Category Archives: dye experiments

book review: Dyes from American Native Plants

I can’t remember where i first stumbled across any notice of this book, though i am glad i did. It is out of print, but a search online reminded me of the Interlibrary Loans program, which kept me with held breath for three weeks. Picked it up Tuesday last week on the way home from the ffFlower Mines, and opened it on the bus!

dyes from american native plants book cover

You know what the best thing about this book is? It gives a detailed list of plant materials that give little or no colour!!! That means less wasted time, fabric, heat and gathering 🙂 Though it’s a bit more geocentric than i thought it would be, given the slightly misleading title (covering mostly what grows in south-central US), a lot of the wild plants mentioned are widespread in North America, even up to Alberta. It does miss out on a few plants in the same species, but given again that it is geo-specific, that may be why–one variety in the species grows there, but not others. It’s also decidedly not a “kitchen scrap” book with claims of blue from elecampene, magenta from dandilion roots, green from spinach and lasting effects from turmeric!!!

No vinegar or salt “fixes” either–really, just go, run down to the corner convenience store, buy a bag of potato chips fer jeebly sakes, if you’ve got a hankering for salt and vinegar, and stop mushing on about how they make berries last longer and stops rust from rusting…….

The only true problem with this book, is that it doesn’t give any indication of what is light or wash fast. It does tell you *how* to do that, but there are no notes with plants what is worth the effort, and what is a waste of time, effort and resources. I truly believe too, that testing for these should be an INTEGRAL part of the dyeing process. Maybe then we’d see less of the Beet Brigade posting their results for the GaGa newbies……………

So what else is in it?

It’s laid out with plant materials grouped by colour results, it has a comprehensive index with the Latin and common name (though the common nomenclature may be regional), there are photos of the plants mentioned. The author speaks of responsible gathering and safe dye practices and it’s not dumbed down or too technical. My only complaint is the prevalent use of tin as mordant in a lot of the dye baths. Even in 2005 (the date this book was published), we knew this type of mordant was dangerous for the dyer, and best not used in the home. There are no “recipes” per se, for the novice, but the more experienced dyer will already know that as with most plant materials, your plant chunks ratio should be at least of the same weight as your fabrics/threads.

There were a few surprises with some of the flora mentioned. Certain plants abound here, and while i’m not going to get too excited about the possibility of using them, it does give me new hope for local colour. Many of them are also though, while “plentiful”, are in our National Parks–and i am never going to scavenge great quantities, because of that, and because they belong where they belong, period. If i find them in a ditch however and if it’s in my immediate environs, and i know it’s considered invasive or noxious, it’s fair game. I recognized a few varieties i had no idea would give any colour at all, but because of my frequent walks with the DogFaced Girl, i know that locally these are very very small ecosystems, and i would feel incredibly guilty if i denuded the area. I am passionately interested in using what i can find, but not at the expense of the primary reason why i do these walks and that is to appreciate what is there, not what can be taken away! You’ll note i did not mention any of these by name—–i don’t want to be blamed by the Cosmos for encouraging somebody sneaky to go and strip their area!

Of course (as with most of my own experiments lately), the preponderance of colour mentioned is yellows and browns 🙂


One comment on solar dyeing rather confirmed what i had wondered way back in the beginning of my own natural dye adventures–the sun will affect the dye colour—-put away those mason jars, and use a plastic tub, or put those jars under cover: they’re not really “solar”: they’re a form of decomposition dyeing, and no light should enter.


Solar dyeing? HUH? What does the sun do to fabric, and has always been used to do to the fabric? BLEACHING!

I was out on the patio picking up bits and pieces from the weekend BBQ we had while J was here, and grabbed up a chunk of green polyester we had used as a tablecloth. There are streaks of fading on it. I looked at it, i looked at the solar-dye jar, i looked at the fabric——-well, sweet adeline on a skewer, it’s not the UV we need for solar dyeing, it’s the heat!!! Chemical reactions take place as the plant material stews in the warmth, cools overnight, then repeats the process the next day, and so on, as long as the fabric and potion is left to do its thing!!!!!!!!!!!!! EPIPHANY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And obviously then too, one does not let the fabric dry outside in the sun either…..

