Using Natural Plant Dyes
By Kate Aimson
Published Beltane 1999
“However did they first find out that by picking these leaves and mashing them, and then peeing on them and throwing wood ash on them, you’d get this blue dye?” says Jenny Nutbeem, as quoted in an issue of Country Living magazine. This is a subject which has been discussed in White Dragon before - how craftspeople in the past worked out their craft. Part of the answer must be when you know what you are doing, and have the relevant experience, then they can use your intuition and make leaps of discovery.
If you want to set out on this road yourself, then you too can try dyeing with plant and natural dyestuffs. When you start making your own pagan equipment, fabric crafts are more accessible than some crafts; e.g. perhaps you can’t (yet) forge a sword, but you could make a scabbard. Then your needle and thread will become magical tools. My own athame is a pair of shears from the Lancashire mills. Making and decorating your own robes, cloaks, altar cloths, etc can be an ecological process as well if you use recycled materials, and think through your use of natural materials.
Get to know some more plants, and it will serve you well, as a pagan, not just a dyer. Madder, woad, walnut, oak, dyer’s broom, dyer’s chamomile, weld and fustic are some of the historically most important dyes. Culpeper is generally not interested in the dyeing uses of plants, but he mentions woad and oak galls being used for dyeing. He says of Gall-Oak:
“They will dye their hair black, and are one of the chief ingredients of making ink; they are likewise used by dyers for making black dye.”
Of woad he says:
“The chief use of this plant is among the dyers; but it is possessed of virtues which claim our regard for their medical effects”. (More of this later.}
He doesn’t mention the dyeing uses of madder at all, although the plant is very well known for this purpose.
Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is the source of the brilliant red permanent dye Turkey Red, also known as Adrianople Red. Turkey Red is very well known in nineteenth century domestic history. By the end of the nineteenth century the process of maddering wool or cotton was very highly developed. It consisted of various steps including scouring in mild alkali, steeping in oily emulsions, washing in sheep dung, galling with oak galls, treating with alum and finally maddering with powdered and fermented roots. The madder used was a cultivated variety first exported from South East Europe and Turkey to the rest of Europe. The Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) provides a subtler, rose-pink dye.
You will see from the Latin names of these plants that plants known for dyeing have the species tinctoria or tinctorum.
Woad, also known as Dyer’s Woad (Isatis tinctoria) was cultivated as the source of a blue dyestuff for over 2000 years in Europe, and was only superseded around 50 years ago by indigo. This dyestuff was first extracted from the subtropical Indigofera species. Isatis is an ancient name for a healing herb, which was described by Dioscorides (classical herbalist) as being an excellent styptic*. This is the use Culpeper is so enthusiastic about. So when ancient warriors painted themselves with woad before battle, it had not only a psychological effect, but also served to heal the wounds of battle. Woad also needs to be processed in stages. The leaves are fermented, dried out, re-fermented, then rinsed in lime-water. Its blue dye is more permanent than indigofera indigo.
Walnut was mostly used to dye hair and skin. Green walnut husks and fresh leaves have been used as a brown hair dye for centuries, remaining as the main constituent of proprietary hair tints until the beginning of the 20th century. Pliny describes its use as a hair dye, and you perhaps remember in the fairy tale The Seven Swans, the princess disguised herself by darkening her skin with walnut husks. (She then went on to weave nettle fibre shirts for her brothers, but that’s another story.)
Gipsies also apparently used Gipsywort or Gypsyweed (Lycopus europalus) to stain the skin. I’m not sure why they would want to, unless it was used to blacken the skin of any princesses who ran away with them. The herb has been used as a cloth dye for centuries, as the fresh juice provides a black dye, which is permanent on wool or linen.
Ladies Bedstraw (Galium verum) is so named because it was used to stuff mattresses. Also it was used in cheese manufacture as strong decoctions curdle milk when boiled. This process then also colours the cheese a greenish-yellow. As well as the tops providing a yellow dye, the roots provide a red dye.
Oak bark was used in dyeing, and also in tanning leather. Other plants like tormentil, broom and alder were also used both for dyeing and tanning.
Dyer’s Broom (Genista tinctoria) has also been known as dyer’s greenwood, woadweed and greenweed. It is used to get a bright yellow. Historically it was used with woad to produce green.
Alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria), also known as Dyer’s bugloss has been used variously as a dyeing agent. A red colour is released in oils and waxes, but not in water. Its name is derived from the Spanish alcanna, which came from the Arabic al-henna, the well-known Henna dye. It was exported from Spain, Germany, and France for centuries as a dye for pharmaceutical and cosmetic use.
Other important historical dyeing plants are: Dyer’s Chamomile (anthemis tinctoria), Dyer’s Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), Fustic (Morus tinctoria), Safflower (Carthanus tinctorius), and Dyer’s Weld (Reseda luteola).
The Pagan History of Dyeing
I have been interested in the associations of dyeing with folklore, mythology, deities, etc. The interesting thing is that there really is very little association. Unlike weaving, spinning, and sewing, which have important mythology attached to them, with spinning and weaving Goddesses, dyeing is not suitable material for myths and for deities to be involved with. The Goddesses of spinning and weaving spin the lines of fate that draw all life together and cut these threads at their will. Such Goddesses are represented in all cultures: The Fates in Greek and Roman mythology, The Norns in Norse mythology, Grandmother Spider in North American Mythology. There are myths of Penelope the weaver and Arachne the spinner - women who control fates.
