By Sarah Dutton
Aug 17 2020
People have been dyeing their clothing with plants since ancient times. All around the world they have found ways to use the plants, fungi and lichens around them, as well as those they could obtain by trade, to make their lives more colorful. Today, you can find fabric and yarn in any color of the rainbow in shops, dyed mostly with synthetic dyes. But plenty of people are still dyeing textiles with plants. The colors obtained from plants are often more nuanced, complex, and surprising because they contain many chemicals in varying amounts, rather than just one that has been manufactured. With a spirit of learning and experimentation, you can use the plants around you to dye textiles in your own home.
The colorful chemicals that we use as dye are called pigments, and plants produce them in an incredible variety. The color of a pigment depends on which wavelengths of light it absorbs and which it reflects—chlorophyll is green because it absorbs red and blue light, and reflects green. The radiation that pigments absorb is then used in chemical reactions or emitted at another wavelength. For this reason, pigments do more than just determine the color of a plant. They also aid in photosynthesis, act as a sunscreen, regulate the timing of plant development, and more.
Even though they are all colorful, not all pigments work well as dyes. For dyeing, a pigment must dissolve in water, bind well to fiber, and remain stable when exposed to things like oxygen, heat, and sunlight. A dye that is relatively permanent is called “fast,” as in “colorfast” dye that doesn’t fade when washed. Often, a mordant or fixative is necessary to help bind dye to fiber, and may also alter the resulting color. Common mordants include metals like aluminum and iron, and tannins, which are found in plants. Over the millennia that humans have been using plant materials to dye, they have figured out a lot about how to get the best results. There is a wealth of information available about plant dyes in books and online, including step by step instructions for specific plants and recommendations for certain colors or fibers.
All you need to get started is some yarn or cloth, plant material, water, a heat source, a wooden spoon, gloves, and a big pot. Textiles made from animal fibers, like wool and silk, or plants, like cotton and linen, will look a little different even when used with the same dye, because they differ in their ability to bind to different pigments. This could be a fun avenue for experimentation. Plant material for dyes can be found in your backyard, the grocery store, gardening centers, and sold online. Plant dyeing is a fun way to get to know the plants around you, or to discover new plants to grow in your garden. Here, we’ll show you just a small rainbow of dye plants to spark some inspiration.