So, the marigolds are in an opaque container in the sun today, and i’m sweeping up glass from all the broken lightbulbs.


And ain’t nobody ever going to be able to write ONE book that covers every plant that could possibly give colour……….When i find a copy of this to buy —at a reasonable price, because Amazon don’t go there, too spendy for this!—-it will probably be the last natural dye book i buy. With what i have now, the Stately Barr Manor Library is extensive enough, and i highly doubt anything “new” is going to truly be “new”, but rather just rehashes of the same stuff.

My dye library:

dye library

(That big thick leather bound journal is my own dye and ecoprint notes book.)


On a side note, i did some alkanet dyeing mid October, and since then had it in a window for lightfast tests. I knew it was bad, from reading MAIWA’s blog, for fastness, but it’s really really bad as it turns out, and unless i overdye, won’t be using it again:

alkanet light test resultsAbove, left was exposed to sun, right covered. Below, overdyed with madder.

alkanet overdyed with madderLovely colour changes of brown and gold.  From now on for my purples though, i think i’ll stick to the cochineal, and the few good results with lichens!


Posted by on November 30, 2015 in dye experiments, lessons to learn, media experiments


more mellow yellow

Woohoo, you say, more exciting yellow which is what a lot of natural dyes give, YAWN.

But yellow is a good base for creating other colours, that simple primaries mix thingie that can yield up more oranges, greens, corals and spring shades than you can poke a snake at. I also like them as a base for my “Hippie Chick” packs 🙂

hippie chick fabricsI think i may try some of these today. The originals were done over tansy or solidago, so will rhubarb root, being so substantive, allow the hollyhock any uptake?

Whilst rummaging through my sewing machine desk, i found a bag of calendula petals i had picked 5 years ago. Weak results, but obviously even after that length of time, still some colour use!

old calendula on silksI finally found some (bur)dock as well–in my backyard of all places. One small piece, and i was pretty sure there would be no colour release at all, due to it’s size (about 4″)  and the brown rings evident. Would it also be too late in the season for it?

dock root 1Well, minimal results, but there *is* hope for next year. I can’t after all keep prowling the neighbourhood as the Ninja Gardener, digging up everyone’s rhubarb root……

And i am STILL getting colour from the rhubarb root pot!! The colours are going more to the brown side now, but until i get nothing, i’ll keep using it. (On a side note, there’s now a category within a category for these natural dyes: look under “dye experiments” and pull up the appropriate plant–this will be my notekeeping for local plant materials used as dyes.)

Over the weekend i gathered all my dye materials, apparatus and various baggies and bottles in one spot. It was a surprise to find sandalwood and more indigo (LOTS more indigo!) in the back room, sodium alginate, annato and a HUGE bag of turmeric (which i dumped, ’cause it’s too fugitive for any effort) and some of the original lichen vats as well! Now that everything is together, i won’t waste time wondering where the heck it all is.

dye cupboard and shelvesRed cupboard to left contains walnuts, pots, spoons, strainers etc. Dyeshelves top: indigo, sandalwood, brazilwood, madder, sodium alginate, thio, soda ash, alum, lichen vats, dyer’s chamomile, walnut ink, coreopsis, eucalyptus vat, birch bark vat, dried indigo leaves; bottom shelf has tansy, hollyhock, euc leaves, hibiscus, onion skins, annato, rhubarb root, and maple and walnut baths. What you can’t see to the far left is my brazilwood vats (one with soda ash, one unadulterated), madder and alkanet vats, rust water and drying threads and fabrics!  (And yes, my asparagus fern needs some tidying up–the indoor jungle also shares the same wall!)

