Natural Dye Materials


1) Madder - at least two years old roots, dried. contains: 23 different anthraquinones and 6 glycosides; the most important dystuffs: alizarin, purpurin, pseudopurpurin, rubiadin, munjistin. Colors dyed with madder: rose to brown-reds on an alum mordant, depending on the temperature of the dye bath and the hardness of the water; shades of violet on a mordant of iron salts in a cold dying process and subsequent treatment in a suspension of wood ash

2) Saffflower - Safflower was used to dye the red cotton tapes of legal documents and it is the source of the expression “Red Tape” (see Liles).
Safflower is one of man’s oldest crops and its flower petals were used as a dye in India, the Far East and Egypt. Indeed the name Carthamus comes from the Arabic, and means “dye”. It produces both red and yellow dyes that can be extracted from the flower petals, although the reds are more important.

Dyeing: You will need equal weights of dried petals and fiber. Safflower petals produce two low quality yellow dyes and a good, although not very lightfast, red dye which ranges through pinks, rose and crimson. The first yellow dye should be washed away in cold water. Only then can the reds be extracted first in an alkaline and then in an acidic solution.
The reds are suitable for silk and cotton and do not require the use of a mordant. Silk takes up both the red and the second yellow dye, turning orange, whilst cotton takes up only the red. Liles and Dean describe a lengthy process for extracting and using this dye.

3) Indigofera tinctoria- Grows in tropical Africa, India, China, cultivated in Brazil and El Salvador.
Material used for dying: leaves (0.5% indicant) and stems (0.2% indican) of the indigo bush. From these, through fermentation indican transforms to the blue dyestuff indigo.
Content: indigo, indirubin
Method of dying and colors: Natural indigo must first be transformed to a water-soluble, yellow leuco base, a reduction process, previously done using a urine vat, now using ammonium/sodium-dithionite. This is a considerable hazard to the health of the dyer and a seriously contaminates the environment. A method developed by Michael Bischof using dyer's woad allows a significant reduction of the concentration of the sodium-dithionite solution. With the method described, vat dying with synthetic indigo can also be done. This contains 98% indigo and is - superficial - can hardly be distinguished from natural indigo. With natural and synthetic indigo, the broadest ränge of blue tones can be achieved. In combination with madder red, one can produce attractive black hues.

4) Weld / Dyer's Weed / Reseda Luteola - Grows in Central and Southern Europe, originally only around the Mediterranean and Western Asia (Tokat, Corum and Sivas).
Contains: luteolin, abigenin, isorhamnetin, kampferol
Colors dyed: brilliant yellows on an alum mordant that are very fast.
Dyer's weed is one of the most important sources for yellow dyes on Anatolian, Persian and Caucasian rugs, carpets and flatweaves (including our rugs)

5) Smokebush, Dyer's Sumac / Cotinus Coggygria Scop. / Boyaci Sumagi (leaves) -
Material used for dying: leaves
Contains: Fisetin, Fustin, Sulfuretin

6) Buckthorn / Rhamnus Petiolaris L. / Cehri (crude, green fruits)
Contains: Rhamnetin, Emodin, Quercetin, Rhamnacin, Kaempferol
used abundantly in Kayseri Region of Turkey, especially in Yahyali rug

7) Dyer's Greenwood / Genista Tinctoria L. / Katır Tırnağı (flowers, leaves and thin stem during flowering) - In 1983, large areas of wild Genista could still be found along the Aras River.
Contains: luteolin, genistein, genistin
Biology: This deciduous perennial shrub is a member of the legume family and grows to slightly over 1.5 metres tall. The shrub is similar to the ornamental broom grown in gardens, with thin leaflets about 2.5 cm long. The attractive yellow flowers appear from June to September and the plant is self-fertile. The seed pods are black and they mature around October and November.

History: Remains of this plant have been found in Viking archeological sites.

Cultivation: Very few seeds are produced in a cold year. Dry the seed pods in a tall container, as you will find that the pods split open as they dry and they often jump quite a distance. Soak the seeds overnight in warm water and sow one seed per pot. Germination is erratic with the first seedlings appearing in two to three weeks, and the last one up to four months later.
Let the plant grow to 30 cm high before carefully planting it into its final position. Think carefully before planting this bush, as it does not transplant at all well. Greenweed prefers a sheltered position but does not like shade. I have not found this an easy plant to grow; it is susceptible to wind damage and needs to be very well staked and tied up.
It takes nearly two years for the young plants to reach full size. Dyers' greenweed can also be reproduced from cuttings, but the success rate is not high and the plants do not grow very fast.