Not so with dyeing. Dyeing is an industrial process more related to tanning than to weaving. It involves messy, smelly and dangerous chemicals like lots of water, urine and lime. There was never anything worth the telling about dyeing until William Morris got into it as part of his craftsman’s Utopia. The only associations dyeing had to respectability were through the importance and rarity of the dye. For example, Roman Emperors only were allowed to wear “The Purple”, cloth dyed with the purple red dye obtained from the Murex crustacean. The importance of the end product reflected some good light on all the processes necessary to create it.
My home town of Hexham, Northumberland was a centre for tanning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a Hexham folksong along the lines of “Sorry the day I married a tanner”, which mentions the vats of urine used. Obviously workshops like this were positioned away from the best parts of town, and the people who lived and worked in these areas were the people who did not mind, or had no choice. The pub in that area of Hexham was frequented by, and named after the tanners. This pub retained its bad reputation throughout my schooldays, and eventually its name was changed, as the area started to change. Dyeing works on old maps are placed in the less salubrious parts of town. There was a dyeing works near Bedlam, the Royal Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane in London.
It is very difficult to find any mention of dyeing in domestic writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or in earlier centuries, where information is available. It must have been something, which if you had to do it, you didn’t talk about it. I think if I ever find any deities linked with dyeing, they will be Gods, not Goddesses, and so it is perhaps suitable that it was craftsmen like William Morris and Fortuny the dress designer, who brought dyeing into the same realm of home produced weaving, spinning and design, where we find it today.
An essential part of the dyeing process is mordanting, except for plants which contain a lot of tannin and do not necessarily require mordants. Mordants “bite” into the fibre, and make the dye stick to the fibres. They also change the colours of dyes. The most commonly used are Alum (potassium aluminium sulphate), Chrome (bichromate of Potash), and Tin (Ferrous sulphate). Chrome and tin are poisonous, so I would recommend Alum for first attempts at mordanting. All yarns and fabrics must be well washed and rinsed before mordanting.
I will give one set of simple instructions for mordanting and dyeing, although different variations are possible, some no doubt more effective than others, but you have to start somewhere.
To mordant wool with alum
for 1lb wool use
To mordant cotton with alum
for 1lb cotton use
Follow instructions as before.
Precautions: wear rubber gloves as alum is a strong astringent to skin. Do not agitate or wring wool as it will felt up. Do not allow the wool to boil up for any length of time or it will shrink excessively.
Extracting the Dye and Dyeing
Try this method for most plants. Thoroughly bruise or crush the dyestuff and place it in a stainless steel saucepan, bucket or pot. (As a general rule use about 1lb of dyestuff to every 1lb of yarn or fabric). Cover with water until all dyestuff is well covered. Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour. If you are patient you can allow the dyestuff to steep in the water for up to three days, giving it a good stir each day. Either way when the water is cooled strain it through muslin into the dyebath. Add the damp yarn or fabric to the dyebath. Bring it to the boil and simmer for one hour. (If there is not enough water/dye solution to cover the material completely, top up with clean water until it does.)
Never overboil yellow dyes as this tends to dull the colour. On the other hand, some colours needs longer, so just make it up as you go along.
There are many variables and changing factors that can affect the colour given by dye plants. Just a few of these are: the climate; whether the season has been especially hot and sunny, or cold and wet; the time of day (or year); when the plant is gathered; the water used in the dyebath. Anne Dyer (truly) in her book “Dyes from Natural Sources” describes these effects:
“With some plants, there is a distinct difference in the colour you get at different times of the day, and it can be worth testing a plant at sunrise, midday, sunset and midnight. To my surprise, I find many plants give a noticeably stronger colour at midnight and dawn with alum and chrome (mordants), though gathering at midday and sunset give better colours with iron (mordant)”.
Start experimenting with any of the suggested plants or anything else that takes your fancy. Here are some further suggestions:
You could also try blackberry, ivy berries, turmeric, oak bark, bracken, chamomile, anything you get hold of, or you in any of the recommended books. Check whether the plants are poisonous in whole or part and take suitable precautions. Also have a care and a bit of thought when collecting from the wild. For this reason, I do not suggest the use of lichen as a dye, as lichen has enough problems without being picked in pounds for dyeing.
Then you just have to use your dyed fabrics and yarns for something. Make robes, cloaks, altar cloths, bags. Use yarn to embroider the above. Use yarns for knot magic, witches ladders, braided cords. Make a poppet! Just remember the one and only rule of craftwork (and writing) - don’t get it perfect - get it finished!
* staunches blood flow.
1.The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism, Ed. Malcolm Stuart, Macdonald & Co, 1989
2.Country Bazaar, Andy Pittaway and Bernard Scofield, Fontana, 1976
3.Dyes from Natural Sources, Anne Dyer, G Bell & Sons, 1976
4.The Use of Vegetable Dyes, Violetta Thurston, Dryad, 1970
5.Colours from Nature, Bobbi A McRae, Storey, 1993
6.Various articles Country Living magazine
7.Various articles Needlecraft Magazine
Contact - Julia Barton, Milland Farm, Inwardleigh, Okehampton, Devon, EX20 3BX. Tel: 01837 810313. Julia runs courses on dyeing, patchwork, papermaking.