And now to get back to some stitching! Photos are due today and i have to have at least one large area done to show the work!

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Posted by on November 10, 2015 in (bur)dock, calendula, dye experiments, rhubarb root


a natural glow

rh dye silk thread on cotton

rhubarb glow smThis gorgeous sun-shiney yellow is some of the recent rhubarb root dyed silk thread. Love it.

I’m back in the swing. A dear friend made a comment that i should be stitching this for the love of it, not for a deadline–i’m happily doing both.

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Posted by on November 4, 2015 in A Birth of Silence, in progress, rhubarb root


Rhubarb Pie

Guaranteed not to add calories, or go bad in shipping.

Or give you the runs 🙂 (Remember being dosed with it as a kid for spring tonic?)

rhubarb pie 14 packs available, in the shop now.


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Posted by on November 2, 2015 in FybreSpace, hand dyes and ecoprints, rhubarb root


continuing a love affair, and a book review

Apparently “exhaustion” in the dyepot ain’t happening yet with the rhubarb root! I keep throwing things in, and getting results, and will continue until there is nothing left. Being frugal means using EVERY drop.  I may seem i’m obsessing, but if you live in an area where winter means NO fresh plant materials, you do what you can as long as you can before the yard is elbow deep in that white stuff. And make lots of notes in the Big Dye Journal. I also suspect that because there is still so much colourant left in the pot, that storing it for “future” use would be a smelly, funky, moldy endeavour! (The only plant material dyebath i’ve successfully strained, decanted and stored is walnut. You don’t want to know what was living in there with tansy, goldenrod, eucalyptus and even madder……. store dry plant materials only, not the dyebath!)

This is the colour i’m still getting, even after all the other chunks i’ve pulled out:

dyebath still going strong

I didn’t get prints from leaves on this, because rhubarb is a substantive dye, like walnut and indigo. It bonds with every fibre and just doesn’t let anything else in.  You *can* overdye, post mordant and post modify it, but leaf prints, not so much. That being said, it’s a great way to build pattern when the ecoprint dyepot has mordant in it also that shifts the colour.

This was my first experiment in that effort:

overdyes and ecoprints 1 rhubarab root

The left was layered with tansy and artemesia leaves over rhubarb root dye, and the right with wild currant over brazilwood over rhubarb root, all the leaves still reasonably plentiful in this season if i look at south slopes along the river where it’s warmer. Very pretty with the mottling of colour shift due to the iron in the ecoprint pot, but no clear definition of leaf.

The second piece was done with Grevillea leaves, brought home as dibs and dabs from the fffFlower Mines.

grevillea on rhubarb

grevillea on rhubarb detail

I did a few other tests, but won’t show the results, as they are pretty much all the same effect. Few “prints” but great resists! I like the subtleties of colour in these, rather vintagey, but will probably overdye some of them again!

All of these are silk (protein), as cotton (cellulose) is lousy for this plant material (rhubarb root), though when i have fresh root again, i will try with alum and tannin pre-mordants. I still have the same amount as i used, in a dried form, but that will be saved for “drought times” ie the dead of Winter!

In the meantime i have been stitching away on my current large work, and will show pics in progress soon.


There’s a difference between making potions that are mad riots of colour and pattern that won’t last, and then there are potions that are all of those things because you knew what you are/were doing. I say “potions”, because i have never seen so many things in too many cases tossed into one pot, for one dubious result! There’s SO much “information” out there that is just plain WRONG. “Tutes” are being written, classes given (some with hefty price tags), myths perpetuated, and stubborn or blithe willful ignorance passed on to others……..The ABSOLUTE worst i saw on one site though was the blogger who wondered WHY she shouldn’t use the same pots for dyeing as for cooking for her family!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  NEVER assume that because it’s “Natural” that it’s also “Safe”. (Go ahead, Honey, that’s Darwinian Karma then, but so sorry about the kids.)

