Ancient Craft of Plant Dyes

The wonderful power of plants to colour our clothes

In an era where we want less chemicals in our lives its time to rediscover natural dyes rather than relying on synthetic dyes from the pharmaceutical industry.

A few years ago I attended two one-day courses in plant dyeing to get a basic understanding of procedures after which I was inspired to collect plants from verges along walks (using guide book), including woad and comfrey from my own garden, and start dyeing backgrounds ready for silk painted panels in my bespoke garment making.

The thrill of collecting wild plants and producing colours on fabric is very satisfying and sometimes surprising as unexpected outcomes are learned.  Foraged dyestuff gives wondrous golds, beige and cream: all very useful as background neutral tones to over paint with commercial silk dyes.

Some basic guidelines for dyeing silk bring quick results.

Almost all my dye bath Posts show a cream or gold of different hues, from different plants (see gallery below).  In that respect it is easy to dye silk golden by soaking silk for 2-24hrs in hand hot dyestuff liquid dye bath.  Some dyestuffs do not need heat as they are so strong. Soak overnight in cold water to see strength of pigment before heating. Books advise which dye stuffs need heating.

Basic Guidelines for Plant Dye Processes

  • Boil plant in large pot (cut up leaves/seeds/flowers depending on plant type or recipe); simmer for an hour but watch water level.  Some release colour immediately, some need soaking over night and re-simmering the next day to give deeper colour.

  • Plant fibres may be soaked for an hour, stirring occasionally to ensure even distribution. Overnight soaking usually gives stronger colour.

  • Water will become coloured as deep as possible, remove plant stuff.  At this point transfer liquid to large steel or china bowl for soaking more evenly.

  • Silk must only be placed in dye bath liquid when OFF the boil but still hand hot, below 50 deg..  (Too hot may roughen silk texture, especially Ahimsa type).  Stir and agitate.  When tone appears strong, remove and rinse to check.  Only on drying can true colour be seen.

  • Secondary silk can be soaked overnight for a lighter tone. Iron liquid modifier can be added to the second dyeing, to increase darker tone, or towards greys and brown. the weaker the dye bath, the more grey the tone will be when adding ferrous sulphate (iron).

  • Dye from plant stuffs can work just as well after soaking only in cold water, or after just a brief boil up and sitting to soak.  I use boiled pond (rain) water, and just leave it, for paler shades.

  • There is always a result, even if only cream or yellow.  Prolonged soaking for 48 hours may give a darker tone, as some plants take longer to infuse the dye. if you don't think you have gotten all the colour from the dyestuff fibres, boil them up again.  Usually the second dyeing of an additional piece, will absorb remaining colour, visibly.

  • Colours can be adjusted/changed by adding additional purchased plant dye powders in small proportions. (I have them, but not yet used in this way, as gold results are so good a background for silk painting.)

  • Used dye liquid can be stored in labelled jars which can be added to future dye pots or used with other dyes.

Note:  Silk can be pre-soaked in Alum powder.

Silk Samples - Gallery - click to view

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