by Darlene Campbell
Nature is a storehouse of color; she never runs out of spring pastels, summer brights, or fall contrasts. Our ancestors colored woven fabrics with dyes from nature and used paints from natural minerals to decorate their caves. They used those same paints for cosmetics, which had a twofold use: they could make the face appear fierce when going to war, or make the face appear soft and beautiful for attracting a mate.
These natural color producing plants and minerals are readily available today in the wild or from a city garden. They are free of chemical additives, and can be had free for the gathering with very little work.
Any plant that stains is nature’s dye. For example beet juice will stain a counter top or sink, and over time, coffee and tea will stain (dye) china. This storehouse of color can be extracted from various flowers, herbs, leaves and bark to make natural dyes for weaving projects, or to use as watercolors for artwork. Over time natural colors fade. This is true of all natural dyes, and that is the reason old woolens have faded to a lighter color. Even water color paintings painted from natural plant dyes will fade with time. Because commercial dye companies make dye with chemicals, and add additional chemicals to prevent fading, many people who are allergic to chemicals can wear naturally dyed clothing with no ill effects. The following is a list of common plants that make excellent dyes for various projects.
Sunflower seeds make a wonderful yellow-green. Extract the dye by boiling the seeds, then feed the seeds to the birds after the color is removed in this manner.
Orange juice or pulp when boiled for one hour will produce a product to dye yarn or cloth a bright orange.
Purple cabbage can be boiled for one hour and the water saved for dye projects while the cabbage is served for dinner. But don’t expect purple dye…it’s green.
Spinach also makes a nice dye, but it must be overcooked to produce it in quantity and strength.
A plant can produce different colors from its different parts. For example, the water from boiling beets will provide a nice pink, while the beet tops provide a yellow-green.
Berries growing along the roadside produce the purest dyes. Blackberries, huckleberries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries all produce strong colors. For brightest purple use raspberries; a quart of fresh berries will dye about half a pound of yarn.
The fruit of the Prickly Pear cactus produces a medium shade of purple, or red violet. This is a very striking color but fades with time.
Bottled grape juice gives a dark shade of purple.
To produce the prettiest pearl gray, soak currents overnight then boil. For rose lavender, use cranberries.
Nut hulls, particularly walnut, make good dyestuffs, and the nut meat can be used for baking.
Hickory chips soaked overnight produce the same rich brown that comes from walnuts and hickory nuts. Purchase them in the barbecue department of the grocery store.
Strong coffee and tea will produce nice shades of tan to brown. Use these for dying muslin to make Native American dolls, or to stain paper to give an antique look to manuscripts and letters.
If you want to experiment with natural dyes, begin by building a dye sampler. A dye sampler is a collection of dye samples stored in small bottles or jars, and labeled for reference, then before beginning a project, simply select the color desired from the sampler, and collect the plants that are listed on the label. It’s best to store your samples away from light, or in dark glass bottles to protect them from the damaging rays of the sun.
Another way to build a dye sampler is to dye or paint small swatches of cloth or paper, then mount them in a notebook, listing the plants used to produce the color below each swatch. In this manner the plants gathered will yield the correct color for a project. Never attempt a large batch without knowing the resultant color. Once a sampler is completed, a journal can be constructed listing the colors in the sampler, followed by the names of plants to produce that color, their history, and where they were gathered. This gives an exciting history to the object being dyed.