Never considered it and think it’s a little mad, or already got a stack of textiles at the ready? Either way, yes, growing your own dyes is a thing and it’s swiftly becoming the garden project of the year.
Your garden, or at least your local park or woodland, is home to an abundance of natural dyes, all of which produce colours that are much more vivid than anything synthetic can achieve – think berries, plant leaves, roots and bark, all of which offer a complete rainbow of blues, purples, reds, pinks, greens and yellows.
You probably already know that most natural dyes come from dye plants, the better-known varieties include madder, weld, woad and indigo. Some natural dyes, such as cochineal, come from insects, or from mineral sources. All of these natural dyes are both light and wash-fast and their usage gates back thousands of years.
The essential process of dyeing textiles necessitates soaking the material containing the dye (the dyestuff), in water. You then add the textile to be dyed to the resulting solution (the dye bath), and bring the solution to a gentle simmer for an extended period of time, often measured in days or weeks rather than hours. The solution should be stirred occasionally and your textiles will be ready when the colour has evenly transferred throughout.
Woad grows 3ft tall.
Some dyestuff, such as indigo and lichens, will give strong and lasting colour when used alone with nothing added; such dyes are called ‘direct dyes’ or ‘substantive dyes’. The majority of plant dyes, however, also require the use of a mordant, which is a chemical used to “fix” the colour in the textile fibres. These dyes are called adjective dyes.
As long as alum is used as a mordant, plant dyes use no toxic chemicals, and the organic matter left over from the dye plants can even be put on the compost! Combined with the natural colours of wool and cotton, natural fabric dyes such as indigo and cochineal, are widely regarded as the only possible colours for dyeing organic textiles that then produce a spectrum of rich and complex colours complementary colours.
Natural dyes age well and develop something called a patina and an abrash as the older textiles are exposed to sunlight and normal use. The patina is an attractive softening of the colours and the abrash referes to the slightly uneven hues that emerge as different dye lots, even of the same colour, fade at different rates – all of which is perfectly natural.
The fundamental difference between this and a yarn dyed with the synthetic equivalent of madder, is that synthetics do not have this wealth of colour variation and so appear much more uniform.
The main European dye plants for the last thousand years are woad, weld and madder.
Woad (Isatis tinctoria)
Let’s start with what is arguably the easiest of the three to grow. Woad is native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean from which it spread into Europe and where it has been in use as a dye plant since Neolithic times. The famous Bayeux tapestry has several shades of blue, all dyed with woad.
Woad is a brassica and therefore closely related to broccoli and cabbage. In the first year, it forms a low-growing cluster of dark blue-green leaves which resemble spinach. The yellow flowers appear in May and have a wonderful fragrance, which insects will flock too. Woad is a biennial plant so grows for only two years before dying down. Of these two years, the leaves are harvested for dye production in the first year only.
Weld (Reseda luteola)
Weld is a non-invasive attractive plant which can grow wild in waste ground, but would not look out of place in the back garden. Weld can grow up to 5ft heigh and its long spikes, with small pale yellow flowers, start appearing in early June. Leaves and flowers can be harvested from July onwards, whilst the plant is flowering but remains green. Weld dye usually produces instant neon yellow – dependent on the chemicals in the water used in the dye pot. If your yellow turns out dull, simply add a pinch of chalk for an instant lift.
Madder (Rubia tinctoria)
Madder produces one of the most light-fast of natural dyes and has been used so prolifically throughout history that archaeologists even found traces of it in the linen found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Madder is a long lived perennial variety of the family Rubiaceae, the same family as coffee. The madder roots produce a red dye, highly sensitive to temperature and mineral content water. To use madder effectively you will need patience. Not least because the roots take three years to grow to the thickness needed for harvest.
Experimenting with natural dyes is not for everyone – it takes persistence whatever you decide to grow. It is, however, a very rewarding and intriguing hobby and makes a great long-term garden project. You might even choose to get the children or grandchildren involved and make something together.