Below is some basic information that I think will steer beginner natural dyers in the right direction, towards scientifically credible information and learning on the subject of natural dyeing. There is a growing amount of misinformation on the subject of what constitutes a mordant or a natural dye, so this is a compilation of some basic general things to hopefully point you in the right direction. I offer seeds for sale that are not lightfast dye sources, but I want to let people know that they are not. I only offer them because they are fun to experiment with, and people do want access to them……but it is important that one knows whether the color they impart will be long-lasting and why or why not.
Not everything that gives a pretty color on wool or fabric is an actual dye. Things like purple cabbage, beets, and berries merely stain a fabric, imparting a fleeting pretty color that will soon wash out or fade into a dull, pale color or be completely gone. Plant sources that produce pretty colors that are merely stains and will wash out or fade are called ‘fugitive’. They will fade over time even if the fibers were properly mordanted.
Things that are commonly used that give fugitive color that will fade and are just a stain are:
-almost all berries, pretty much just think berry……not good for dyeing *pokeberry
-carrots and beets
-most flower petals
These natural colours are fugitive but are a little longer lasting:
-avocado pits and skins
-safflower (pretty fugitive)
-black hollyhock petals
-Hopi Red Dye Amaranth
The most lightfast natural dye sources are:
-Indigo (dyeing with indigo is a completely different process than other natural dyes. Indigo is dyed with a fermented or chemical vat process. If you want to overdye indigo, a mordant is still needed on the fibers for the natural dye to bond with, so you may want to mordant your fiber, dye with with your natural dye, and then dye it with an indigo vat.)
Other natural dyes are often used because they give a lot of beautiful color, and are not as lightfast, but if not worn constantly in sunlight, they should still maintain their color satisfyingly for many years. A full rainbow of colors and shades can be obtained by mixing and over-dyeing very lightfast dyes.
Substantive Dyes that do not need a Mordant to bond
There are a few Substantive Dyes, which means, that they can be used to dye fiber without the fiber being mordanted first, so that it will bond permanently to the fibers. They are most effective on wool and usually less effective on silk. Cellulose fibers do not have the same potential electrical charge and these dyes are not as suitable for dyeing cellulose.
-Black walnut husks
-Cochineal can be used as an acid dye on wool and when dyeing wool, does not need a mordant, but just some citric acid. If dyeing cellulose fiber, then use a cellulose fiber mordant and do not use citric acid, because strong acids will remove the mordant from cellulose textiles and result in lighter colors. Cochineal is pH sensitive and shifts its color easily with changes in acidity or alkalinity.
-some tannins *sumac
-Madder can be dyed with a tannin, instead of a mordant according to Jenny Dean
-Cutch will dye protein fibers without a mordant, but needs a mordant on cellulose fibers
Potassium Aluminum Sulfate is the most common mordant used for protein fibers like wool and silk. Mordants create a bond with the fiber first, so that the natural dye can form a bond with the mordant. The word mordant, means to ‘bite’…..so it’s biting or bonding with the fiber first, before it bonds with the natural dye. This is why it is best to mordant your fibers and allow them to dry completely and some say that the best colors are obtained when the mordanted material has been dried and stored a while. The mordant is fully bonded with the fiber, and the fiber does not need to be mordanted again, no matter how long it is stored.
Aluminum Acetate is the simplest, most common mordant for cellulose fibers. It makes mordanting cellulose easy and a single step.
Aluminum Lactate is a newer mordant for cellulose fibers and is used in exactly the same way and amounts as aluminum acetate.
These mordants are aluminum mineral salts that are found in the earth. Aluminum salts are used in water purification, deodorants and for topical skin treatments, so they are relatively safe. I just realized that some of the rock/crystal deoderents sold are pure Potassium Aluminum Sulfate, so some people will actually grind a pure crystal deoderent like that, and use it to mordant their fibers!
A note about copper, which is not used much anymore, because it is ‘toxic’. It should be noted that some animals are given free choice copper as a mineral, along with other minerals that they will eat a little of when their body needs it. Copper is one of those trace minerals that our bodies need just a little of. I sell Copper Chlorophyllin as a dye, and it is actually sold as a supplement, and our bodies actually need just a little bit of copper. But too much of something that is ‘natural’ can be deadly….so it’s sometimes difficult to balance hysteria on one side with practical reality on the other side, and strike the right balance with knowledge.
