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tip-of-the-iceberg peek into using and growing botanical dyes

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​The range of colors that any dye plant can produce is huge! There are seemingly endless variations that can be coaxed out of botanical dyes that are influenced by many factors, such as the pH level of your water, type of mordant, length of time in the dye bath, type of fiber, strength of a plant’s dye properties, and more. Due to these variables, it’s very difficult to reproduce the same results in subsequent batches.

Being living things, it only makes sense that the complex make-up of a dye plant would result in color sensitivity to any of the influences listed above. That's what makes them so cool!

 

Following are some basic tips for working with botanical dyes, some tips for growing your own plants, and there’s a list of resources at the end that can guide you through your own botanical dye journey.

• dye tips

• the life cycle of botanical dyes

• growing and harvesting

• resources

• contact me

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dyetips

dye tips

 

  • Botanical dyes work on protein (animal) fibers such as wool, alpaca, and silk; and cellulose (plant) fibers like cotton, flax, and hemp. They typically produce stronger colors on protein fibers than on cellulose fibers.

  • Plant material can be used dry or fresh. The ratio of plant material (dyestuff) to fiber is measured by weight and varies depending upon the strength of the plant’s dye properties. The pigment in dried plant material is more concentrated than when fresh. Ratio recommendations in this website are based on dried plant material.

  • Fibers must be thoroughly scoured prior to mordanting to remove any trace of dirt and oil to provide a blank slate for optimum dyeing.

  • You must mordant your fibers in order for natural dye pigments to adhere. There are many types of mordants to choose from depending upon the type of fiber and the desired colors. Alum acetate and alum sulfate are typical mordants that prepare the fibers to create a secure and lasting bond with natural dyes. Pre-mordants, such as rhubarb leaf or oak gall will further improve depth of color.

  • The amount of pigment available to your fiber in the dye bath is calculated by the ratio of the weight of dyestuff to the weight of fiber (called weight of goods, or WOG). The amount of water in your dye bath is irrelevant, as long as there is enough water for the fiber to freely move about. Gently stir from time to time to ensure even color distribution. Move wool fibers as little as possible to prevent felting.

  • Your first dye bath will yield the strongest color. Save the leftovers, called “exhaust bath”, to dye lighter tones. 

  • Dye baths can be saved in a plastic or glass container to use at a later date – if mold develops on the surface, simply scoop it off.

  • If you want to create color from multiple plants, dye one color at a time to avoid the colors getting muddled. A good example is to first dye with Weld, then over dye with Indigo to achieve beautiful vibrant greens.

  • There is much flexibility in using a dye bath. In general, the longer your fiber is in the bath the stronger the color achieved. Similarly, the longer your dyestuff steeps the more pigment is released into the bath. Solar baths extract color slowly with the heat of the sun and can be kept in a jar in a sunny window for weeks!

  • Bundle dyeing can produce strong colors through direct contact of the dye plant with the fibers. Save plant material from bundle dyeing to coax more color for a subsequent dye bath, or put it in your compost.

  • Dye pots – and all metal equipment that comes in contact with the dyes and fibers - must be a non-reactive material, such as stainless steel or enamel. Aluminum, iron, and copper pots can leach metals that will alter the color. Which can be a good thing if that’s what you want! For example, iron will “sadden” or darken botanical dye colors. 

  • Always remember to follow good safety protocols during the dye process. Pots, bowls, utensils, etc. cannot be used for food. (Hint: hit the thrift stores for stainless steel pots, bowls, strainers, and utensils to have a set just for dyeing)

  • The light- and wash-fastness varies among dye plants. Lots of organic matter can produce color, but many are fugitive, meaning that their color won’t hold up with extended exposure to light or with frequent washings.

  • Some plants such as Indigo, Woad, and Alkanet require special processes to extract dye properties.

 

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lifecycle

the life cycle of botanical dyes

 

One of the coolest things about using natural dyes is the number of uses you can get out of the plants. 

  • They are beautiful in the garden and attract lots of beneficial insects.

  • Make dye baths, bundle dyes, eco prints and more.

  • Many dye plants are edible and make great food coloring, and some have medicinal properties.

  • Save open pollinated seeds to grow next year.

  • Use fresh or dried plant material to dye fabric, thread, yarn, roving, paper, wood, leather... 

  • Press fresh flowers for use in bundle dyes and eco-printing.

  • Use exhaust baths to create lighter colors.

  • Compost the spent plant material.

  • Extract pigment from dye baths with alum and soda ash to make paints and ink.

 

 

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growandharvest

growing and harvesting

 

  • Direct seed when possible, as soon as soil temperatures are favorable and the last frost is past.

  • Start transplants indoors in late winter/early spring to get a jump on the growing season.

  • Keep seed bed soil moist through germination.

  • Provide a grow light for healthy seedling growth – avoid direct sun which can dry out soil quickly and may burn tender baby plants.

  • Allow to grow in trays or small pots until a firm root mass is produced – about 4-6 weeks from germination.

  • Harden off transplants before planting out: slowly expose them to stronger light and variable temperatures.

  • Avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers as they will produce a lot of foliage and may hinder flower production.

  • Average, well-drained soil is appropriate for most plants.

  • Harvest frequently and at peak bloom for best dyeing results and to encourage new blooms.

  • Dry flowers and plant parts on screens with good ventilation and out of direct sunlight.

  • Store flowers only after completely and totally dry to avoid mold.

  • If you want to save seed from open pollinated plants, leave some unharvested to complete their life cycle and produce mature seeds.

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resources

resources

 

Here’s some resources that I’ve found very useful. I also find Instagram helpful for connecting to this artful community, and would appreciate tags if you use my plants :)

 

The book “Wild Color” by Jenny Dean has clear instructions and detailed plant information.

https://maiwa.teachable.com/p/free-lessons - a great resource for accurate online instructions for mordanting and dyeing

https://botanicalcolors.com – supplies, information, seeds, botanical dye products

https://www.thedogwooddyer.com – great information, dried flowers, seeds

https://www.dharmatrading.com - supplies

https://www.fiberartsy.com/how-to-scour-fabric/

https://www.mamiesschoolhouse.com/scourandmordant

https://www.etsy.com – botanical dye products

If you subscribe to https://www.annacarolynmeier.com she sends you a nice dyer’s guide, and at the end is a lengthy list of resources.

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contact

contact

 

Bluebird Dye Gardens

Mancos, Colorado

Instagram: @bluebirddyegardens

Facebook: bluebirddyegardens

Email: bluebirddyegardens@gmail.com

 

Have fun!

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