Hey spinners and knitters! Did you know that you can create all kinds of stunning natural dyes with plants? People have been using natural dyes to create different textile colors for thousands of years, and you can too. Check out the following 12 common plants and create your own natural dye garden this year.
This summer I added a small flock of sheep to my homestead. After the first shearing, I realized that a whole new world of creativity was open to me. Everything from felting and spinning to knitting and weaving. But before I could do anything with my wool, I needed to clean and dye it.
I knew I wanted to use natural dyes. Synthetic and kool-aid coloring can be vibrant, but they’re rarely interesting. I also wanted my dyes to be as sustainable and earth-friendly as possible.
But one of the primary reasons I began seeking out natural, plant-based dyes is because of the stunning variety of color they produce. I fell in love with their rich, variable hues the moment I saw them. Now that I have a soft pile of my own, beautiful wool to work with, it’s time to plant my natural dye garden.
Not Just for Homesteaders
You don’t need to be a newbie shepherdess or a fiber arts fiend to plant a dye garden. Whether you’re planning to color t-shirts from the mall or your own, hand-woven linen, plant dyes offer you the opportunity to make something truly unique.
Each dye plant, and each individual batch of dyes will be slightly different. After all, plant dyes produce unique results in every dye bath. Depending on the garden environment and the mordant used, the colors produced by plant dyes can vary from pale pastels to deep and saturated. It’s an endless variety!
Natural Dye Garden Plants
Keep in mind that different plants require different climates and conditions. As a result, you may not be able to grow all of these beautiful species. You will be able to cultivate some, however, and those you do grow will amaze you with the hues they create.
1. St. John’s Wort
It doesn’t look like much, growing among the rocks and blackberry brambles, but St. John’s wort is stunning. Have you ever seen St. John’s (Hypericum)? The deep, red-gold infusion from St. John’s wort flowers is stunning. In contrast, when used in dye baths, this plant produces shades anywhere from pale green to red-gold.
The colors depend a lot on the quality of soil the plant grows in, so pick hardy, sun-drenched flowers from plants in moderate soil for the best results. St. John’s wort isn’t a picky plant: it can thrive in zones 5 and up, regardless of the soil quality.
You can tell what color madder gives by looking at its Latin name: Rubia tinctorum. But ruby, the deepest of reds, only comes out of plants grown in alkaline soil. If you grow madder in acidic soil, it’ll produce an autumnal orange instead. Madder roots can grow large and heavy, and madder itself is a prickly plant. Wear gloves while handling it.
But, if you live above zone 7, you absolutely want to add madder to your dye garden—nothing makes a richer red! If your soil is acidic, add lime before planting, and again every winter after harvesting to keep your madder colors rich and deep.
These cheerful giants already give so much to the garden. They bring in birds and pollinators and repair the soil. Sunflowers are one of the best annuals for almost any garden, they’re a joy to grow. In addition to these factors, the bright yellow blooms on your sunflowers also yield a green dye. The depth of color ranges from pale green to a deep, pine color depending on the mordant.
My first at-home experiments with plant dyes involved onion skins and alum. Yellow onions’ skins make a gorgeous, goldenrod yellow dye. Even if you’re not already growing these vegetables, you can save the skins of store-bought ones and make a dye from them.
But onions are an easy to grow, dual-purpose crop: they can fill both your pantry and your dye pots. Give your onion plants plenty of sunlight and rich soil, then save the skins in a bag until you have enough to use in dyeing.
When I think of medieval dyes, I immediately think of woad (Isatis tinctoria). This plant brings a beautiful blue dye to fabric; less intense than indigo, but with similar shades and tones. In medieval times, woad was a more accessible dye than madder because its leaves could be harvested throughout the summer.
Madder root, on the other hand, could only be harvested once a year, in the fall. Woad is also a hardier plant than madder: you can grow it easily throughout zone 5 and above. It grows wild in sandy, well-drained soil.
