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The art of natural dyes

The art of natural dyes

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A garden full of colorful blooms can offer more than a delight for the eyes. According to local natural dye enthusiast and UC Master Gardener Joan Harris, many varieties of plants can be used to create natural dyes for fabrics and fibers. To make it even more enjoyable, she said, the process of using natural plant dyes is relatively easy, safe and fun for all ages.

Harris, a creative soul and garden lover, embarked on her own discovery of natural dyes about a dozen years ago.

“I’ve always enjoyed making things, such as basketry, ” she said. “Textiles have always been a part of my life. My mother went to a New York City clothing design school prior to the beginning of World War II. She was an amazing seamstress as were the clothes she created. My grandfather was a tailor and my aunts worked in a Pennsylvania shirt factory.

She added, “As for natural dyeing, the whole concept and science of natural pigment dyes intrigue me. I was really curious and wanted to learn more about it.”

To accomplish this, Harris enrolled in various classes and workshops offered throughout the Bay Area. “The U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden has a great natural dye program,” she said. “At the Slow Fiber Studio, I learned a lot about dyeing. It was a lot of fun, too. At the Fiber Shed, they’re doing some wonderful things. They’re on the forefront of natural dyeing.”

As Harris expanded her natural dye knowledge and expertise, she kept samples of her projects in multiple binders that are filled with colorful samples of her experiments and creations.

Many of the natural dye techniques are relatively simple, such as rubbings. Harris said, “You can create a colorful design or pattern by simply rubbing a leaf or petal over the fabric to release the pigment. You can also use either a stencil or freehand the design. The time of year plays a roll in the resulting color. The spring is a great season to use this technique as the foliage is fresh, more pliable and contains a lot more pigment.”

Some of the long list of natural dye candidates are poppies, dark petal roses, violas, leaves of nasturtiums and grape as well as Japanese Indigo.

Another easier method of natural dye, or tinctoria, is basically a sun-tea. Harris said, “It is so amazing, easy and fun. For this method of dyeing, there is a really good list of plants, but one exceptionally good flower is Dyers’ Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria.)” The suggested quantity of flowers is either about four cups of fresh or two cups of dried coreopsis for every four ounces of fiber, such as yarns in enough water to sufficiently cover the fabric. Also, the longer the fiber or fabric is in the sun-tea bath, the more intense the resulting color. The Coreopsis produces a deep yellow color.

For more information about Coreopsis Sun-tea method, visit,

A third relatively easy natural dyeing process is known as Hapa-Zome. Harris said, “Traditionally, this method uses hammers to bring out the pigment, but rubbing is good, too. I’ve used Japanese maple tree leaves, carrot tops, pelargoniums, sweet peas, plum tree leaves, lemon verbena...the list goes on and on.

“But the plant material must be as fresh as possible,” Harris added. “I use 100-percent natural fiber cloth napkins, either cotton or linen. Although I’ve used cloth eyeglass cases, little cloth gift bags such as those for jewelry and wine bottles.”

Harris suggested following the Hapa-Zome instructions detailed by natural dye expert Deepa Preeti Natarajan. “Lay out a towel and place your fabric on the top of the towel. Place the plant material on the fabric and fold the cloth over the flowers so that they are sandwiched between the cloth. Spray the alum solution (see below for more details) on the flower until you can see the color coming through. Using rubber, wooden or metal mallets, pound the flower.

“For the sharpest results, use the edge of the mallet head and imagine the outline of the flowers/leaves as you pound. Continue this process with each piece of plant material.

“When finished, rub away any excess leaf or petal matter. Let dry and then iron to help secure the color.”

The final technique is a melange of the previous methods. It is the “wrap, roll, and boil” process. Harris suggested pre-treating the fabric prior to the dyeing. “A pre-mordant fabric holds the dye, or color, longer.”

One method is as follows: mix one-half cup table salt with eight cups of water in a large stockpot set on a stovetop burner set at medium heat. Add the cotton or linen napkin and simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered. Turn off the heat and let cool, remove from bath and wring out the napkins. Smooth out the cloth and fold each napkin in half lengthwise.

The second fabric pre-treatment is known as pre-mordanting and uses alum. These salts can be sourced online. For this solution, Nataranjan said, “use 10-percent of the fabric weight and simmer the fabric with the alum solution for one hour. (Some calculations are needed for this method to determine the ratio of alum to water which is dependent upon the quantity, weight, of the fiber, fabric, to be dyed.) For the shortcut version, I dissolve alum in a spray bottle (filled) with warm water and spray this solution directly onto the cloth before and after I pound (for the Hapa-Zome processing. But for the ‘wrap, roll and boil’ method, just spray the fabric prior to laying out the plant material.)”

The next step for the “wrap, roll and boil” process is to harvest the flowers and leaves. The more intense their color the better! Place those plant materials onto the prepared fabric in a design that pleases you. Next, roll the flower-bedecked fabric just like a sandwich wrap and secure it tightly with rubber bands.

Place the rolled up fabric into a large stockpot filled with gently boiling water and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes over medium heat. If you desire more intense colors, simmer longer.

Remove the bundles and when cool enough to handle, disassemble, remove the plant material and rinse under cold water. Wring out the cloth and hang to air dry.

Although pre-treated to help maintain the dye colors, these fabrics or fibers need additional special care when laundering. Wash them only on the gentle cycle setting and in cold water, and then line dry.

“Part of it, the enjoyment of natural dyeing, is experimenting,” Harris added. “In fact, it is fun to experiment. So, it’s not necessary to pre-mordant with alum as this will allow you to rinse out the fabric, and dye, start over, make changes, experiment and have fun with it.”


To learn more about natural pigment dyes and dyeing, Harris suggests the following books:

  • “Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes” by Rebecca Burgess;
  • “Wild Color, Revised and Updated Edition: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes” by Jenny Dean and Karen Diadick Casselman;
  • “Natural Color: Vibrant Plant Dye Projects for Your Home and Wardrobe by Sasha Duerr, and
  • “A Dyers’ Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers” by Rita Buchanan

If you’re looking for new, fun hobbies that won’t break the bank, Buzz60’s Justin Kircher has a few that you can try around the house. 

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