Planting a Dye Garden to Make Your Own Natural Dyes
Saffron, turmeric, onions.
Sounds like the beginnings of a recipe for a good Indian dish? It could be, but it’s also something entirely different: a list of items that can be used to naturally dye textiles.
We have the soil to thank not only for our food, but also our clothes. If you are currently wearing any type of natural fiber – cotton, linen, wool, hemp, etc – someone was responsible for growing and producing it. But compared to growing food, growing fiber and turning it into an item of clothing is a bit more of an elaborate process. One does not go from a field of cotton to a t-shirt overnight. But for the home gardener that’s interested in having amore active role in what they wear, growing plants that can be used to dye with is an excellent option.
What are natural dyes?
We have been dyeing textiles for centuries, but because textiles inevitably break down, it’s hard to determine at what exact point we started dyeing cloth. According to Kristine Vejar, the author of Modern Natural Dyer, the process of dyeing occurred simultaneously with the development of agriculture, and we can go as far back as A.D. 77-79 to The Natural History, written by Pliny the Elder and which included a brief description of dyeing. In other words: we’ve been dyeing for pretty much as long as we have been cultivating food.
But just like the production of food has changed as the world has industrialized, leaving us in a system that’s destructive for both our health and the environment, dyes have changed as well.
Until the 1850s, almost all dyes were obtained from natural materials, but after the first successful synthetic dye was concocted in 1856, these quickly came to dominate the market. While easy to produce on a mass scale, synthetic dyes come at a cost, and they are a large part of the reason that the textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world. There are some 72 toxic chemicals that enter our water supply on account of textile dyeing, and it is estimated that around 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing.
There are however thousands of natural materials out there which can produce an abundance of color, and you don’t have to look farther than a nearby field or forest, or even your own kitchen. Easily foraged lichens and mushrooms can be used to dye fiber, as well as food scraps like onion peels and avocado. Natural dyes can also be cultivated, a way to have a little more choice and direction in what colors you can use.
That’s where the dye garden comes in.
Planting a dye garden
Beyond the environmental reasons, growing plants and dyeing with them is a way to reconnect with the natural world, much like growing our own food is. As Vejar writes in her book, “the practice of naturally dyeing becomes a way to honor and enjoy nature – like gardening or taking a hike. Wearing naturally dyed clothing is a delightful way to be with nature throughout the day.”
Want to get started in your on farm to fashion revolution? If you are interested in planting your own dye garden, to complement your food growing this spring, Vejar has kindly offered up her five favorite dye plants, and what to do with them.
If you live in the Bay Area, you can find seeds for these plants at Vejar’s shop, A Verb For Keeping Warm. She’s also planning on making seeds available online soon. Some of these seeds, like marigolds, will be easy to at any gardening store. Others may require ordering from a seed company.
Vejar has chosen these five plants for their long history of making great dye plants, allowing you to dye your favorite t-shirt, piece of fabric or skein of yarn, all from flowers grown in your own garden.
Note that natural dyes do require mordants to achieve long-lasting colors, and since that’s enough for a whole other post, for now I’ll just point you in the direction of The Modern Natural Dyer where you can find full directions. There are also plenty of natural dyeing resources online for those who are interested.
Plant, grow, then head to the dyepot to create vibrant colors from plants grown in your own garden!
Five plants for your dye garden
These five plants will allow you to achieve the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue – and from there you can experiment in combining them to achieve a full color palette.
Marigolds, coreopsis, and yarrow
“Marigolds, coreopsis, and yarrow all produce shades of yellow,” says Vejar. “Plant them in full sun, they will thrive, and produce beautiful flowers. Use the flowers for the most potent color, though the stalks and leaves will also dye. These plants are all drought-tolerant and need little water which is an added bonus!”
Vejar notes that, “the real treasure of the madder plant is not its leaves but its roots, which once harvested, chopped, and added to a dyebath will create rich, warm shades of red.” But red isn’t all you can do. “Add a bit of cream of tartar and get shades of orange,” says Vejar. As for planting notes, “if you want to grow and dye with madder, make sure you get it in the ground ASAP, as it can take up to two years to produce roots with enough pigment to dye red,” says Vejar. “Also, if you live in a temperate climate, like we do in California, madder can spread quite easily, so plant it in a raised bed.”
“The leaves of the plant called Polygonum tinctoria, a member of the buckwheat family, make shades of blue,” says Vejar. “Indigo dyeing is a bit different, so make sure to use a recipe, like the one which can be found in Rebecca Burgess’s book, Harvesting Color.”
Achieving different colors
“Now that you have guidance in making primary colors, red, yellow, and blue, experiment in combining these dyes to create even more colors,” says Vejar. “Create the full rainbow: to get orange, combine red and yellow, to get green, dye yellow, and dip into indigo, and to get purple, dye red, and dip into indigo.”
Images: Kristine Vejar
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