces herb or four ounces of dried herb and let set in cold water overnight and boil it for an hour, four gallons (eighteen litres) needed for one pound (half a kilo) material. Only use the measuring and cooking pans (enamel canning pans are ideal) for dyeing and keep all these substances out of reach of children.

    For a yellow colour use bark of ash, elder, brickthorn, apple, pear, cherry, onion skins, marigold flowers, chamomile, pine cones. produce a reddish yellow and barberry roots and stems produce a yellow with no mordant needed. For a greens buckthorn berries, heather leaf tips, privet berries which produces a bluish green, bracken leaves and elder leaves can be used. For brown walnut roots or boiled juniper berries are used. Alder buckthorn bark makes a bronze brown for wool. For red bloodroot (alkanet root) is used, this can produce a pink or red depending on how much is used and how long the material to be dyed is left in the solution. Cranberry stems produce a yellow and the leaves a red for wool and linen. Oak bark produces a purple and a black when mixed with mordant tin (stannous chloride). Bilberries produce a violet and is used in Scotland for tweed no mordant is required. Wild marjoram produces a violet colour. For an orange, lungs of oak, sticta pulmonacea, which is a lichen found on the bark of an oak, is used and requires no mordant. Corn flowers make a blue for wool.

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    Mordants Used to Fix Colour to Fabrics

    When using mordants, it is recommended to wear rubber gloves and if fine particles are involved a face mask and safety glasses as a precaution. To mordant clean material is simmered (wool) boiled (cotton, linen) soaked in hot water (silk) in which the mordant has been dissolved. This process is done before dyeing to ensure the colour takes to the material. Make sure any silk used is "ready to dye" and hasn't been coated in teflon. Cotton material will need to be scoured and prepared before using a mordant to remove any starches. Cream of tartar, alum, chrome (potassium dichromate) tin (stannous chloride) and iron (ferrous sulphate) are commonly used mordants. Alum and cream of tartar are readily available at wholesale spice markets and chrome, ferrous sulphate and stannous chloride are available at craft supply stores and educational suppliers.

    For a pound of material two ounces, (fifty grams) cream of tartar, one-half ounce (fourteen gms) chrome or tin or iron, is used for the mordant solution. To make an alum mordant heat four gallons (eighteen litres) of water and disolve four ounces, (one hundred and fourteen grams) alum and one ounce (twenty-eight grams) of cream of tartar in a little water and add it to four gallons (eighteen litres) of water. Put one pound (half a kilo) cleaned scoured (washed) dried wool and simmer for an hour stir occasionally. Lift the wool out and press the water out gently to prevent felting and rinse out any remaining mordant.

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    Herbs and Materials with Mordants Achieve Wider Colour Range

    Alder bark grey makes a brown for wool using a ferrous sulphate mordant. Alder bark brown makes a yellow for cotton using alum. Alder leaves makes a green yellow for wool and cotton using alum. Almond leaves makes a yellow for wool using alum. Blackthorn bark red makes a brown black for wool using ferrous sulphate. Bracken roots, the young shoots, make a yellow for wool, using chrome, a yellow green for silk using alum and a grey for silk using ferrous sulphate. Barberry and blackberrry leaves makes a black for wool using ferrous sulphate.

    Coltsfoot herb makes a yellow green for wool using alum and a green for wool using ferrous sulphate. Elder fruit makes a violet for wool using alum, and a lilac when using alum and salt. Golden rod flowers produces a yellow for wool using alum and a gold for wool using chrome. Heather the young flowers produce a green for wool with alum, the plant tops after flowering produce a purple with alum. Larkspur flowers produce a green for wool using alum. Madder roots produces a laquer red for wool using alum. Madder roots produces a garnet red for wool using chrome. Marigold petals produces a yellow for wool and silk using alum. Meadowsweet tops and nettle herb produce green for wool using alum. Using the onion outside skin makes a burnt orange for wool using alum a brass for wool using chrome and a green using ferrous sulphate. Oak bark makes a black for wool using ferrous sulphate. Ragwort herb produces a yellow for wool using alum. St. John’s wort tops makes a yellow for wool using alum. Yellow dock roots make blacks for wool using chrome.

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    Dyeing the Material

    Dyed Cloth Once the material has been cleaned and prepared with mordant if needed, it is put into warm dye, covering it completely.Tying a piece of string around the material makes it easier to check the colour. Take care not to disturb the wool too much as it simmers so it doesn’t felt and make sure the wool is completely covered to ensure even coverage. Cotton needs to boiled to take on the dye colour and silk needs to be in warm water at a temperature no higher than 71° Celsius. After the colour needed is achieved gently pull out the material and press out the excess water, don’t wring out wool, cotton materials may be wrung out and hang up to dry.

    Resource Sources:

    The Women’s Institute Book of Country Crafts: A Collection of Country Skills, 1994, Reed International Books Limited.

    Seymour, John, The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, 1996, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London

    Duncan, Molly, Spin Your Own Wool And Dye It And Weave It, 1973, G. Bell And Sons Ltd.

    Hoffman, David, Herbal Handbook, A User's Guild to Medical Herbalism, 1998, Healing Arts Press

    Further Sources: