Natural dyes have been used throughout history and the first written record of natural dyeing is thought to date back to around 4,500 years ago in ancient China. Natural dyes were used exclusively right up until 1856, when William Henry Perkin, whilst trying to find an artificial malaria cure, accidentally created a new colour and clothes dye when he found mauve.
More recently natural dyes were used during World War II when German trade routes were broken and the country's army was forced to not only make their uniforms from nettles instead of cotton, but to dye them using nettles too.
Nature is not uniform and neither are her dyes; it is just this quality that attracts many people to natural dying. If you dye your own clothes you will not have to worry that someone else at a party will be wearing the same coloured garment as you!
When home dyeing it is far better to dye natural fibres rather than synthetic as natural fibres will keep the colour better. Most home dyes are used on wool and yarn before it is made into garments, as the colour holds better. Also, if dyeing wool before you use it the colour is likely to be slightly more uniform across the garment.
Before dyeing your fabrics they are often treated with a mordant solution. A mordant helps to fix the colours: in everyday terms it bites into the fabric and gives the natural dye something to fix on - indeed the word mordant means 'cutting' or 'biting' in French.
Not all natural dyes need mordants as they can be strong enough to fix to the fabric without the need of something to fix them. Onion skins, turmeric and tea are all such dyes and if you have ever spilt a curry or a cup of tea down a white garment then you have seen one of these dyes in action.
There are a wide range of different substances that can be used as mordants and some are fairly toxic. However, there are plenty that most people will feel comfortable with, including vinegar, salt and not so common substances such as alum. Alum is shorthand for aluminium potassium sulphate, which is used in the manufacture of baking powder. It is available online and at various craft shops.
Gathering from the wild
Many plants used for dyeing can be gathered from the wild. However, if gathering your plants from the wild then follow the forager's law. When you find your plant don't pick from it. Instead pick from the third plant that you find. When you pick from a wild plant, try and ensure that it looks the same as when you first saw it - in other words don't strip the plant until it is bare. Think of the plant's reproductive cycle and try not to interfere with that.
Also, ensure you are not picking on privately owned land and that you have the landowner's permission before digging up any roots. Finally, if you think something is rare then don't pick it at all; there are laws against picking rare plants, plus you don't want to force your finds into extinction.
Madder (Rubia tinctorum) has been the plant of choice when creating a red dye over the last 5000 years and traces of madder dyed linen were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. The vivid red colour from madder dyed clothes has meant that it has always been a popular plant when home dyeing.
As it is the root of the plant that is needed, it will be difficult to source from the wild, therefore madder is best grown from seed sown in springtime. It then takes about three years for it to reach its maximum yield. If you can't wait that long then you can buy some online at a fairly reasonable price.
To make a madder dye, first dig your roots and wash and chop them. Then place 350g of freshly harvest roots, or 50g of dried, into water for 24 hours. Unfortunately, you will need to then discard this water and cover the roots again with 5 litres of fresh water.
Grab a hand blender and blend all of the roots. The next step is one familiar to any home brewers as you will need to ferment the dye. As you don't really want to dye any of your home brew equipment, it is best to use a separate bucket with a lid for this job. (It is also good practice not to mix equipment used for foodstuffs with home dye equipment). Or you could just tie a plastic bag to an old bucket. Leave this for a week.
Soak the yarn or garment in an alum mordant for three to four hours. Strain the liquid from the bucket using a sieve and compost the mush. Leave your garment in the strained liquid for a couple of days, and voilà it will have turned red!
Red can also be achieved by using other plants such as cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), Brazilwood (Caesalpinaia echinata) and alkanet (Alkannna tinctoria). One would have thought that beetroot would make a very useful dye but even with mordants it tends not fix to the fabric. Indeed, it often just gives the fabric or yarn a sort of dirty yellow colour.
Yellow is perhaps one of the easier dyes to obtain naturally. It can be obtained from a variety of sources including onion skins, tumeric, cold tea and rhubarb. Or if you would like to obtain it from the wild in can be extracted from tansy, the aptly named dyers chamomile and from dyers greenweed.
To extract the yellow dye from the above plants, cut up your plants and stand them in cold water for 24 hours. Then boil for 1 hour. You will need roughly 9 litres of dyed water for 250g of wool. Ensure that the colour is vivid - if not, add more of your plant material and then strain. Dip the wool or garment into the warm solution and leave overnight to dye. If using tumeric or onion skins (although onion skins are not that vivid) you won't need a mordant.
If you are keen to try other natural dyes you may want to experiment a little with the techniques described above. But that, after all, is where the fun comes in!
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