There is an infinite way of using plant materials to get colors using natural dyeing techniques. A great source of material can be found right in your kitchen, garden, in the woods, or recreational park. Plant dyeing, or contact dyeing can be incredibly absorbing and a rewarding method of creating color from botanical. The colors spectrum of the nature’s flora and fauna is endless and there is copious to discover and experiment. Some plants are dye friendly and some not–all you need is imagination and be creative.
Each plant has its own unique qualities and understanding that colors may vary considerably even from the same species plant is important. Many factors can influence your final results. Some things to consider are the location they are grown, water and soil quality, and the season that they are gathered. Bear in mind, that you can’t always tell what color you will get by looking at the natural color of the leaf or flower. In my experience, many flowers give light to faint shades of yellow (even if it is a blue flower).
Some of the botanical or plant materials I have used are: leaves, twigs, roots, nuts, berries and flowers from various plants. To get the deepest color pick flowers and leaves when they are in full bloom, berries and nuts when mature. If gathering plant stuff out in the woods, remember to only pick enough for what you need as this is the most sustainable method and these materials quickly lose their potency after harvesting.
Depending on the seasons and location, leaves and flowers give different color or stains. The scent of a plant is a good clue to color. Plants with a strong and aromatic scent contain acid and oil which either gives dye or will assist in the dyeing process. Eucalyptus is a great example. Another clue is if I notice that fallen leaves stain the ground, these are likely to be good candidates for dye. Also the scientific name for the plant is often a good indication of its potential for dyeing, flowers with ‘Tinctoria’ in its name, such as Coreopsis Tinctoria is a good example.
Adjective dyes: requires the aid of a chemical additives (mordant) in order for color to fix onto fabric or fiber, and they are not color fast.
Substantive dyes: also called direct dyes, they do not require chemical additives (mordant) to fix color onto fabric or fiber. To name a few: walnut, onion skins, cochineal, and indigo.
Fugitive dyes: It is fun to experiment with the different plants/flowers to see which ones are colorfast. These are refer to as fugitive dyes as their colors will wash or fade overtime. The few that I have experienced are: onion, red cabbage, and strawberry
Mordant: In order to get the natural dyes from plant material to adhere to the fabric or fibers, a color fixative or mordant is usually used to make them color-fast. What is a mordant? The term mordant derives from the French word, “mordre”, meaning ‘to bite’, and it refers to a substance when applied to the fabric before or after dyeing. A mordant is a substance that allows dye molecules to bind or stains to fiber or fabrics. It may be used for dyeing, for intensifying stains, or change color pigments in certain plant material. To put it plainly, mordant is only required to change or affect color results. Note: Not all plant dyes need mordant to get color, as some plant dyes already has the qualities to give color without any additives. I found from my experiment that some leaf prints stays on without mordant. See this page for more information about mordant.
In the past months, I have tested various combinations of different plant materials on fabrics, dyes, and mordant to see how they print and color fabrics. I put these results in a notebook for my future references. It’s a bit like a recipe book. I have a few good and many not so good results. I appreciate your comments, however big or small. Please note that this list will be updated from time to time.
Listing of plant materials and their colors:
Brown to warm tan: black tea leaves, coffee
Deep brown: walnut hulls, eucalyptus cinerea, polyanthemos, globulus (with iron mordant)
Deep reddish/orange: eucalyptus cinerea, polyanthemos, globulus
Green: onion skins with iron mordant
Green (mossy): osage orange (with iron mordant), Leonotis leonurus (foliage)
Green (sage): oxalis with rusty objects and eucalyptus; onion skins with rusty objects or iron
Pink to fuchsia: amaranth with alum
Purple: Agonis plant, blackberries with brambles
Red: beets, madder, cochineal*
Reddish yellow: coreopsis tinctoria
Reddish purple: red cabbage, cochineal (with iron mordant)
Yellow: turmeric, osage orange, oxalis (with alum mordant); Leonotis leonurus, or lion’s tail (flower)
Colors from natural dyes:
Cochineal* is sensitive to the acidity and alkalinity of the dye bath. The former yields red, while the latter gives a pink to purple shades. Be sure to grind cochineal beetles to a fine paste, boil in distilled water with lemon juice or some vinegar, and a pinch of cream of tartar (no substitute).
Logwood yields purple
Tumeric yields yellow
Footnotes: (based upon my experience)