Dyeing with Plants

Dyeing with Plants

Our guest artist today is Cathy Wycliff (Luvswool).  She shares her adventure into dyeing with plants.

Recently I went to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas for a two-week artists’ retreat. My plan was to spend two whole weeks felting with some time out for photographing the natural beauty of this area (think NW Arkansas, closer to Tulsa OK than Little Rock, AR. ) I also contemplated doing some natural plant dyeing, but it was the wrong season for collecting some of the natural plant materials in the area, such as oak galls and walnut hulls. I ended up ordering some botanical material from The Woolery, which amazingly arrived two days later!

While awaiting delivery, I got going with natural pine needles from the huge pine tree growing in the backyard. I snipped about two dozen clusters and began boiling them, later adding the white wool (domestic 56’s). The ending color did not jump out and grab me, but still I was pleased with the natural beige color which the pine needles produced–and a bonus was that the smell was heavenly.


Once my dyes arrived, I got to work rinsing and mordanting the wool (all of the wool I used was domestic 56’s from RH LINDSEY.) I began with madder, but this was quite a lengthy process of soaking the wool for over an hour, then mordanting the wool by cooking the alum and cream of tartar. Later when everything had cooled down, I then added the madder and wool.


Each dye I used required this lengthy process, and unfortunately, I had only one usable pot. After the first wool was dyed in madder, I changed the composition by adding iron, which developed a deeper color of red/orange.

I continued with the logwood as above, also developing a second shade of purple by adding iron.

IMG_0522Overnight drying time was needed, and here you can see the pine, madder and logwood drying in the kitchen.


I continued with osage, which achieved a golden color, not orange as is sometimes possible.


Next you see the osage and deeper shade of logwood drying.


Although I have done other kinds of dyeing previously–including indigo, food colors, acid dyes and even beets–natural plant dyeing is a whole new level of dyeing. I began thinking about the Native Americans and their use of natural plant dyes, as well as other very early ethnic groups around the world who had no other choices. And they didn’t even have gas stoves!

I was pleased with all of the results, which you can see here:


Left front –pine needles; Left rear  — osage; middle two shades purple  (+ iron), Middle rear — osage, Right —  two shades madder (+ iron); Right front —  cutch

I am looking forward to additional dyeing this summer, and perhaps even growing some of my own dye plants.

Thanks Cathy!

22 thoughts on “Dyeing with Plants

  1. You got some really nice results, Cathy 🙂 What exactly does ‘mordanting’ mean, what does it entail?

    1. Thanks, Zed. Mordanting is actually the preparation process for dyeing wool or plant-based fibers. The wool needs to be “fixed” prior to dyeing so that it’s ready to accept the dye. The type of mordant you use depends on what you are dyeing, but typical mordants include alum and iron. There are precise directions for mordants, which may include mixing a paste and then simmering the mordant in a pot, cooling down, and then adding dye to the pot. So that’s the brief version!

    1. Thanks, Judy! I really did enjoy the dyeing process and was pleased with the colors.

  2. You are so welcome, Mary! It’s a time-consuming process, but the results were pleasing and for me, definitely worth the time.

  3. Great results Cathy – it’s a lot of work I know. I have tried a few things but not as much as this. I look forward to hearing how you progress.

    1. Thanks, Ruth. I spent an entire week dyeing while I was in Arkansas due to the time necessary to mix mordants and cool down and dye and dry, etc. Of course, I was able to felt as well during the “off” times. So far, this has been a rewarding experience!

  4. Note: I used Jenny Dean’s book “Wild Color” for my guide to plant dyeing (http://www.jennydean.co.uk/index.php/about/), as well as the Woolery’s guide book which was packed with the Earthues dyes I had ordered (https://www.woolery.com/store/pc/home.asp).
    For those of you who want to get started with plant dyeing, the botanical kit is a great way to go.
    And keep in mind that dyes and mordants will differ in outcomes depending where you are, what kind of water you have, etc. And also note Jenny Dean is from the UK, so perhaps the plants she uses will be different than plants from other parts of the world.

  5. I love the purples. Very nice. I have a big box of dried forest mushrooms (mostly Cortinarius) that I collected years ago that I meant to use for dyeing. I must get around to that some day.

    1. Thanks, Zara. Oh, you absolutely must try plant dyeing with your mushrooms!

  6. Very interesting dyeing. It is a lot more work than commercial dyes. I have done onions for yellow and indigo but not a hole lot else. a friend is planting some woade and other dye plants in a patch on the farm this year. It will be interesting to see how they grow and dye. You should check the library where you go or maybe a local guild or reenactors group to see if their is information on local dye plants. I know there is one for Ontario where I live. A friend did an in depth sturdy of using your pot as mordant for her master spinners course.

  7. Yes, the dyeing is so interesting for many reasons, including that it differs with region, mordants, and so many other factors. I have read that even your pot can be a mordant, perhaps copper or iron. Natural dyeing is fascinating and I plan to study it in more depth. Great idea for checking the local library on regional dye plants! Thanks for the suggestion.

    1. Felicity: So glad you enjoyed the information on dyeing with natural plants. I actually do have the Estonian lady’s blog bookmarked and read it weekly with great interest.

  8. This made my fingers itch to dye, Cathy! Did you do anything special so the fibres didn’t end up squished? They look very fluffy. My favourite is the purple 🙂

  9. Leonor: I dyed small amounts of wool each time I used a different dye, and I did not boil them or agitate, just simmered and carefully moved the wool to make sure all fibers were absorbing the liquid. The purple really does stand out!

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