Harvest: Harvest the plant by cutting branches about two weeks after it has started to flower. This pruning helps to reduce wind damage later on in the year. If you are not using the leaves straight away, dry and store the cuttings out of sunlight.

Dyeing: Dyers’ Greenweed contains luteolin, the same water-fast pigment as weld. You can follow the instructions for dyeing with weld to obtain clear yellows.

8) Dyer’s Chamomile / Anthemis tinctoria (flowers)

Dyers' chamomile has dark green serrated foliage and it produces masses of long-lasting, yellow daisy flowers in the summer. It grows up to 60 cm and looks good as a bedding plant.

Biology: Dyers' Chamomile has dark green serrated leaves with a pleasant smell. In the summer, this bushy plant produces masses of long-lasting, yellow daisy-like flowers each with a dome-shaped centre. It grows 45 to 60 cm tall and looks good as a bedding plant. Although classed as a perennial, Dyers’ Chamomile tends to go leggy and die after two years of growth.

Cultivation: Dyers Chamomile grows very quickly from seed and it can also be grown as an annual. Sow in March indoors and, when large enough, transplant outside to a sunny position spacing about 30 cm apart. Alternatively, sow in May to July, plant out during September and October and they will flower in the next summer. Keep the plants well watered as they are prone to wilting. Prune to 20 cm when they have finished flowering to remove leggy branches.

Harvest: It is a good idea to harvest the flower heads when they are starting to wilt as this will promote further flowering. You can use the flowers fresh or you can dry them to be used later. The flowers are quite bulky, and you will need about one and a half litres of dry flowers to make 100 grams.

If you want to collect your own seeds, pick the flower heads when they have wilted and let them dry thoroughly, which can take 2 to 3 weeks. It is easier to pluck the small seeds from the centre of the flowers when the flower heads are very dry.

Dyeing: The warm yellows produced by Dyers’ Chamomile are a useful complement to the lemon yellows obtained from weld. Although not as light fast as weld this warmer yellow is an asset for over-dyeing, yielding different shades of green and orange. The compounds that give the yellow colour are flavonoids and they work better on wool or silk rather than on cotton.

Adding half a teaspoon of chalk to the dye bath makes stronger yellows and I have found that the colours become darker and brighter after the dyed wool is washed using washing up liquid.

Use 200 to 400 grams of dry flower heads for 100 grams of wool (and use a bit more if you are weighing fresh flowers). 200 grams of flowers will just about fill a 3 litres container (about half an average shoe box), so it is quite a lot of flowers. Simmer the flowers for one hour, strain them, add mordanted fibre to the yellow liquid and simmer for another hour.

9) Goldenrod (Solidago spp)

Goldenrod is a hardy perennial and a bushy plant, native to North America but well established in Europe. It grows to 1.5m and produces golden inflorescences with hundreds of tiny clustered flowers from September to October. The flowers produce heavy and sticky pollen that is sometimes unfairly blamed for causing hay fever but which is mainly carried by insects rather than spread by the wind.

Cultivation: Goldenrod needs little attention and it is easy to propagate from existing plants. Carefully choose the place where you want it to grow, as an established clump can be very hard to dig up and move.

Harvest: Collect the young flowers when they are about to open, for clear bright yellows, as older flowers do not have much dye.

Dyeing: Goldenrod produces quite light-fast primrose yellows on wool. Use the flowers soon after picking them, as dried flowers do not produce a good colour. If your flowers are ready and you do not have any mordanted fibres, you could freeze the dye liquor in a well-marked container. Use 50 to 100g of fresh flowers per 100g of mordanted wool. Dean recommends keeping the water just below simmer for an hour for bright yellows. You can sometimes achieve a more intense colour by adding a small amount of soda ash (and therefore increasing the pH) at the end of the dyeing period.

10) Tansy is a perennial plant up to 1.5 metres in height, with finely divided leaves and is somewhat fern-like .
The flowers are yellow and button like and appear in clusters. The flowers have an unusual scent, similar to that of camphor, with hints of rosemary.
In the dye pot, the flowers give a pale golden yellow.
It is said that the flowers can be used to keep ants at bay and that fishermen sometimes put sprigs of tansy in their hats to keep mosquitoes away.

