How to use natural plant based dyes

The production and use of synthetic dyes, while providing us with bright and vibrant colours, is often detrimental to our environment and health. Dyes derived from the natural world can provide us with an infinite number of colours, and natural dying is a centuries-old craft that offers a practical and creative alternative to mass production and the environmentally damaging practises of industry.

There is no better way to dye than with the subtle colours of wild plants, and there are well over 2000 plants that can provide a raw material for dying. Practical experience will soon teach you which plants provide fast dyes (those that hold their colour when washed), and which plants provide which colour. You can experiment endlessly to achieve your desired colour or hue.

Some natural dyes require the material you wish to dye to be prepared with a 'mordant', this helps the material to absorb the colour. Different mordants will produce different shades when used with the same dyestuff. Vinegar, or ammonia supplied from urine have traditionally been used as mordants, these days however minerals such as alum, cream of tartar, tin (Stannous chloride), iron (Ferrous sulphate), and chrome (Bichrornate of potash) are used. Such minerals are usually obtained using environmentally unsound practises and you may prefer to use sustainable alternatives derived from plants.

You will need...

  • A very large pan
  • Plenty of water
  • Plants for dye
  • A mordant such as vinegar
  • Something to dye

What you do...

Dissolve the mordant into a little hot water and add to 20 litres of nearly boiling water (soft water is best). Put the material (pre-washed) into the mordant and simmer for about an hour. Then remove it and squeeze it dry. Don't twist or wring out as it may adversely affect the texture. You may find that mordanting both before and after dying provides greater fastness.

There are a number of ways of extracting dye; basically, crushing, shredding, or pulverising the material, and placing in cold water should do the trick. Leave the mixture to soak overnight and then simmer it for about an hour, then add 20 litres of soft water and bring to the boil. The material can now be added to the dye and left to simmer for about an hour. When done, rinse the material in cold water before hanging up to dry. It may be a good idea to put your dye stuff in a muslin bag to stop the bits getting into your material.

Generally one kilo of dye material should be ample. It is very difficult to make the solution too strong, but easy to make it too weak.


(will vary depending on mordant)

Buds of bracken
Ling (Heather)
Elder leaves
Birch leaves
Birch bark
Sorrel Dark
Walnuts Dark

Yellow / Olive shades
Yellow / Green
Green / Blue
Slate Blue
Brown / Black

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