Other mordants are Iron (ferrous sulfate), Tin and Copper. Iron is most commonly used to deepen or sadden a color. It is used to turn yellows or greenish yellow to deep olive greens and reds or pinks into purples. Tin is used to brighten some colors.
Mordant assists are most often Cream of Tartar (tartaric acid), Tannins and Soda Ash.
-Cream of Tartar- Heated mordant baths can be harsh on wool and the pH adjustment of the cream of tartar helps protect the wool and keep it softer. Cream of tartar is not used wen mordanting silk because silk is mordanted without heat and dyed at lower temperatures. Silk also does not have the same tolerance of acidity as wool.
-Tannins – Tannins have an affinity for all fibers. This affinity is important when mordanting cellulose fibers.
Blue is a color that has been sought after for millennia. Only a few plants bear indigotin and give blue color. Obtaining the blue color involves fermentation or chemicals. It does not use mordants to affix to the fibers. Dyeing with indigo is a completely different, separate process than dyeing with other natural plant dyes and mordants.
-Woad, Isatis Tinctoria (winter hardy)
-Chinese Woad, Isatis Indigotica (winter hardy)
-Japanese Indigo, Persicaria Tinctoria and other varieties of it, very commonly grown, not winter hardy but may self seed if the area is moist and undisturbed
-Indigofera Tinctoria, true indigo –not winter hardy
-Indigo suffruticosa – not winter hardy
Preparation for Natural Dyeing
-Make sure to use only dye dedicated pots and utensils for natural dyeing, if you are using mordants.
-Do not use aluminum pots or utensils as they can react with some things. However, if that is all you have and can acquire, then please, do not let that stop you, but just know that if you can get non-aluminum items, that it is better to do so.
-You can cool mordant in a 5 gallon bucket, if you want to mordant multiple skeins, instead of simmering in a pot. You can start out with hot water and your mordant and your skeins and just stir occasionally and leave them in for a day. If you want to reuse the water and mordant, then add more skeins and just 50% of the mordant amount into the now cool water, and stir occasionally and leave the skeins in, maybe 2-3 days. Make sure that the fibers are able to float and move about freely so that all areas are able to get into contact with the mordant in the water.
-An iron rinse or after-bath is used if you want to turn a yellow into an olive green or a pink, red or burgundy into a more purplish tone. Some colors will turn gray with a bit of an iron afterbath. Do not use too much iron, only a little, because wool fibers can get brittle if too much is used.
My favorite plants to forage for color!
-Purple Dead Nettle and Henbit in spring! These two grow prolifically and often nearby each other. It is so easy to harvest large amounts and they give a good amount of yellow green, which can easily be shifted to a deep olive green with a little of iron. You can eat these plants too! I tried other various plants growing wild and in my garden, and I really felt that this purple dead nettle and henbit gave more color than a lot of the other more oft-mentioned weeds and herbs combined!
-Sumac is a great source of Tannins and quite a bit of golden brown or warm brown color.
-Goldenrod is an amazing source of yellow. It gives and gives and gives yellow! It gives more and brighter yellow than Weld and I’ve heard that it is about or ‘as’ lightfast as Weld. And it’s just growing everywhere in the fall! Take your fiber out of the dye pot when you’ve achieved the shade of yellow that you want. If you leave it in it will keep getting to be a darker yellow that could get deeper or darker than you want.
-Apple branches and leaves give a really interesting brown.
-This is not a great dye for fibers and you can’t forage it, but I’m going to mention it just because it gives a lot of color as a food/edible dye and is fun to grow. I grow it myself, and it is popular in Asia for blue and purple tea. Butterfly Pea Flower. There is a single or a double variety of the flower and it gives so much blue color in water, and it will turn to a vivid purple if you add a bit of acid. I did try dyeing with it on wool and it was not easy, but eventually I did obtain a beautiful, soothing sage green color on wool.
Great, trustworthy free online sources for Natural Dyeing and Mordanting information:
-Maiwa in Canada – search around their site. They offer a LOT of excellent information on their site. You just have to search for it, find it and read it.
-Wild Colours wildcolours.co.uk offers excellent information on their site.
-Facebook groups such as Natural Textile Dyeing (Mel Sweetnam is very experienced), Natural Dye Education, Natural Dyes, Natural Dyeing, and Natural Dyes Fiber Dyeing feature tabs at the top of the group page that may say Featured, or Topics or Files or Questions…..and these contain files or point you to discussions or information that is free and so valuable if you want to learn more about natural dyes and dyeing. Facebook groups are such an amazing place for learning about every and any topic.