Garden: Natural Dyeing, Part III: Natural Dye Colors
As we mentioned previously, natural dyeing is quite a bit of trial and error when it comes to good usable colors that affix well to silk.
There are a lot of supposed plants and materials that allegedly make certain colors, but not a lot of them come true to color. For instance, generating an actual green dye is practically impossible for us - sources all seem to lead to disappointing shades of brown.
Brown shades and orange/yellow shades are plentiful in the natural world, with greens, blacks, and true blues being far rarer. Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of natural dye colors and sources that you can use to create your own silk ribbon dyes = all from natural sources, some available in your garden or flower farm!
Our Color Guidebook
If you’re already growing the alkanet plant for its beautiful blue flowers that come up in the spring (definitely a cool flower) then you may be interested to know that its root is a very good dye source.
Since you overwinter the alkanet, it will form a root as a biennial plant - and that root will be able to make a very nice dye for silk. Make sure that the root is well washed and all traces of dirt have been removed from the root before processing it into the bath by chopping it up into small pieces and heating.
Alkanet is a very gorgeous dye, tinting silk a very light lavender-grey, the color of lavender lisianthus - that pale pale lilac, but even more greyish tones than that. We were able to get a very nice and pale lavender that was very romantic and dreamy, and one of our brides’ favorite colors.
You may have already figured this one out, but there is an amaranthus called ‘Hopi Red Dye’ - which, as it’s name would suggest, was used as a dye source by the Hopi Nation.
The stems, leaves, and flowers al contain high amounts of the dye, although we personally prefer using the leaves and stems only due to easier straining and cleanup of the dye bath. It becomes a nice bright pink, similar to beetroot juice in color, and gives silk a very nice pink coloration.
Interestingly enough, the infamous artificial dye “Red 2” - famous for its alleged properties in causing cancer as well as hyperactivity in young children - was based on the dye from amaranthus. It’s not the same thing, since it is a chemically created dye, but the same bright red is based on the humble amaranthus plant.
Surprisingly enough, avocado pits make a beautiful light pink dye. It was one of the first dyes that we created (because who doesn’t eat avocados and have pits that they throw away?) and surprisingly created a very nice color.
Avocado pits create the most beautiful blushy-rose light pink when you chop up the pits and boil them. Although the dye is relatively light, it dyes the fabric well - I think that it’s due to the high fat content of the pigmentation, although that’s not a scientific fact.
As if that weren’t enough, adding an iron mordant to the dye changes it from a light blush pink to a light steely grey. Two colors for the price of one makes it a very wonderful dye substance.
To prepare avocado pits, you’ll want to pry the pit out of the avocado and wash it very, very well with soap to remove all traces of oils and fats. Even still, we found that our ribbon would occasionally get some spotting due to residual fats and oils from the fruit, so make sure yours are super clean before preparing the dye.
One of the most popular for home-dyeing projects, black beans are a wonderful and surprising source of dye for a very light blue. The most beautiful steely sky blue, it reminds me of the bright blue morning skies of New Mexico, and is the first natural dye that we worked with.
It’s easy to prepare - you just have to soak the beans overnight to obtain the dye. When strained, it appears as a dark purple, almost black dye. The dye fixes very readily to silk, and washes out very quickly too.
It takes a lot of black beans to make a bucket of dye, but luckily they can be obtained at any local grocery store for a couple bucks. Just don’t let the dye sit too long - the sugar from the beans can start to ferment the dye bath, and that does NOT make for a pleasant dyeing experience.
Those of us who have spilled an espresso on a very expensive shirt have learned how quickly and easily coffee can stain fabric. Given the oil content and the tannin content, it’s no surprise that coffee can be such an easy dye to use.
While you can make a very strong pot of coffee to use as a dye bath, we actually found a very nice shortcut in the form of a powdered dry coffee concentrate - also known more commonly as instant coffee.
Just one small container of instant coffee would be enough to stain a whole batch of ribbon a lovely espresso color just as you would expect. Just make sure to dissolve the whole batch completely into the dye bath and ensure that you do not have any particulates or coffee crystals remaining solid in the solution - that will cause issues with spotting.
If you want to create a really cool effect, you can also sprinkle more instant coffee to rest onto wet ribbon and let it sit for about ten minutes - it will create a spotted, blotchy effect that may be of visual interest to you.
