Growing Dye Gardens

Onions, turmeric, beets.

Sound like the beginning of a recipe?  It could be, but it is also something completely different:  A list of ingredients to naturally dye textiles.

Until the 1850s, almost all dye were obtained from natural materials, but after the first synthetic dye was created in 1856, these quickly dominated the market.  As a result, the textile industry today is one of the world’s largest polluters.  It is estimated that textile dyeing is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution.

There are thousands of natural materials that can dye fabrics.  Look in nearby fields, forests, your kitchen, or your garden.  That’s where this garden trend comes in.  Let’s grow a dye garden.

We no longer have to let the seasonal colors in the garden pass us by — we can actually grab hold and transfer those hues onto fabrics and yarns through the extraction of pigment from plants. Making dyes from plants is not an exact science and requires an open mind with a propensity for experimentation. If you ever dreamed of being a plant chemist, here is your chance to practice right in your own garden.

To begin, you will need to have some basic plant color knowledge, which, thankfully, our ancestors already figured out. Then you will want to learn about the dying process and the chemicals, called mordants, needed to “fix” the dye so finished products will keep their color, even after they have been washed several times.

Many color variables can occur, even within the same plant. The type of soil, pH, fertilizers, plant parts, amount of sun or even the maturity of the plant you use will determine your outcome.

The type of mordant you use will also determine the color outcome. There are many mordant materials available, such as alum (aluminum sulfate — the same product sold at garden centers that turns hydrangea from pink to blue), cream of tartar, tin, copper, iron (as simple as rusty nails), chrome, baking soda, acorns, lemon juice, etc.

If you can make tea and follow a recipe, you can become a dye master. Keep good notes and samples, and practice your craft. Making dye from plants is so much fun — it seems like magic when you see what the plant material looked like going into the dye pot and what happens when you pull your fabric or yarn out.

Dye plants can be easily incorporated into your current flowerbeds, herb gardens or borders. Some of these plants are actually attractive shrubs that you may already grow. Whenever you see the word “tinctoria” or “tinctorum” attached to a plant name, it most likely is, or has been, used as a dye plant.

Here are some plants to consider:

  • Black-eyed Susan

  • Blackberries

  • Bronze Fennel

  • Elecampane

  • Goldenrod

  • Hibiscus

  • Hollyhock

  • Indigo

  • Marigold

  • Queen Anne’s Lace

  • Weld

  • Woad

  • Zinnia