Create natural dyes with plant materials

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Natural dyes

Ever wanted to make your own natural dyes? Use this guide for selecting plants, berries, bark, leaves and powders to create gorgeous colours.

Cassandra Ellis uses her talents as a designer and her life-long love of cloth to create her gorgeous new book, Cloth. Organised into five sections – Cotton, Wool, Silk, Linen and Hide – Cloth provides insight into their craftsmanship and history and includes striking projects that make the most of each fabric’s properties. Projects include a cotton tote bag, silk sari curtains, wool oven gloves, linen bedcovers and leather purses, to name a few. Full-sized templates are included in a pocket at the back of the book.

As well, she includes a section on dying with natural dye-stuffs.

Extracted with permission from Cloth by Cassandra Ellis, with photography by Catherine Gratwicke. Published by Kyle Books and distributed in New Zealand by New Holland, $59.99


Natural Dye

Dyeing can be a little messy, but the colours you can achieve by mixing natural cloth with colours from Mother Nature are well worth it. Natural dyeing is simply the process in which yarn or fabric is immersed in a solution produced by boiling up selected raw materials, or dye-stuffs. These may be from an animal, vegetable or mineral source.

Natural dyes are a renewable resource – almost every plant in the world will give a fantastic colour and they are literally on your doorstep. If they’re not free, they can be created inexpensively or are the waste product of cooking or gardening. Dyeing with natural dyes has obvious ecological advantages – no chemicals, no nastiness. But they also create colours that are just magical, so I think the combination is a win-win on both practicality and aesthetics.

There are many books and courses that offer an in-depth education in the art of dyeing. For Cloth, I thought we’d keep it simple – a starting point to something that can become very addictive, very quickly. There are two types of natural dyes. Substantive dyes are those that give a fast, lasting colour without the need for extra chemical processes (or mordants) to fix the colours. Adjective dyes require the yarn or fabric to be treated with a mordant to make it more absorbent and allow the dye to bite and take hold. Different dyes use different mordants, but most mordants are mineral based – such as alum, tin, chrome or iron. However, the oldest is urine – not very lovely to think about, but very effective. Most dyes fall into the second category. If you don’t mind the colour being lighter or fading over time (and possibly bleeding) then you can skip the mordant when heating your water for dyeing. A simple mordant to use on all natural cloth is alum – readily available in a salt form. The simplest option is probably common table salt.

To dye fabric you need to bring water and your choice of dye to the boil, reduce to a simmer and then add the mordant. After concocting the mixture, add the fabric and then allow it to soak in the dye. The longer the soak, the more intense the colour. Once you have the colour you’re aiming for, remove the fabric and rinse it in lukewarm water until the water runs clear. Then hand wash it with a gentle detergent. The final colour will vary depending on whether you use fresh or dried dyes, whether the water is hot or cold, what fabric you use, the type of mordant and the pH level of the water. In addition, every natural cloth will take dye differently as some fabrics are protein based and some plant based. This sounds very complicated but it isn’t. I like a slight sense of ‘winging it’ when I dye, but you can always use scraps of cloth to test colour.


Here is a list of plants, berries, bark, leaves and powders that are perfect for dyeing. Have a rummage in your pantry or wander through your garden and neighbourhood to find the perfect colour.

Useful equipment for dyeing

:: Metal pots or saucepans (only to be used for dyeing)
:: Tongs
:: Stirrers or sticks
:: Insulated rubber gloves – from a DIY store
:: A couple of buckets or plastic containers
:: Pegs, clips and rubber bands
:: Glass jars for mordants to keep them safe
:: An apron or a selection of old clothes
:: Alum salts
:: Your choice of dye-stuff


Bamboo – turkey red
Blackberries – dark red
Beetroot peelings – red
Cherries – dark pink
Crab-apple bark – red/yellow
Elderberry – red
Grape skins – bright fuchsia
Madder root – red
Purple sage – red
Raspberries – red
Rosehips – pink
Roses and lavender – with a little mint and some lemon juice to activate the alkaloids this makes a brilliant pink dye
Strawberries – pink


Basil – purplish grey
Blackberries – strong purple
Blueberries – purple
Cornflower petals (with alum) – blue
Elderberries – lavender
Grapes – purple
Hyacinth flowers – blue
Logwood – with alum it gives purple to blue-purple
Mulberries – royal purple
Olives that have dropped from a tree – deep blue/purple
Ornamental plum tree leaves – purple grey
Red cabbage – mauve/purple
Saffron petals – blue/green


Artichokes – green
Black-eyed Susan flowers – bright olive/apple green
Hydrangea flowers – with added copper, a beautiful celery green
Broom stem – green
Calendula flowers – luminescent green
Camellia (pink, red petals) – green
Carrot tops – light green
Chamomile leaves – green
Grape leaves – shades of yellows to earthy chartreuse and deep greens
Grass – yellow green
Lilac flowers – green
Nettle – light yellow/green
Peppermint – dark khaki green
Red onion skin – lighter than forest green
Rosemary leaves – pale green
Snapdragon flowers – green
Sorrel roots – dark green
Spinach leaves – green


Acorns (boiled) – light yellow/brown
Beluga black lentils (soaked in water overnight) – milk chocolate brown to a light brown when watered down
Birch bark (with alum) – light brown/buff
Broom bark – yellow/brown
Coffee grinds – dark brown
Dandelion roots – brown
Fennel flowers or leaves – yellow/brown
Iris roots – mid brown
Ivy twigs – yellow/brown
Juniper berries – brown
Oak bark – tan or oak colour
Sumac leaves – black
Teabags – light brown/tan
Walnut hulls – deep brown
Walnut husks – deep brown-black
Wild plum root – reddish/rusty brown


Alfalfa seeds – yellow
Bay leaves – yellow
Brown onion skins – yellow
Celery leaves – pale yellow
Crocus – yellow
Daffodil flower heads (after they have died) – yellow
Dahlia flowers (red, yellow, orange flowers) – orange/yellow
Dandelion flowers – pale yellow
Heather plant – yellow
Marigold blossoms – yellow
Mimosa flowers – yellow
Paprika – pale yellow/light orange
Peach leaves – yellow
Poppy roots – earthy yellow
Sunflowers – yellow
Turmeric – bright yellow
Weld – bright yellow


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