This modest little plant is a biannial addition to the dye garden. Its white, spire-flowers provide a basic backdrop to more showy plants. Weld (Reseda luteola) is hardy to zone 6 and can thrive in full sun or dappled shade. But in the dye pot, weld’s aerial parts yield a stunning yellow color. If you grow weld and woad in the garden, trying mingling them in your dying as well. Together, these two plants make a vibrant, lime green color.
Have you heard of pokeweed? I was warned against this hardy plant for years because it’s so poisonous. The mature stalks and leaves are toxic, as well as the seeds. But if you’re growing a dye garden, pokeweed is an exciting addition, as its berries yield a beautiful red or purple dye. Since pokeweed is essentially a weed that grows well through zone 4, it’s ideal for gardens with poor or uncertain soil. Just avoid tasting the dye bath!
8. Red Cabbage
If you really want to taste the dye water—or you just need to integrate your dye plants into your vegetable garden—grow a few extra red cabbages this year. Red cabbages make a lovely range of dyes form purple to green, depending on mordant and the plant part you’re using. Best of all, if you over-plant dye cabbages, you can just make sauerkraut out of the extras!
9. Sweet Annie
As newlyweds, my husband and I would go to open air, sustainability festivals where the vendors sold crowns of sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) for us to wear as we wandered the booths. The herb smells delicious: like gentle, sweetened absinthe or springtime greens.
After wearing the crowns all day, we’d take them home and use the wilting leaves to make soft green and yellow dyes. Boiling down sweet Annie makes the whole house smell magical. The dyes are light and soothing, like the herb itself—perfect for baby socks and soft mittens.
Another deliciously edible dye, beets can produce colors ranging from light pink to bright red. Darker beet varieties like “ox-blood” and “Detroit” beets will produce deeper hues, while lighter varieties often produce soft pinks. Try planting a long bed of beets and using the greens at the dinner table while the roots mature to dye-making capacity.
Like cabbages, if you plant too many beets for your fabric-coloring operation, you can always cook the rest. Use them for borscht or roast them with walnuts and goat cheese. Dyes made from edible plants are always exciting and full of opportunities to play. Try making a plant-dye activity for kids using beets, cabbage, and other safe dyes!
True to its name, goldenrod boils down to a bright, golden dye-pot. It’s a wildflower that grows well in a variety of climates, and zones 2-9 are hospitable to this hardy weed. With vinegar as a mordant, fabric dyed with goldenrod will glow in the autumn sunlight.
With copper or iron as a mordant, dye will darken to a deep, green-gold. Goldenrod is another edible dye plant. Use your extra flowers to make herbal shortbread cookies or allergy-fighting tonic wines.
We can’t forget my favorite herb when listing off dye plants. Yarrow produces a light, golden-brown dye, and since it grows wild all over the country, in both cool and warm climates, it’s almost universally easy to grow. This plant thrives in almost all soil types and spreads like a weed. Boil down all aerial parts with a alum as a mordant for a brighter color. Furthermore, yarrow is child-safe and fun to use with all ages and skill levels.
Cultivating Nature’s Colors
The world is full of beautiful, natural plant hues. Why bother with synthetic dyes at all when you can build a garden of color all your own? Growing your own natural dyes provides a continual opportunity for growth and experimentation. No matter how many times you brew up a batch of onion skins or madder root, the results will always be unique.
Keep in mind that plant dyes produce consistent results, but they’re never uniform. That’s one of the joys of allowing real, living colors to infuse your fabrics. With your own natural dye garden, whether you’re dying wool, cotton, Easter eggs, or handmade paper, your finished product will be entirely your own.
This year, I’m tilling up the earth and starting my own natural dye garden. I’m filling it with woad and sweet Annie, yarrow and pokeweed. Next time I shear my little flock of sheep, I’ll be ready to wash, dye, card, and spin my wool at home. Until then, I’ll be practicing my dyes on sheets of paper and old t-shirts.