Invest in a good book, an actual book written by someone who knows what she (he) is talking about, someone who has tested, experimented, sometimes failed and in the end, surpassed with many years of intense study and research. My Bible for natural dyeing is Jenny Dean’s “Wild Colour”, and i also use any book by Karen Diadick Casselman, J.Liles, or Dominique Cardon. (By the way, if you want an incredible book on indigo, check out the King’s latest, John Marshall’s “Dyeing with Fresh Leaf Indigo”–it’s a limited edition and *only* $450US……I WISH.) And if you can’t afford the others, more reasonably priced ;), well, what’s the library for??????? Use the Inter-Library search if you can’t find it locally.

I ordered a copy of “The Modern Natural Dyer” by Kristine Vejar, and while it is clear and correct, it’s mostly about dye stuffs one would have to buy as extracts or roots/leaves, etc from a distant supplier, with only a few plants that could be grown deliberately in your garden. There ain’t no madder, osage or pomegranates growing in *my* backyard! It’s detailed, with information on mordants and methods, but not as comprehensive about (wild) plants as Jenny Dean’s is. My biggest complaint about the book is all the “projects”. If you can’t figure out that wow, you can actually MAKE things from dyed fibres, whether yarn or cloth, well……i have no interest in pages of knitting info or cute for children. It IS a good book, it’s not a “kitchen scrap” book,  it is researched, well written and photographed, and clearly a passion of the writer, but i still recommend my JD Bible as THE best for my purposes, and the one i recommend most to people who throw vinegar on everything, or expect magenta from dandilion roots, and who insist that spinach, roses and grass will dye fabulously. Honestly, as good as it is, i shouldn’t have bought it, as i learned nothing new or in more depth. That being said, if it had been the first book i saw on the subject, it would have been a very good start, piqueing my interest.


well, damn it and lesson learned

I realized that i had done enough of the stitching with the soluble backing, and could get rid of it now as a sample only it is.

OOPS! When the soluble had been washed away from the stitched silks, i pulled too hard on one piece when i was straightening them out—–and ripped a chunk right off…..

ohohFortunately, it ended right above some of the stitched poetry. I’ll take this as a reminder to be more gentle with old silks (a piece donated by a generous friend).

I fluttered and flapped the piece around before i laid it on the background. I can see that the larger planned idea will work, but that the ends may need a bit of weight to stabilize the “hang”.

I have decided for this test/sampling piece that it *will* have an indigo background–mostly because it makes me happy, the colour contrast and the blue of a river fitting right in. And i guess the Universe is just saying “well, stitch more in that void then” where the silk tore off.

sampling with indigo background

And it’ll be something on it’s own after all,  when all the other stitching has been added.



dyeing for stitch

I’ve been dyeing for stitching, but i’m dieing for not stitching! The stoodio is warmly scented with drying rhubarb root, and the dyepots are bubbling. These below are this past week’s efforts.

bright rhubarb yellowAbove, rhubarb root on its own. Below, modified with soda ash.

rhubarb modified with soda ashModifiers, overdyes and ecoprint below:

rhubarb with modifiers and overdyes

None of them have an intended use for a planned project, but are quite useful for the sampling of effect and technique. And maybe they will turn into something on their own.

Rhubarb is quite substantive and will not allow a lot of uptake of other colours, or prints. That note goes in the big dye journal then. And of course, now that i am actually looking for dock (as a logical substitute to digging up the neighbourhood’s rhubarb patches, guaranteed to make me very unpopular..), i can’t find any. (Epiphany: look for the dried stalks with the burrs, the leaves have all died down in this season…) The DogFaced Girl is enjoying these excursions though 🙂

And hopefully the next post will have some stitching to show, because i’m quite sure from my stats that no one really gives a hoot about all this! I’m looking again at past work for inspiration:

"Every Beat Has A History" 2009, detail


Posted by on October 26, 2015 in dye experiments