Not all corn contain dyes (the sweet corn we eat for example has absolutely no pigmentation suitable for dyeing whatsoever), but the more colorful ones in shades of blue and red and gold contain anthocyanins and other pigments that can create a very nice and strong dye.
The dye of course will depend on the color of the corn kernels- a blue corn will give you a purple-ish dye, while a red or orange corn will give you a redder or orange dye. Ensuring that your dye bath has an alkaline pH will help to intensify the colors.
It takes a lot of corn in order to make a dye bath, so we usually just add in whole ears rather than adding individual kernels. It also makes it easier to clean up when you need to remove the entire ear of corn from the dye bath!
For a very fun experiment, adding an iron mordant to the dye bath with corn will change reds to blue and purples to blue as well - a bright cerulean blue.
Although we as flower farmers find that eucalyptus is a very valuable foliage and cut material, it can find a second life in the form of a dye. Although you would think that eucalyptus would produce a light silvery-green dye, it instead produces a very nice orangey-bronze.
Making it is simple - gather up fresh (or dried) eucalyptus and add it to your dye bath along with an alum mordant (for a brighter orange) or an iron mordant (for a darker more moody orange). Make sure that you boil it well to get as much pigment into the bath as possible, then add your silk in.
We really liked making the eucalyptus dye because it was usually after a wedding or large event in which we had leftover eucalyptus bits that hadn’t fit into any of the arrangements or had strange stems or was damaged. Finding a use for the leftover eucalyptus was a good feeling in being able to produce something so beautiful.
If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can also roll up your ribbon in eucalyptus leaves into a tight bundle and steam it (known as eco-dyeing) to get more of the eucalyptus stain in a pattern on your ribbon. It’s really cool and leaves this ghostly botanical print on the fabric - which in this case is a lovely rusty orange.
On a whim, we decided one day to try and see if grape juice would give us a dye that we could use. Lo and behold, it did - staining the silk ribbon a light lavender color. We found also that cranberry and pomegranate would also give great dye colors too.
Best of all, you didn’t have to mix up anything - the dye was already premixed in the form of the juice you can buy in a bottle or jug. How fantastic is that?
A couple of things to note about dyeing with fruit juices - one thing we didn’t know is that the concentrations of each bottle of juice was different - so we would have a hard time replicating the depth and saturation of the color as desired. Which wasn’t a problem most of the time - we would just give it another dye bath if it was too light, but proceed with caution if you are doing multiple batches.
What we also didn’t know is that the pigments responsible for the color in berries - the anthocyanins - are very light sensitive. Ribbons dyed purple from grape juice would start to fade on their own in a couple of months, even when kept cool and dark and dry. The dye will hold for a few months, but don’t expect the ribbons to last forever with the same intensity of color.
Lastly, to ensure that you get a nice deep color from fruit, ensure that you keep the pH of the water on the alkaline side- this will help to ensure that you get a bolder, deeper color by stabilizing the anthocyanins.
Goldenrod is an excellent dyeing plant to have on hand, and is for most of us plentiful to the point where we usually don’t have to cultivate it - it is usually available wild for us to forage from.
If you’re foraging goldenrod, as always ensure that you’re safe and that the goldenrod is available to harvest. Don’t go picking flowers from someone else’s property (or worse, a federal or state managed population). If you really need one plant for dyeing, then just pick one up at the garden center. And if you’re already growing it yourself as a cut flower material, even better!
It takes a couple of the flower heads of goldenrod to make a very light yellow dye, but it is a good one - straw colored with a touch of yellow, reminding me of a creamy light butter. Add more flower heads to increase the saturation as desired.
Indigo was the first dye that we worked with, and is also one of the most fun as well. Unlike any of the other dyes, producing an indigo dye requires chemical reactions that makes its dyeing process a bit different than most.
Indigo usually comes from the true indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, although there are a few other plants that also give the same indigo - Strobilanthes cusia, Polygonum/Persicaria tinctoria and Isatis tinctoria. There’s also many ways to create indigo - everything from using a lye bath to fermenting with fruit sugars. The chemistry itself is irrelevant to you using it as a dye with the exception of one very specific chemical reaction.
Unless you’re a master dyer and are creating your own vat of indigo (which is messy, costly, requires quite a bit of time and work to accomplish and requires access to a large amount of the aforementioned indigo-bearing species) you will probably receive your indigo as a powder along with a reducing agent.
