There are three categories of natural dyes : natural dyes
obtained from plants (indigo), those obtained from animals (cochineal), and those obtained
from minerals (ocher). Although some fabrics such as
silk and wool can be colored simply by being dipped in the dye, others such as cotton,
require a mordant. A mordant is an element which
aids the chemical reaction that takes place between the dye and the fiber so that the dye
is absorbed. Containers used for dying must be non-reactive (enamel,
stainless steel.) Brass, copper or iron pots will do their own mordanting. Not all dyes
need mordant to help them adhere to fabric. If they need no
mordants, such as lichens and walnut hulls, they are called substantive dyes.
If they do need a mordant, they are called adjective dyes.
Common mordants are: ALUM, usually used with cream of tartar,
which helps evenness and brightens slightly; IRON (or copperas) which saddens or darken
colors, bringing out green shades; TIN, usually used with cream of tartar, which blooms or
brightens colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows; BLUE VITRIOL which saddens colors
and brings out greens and TANNIC ACID used for tans and browns.
- How to Mordant Cotton and Linen
Linen and cotton yarns require a different mordant
preparation prior to using natural dyes.
Here's how: Use clean, scoured wool or yarn.
Fill a large pot with clean water and heat.
Weigh the yarn or clean, dry fleece.
Using 20% Alum to weight of fiber, mix the Alum into the hot water.
Using 10% Tara Powder to weight of fiber, place the Tara
Powder into a nylon stocking or small bag. Add it to the hot water mixture
Rinse the wool so that it is damp.
Add the wool or skeins of yarn into the hot Alum/Tara mixture
Make sure that the wool is all covered by the water, if not, add more water to the pot.
Simmer the mordant mixture for about an hour at 90 degrees Celsius.
Remove the yarns from the mordant mixture.
The Alum/Tara mixture can be reused by adding 1/2 the amount of Alum and Tara powder as
If dyeing skeins of yarn, make sure that the skeins are tied
Securely, but loosely in at least 3 places, to avoid tangling.
The mordanted yarns can be dyed immediately, or dried and tored for later natural dyeing.
The mordant is suitable for cottons, linens and other bast fibers.
Below is a sample list of a few plants and the colors they will give. Their simmering
times are listed and the amount given will make 4 gallons of dye. Gather the dye materials
when they are in full bloom or mature.
When dying material, you should add a mordant to the dye, which will make it colorfast.
The best mordant to use is alum (aluminum potassium sulfate). Using a stainless steel pot,
dissolve 5 1/2 oz. of alum in 4 gallons of lukewarm water. Wet whatever you wish to dye
and then immerse it in this mixture with a wooden spoon. Bring it slowly to a boil for 20
minutes. Remove from the mordant bath, wring it out and place it immediately in the dye
Plant material dyes
For Yellow-sassafras bark, goldenrod flowers and stems
For Black-black walnut root
For Brown-leaves, hulls and whole nut of wild black walnut;
For Orange-root of bloodroot
For Blue-flower of blue larkspur
For Green-green leaves
*large kettle (4 gallons or 17 liters)
*aluminum or stainless steel pots
*cream of tartar
l. The first step in natural dyeing is to gather the plant material. Materials such as
flowers and roots may be gathered and dried for prolonged storage. Some natural plant dyes
are available commercially at weaving or health and nutrition stores.
2. Before dyeing, fabrics must be treated with a mordant to set the dye.
Instructions for making and using mordents follow. Natural dyeing as practiced on the
frontier was not an exact science. Some experimentation may be necessary to achieve
3. To make a dye-prepare the plant material by cleaning and chopping roots,
scraping stems and crushing leaves of flowers and nuts. Soak the prepared materials
overnight. After soaking, boil until the dye has reached the desired shade (l/2 to 6
4. Natural dyes will not hold their color unless the fabric is first treated with a
mordant. A mordant for wool or silk is made by dissolving 1 ounce of alum in 1 gallon of
water and adding l/4 ounce of cream of tartar. For cotton or linen, add l/4 ounce of
baking soda instead of cream of tartar.
5. Soak the material to be dyed in the mordant for about an hour. Rinse thoroughly
6. Dyeing-after dye has reached the proper shade, strain it into a kettle filled
with 4 gallons of hot water and a little salt and vinegar. Mix thoroughly. The dye
solution should be darker than the desired final color.
7. Immerse the fabric in the dye and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes. Turn the material
with a wooden stick or spoon while dyeing. 8. Rinse the dyed material in cold water and
hang to dry in a shady place.