11) Dyers Coreopsis, Plains Coreopsis or Calliopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
The flowers yield yellows, oranges and browns and several species of coreopsis can be used for dyeing. Liles suggests using about 800ml of fresh flowers or 400ml dried flowers for 100g of fibre; you could also try using the same weight of wool and flowers. Coreopsis produces better colours on wool or silk, and it is not recommended for dyeing cotton and other vegetable fibres.

If you have time, soak the flowers overnight, and then simmer them the next day. Dean says that a coreopsis dye bath is sensitive to ph; a small amount of acid lemon juice will change the colour towards yellow and a pinch of soda ash will bring out the reds

12) Rhubarb (Rheum spp)

Rhubarb is a member of the family Polygonaceae, as are Japanese Indigo and Dock, and is indigenous to Asia.

Rhubarb is a perennial plant, with large triangular leaves on a long, thick petiole and small greenish white flowers, which grows from underground rhizomes. The roots of the common edible rhubarb as well as those of ornamental varieties produce lightfast shades of yellow and orange and the roots are an important source of dye in Nepal and Tibet. The leaves of rhubarb can also be used as a mordant.

Cultivation: Rhubarb is very hardy, being resistant to frost and surviving neglect. In temperate climates, the parts above ground die down after the first frosts and then begin to grow back again from the root during the spring. You can grow rhubarb from a crown or from seeds. Remove any flower stalks that appear promptly; otherwise the plant is likely to die.

Harvest: Collect the roots when dividing the plants, saving some of the roots for dyes and planting the rest. Wash the harvested roots well and make sure you chop them in small pieces soon after digging them up as dry roots are very hard and almost impossible to chop. The chopped roots can be used in dyeing either fresh or dried.

Dyeing: Simmer the chopped roots for half an hour. Strain the liquor and add mordanted fibre to the pot. Leave overnight.

13) Old Fustic (Maclura tinctoria)

Fustic can refer to either of two trees that produce yellow from the wood. To distinguish between them, one is called old fustic and the other young fustic.

Biology of fustic: Old Fustic, or Dyer’s Mulberry, is made from heartwood of Maclura tinctoria, a medium to large tree of the mulberry family originally found in the forests of Brazil and the West Indies. This tree is also known as Chlorophora or Morus tinctoria in older texts.

Reading about natural dyes you may come across the name young fustic. This is made from the wood of the Smoke Tree (Rhus cotinus), another dye plant but from a completely different family. Young fustic is related to cashew and sumacs and comes from southern Europe and Asia. It produces a less permanent colour.

History of old fustic: Old fustic was used extensively from about 1600 to 1850, as it produces a strong colour at low cost. During the WW1, fustic was one of the dyes used to produce khaki for army uniforms.

Dyeing with fustic: Old fustic is available ground or as wood chips and also as an extract. It yields a range of colours from strong dark yellows to an attractive peach colour on silk, cotton and wool and it has good light-fastness. It produces a yellow dye called fustic primarily known for coloring khaki fabric for U.S. military apparel during World War I. This dye contains the flavonoid morin. Old fustic is not to be confused with Young Fustic (Rhus cotinus) from southern Europe and Asia, which provides a more fugitive colour.

Fustic is an easy dye to use. Put 50 grams of fustic wood chips in a saucepan, pour boiling water over and then leave them overnight. The following day, simmer the chips in the water for about an hour. Leave the dye bath to cool down for an hour or two and then pour the contents of the saucepan through a sieve. Spread out the chips to dry, as they can be re-used several times (make sure you remove the chips before adding the fibre otherwise the chips will stick to the fibre and you will have to remove them one by one). Add 100 grams of wool mordanted with alum to the dye bath and simmer for 30 minutes. Take the wool out and add another 100 grams of wool for paler colours.

14) Eucalyptus / Blue Gum (Eucalyptus spp)
Several different species of eucalyptus can give wonderful orange colours.

Apparently the trees need to be fully grown, and the leaves must be collected at the hottest time of the year, otherwise you may only get an uninspiring beige. The leaves also need to be boiled for two to three hours in a well-ventilated area, as they give off a pleasant but overpowering smell.