This reducing agent is important because of one important fact - indigo in its natural form won’t dye fabric. If you pour it into the water, it won’t dissolve and therefore won’t penetrate and stick into fabric - it’ll just clump up and not do what you want it to.
In order to make it work, you have to mix in reducing agent, and then stir it together well. It will appear yellow-green - that means that it’s ready - and you will dip your textiles into it.
Upon taking it out, it’s going to look like you’ve just dipped it in a highlighter and think that you’ve screwed it up! Don’t panic - it all looks like that in the beginning. Give it time to react with the oxygen in the air and lo and behold - you’ll find that it starts turning a lovely deep blue-jean blue.
Once you get the hang of it, indigo is fairly easy to work with. It’s also one of the few dyes that will allow you to keep it and dye with it over and over again. Store it in an airtight container (a five gallon bucket with a lid is perfect) and make sure to stir it before using it again.
Logwood is a dye created from a the tree Haematoxylum campechianum, also known as palo de campeche in its native region of the Yucatan.
Interestingly enough, logwood was very valuable as a dye, forming the base of a lot of the royal textiles - especially that of purple and black - and played a pivotal role in the 17th century and caused wars between Spain, Britain, France and the Netherlands over the control of Central and South America where logwood was naturally occurring.
Logwood was profitable and became a major industry in the 17th century. It was also a perilous business due to attacks by pirates during this time period such as the famous Blackbeard - who captured logwood ships and converted them into pirate vessels.
Luckily we no longer have to fight pirates or territorial nation-states for logwood. Logwood creates a rich, royal purple color that is absolutely splendid. As opposed to having to overdye with indigo like you would with madder, logwood creates that lovely purple color on its own.
We got lucky with logwood since it works best under alkaline conditions (and our water is very naturally hard here). If you have soft water, add a little baking soda to increase the pH and ensure that you get a nice rich purple coloration.
One of the species that will do well both as a cut flower and as a dye, marigolds are both prolific and hardy, allowing us to harvest buckets and buckets of dye material.
Marigolds create a nice creamy and light buttery yellow, which works well for spring and summer bridal bouquets - think easter chick yellow and pale creamy yellow tulips - although if you want to go a bit more yellow you can simply concentrate the amount of dye you use.
Marigolds are an easy dye to use - you want to use around two cups fresh or one cup dried for a gallon of dye. If you don’t have enough marigolds, coreopsis also can be added for additional yellow coloration.
Pomegranate usually gives a light yellow color similar to marigold dye, but we didn’t obtain it for that purpose. Instead, we add iron to the dye and it transforms the pomegranate light yellow into a fantastic dark, silvery grey.
Originally we had tried using avocado pits to obtain this color (which can transform from a bright pink into a dark grey dye) but the residual fat from avocado pits stained the ribbons in a not-good way - so switching over to pomegranate was much easier and meant we didn’t have to eat guacamole with every meal for a week.
Rose petals make a very beautiful dye. Depending on the color of the rose, the dye bath can be intense or a lot less intense - it all depends on the saturation of color. Brightly and more deeply colored roses produce a stronger dye bath than lighter or peachier colors.
The color of your dye bath depends on your rose’s color, the concentration of petals and the alkalinity of the dye bath - with the more intense the rose color, higher the concentration of petals and the lower the alkalinity of the dye bath giving a brighter pink color and tending more towards a blue-grey with a more alkaline bath.
What we found out by accident is that roses of course have a high oil content in their petals. We should have purified the dye bath, but instead found out that rose oil creates a very beautiful marbling effect on the dye - much like the marbled oil paper that we used to make back in elementary school to create art projects and cover the front of our portfolios with.
If you’re looking for a much more solid dye that isn’t marbled, you may want to try other sources like alkanet root and amaranthus - but if you dye with rose petals and its marbling effect, you are in for a treat.
Sandalwood is another reddish toned natural dye. Not quite as intensely red as madder, it still is a great color for making the ultimate wedding color - blush.
A dilute concentration of sandalwood makes for a perfectly rosy-peachy-blush color that is the color of the palest portion of the light pink Cafe au Lait dahlias or the delicate coloration of an Evelyn David Austin rose.
