Rudbeckia Dye Results

A few days ago I clipped a lot of rudbeckia blooms in hopes of creating a beautiful natural dye.

Here’s what I knew about natural dyes:

  • the most common results from dye plants are a range of beiges and yellows
  • it’s easier to dye protein fibers (wool, silk, mohair) than plant fibers (cotton, linen)
  • you have to use a mordant – a substance that helps the dye “bite” on to the fabric.  Some common mordants are vinegar, salt, alum, or metals such as iron, copper, and chrome.  Using different mordants with the same dye can give very different results.
  • just because a method is “traditional” or “natural” doesn’t mean it’s not toxic, so it’s best to follow advice from experts

There are two dye books I rely on, both from Interweave Press.  The one I use as a “dye coach” is Eco-Colour by India Flint.  It reflects the generations of dye knowledge, in a relaxed tone.   Flint wrote it to offer “A more adventurous path to plant color.” The dye recipes are more suggestions of plants and mordants to try.  This book appeals to my improvisational side.

The Surface Designer’s Handbook by Holly Brackmann, is an all-encompassing book covering many kinds of dyes and fabric paints.  It is targeted to getting uniform results on big batches.  There are actual formulas in grams and milliliters!  The instructions are so thorough that I get a little intimidated just reading through them, but it is a reassuring resource when trying a new technique.

Dyeing is a “hurry up and wait” kind of project, which makes it great for multi-tasking.  I was using commercial 100% cotton fabric from a quilt store, so the first thing I did was wash it with Professional Textile Detergent from Dharma Trading Co., to remove any sizing that would interfere with the dye. I did this part months ago, so the fabric was just waiting for me.  The fabrics looked like this, two white-on-white designs and one pale peachy batik.

starter fabrics

Fabrics before dyeing

Dye pots shouldn’t be used for food, so I have an old enamel stock pot I reserve just for dyeing.  I put the rudbeckia flowers in and covered them with pond water.  (Our well water is hard so I was afraid the minerals would hinder the dye.) I heated them to a boil, let them simmer 20 minutes, and then let them cool in the pot for 24 hours.

That gave me plenty of time to experiment with mordants.  India Flint points out that plants are generally acidic, and bond well with either alkaline or protein materials. If you apply those materials to cellulose (plant) fabrics, the dye will bond better.  You can also use various metals, in the form of cooking pots and metal scraps.

As the dye was cooling, I dipped most of the samples in a solution of sodium carbonate. This is also called soda ash and is available as a pool chemical. I mixed a bucket with 2 gallons of warm water and 1 heaping teaspoon of sodium carbonate.

Here are my samples.  More details about the mordants are below.

Rudbeckia dye samples

From left to right: soda ash, soy milk, egg yolk, egg wash 1, egg wash 2, brass, copper, vinegar

  1. Far left –  one dip in the sodium carbonate.
  2. Two dips in the sodium carbonate, and two in a soy milk solution.  I used 1 part plain soy mile to 5 parts water.
  3. One dip in sodium carbonate, and then brushed with egg yolk.  I was surprised that the small flower design resisted the dye.
  4. Just egg wash (whole egg mixed with a little water), no sodium carbonate solution.
  5. One dip in sodium carbonate and egg wash.
  6. Two dips in sodium carbonate, then wrapped around an old brass hinge.
  7. Two dips in sodium carbonate, then placed with a 2 foot length of copper electrical wire.
  8. Far right – one dip in sodium carbonate, about 1/2 cup of white vinegar added to 1 cup of dye liquid.

The dye procedure I used on all of them was to bring the dye liquid to a boil, let it simmer for 20 minutes, and then cool for 12 – 24 hours.

Interesting results – it didn’t seem to matter what mordant was used; all the colors turned out tan.  The strongest color (and a very quick color change) was on fabric #3, that used egg yolk.  However, it holds a light scent of egg! so I don’t think it’s very practical to use.

In some ways I am disappointed with the results.  I was hoping for some yellows or peaches, but just got a series of browns and tans.  On the other hand, when you put them all together, it’s not a bad little assortment.  I can’t really see that I would try to dye with rudbeckia again, unless I needed to create some re-enactor costumes or something.  Another use might be if I wanted to unify and tone down a selection of fabrics.

I did get useable information about the mordants.  I will definitely try the soy milk again, because it gave good strong color.   Now – on to coreopsis and gaillardia!