Natural Dyes

dye samples

Summer Color Wheel 2013

(Safety note:  I do not have kids at home.  If I did, I would think long and hard about if they were old enough and wise enough to be trusted around these materials. )


Yarn – Initially I got Crown Colony 2-ply wool yarn from Dharma Trading.  I wound the big skein, which was 8 ounces, into 25 sample skeins of about 10 grams each.  (This was the least expensive wool they had, and it is meant for rug yarn, so it is a little rough.  Once I knew this procedure worked so well, I upgraded to the Licorice Twist yarn.)

Whatever you get, make sure it is “Prepared for Dyeing” yarn so it will not have finishes that interfere with dye take-up.

Before dyeing, soak the skeins in distilled water overnight.

Basic equipment -Plants can be toxic!  I keep all equipment clearly marked and separate from food use.

  • a big enamel pot
  • some small glass or enamel bowls
  • measuring cups
  • gallon-size glass canning jars
  • an electric hot plate (so I can dye outside and not in the kitchen).

Also nice – a basic digital scale and a big candy thermometer, to keep records in case you want to repeat a certain result.


To get natural dyes to produce intense color that doesn’t fade, you need to mordant your yarn.  The dye book I rely on is Jenny Dean’s Wild Color.  She has done all the research and testing and formula creation.  After trying many of her methods, I have found that the mordant that works best for my dye trials is alum, and this is how I have simplified the recipe for my habits.

Put 2 gallons of cool water into the big enamel pot.

Boil about 5 cups of water separately.

In one measuring cup, mix 2 ounces of cream of tartar with 2 cups boiling water, until dissolved.  (I used Adams brand, just from the grocery store.)

When well-mixed, add 7 tablespoons (or a half cup, less one tablespoon) of this mixture to the cool water in the big pot.

In another measuring cup, mix 2 ounces alum with 2 cups boiling water.  (I used McCormick regular household alum from the grocery store.  The jar I bought had 1.9 ounces so I just used the whole thing.)  When dissolved, add one-half cup of this mixture to the cool water in the big pot.  Stir everything well.

(Dreaded MATH – My numbers don’t come out exactly perfect.  Jenny Dean recommends that you use alum to equal 8% of the weight of the material you are dyeing.  So 2 ounces of alum (mixed into solution) would be enough for 25 ounces of material.  The wool comes in 8 ounce skeins.  So the two cups of alum solution and two cups of cream of tartar solution would be enough to mordant three of those big skeins.  I do 8 ounces of wool in the first pot, then add a half cup of each solution to the same water, then add 8 ounces more wool, etc.  So I would get 32 ounces of wool mordanted from those alum and cream of tartar solutions, and that works fine for me.

If you want to use up all that solution at once, you could have more than one pot going, or use a bigger pot.  Or you can keep the solution in a covered jar and use it in a day or two.)

Back to Dye Prep

Remove the skeins from the water they have been soaking in, squeeze out excess water, and place into the big pot that now has dissolved alum and cream of tartar in it.  Bring pot to a simmer, simmer 1 hour.  Turn off the heat and let the yarn cool in the solution overnight.

Next day, remove the skeins.  You can now proceed to dyeing, or let the skeins dry, and dye whenever you have time, plants, and inclination.

Pre-planning for After-bath Modifiers

An easy way to get more color variations is to dip your samples in an after-bath.  But for ease of processing your dye lots, you probably want to set up the modifiers a few days before dyeing.

Two easy modifiers are copper liquor and iron liquor.  You just put scraps of each metal in a glass jar, and then cover them with a mixture of water and vinegar — equal parts water and vinegar for the copper; two parts water to one part vinegar for the iron.

jars of metal

Copper scraps in vinegar and water on the left, iron scraps in vinegar and water on the right.

Another easy modifier is to add about a tablespoon of clear ammonia to the dye bath.

(And now see the safety note at the top about kids.)


Most of the time I just pick something out of the yard, drop it into a pot or glass jar, pour boiling water over it, and see what happens.  If some color shows up, I drop in a skein or two and see what happens.  This chart shows some of my favorite results from Summer 2013. (Some of them got a modifying dip afterward; that information is after the chart.)

I use basically two methods.

  1.  “Hot pot” method.  I place the dye material in an enamel pot, cover with water, and use a hot plate to heat the dye material and water to boiling.  Turn it down and let it simmer two hours.  Add the yarn, simmer another hour or two, turn off the heat, and let the yarn cool in the dye for the amount of time specified in the chart below.
  2. “Solar jar” method.  I loosely fill a glass cooking pot or canning jar with plant material, pour boiling water over to cover, add the yarn, and let the whole thing stay outside in the sun for the amount of time specified in the chart below.

With either method, I don’t rinse right away.  The yarn can rest for days before rinsing.


dog fennel
Eupatorium capillifolium

mordanted with alum, processed in solar jar for 48 hrs.

 dog fennel  dog fennel wool

dog fennel

Eupatorium capillifolium

Same as #1, with copper dip afterward

 dog fennel  dog fennel wool copper

Eastern baccharis
Baccharis halimifolia,
no mordant, processed in hot pot 24 hours

 eastern bac  eastern bac wool

parsley hawthorn
Crataegus marshallii.

Alum mordant, processed in solar jar

24 hours

 parsley haw  parsley haw wool

Pyrus communis
I am not sure what cultivar this is.

No mordant.

Processed in hot pot for 5 days.

 pear  pear wool

Diospyros virginiana.

Alum mordant, processed in solar jar 8 hours,

1 Tbsp. ammonia added afterward.

 persimmon  persimmon wool

Phytolacca americana.

Vinegar mordant,

heated to 160 – 180 degrees F for 2 hrs, let cool in dye overnight.

 pokeberry  pokeberry wool

Phytolacca americana.
Alum mordant, then placed in exhausted dye from #7, processed as in #7.

 pokeberry  pokeberry wool 2

Southern bayberry
Myrica cerifera.

Alum mordant, processed in solar jar, 24 hours.

 bayberry  bayberry wool

Helianthus annuus

Alum mordant, processed in solar jar, 24 hours.

 sunflower  sunflower wool

Hydrolea spp.
Watch out for tiny thorns!

Alum mordant, processed in solar jar, 48 hours.

 waterleaf  waterleaf wool001

winged elm
Ulmus alata

No mordant,

processed in hot pot 5 days.

 winged elm top  winged elm wool

Really the whole process is a lot easier than it sounds in these directions.

If you would like more details on any of the dye samples in the chart, you can look at my posts with the “Natural Dyes” tag.  I did some updates on color fastness too.

You can also ask me a question in the comments.