We found that sandalwood did end up with little teeny tiny bits of the wood embedded into the ribbon. Don’t be alarmed if this happens to you - as soon as you can dry it, the pieces will easily shake out of the ribbon. Just know that initially it’s going to look like you’ve dirtied your ribbon with bits and little red bark.
If you’re looking for a dusty pink or blush, the addition of a little bit of iron as a mordant in your rinsing solution will give it that antiqued cast of color.
Discovered by the lawyer Johann Christian Barth in 1743, instead of the usual combination of indigo with an alkaline solution, Barth ended up combining indigo with “oil of vitriol” - aka sulfuric acid - that would create a blue dye that would create a different blue from indigo.
While indigo is the primary and easiest (and cheapest) source of blue, it is definitely a dark, deep, blue-jean blue. It’s great if you’re going for a nice navy blue coloration or a royal blue color, but if you’re looking for something a bit brighter and lighter, Saxon blue is going to be what you want.
A Saxon blue has a much greener tinge than indigo and dyes much brighter- it’s more of a sky blue or a robin’s egg blue compared to indigo. Although more expensive than indigo, you’ll find it gives a much lighter color - and is much more easy to control compared to true indigo.
Unlike true indigo, it doesn’t have to undergo the oxidation process. Instead, you can dye with Saxon blue just like you would with any other natural dye source - as a concentrate in water.
Not all sunflowers contain enough pigments for dye. In fact, there is only one that I know of that contains enough pigments for dye - and that is the Hopi Dye sunflower.
Instead of the usually grey or brown seed hulls, the Hopi Dye sunflower has seeds that are dark and glossy and black as night. When a dye bath is created with these seeds, the color is similar- almost an inky black, like charcoal. If you make the bath a bit lighter, it will be more grey-blue, and if you make the bath more acidic, it will turn towards a more grey-purple.
I think that you could potentially use other black sunflower seeds as a dye source - I haven’t taken the time to experiment personally - but if not, the Hopi Dye sunflower is easy enough to grow and you can also save the seeds for later on if you’re not as inclined to dye right away when the seeds are fresh.
Turmeric is one of the easiest and most readily available natural dyes that we’ve worked with. More commonly known for its additions to curries and Indian cuisine as well as its role as a health supplement, it also creates a lovely bright-mustard color that most everyone that we see falls in love with.
Turmeric is cheap - you can buy a bottle or bag of the spice for a couple of dollars, which is enough to dye enough fabric to clothe an army. This make sit an easy dye to start off with since it is so readily available.
The main issue we’ve noticed with turmeric is that it does take quite a bit of washing to remove it completely from the textile, so ensure that you rinse it enough to make it steadfast. I also swear I can still catch a faint whiff of turmeric from time to time, but I think it’s mostly psychological since none of our clients have ever made mention or complained about any scent from our ribbons.
Turmeric on its own works well to create that bright yellow, but you can also modify it by adding iron as a mordant to create a more dusty or muddy yellow-brown-grey color or you can overdye it with others like sandalwood or indigo to create color combinations.
Walnut hull is a brown dye, harvested from black walnut shells that is easy to dye with and affixes easily to textiles. It can be used to create the same muddy and cream brown tones that are so popular in floral and wedding design. The tannin-rich dye that is created from walnut hulls is such a beautiful taupe color that is both warm and calming at the same time.
The color we usually like to dye is very light - the color of the coffee shade Cafe au Lait dahlias. It’s one of our most popular ribbons, and we’re not surprised - that light cream-tan is the perfect shade that goes with pretty much any color scheme. And if you want a richer, darker color (like a cocoa brown) simply increase the concentration of the dye.
Weld is one of the traditional fabric dyes of Europe, weld gives a bright yellow - almost green (as opposed to the gold mustardy color like turmeric). Interestingly enough, weld comes from the leaves of Reseda luteola - related to the mignonette that has recently come into vogue for floral arranging - and is easily cultivated in most temperate climates.
Weld was traditionally used in Europe along with the dye woad (Isatis tinctoria) to create Lincoln green - the color associated with Robin Hood and his band of merry men in Sherwood Forest. And that’s mostly what we use weld for - overdyeing it with indigo or Saxon blue to create a lovely bright green, the color of Tinkerbelle’s outfit.
If you’re looking for a bit darker green - think a hunter’s green - then you can mordant with iron or overdye with a stronger indigo dye.