Teaching Through Practice: Natural Dyes


For many years I’ve been learning epicurean skills and old world methods. This has earned me the first hand experience of natural hand dying which I’d like to share with a group today.

Since it’s been many years and I’ve failed to document my work I’m going to experiment what I don’t know about natural dyes and share with you what I know for certain over the next few weeks.

Your welcome to test your own dye curiosities and in the future I’ll provide a template for scientific method so that you can finding your very own results.

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Well known natural dyes are:

  • Red or Purple Beets
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Walnut Husks

And many others!

Sounds very interesting! I have done a bit of natural dying.

I love how the same dye with the same wool can have different outcomes depending on the mordant used.

The downside of natural dyes is most are not lightfast. Such a bummer since I obtain some of the best greens and golds using natural dyes.

I look forward to seeing your posts!

My (so far…) one and only experience in dyeing was in high school drama. Our drama teacher had each of the “Roman crowd” dye our muslin tunics with “anything from a plant that you can find in your kitchen at home” (meaning, of course, our parents’ kitchen).

My parents’ kitchen had a glass jar of pickled beets. I don’t remember any of us actually ever eating pickled beets, but the juice looked quite promising as a muslin dye! So I made sure it would be OK and, remembering what Mr. Petti had said, got the fabric “good and wet” first, then put the beet juice into a cookpot, followed by the wet fabric, followed by just enough water to cover the fabric.

Low simmer for maybe 20 minutes, followed by pouring everything into the stoppered-up sink. I left the cloth to sit until the water cooled down. Then I rinsed the muslin in cold water and asked Mom to dry the fabric in the dryer (although she had me wash all the dishes, vacuum the floors, etc., NO ONE was allowed to touch the washer or the dryer).

I am not fond of pink. But the color the pickled-beet juice produced was a wonderful, soft rose. I was almost sad to turn in my costume at the end of our run of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” I have no idea what the long-term staying power of the juice was, fortified as it was with vinegar.

There are several yarn dyers–some of them were at Stitches WEST–using only direct plant infusions/decoctions/etc. for their dyes, and the colors are amazing. Two whose names I can remember right off the bat are Alpenglow Yarn and Tactile Fiber Arts. They don’t restrict themselves to foodstuffs, though.

What mordants are used on foodstuffs? Anything specific?


The most common is acid (vinegar) because of it’s ease of availability.

Mordanting in a cast iron pot can produce a bit of iron mordant, as can dying in a copper pot. Back when pennies were made of copper, dyers would through a few pennies in with the fiber to mordant.

Instead of vinegar, try citric acid crystals. You can get them online quite easily. They are cheap, easy to store, and no stank!

As for dyes, I have used black walnut that I collect to eat. Wear gloves! Crush up the green husk and boil it until it’s black black black. Strain out the bits and simmer the yarn in the liquid - you get a nice rich brown. Works on hair, too!

It’s good to see that people are taking an interest in natural dyes!

Thank you for contributing to the discussion. I look forward to checking those natural dye videos.