Dyeing Fiber Naturally

Marigold flower
Harvest marigold flowers now to make a dye. English photo.

By Kari Luehman and Bill Huntington, Hope Spinnery

The beauty of our natural world encompasses all colors, and many natural dyers attest to the fact that everything dyed using mother nature’s colors will blend together with grace. Nothing clashes, and no colors are richer or more jewel-like than those of fibers colored using natural dyes. Researcher and natural dyer Jim Liles says, “Natural dyes possess additional beauty because they come from living things … I sometimes feel that some of that life is still there.

Hope Spinnery, a wind-powered fiber mill in Hope, Maine, dyes fleeces with all of the bountiful colors provided by the earth. Its philosophy is that using natural dyes is one of the most important ways to ensure that your fiber will retain its original luster and texture.

Natural dyeing can be traced to some of the earliest civilizations. However, when synthetic dyes became available around the 1850s, the craft of producing natural colors largely disappeared. A renewed interest came about during the 20th century, and maybe just in time. Deriving color from renewable resources rather than from petroleum has become a topic worthy of more than discussion, and once again nature shows us the way.

The following are some of the main dyes used at Hope Spinnery. The best approach to learning about natural dyes is to start exploring. The possibilities are endless and creativity can yield great rewards!

Cochineal is whole, dried insects of the species Dactylopius coccus. This dye yields fuchsias to purples on most natural fibers.

Cutch extract is prepared from wood of the tree Acacia catechu. It is a good source of colorfast browns, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.

Fustic extract is prepared from the heartwood of a tree from the mulberry family. Fustic produces a range of colors from yellow to gold to orange and makes a good underdye with indigo to make greens.

Natural indigo extract is prepared from cultivated plants of Indigofera tinctoria. Indigo can give the clearest blues of all values, from pale sky blue to the deepest, darkest navy.

Lac extract from the Coccus lacca insect yields burgundy reds to deep purple.

Logwood extract from wood of the Hematoxylon campechianum tree yields red purples to orchid blues.

• The ground roots of mature madder plants, Rubia tinctorum, produce salmon pinks to deep lacquer reds, which are permanent.

Marigold flowers heads, dried and ground, yield rich, vibrant yellows and oranges.

• The shredded heartwood of osage orange, Maclura pomifera, contains a yellow dye similar to fustic and yields clear, true yellows to soft yellow greens.

Of the above plants, marigold is the easiest for Mainers to collect and use now. Marigold, like many other locally grown plants, produces colors in the yellow range. To achieve a rich golden yellow, the plant material should equal two to four times the weight of the fiber. Only the flower heads are used, and they can be fresh or dried.

To dry flower heads, place them in the sun, turn them occasionally, and store them in a paper bag when they’re brittle. They can be stored for a year or more and still give good color.

To dye with fresh or dried marigold flowers, cover them with warm water and let them soak overnight but not more than two days. Mash the flowers in the pot to break their fibers. Bring the water to a boil and turn it down to simmer for an hour. Strain off the flowers and your dye bath is ready.

The fiber can be pre-mordented by simmering it for an hour in a solution of 2 ounces of alum for every pound of fiber. You can also put the mordent in with the dye bath, although the colors may be less colorfast. Other mordents, such as cream of tartar and vinegar, can be used as well.

If you are dyeing yarn, it can go directly into the dye bath. If you’re using loose fiber, it should be wet and warm first to avoid felting. The dye pot, which should not be something you use for cooking, should stay just below the boiling point (about 200 degrees F.) for 1 hour. Longer times may intensify the color but may also add brown tones. The fiber can cool in the pot before it is lightly washed and rinsed until no more color comes out.

To find out how to dye with other natural materials, or for information about other aspects of natural fiber processing, please call Hope Spinnery at 207-763-4600 or visit the Spinnery in the Agricultural Booths Area at the Common Ground Fair. Hope Spinnery is a wind-powered fiber processing mill that was created from a love of color and fiber combined with a commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

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