As well as eating plants and and growing them to decorate our gardens, you can also connect with your creativity and use them to make a whole range of natural dyes.
Just about every part of a plant, including the bark, berries, roots, leaves and flowers can be used to make natural dyes that produce wonderful colours.
I’d always thought that using plants and vegetables for dyes would be a nice thing to do, but had no idea where to start; but I recently had the opportunity to spend a day at the R.H.S.Wisley Garden in Surrey learning how to do just that.
The idea of experimenting with colour and making the most out of the garden was the main attraction for me. I like the idea of using leaves and onion skins that would otherwise be fit only for the compost bin, but there are other sound reasons too:
Compared to synthetic dyes, natural dyes:
- are sustainable, your garden produces a never-ending supply of material throughout the year.
- much less energy is used to make natural dyes, there’s no transportation for a start.
- are non-toxic, though small amounts of additives may be added that are toxic, but they really are tiny amounts.
- the natural process uses much less water than the processes for synthetic dyes.
The basic dying process is simply two steps:
- Making the dye by steeping or cooking plant material which is the quicker option or steeping it without heat, which takes longer. We heated it all up with a microwave at Wisley, but you can use a stove-top, which would be better for making larger amounts.
- The resultant liquid is the dye. It’s best to fix the dye so that the colour doesn’t fade too quickly, this is done using mordants like alum or tannin, which can be bought from dye suppliers or you can gather your own, apparently rhubarb leaves work well.
We dyed fibres made from cotton, linen and wool, and it was fascinating to see how different the results were depending on the twine that was used.
Red onion skins created a sage green when applied to cotton, but exactly the same dye turned wool a soft lemon colour.
We made a whole range of colours, hibiscus produced a range of soft to deeper pinks, whilst madder and rowan berries made a lovely range of sludgy pink to russet. Madder comes from the roots of the madder plant ( Rubia tinctoria).
I highly recommend going on a course or reading up on it, because many of the ingredients are potentially toxic, even natural ones, especially when they’re heated or other ingredients added to them.
The course was a good starting point and I’m looking forward to having a go.
You can see the huge range of courses available at Wisley here.
all images: Jill Anderson